Thursday, March 22, 2007

Asia Trip - Part Five

Here's Part Five: Into The Jungle

Malaysia/Kuching/Batang Ai

Malaysia was new territory for us, although I knew a little bit about its history. The colonial British left, but only after a lengthy, nasty guerilla war fought against the Malaysian Communists between 1948 and 1960. So Malaysia’s birth was not easy. A population that was multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious further complicated the situation.

52% of the people are Malays, who are Muslims and traditionally the politically dominant group. About 30% are Malaysians of Chinese descent, who control most business and trade. Add to this a significant Indian minority and a variety of indigenous people and you have a mix that is potentially volatile and more likely to pull in opposite directions than to work and coexist together.

Fortunately, over time enlightened self-interest overcame fissiparous tendencies and Malaysia as a whole is the winner. Today, Malaysia is generally peaceful and booming economically. It has a state religion, Islam, but nearly half the people practice other religions. As far as I know, the ongoing frictions between various groups have been kept in check. But I don’t think anyone takes for granted what is an uneasy modus vivendi.

When we arrived in Kuala Lumpur the Islamic influence was immediately apparent, mostly because of the number of women wearing headscarves (usually without an accompanying veil.) While I’m a strong separation of church and state guy, I don’t buy into the negative opinion many people have about these scarves. So what if someone wants to wear one? I recognize that there can be symbolic importance to it, but still I say, so what? If a woman is not forced to wear it, my libertarian views trump the unspoken political statement that may be being made. If she is being coerced into wearing a head cover, well, that’s another matter.

One thing, though, I can’t quite reconcile. If a headscarf implies modesty and piety, which I have the impression it does, how do you square that with the tight, form-fitting jeans and sweaters that often complete the attire for many young women? I recall this phenomenon in Turkey. And it certainly was prevalent in Malaysia.

Anyway, back to an awareness of Islam. Later, in Kuching, I loved hearing the morning and evening call to prayers. I’ve always found the haunting melody of “Allāh u Akbar” a lovely and soothing experience. I guess for some it has a different impact, but I like it.

The demographics of Sarawak are quite different than the rest of Malaysia. It is home to 28 ethnic groups, each with their own distinct language, culture and lifestyle. The Ibans form the major ethnic group with about 31% of the total population. The Malaysian Chinese, who generally live in the cities, are the second largest group at 29%. Malays (21%) are mainly concentrated along the coast. Other native tribes round out the picture.

Kuching is a modern city. Part of the ride in from the airport is on a new divided highway. The suburbs stretch out 30km. New construction is everywhere. It is obvious that the people of Sarawak are doing well. The staples of the economy are natural resources – oil, gas, timber, palm oil. But Kuching gave every appearance of being a thriving commercial center as well (even though when we arrived many stores were closed to celebrate Chinese New Year.)

There are things to see in Kuching, but that’s not why we went there. For us it was more a jumping off spot for our trip to the jungle. It was advertised as pleasant and unpretentious. Given that three of the four top hotels in town are the Hilton, the Crowne Plaza, and the Holiday Inn, Kuching didn’t need to live up to inordinately high expectations. And it turned out to be as advertised.

The hotel descriptions all sounded alike. So I chose the Holiday Inn. It was less expensive than the others and located right on the river, the Sungai Sarawak, with river view rooms available. The room was – fine. It looked like a Holiday Inn in Sacramento might have looked 10 or 15 years ago – functional, simply designed furnishings, some evidence of wear. Compared to what we had become used to for the past three weeks it was definitely a step down, but for $64 a night, what the hell.

We arrived early afternoon and went out for lunch and a walk. We ate at the Khatulistiwa Café. It is an open-air restaurant, round with a thatched roof, said to be modeled on a Bidayuh (one of the local tribes) skull house. A skull house was where, in the not-so-old-days, the heads of the people they’d hunted and killed were kept. Khatulistiwa mean equator, which is an appropriate name since Kuching is just a little more than one degree north of the equator. The food was local and tasty. And after my romance with BeerLao (only available in Laos) I was reunited with my Vietnam beer pal, Tiger.

At the café entrance was a sign that amused me. It said:
No outside food/drinks
No drugs/weapons/helmets
No fighting
No big bags/Oversized jackets
No underage (below 18) unless accompanied by adults
No soliciting and unlawful acts
No problem

We walked along the waterfront, on a paved walkway bordered by lawns and flowerbeds, past a children’s playground and food stalls. We saw couples, families and a few tourists (not many.) River ferries, called tambangs, carried passengers back and forth across the river all day long. They are small boats with small motors. The trip to the other side, about 200 yards away, takes something like 10 minutes. It is quiet and picturesque near the river.

We had a buffet dinner (Chinese) at the hotel. It was, we thought, quite good. Maybe it really was good, or maybe we thought it was better than it was because our expectations weren’t high. Maybe I’m not sure. And maybe there’s a lesson in this.

