Thursday, May 8, 2008

Borneo. Sarawak, Melasia

Borneo. Sarawak, Malaysia

Borneo is one of the largest islands in the world and is home to three nations; Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. We visited Sarawak, one of the Malaysian states on the north side of the island.
The Chinese came to live here in the eleventh century and then along came Briton James Brooks in the nineteenth century. When Brooks arrived it was a land of head hunters but with his superior arms was able to quell an uprising on behalf of Brunei and was then given a vast territory to govern as the First White Raja.
The capitol of the State, Kuching is now a charming town. Nestled on the Serawak River it is just as an outpost next to the jungle should be. Little water taxies ply the river that is overhung on one side by dense undergrowth. The other side is a pleasant riverfront walk with kiosks selling refreshments. Across the road is a row of shop houses that contain the main bazaar. The little shops are full of fascinating crafts made primarily on the island but with a liberal showing from “West Malaysia” as the rest of the country is known, and also from Indonesia. Great items though if you are interested in that sort of thing. A little further along, behind the Hilton Hotel is a classy set of shops that rival those anywhere with quality merchandise.

The Kuching is an interesting city with a pleasant character. We made a trip to the park to see the Worrier monument that has the likenesses of important warriors on the sides of a cenotaph. On the top is a large pot that is said to contain the tears of fairies as these can cure an injury. Nearby is a tower, from the top of which we could see the layout of Kuching. Kuching means “cat” and there are several statues of cats around to keep the feline feeling alive.

Our goal was to visit jungle and we left Kuching and headed inland. As we began our adventure, driving on a four lane highway through flat farm land with high rocky outcrops covered with jungle, our guide, Taylor, began to tell us about his people.

Taylor is Iban the largest of the tribes on the island and he was going to take us to his family longhouse.

Headhunting was practiced all over the island. Initially it was a proof of defeating other tribes who had encroched on their terratory. Then it became necessary to prove you were strong enough to protect a potential bride and family so you had to produce one for your sweetheart in order to get married. This meant that every home had at least one head hanging in front of their door. The heads were carefully cleaned in a fire to get the smell and the spirits out. It is considered a sin not to look after the skull so each is preserved so as not to anger the spirit. Offerings are also made to it. Now a days many of the families have burried their heads but you can see some of them hanging in the communal room.

Taylor showed us this skull the nex day. It is dressed up with feathers and accompanied by one from a monkey. There is a tray with refreshment offerings hanging below it.
At least one of the tribes used to be cannibals but not the Iban our escort insisted. He did tell us to look for dots tattooed on the hand between the thumb and first finger or on the knuckles. A man might have as many as three on one hand and then would mark his other hand with the heads he had won. When I remarked two days later that his old and now blind father had a full six tattooed dots but Taylor insisted that they were just decoration. The tribes still keep to their old geographic territory and still hold animosity towards each other.

Taylor’s grandfather had been the chief of the longhouse but he had a dream that he should not pass the control to his son. The dream he had the next night told him that the longhouse would split. Dreams are most important to the island people so he did not pass the control to his son and the longhouse members elected another man. Several years later the longhouse divided into two with half of the members going to a new cement block long house building and the rest remaining in the wooden one closer to the river bank.

Taylor’ storytelling was interrupted when we reached the town of Serian. In the Iban language this means “durian.” The durian is a strange fruit the size of a football with a prickly hide. The outer skin is lined with a thick layer of pith. Inside the white pith are several seeds covered with a creamy flesh that has a sweet delicate flavor and the most obnoxious smell. When I tasted it the first nibble was fine. When I took my next bite I had to breathe and the smell went deep into my lungs. The odor seeped up into my sinuses and wafted around my head and stomach for a day. Every time I burped I could smell it. Some people really like it, but I can smell it a room away. You are not permitted to take it on the public transportation in Singapore and many hotels in this part of the world have signs up prohibiting it. Enough about the fruit, we were in the town named after it and hardly saw any in the market. However, I have never seen so much produce that I didn’t recognize.

Taylor told us this is called snake-skin fruit which is understandable considering the look and feel of the skin. You can peal the crisp skin with your fingers to reveal a soft fleshy fruit inside that is incredibly sour. (My mouth waters now just thinking of it) The sales woman open one and we tried it on the spot to the amusement of the local venders. We found it just as unpalatable when Taylor prepared it with soy and other condiments the next day.

