Letter from Borneo: The Land Beneath the Wind

by Erin Turner


I have been on a path the last few months directed by the winds. Following signs, much like a scavenger hunt, that lead me to the next launch site. I would like to say that there is magic in this world, and if you listen to the earth and the wind, they will lead you to find it. To learn from it. To tread knee deep in it.

After several random encounters, I found myself signed onto a documentary film crew heading from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Borneo is the third largest island in the world, comprised of three distinct countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. Lyrically it is referred to as “The Land Beneath the Wind,” referencing the island’s location just below the typhoon belt. We are documenting two Malaysian photographers who learn to fly a paramotor, and will use their photographs to produce the first aerial photography book on Borneo, from the wind’s perspective.

The description of my location may seem exotic and exciting, but sadness and utter joy coil around each other like slumbering serpents. The location that we are shooting is off of a small island that is surrounded by turquoise coral reef and deep blue mountains that errupt out of the ocean like molars. The skies are big here, a statement that I rarely utter, for not many skies compare to those of Oklahoma. The clouds dance tremendously, changing costume and rhythm between each act. One can watch multiple rainstorms in the distance, simultaneously.

Today I walked the perimeter of the island in 30 minutes, lingering only to snap photos of the water villages and kick seashells the size of my foot into the waves. Sea gypsies. Nomads of the ocean who do not have a nationality and know no borders. They follow the sea’s food. In the shallows of this marine park, several kilometers from land, stilted houses protrude from the water. Children learn to swim before they learn to walk. There is no electricity. There is no school. There are fish. There is water. Between the 30,000 islands that scatter between the Phillipines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, in Maritime Southeast Asia, this is not an unlikely occurrence. These people are not Phillipino, they are not Malaysian. Without the acknowledgment from the government, and no provided services for these people, poverty, illness, and education are now topics of concern. As I sit underneath a stilted house on the beach, transferring data on a laptop powered by a small generator, I contemplate this interesting juxtaposition. How is this different from other undocumented immigrants around the world?

I am the only white female on the shoot, and my complexion, coupled with my long blond hair, makes babies cry. Apparently I have the characteristics of the White Witch who, in the light of the full moon, steals babies and carries them to her lunar abode. Finally, after three days of filming on this island, I gained the trust of the older children who played tag with me on the beach (although at a distance, and integrated with panicked screams).

This place is beautiful. Red coral. Giant starfish. Huge conch shells. Plastic bags. Straws. Soda bottles. Styrofoam. The children’s nails have turned red due to a deficiency, and everyone on the island is sick with a cold. It’s like that. Where are my emotions supposed to go now? There is so much to be said, and yet at the same time, nothing at all. It is more about being present and experiencing what one must experience, what one wants to experience, what one needs to experience. I think about what is important. Who is important. I think about the repetition of life, and the repetition of death. I think about balance between all forces. Exotic means nothing to me. The more that I travel, the more simple life becomes.

I think about human emotions much as I do clouds. They are human weather patterns. I want to experience many types of skies and storms and sunsets and sunrises. Just like those that provide the backdrop to the landscapes that I so passionately kiss with my eyes. I am from Oklahoma, and I suppose that my skies, much like the skies in Oklahoma or Borneo, are big enough to view several storms at once during a beautiful sunset.