The next morning we were to begin our jungle trip. During my pre-trip research I concluded that a tour offered by Borneo Adventure, based in Kuching, would suit us best. It was three days and two nights and would give us a chance to see some indigenous people up close as well as a chance to spend time in a rainforest. This is how their website described what they offered:

Day 1 Kuching - Nanga Sumpa Longhouse (D)0730hrs - Depart by shuttle overland for Batang Ai reservoir (4.5 hours). Upon arrival at the Batang Ai reservoir, journey for 1-2 hours by river to Nanga Sumpa, and settle into Borneo Adventure's jungle lodge. After dinner, culture and relaxation await at the Iban longhouse. Overnight Borneo Adventure Lodge.

Day 2 Nanga Sumpa (B,L,D)Following breakfast, hike the leafy jungle trails along the river to the scenic Enseluai Waterfall. Time to relax, swim, explore the rainforest and have lunch or try fishing Iban-style. Return to the lodge. After dinner, visit the longhouse where handicrafts are available for display upon request and may be purchased directly from the longhouse people. Overnight Borneo Adventure Lodge.

Day 3 Nanga Sumpa Longhouse - Kuching (B)Following breakfast, depart down river by longboat, then overland to Kuching. Drop off at hotel or transfer directly to the airport for departure.

It was only after we arrived in Kuching that I realized I hadn’t asked any questions that would have provided more details about what we were about to do. Things like: Who would our guide be? What is the lodge like? What kind of boat would we be on? What kind of food would we eat? Etc.

Things didn’t get off to a good start. We were to be picked up at the Holiday Inn at 7:45 a.m., but by 8:15 no one had showed. I wanted to call Borneo Adventure, but didn’t have a phone number. Very bad planning on my part. One of the hotel staff was helpful and set about to reach someone. It took three calls to three different numbers, but finally we got Borneo Adventure on the line. Their system had broken down. At first they couldn’t find us in their records, but they said they’d send a van to pick us up immediately. From that point on our prospects for the day brightened.

When we arrived at the office it was clear they were scurrying around to put our trip together. They apologized and asked that we give them a few minutes to complete the preparations. They also said we’d pick up our guide on the way out of town. We were good guests – quiet and uncomplaining.

Before long we left. In a suburban area on the outskirts of Kuching we pulled over to pick up our guide, Lemon. Yes, that’s his name, spelled and pronounced just like the fruit. Whole name: Lemon Prabby. Lemon is a cool guy. 52 years old, although he looks younger. Medium height and build. With bronze skin and a sculpted face, he reminded me of an American Indian. A ponytail. Father of two teenage girls.

Lemon is Bidayuh by heritage. They, along with the Ibans, are one of Sarawak’s main ethnic groups. The Bidayuhs, who are concentrated in the Kuching/Serian area, traditionally lived in longhouses and were animists. Now they are more likely to be Christians living in a tract home. Lemon is Anglican, as was his father.

Lemon did his best to appear rested and on top of his game. But he looked a bit harried, as if he’d been rushed into service, which indeed he had. He hadn’t been scheduled to work today. So – given that it was Chinese New Year and all – he’d been out drinking with his buddies last night. He was awakened hours earlier than he’d expected to wake up with an emergency request that he cover for the logistical breakdown regarding our tour. Lemon is a straightforward guy and didn’t attempt to hide any of this. And for us, we were lucky he agreed to be our guide, hangover and all, since he turned out to be as good as it gets.

We were headed for the Batang Ai reservoir, about 250km east of Kuching, near the border with Indonesia. Our first stop, though, would be Serian, a Bidayuh town with a large, bustling market. Turns out Lemon had to buy food we’d eat up at the longhouse. So we went shopping with him. He shopped quickly, stopping at one stall, picking out vegetables (most of which were unfamiliar to me,) setting the bag down, moving on to a fruit stall, choosing, leaving the bag, moving on to chickens, then eggs, then bread, and so on. When he got to the final stopping place he paid, took the bag, and we retraced our steps, paying and picking up the bags we’d left, until all three of us were loaded with provisions.

Little by little in interactions with Lemon we came to have a better sense of what this trip was really all about, at least from the Borneo Adventure point of view. We’d signed up to have a direct experience of seeing what it is like to live as the Iban do. So the food would be Iban food. Where we stayed would approximate Iban longhouse living. Where we went, what we did and what we observed would help flesh out our exposure to the life of an Iban. The context was more about being a participant than being a voyeur. Lemon said the lodge was ‘primitive.’ We weren’t sure what that meant. We’d find out.