Ferns grow throughout the jungle and we ate them each day. They are an mild green vegetable.

There were pitiful little ears of corn, and eggplants the size and color of smooth oranges and others like crooked purple fingers. There was a bowl of larva worming about, chilies and fresh ginger, all sorts of roots and tubers and leafy greens.
Continuing inland on a narrow two lane road we made a brief stop to look at wild orchids and pitcher plants. The latter are most strange as the flower is an extension from a leaf and forms a pitcher-like receptacle to trap water and insects.

Taylor turned off the road again a little later to take us to a pepper farm. Pepper is a major export for Melasia. The vines grow up stakes and the stalks of berries are picked as they ripen. They are dried and sorted. For white pepper the outer husk is removed weheras it is the dark husk that gives black pepper its character.

After another hour in the car passing little homesteads with bananas drooping around we crossed a bridge and Taylor said, “That’s the Lemanak River. We are nearly there.” There was no dock. The charming boatman with a broad bad-tooth grin under a grey mustosh had a twenty foot long narrow boat tied to a twig of a tree. Golat was his name and he nimbly carried the metal icebox on his shoulder and the other provisions that we were going to consume in the following days, down to the boat.
The ride was fun. It was a Disney “E” ride if ever there was one. Golat gunned the little outboard motor and spray flew from the bow as we headed upstream across the smooth water. Then he would cut the engine and lift the propeller out of the water and we skimmed over little rapids that splashed more water on me. The river ranged from twenty to forty feet wide and was for ever winding. Golat had to slow down to make the sharp corners so that we didn’t capsize the long narrow boat. There was the constant feeling of instability as he stood at the back steering around submerged logs and rocks along the way. The water was filled with sunken trees, little islands of pebbles, shoals and overhumg with low branches. I took about a hundred pictures. In places the trees met overhead forming a tunnel where the sunlight danced through. Enormous trees hung low over the water defying gravity, at least until the next rains set them loose of the bank and they became just another obstacle to avoid.

The rain began gently at first in a fine mist and then giant drops fell through the leaves creating giant bubbles in the water. It wasn’t at all cold, in fact it was a refreshing and fun trip. We were sitting on little chairs about four inches off the bottom of the boat. I kept my bags on my lap as the water level around my feet was gradually increasing. I wasn’t sure if it was splashing over the bow or seeping between the old boards.
By the time Golat grounded the boat on the pebbles below the longhouse we were drenched to the skin. I slipped off my shoes and stepped into the cool water and waded onto the warm sand and up the sand hewn steps to the guest house. Golat hefted the cooler onto hie shoulder and brought it up to the kitchen

There wasn’t much to do that afternoon because of the rain so we relaxed and attempted to dry off, a thing we were not able to accomplish until our return to the Hilton in Kuching.
Our accommodation was in a structure similar to the traditional longhouses on stilts except that there were larger rooms. Each of our rooms were divided into eight areas, one taken up with the doorway. Rattan dividers separated the long raised platform into sleeping areas about the size of a king-sized bed on to which was placed a double-size sponge mattress. Mosquito netting was hung over each bed. Over it all was a corrugated iron roof. The tropical downpour made it difficult to talk. The rain poured onto the sand in a steady streem from the roof and I wondered, as I lifted my bottle of imported water to my lips, if drinking water is so prescious why don’t they collect God’s gift.
The kitchen was equipped with a couple of burners and plenty of tiled preperation area. The toilets were tiled throughout and although co-ed, were clean and had both platform and camode toiletts. The shower stalls were quipped with a pipe that jutted from the wall providing a spout of cool water a little above shoulder level.
We spread our clothes over the mosquito netting in our quarters to dry. It never did. There was only one other couple staying and they had the next room but with the open ceiling and the loosely woven bamboo walls I don’t think they had the romantic time they planned.
Taylor with the assistance of the local women cooked us supper of rice and ferns among other interesting delicacies.
We then walked up to the Nanga Kesit longhouse that had been his family home for generations. There were forty rooms off a long group room that stretched the length of the building. There was no furniture in the group veranda nor in the individual rooms other than storage space and the ubiquitous sponge mattress.
We were invited to sit on the hand woven mats and were offered rice wine and rice whisky. The wine came in a wine bottle and was a murky thick brew with an interesting flavor. The whisky was completely clear and served in recycled water bottles creating the opportunity for mistaken consumption. When provided with your first drink, as we were in pink plastic tumblers, it is expected that you sing out “Yahoo” three times and then downing it all in one shot. Well, that put us in a good mood for the dancers that were to follow.
The shaman was invited to show off his tattoos, a sign on manhood, and he also honored us with a song. Sureng is known to be a great shaman, known for his knowledge of medicines as well as his ability to offer worthwhile advice to his followers.