About an hour after Serian we stopped for lunch. The restaurant was in a small complex of commercial establishments on one side of the highway that catered to travelers passing by. It wasn’t in a town. Lunch was a simple and tasty set menu. We had rice, chicken and two vegetables. I had a cold Tiger. When we left I bought four more Tigers to take with us. Lemon wasn’t sure there would be any way to cool them at the longhouse, but I was willing to take the risk. As it turned out I was engaged in wishful thinking.

Our driver was an Iban named Nyaling. He and Lemon communicated in the Iban language. The roads were not particularly challenging or crowded, so it wasn’t a difficult drive. Nyaling moved us along at a good, but safe, clip. From time to time we passed through small communities and farmland, but mostly we were surrounded by lush, uncultivated vegetation. The weather was warm but not hot, and we had no rain en route to Batang Ai.

Batang Ai is a huge hydroelectric dam. The reservoir and lakes behind it seem to stretch on forever. Hilton has an upscale longhouse style resort on the shores of the main lake. It is hidden from view, so we didn’t see it, and that’s not where we were headed anyway.
We were the ‘real’ adventurers, headed for a ‘real’ longhouse experience. And we’d get there on a longboat.

My first view of our mode of transport was from a visitor’s area on a hill overlooking the reservoir and jetty down below. What I saw was a long, skinny thing that looked like a stretch-canoe. When I got closer I saw that it really was a long, skinny thing that looked like a stretch-canoe. I looked at the longboat. Then I looked out at this immense lake we had to cross. “Oh, shit,” I thought. Followed by a more emphatic, “Oh, shit.”

Under the best of circumstances I don’t like boats. I don’t feel safe on them. I have a theory that this is because I don’t swim well and feel that on a boat I don’t have control and won’t be able to save myself should that be necessary. I don’t know if that’s the cause, but even if I’m accurate it doesn’t help. My sense of unease or, depending on the circumstances, terror, is not alleviated. Sandra doesn’t have the same feeling about boats. But later she told me that when she saw our longboat she was terrified.

It was about 40’ long, and wide enough for one person to sit. It probably is more stable than it looks, but, no surprise, it didn’t appear stable to me. These longboats are motorized; a good size Yamaha engine would propel us. Two Iban boatmen were waiting for us when we arrived. Nam, the senior man, would sit in the front. He would give directions to Abong, the man in the rear. When we entered the river upstream Nam would have plenty of work to do.

Before we climbed aboard Lemon casually mentioned that we’d be going through some rapids. He added that they were gentle so we shouldn’t be concerned. He then said that since we could swim we wouldn’t have a problem. I didn’t say anything. Rapids, I thought, wonderful! We were asked to wear life vests. There may be times when wearing a life vest would heighten one’s concern. Since my concern was at its peak already, I loved the idea of having the vest. I was thrilled to put it on.

Getting in wasn’t difficult. Nam took our hand and that helped. Sandra and I had little wooden seats to sit on. She sat behind me. Lemon sat behind her. Abong fired up the Yamaha and off we went. Across the wide wide lake.

For about the first half hour I barely moved a muscle. I figured sitting quietly would be the best (and safest) policy. I began to relax, a little, when we moved from the big big lake to smaller lakes and the shore was not so far away. Plus, tree trunks were sticking out of the water. I could make it to one of them. Then, after another 15 minutes we left the lakes and were ready to enter the Delok River.

However, where the river current ends and the lakes begin we came upon a logjam. Literally, a logjam. Our path was nearly blocked by logs that had floated downriver and now had no place to go. With a pole and an oar Nam moved them aside and directed Abong through the maze. It took a while.

We were now truly in the river. And the rainforest was on either side. There was a current, but not too strong. The river was not deep. Lemon said 3 meters was about the max, and most of the time it was much shallower than that. We stopped to change propellers. In the river they use a smaller one than in the deeper water.

Now the rapids. They were, as Lemon had said, gentle. In fact, kind of fun. The routine was that Nam pointed a direction, Abong set the boat on that course and revved the motor, then when we reached a certain point he slowed the motor way down, and Abong used a pole to steer us around the rocks and rapids. This process was repeated multiple times.

An hour and a half after leaving the reservoir jetty we reached our destination, the Iban Nanga Sumpa Longhouse. The British called the Ibans Sea Dayaks. They were a fearsome warrior race, with particular expertise in headhunting and piracy. As with Lemon’s people, the Bidayuh, they were animists who converted to Christianity over time. Oral histories say that the Iban arrived in Sarawak from Indonesia about 1675. The centuries that followed were filled with wars against other ethnic groups and struggles against the colonial authorities and ruling sultans. In the end the Ibans did pretty well, maintaining their identity and some independence.

On the drive up to Batang Ai and during our boat trip we passed a number of modernized longhouses. I don’t know if they were Iban or not, but we could tell they were not original or primitive dwellings. That wasn’t the case at Nanga Sumpa. It was very much as it had been for a very long time. Borneo Adventure, remember, was committed to providing us with an authentic experience.

Part Six will follow soon.


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