Sureng on the left had just taken off his shirt to display his tattoos.
There were four individuals who presented us with charming dance performances. There was a young man with feathered headdress representing a bird, followed by a shy girl both dancing to the same rhythmatic throbbing of four women playing a variety of drums. Throughout the dances drinks were being consumed and we were instructed to offer them to the dancers. The young girl seemed embarrassed and handed her plastic mug to a man who might have been her father.
Then a man gave us a worrier’s dance and I would not have wanted to have met the likes of him in the head hunting days. The final dancer was the wife of the chief and she gave a charming and alluring dance that was full of happy smiles. She was charming. Both the dancing women wore wide beaded collars and high headdresses with twinkling pressed tin that twinkled like chandaleers.

Now that we were thorougherly relaxed by the flowing liquor in the pink tumblers we were invited up to join in a group dance and aided by the liquor we all waddled around in a circle. When we were about to collapsed back onto the floor in a sweaty pile we realized that we had another obligation. There must have been a representative from each of the families as forty people were sitting around the length of the long house with little displays of merchandise spread before each of them. Too much! How could we possible buy something from each of them? I wanted a mask that shaman Sureng had made and asked John to ask how much he wanted for it. It was too much so I bought a smaller better finished one from another man. Then John declared that the shaman had dropped his price and he had bought Sureng’s big black one that was made for the ghost festival and had a suitable ghoulish grin. So now we have to get two back in our luggage. I also got a mat that three different women had woven from the local rattan.
We made it back to our mattress and removed our damp clothes and went to bed, tucking the mosquito netting tightly around the mattress. The netting was actually a variety fine net curtains with printed flowers, or cheese cloth. They were good enough to keep the critters out, or in, in the case of the large bug in ours. They definitely kept our body heat trapped with our sweat that rose like steam.
I lay there listening to the little river babbling over the pebbles twenty feet away. The minute cicadas that are local to Borneo created a high pitched rattle over the deaper croak of the frogs. There was a gecko blowing kisses to his sweetheart at the other end of the open ceiling. Rain pattered on the iron roof and poured off in rivulets. Behind all these sounds was the gentle throbbing of the generator.
At midnight the generator stopped and the lights went out. John snored. How could he be asleep with all this noise going on? I envied him. A cat screeched, not a block away but out of the rain in the open space under the lodge, right under our bed. She continued caterwauling and searching for a mate all night. John continued to snore.
If dawn is first light how does a rooster know before it comes? These roosters knew and began to crow in the blackness. As the grey light creped through the bamboo I look forward to an afternoon siesta.
After breakfast we were given a display of dart blowing. Not an easy skill and one wonders how they drilled out the six foot wooden pipes. Then they had a display of cockfighting. It is an activity that is held often and there was to be a real match the next day. I walked back to my room in protest but these particular critters only had a little banter. (The less charitable side of me wondered if it was one of those roosters that woke me up.)
The only chickens in the area were a few in wooden cages and there were non scratching about the longhouse. There were a couple of pigs that looked like close relitives to the wild boars rooting around.
Under a clear bright sky we took short ride across the river for a walk in the jungle. We learned about a variety of plants the jungle provides for those who know how to use them. Clambering up paths with the aid of roots and hanging branches we made our way to an ancient burial ground. The Iban bury their dead and then in the insuing years bring them gifts. A couple of the locations had very old pots while another was that of a young child who had only died a couple of years earlier. Once a year all the graves are tended and the encroching jungle is once again cut back. Although this esteemed man has a charming hornbill box to contain the gifts, there is also a cross on his grave.

Taylor explained that they didn’t really have a religion before the outsiders came, they just felt that there was a spirit in everything. The missioneries came and gave them a direction and a name for their spirits.
We slipped down a wet bank and found Golat with his longboat waiting for us. I had asked Taylor why we had a couple of youths tagging along with us and he shrugged and seemed to say that they just wanted to come. I was grateful when they used their parangs to chop me and John a sturdy walking cane. Mine was made from a rubber tree and the white sap dribbled down the stem glueing my hand securely to the shaft.
We would not have made it up the river had it not been for the young men. As before Golat gunned the little outboard motor as we approached rapids, but this was a smaller river and the shallows were longer. The youths grabbed poles and pushed the longboat up stream. They also were lookouts and constantly pointing to submerged logs and pertruding shoals that constantly threatened to capsize us.

On one occation they lost their concentration and were chatting when we suddenly ran aground. They were chided and one jumped overboard and pulled us off the single. All was in good humor and the sun sparkled through the trees.
They pulled over at midday and proceded to cook us a jungle lunch. Logs were pulled from the water to create a fireplace and dry wood found. Bamboo was cut into lengths and a handful of rice wrapped in palm leaves were stuffed down the bamboo before it was filled with water from a nearby clear streem. Chicken with herbs was also stuffed into the two foot lengths of green bamboo before they were all stacked across the flames.

Fish was cooked over a little grill along with more chicken. We sat on the little chairs that were taken from the longboat and placed at the other end of our forty foot island. We swam and drifted in the strong current and dried in the sun and enjoyed some of the beer we had purched during our stop for supplies in Serian. (Was that really only yesterday?)
Golat serving chicken, eggplant and beens cooked in bamboo.

We were taken for a walk around the neighborhood and visited another longhouse.

Again we presented them with numerous little bags of cookies but here I also produced my baloons.
I began giving them to the children but in not time the adults decided not only did they want one but they wanted to learn how to sculpture with them. Refreshments were shared and a good time was had by all.

As we made our way back to our boat I was delighted to see the children playing in the water with the balloons

Traveling back downstreem was just as thrilling as the trip against the current when we arrived. It wouldn’t have mattered had we capsized but one always hopes to stay dry before going for a swim. The lads lept to their feet when we reached rapids too shallow for the outboard motor.

The primary school and local clinic both, blue painted sturdy block buildings, appeared very servaceable and were within a walk of both longhouses. We watched boatloads of teenagers going downriver to the secondry school the next morning.
On our final morning in the jungle we had another thrill ride back down the river. I enjoyed it as much as our first trip. We were returning to Kuching but on the way we visited the Semenggoh Rehabilitation Center. They rehabitate unfortunate orang utans that have been injured or captured and set them free within the park. They are not restrained within the area but tend to return when food is scarce.
We wondered up an hour before feeding time to find Richie, the patriach sitting in a tree over one of the feeding stations. He was enormous with long golden hair that looked groomed and great cheek flaps that are charastic of the species.
If the shape way up in the tree looks like a man standing there, that is Richie.
A female with young one appeared and gathered fruit and a coconut. The young one tried to hold too many banabas in its mouth and landed up dropping half of them. They then came down and sat on the ground behind us.

Then Edwin appeared and gracefully clambered through the trees and then bantered with his brother among the branches. He could carry five bananas at a time in his mouth, with them sticking out like fingers. Richie came down to the ground and wondered around and so did his mate with the little one. We were no more than twenty feet with these beautiful great animals with a dozen of them surrounding us.
More tourists arrived including a gaggle of squeeling young women and the charm and special feeling was lost. John went down a path and I stayed taking pictures of Edwin up in the trees until I had filled the memory card in my camer. The women squeeled. Edwin broke a branch off the tree he was sitting in and I watched as he dropped it down, followed shortly by another and another. These animals are six times as strong as a human and they were big branches. John returned to the clearing.
“Phew. That was close!”
“What was close?”
“That branch almost hit me.”
“What! I was watching Edwin breaking them off and dropping them.”
“It was more like he was throwing them. I was watching another orang utan when Taylor moved me to one side and a branch hit the ground where I had been standing.”