Saturday 27th August 2016
Hello, it's me. 1
Today I travel to Bengoh Dam to rendezvous with a young man from a nearby Bidayuh village. The meeting has been arranged through a mutual friend, who, knowing my penchant for adventure, has suggested the area as an appropriate place to satisfy my curious nature. Brian and Rosemary happily accompany me for the day, despite having little idea of what to expect.
Following lunch we are led up a hill to admire the site in which construction of the village church has recently commenced. The site is located in a prime position, with an inspiring panorama of the surrounding mountainous region. As seems to be the case with all ethnic groups in Sarawak (aside from the Malay Muslims), the Bidayuh are predominately devout Christians following mass-conversions in accordance with an era of British governance.
The next part of our tour takes us up an adjacent hill overlooking the village to the recently-finished guest-house. The views from the balcony are equally inspiring.
Sunday 28th August 2016
I was wondering if after all these years you'd like to meet. 1
The villagers gather in Jerome's lounge-room to engage in a church service. Sitting on the balcony reading a book, some of the hymns cause me to pause and listen to the superb harmonisation of the Bidayuh congregation.
Following the service, Jerome offers to take me to the local waterfall. So after being well fed, we cruise down the river to the beginning of the trek. After a comfortable walk through the jungle and across several bamboo bridges we arrive at the falls. I go for a refreshing swim before taking a few photographs. Jerome lights a fire and, using some local plant as a brush, coats a batch of sausages in a marinade. The sausages are roasted in a grill over the fire and are complimented by some pre-cooked rice.
Returning from the waterfall, Jerome's young uncle - Lex - introduces himself. We have a pleasant chat, possibly improved by the fact that I didn't break either of his nephew's legs.
That evening, following another superb dinner, several other villagers join us in Jerome's lounge room for a cup of coffee. Noticing the imperfect condition of my ankle (a remnant of my Bako NP adventure), Jerome's father proceeds to expertly massage the swollen area. The area is somewhat sensitive and at times I wonder if he is trying to break my leg. I then reassure myself that only the most uncivilised person would even consider undertaking such a barbaric act. No legs are broken today.
Monday 29th August 2016
To go over everything. 1
Today I have promised to assist Jerome in the construction of a mountain bike trail to attract tourists to Kampung Nyegol. Around thirteen volunteers from the village have turned out to assist Jerome in his project. I am issued with a cangkul and so begins my foray into manual labour. An existing seven kilometre walking loop is to be converted into a track suitable for mountain-biking. The work is exhausting, yet it is satisfying to be participating with the local villagers in a project of significance. Discussing the future of Kampung Nyegol with several villagers, the general consensus among the community is to convert the village from pepper production into an attractive tourist destination. The villagers consider tourism to be a preferable alternative to the current laborious lifestyle in which they lead. The trick here is to throw in the prefix eco and suddenly people begin to listen. So, ecotourism is the objective of the village.
Following lunch break, we wander back to continue where we left off. This time I have borrowed a pair of gloves to minimise any further damage to my sensitive hands.
In the evening, the haze clears sufficiently for Jerome, Lex and I to get a reasonable view of the stars from our vantage point at the guest-house. So how did we end up here?
The damming of the river presented the villagers with a major dilemma. The villagers of Kampung Nyegol had three options: Firstly they could rebuild their village on nearby fertile land. Secondly, they could accept the government relocation proposal - A resettlement village off the main highway with limited allocation of land of inferior quality. Thirdly, the event could instigate a complete transformation in lifestyle, prompting villagers to shun their traditional way of life completely and move into the city to pursue the normalities of modern society.
A core group of villagers chose to rebuild the village in the current location and have managed to retain their native customary land rights to a large proportion of surrounding land, thereby allowing them to maintain a high level of self-sufficient living. Non-government organisations have assisted with the installation of a micro-hydro system to allow for a minimal amount of electricity generation for the village and limited phone/internet coverage is also available.
A significant group from Kampung Nyegol (a particularly large proportion of the younger generation) have elected to move into the city. These people have moved from a village isolated from mainstream society by several kilometres of tropical jungle to a noisy city environment. The transition is not subtle. Those who have elected to move to the city must now find a way to earn enough money to cover living expenses.
Of course, prior to the flooding of the river, the villagers have not been completely isolated from the outside world. Most villagers embarked upon the long trek to town to receive an education up until at least the end of primary school. Weekly trips to town were required to sell produce (predominately pepper) to local distributors. Before the dam, these journeys were particularly gruelling as the villagers were required to carry their heavy produce. However, spending an extended period of time in town was rare.
The city provides convenience; inclusive of easy access to food, internet, communication, alcohol and modern appliances. Is this what is universally recognised as a better quality of life? Will this lifestyle improve the wellbeing of those who choose it?
Tuesday 30th August 2016
They say that time's supposed to heal ya. 1
The second day of labour proceeds in a similar fashion to the first. We continue to make steady progress along the trail. The job is not small and it is estimated that two days labour a week for a year will be sufficient to bring the project to completion.
Relaxing after a hard days work, I am presented with two traditionally woven Bidayuh bracelets. Weaving the intricate bracelets is clearly a unique skill. Another dying art among the Bidayuh, I am told that aside from Jerome, there is only one other young villager competent in the craft. It is explained to me that one of the bracelets is symbolic of my DNA. Induction complete. I am Bidayuh. Those hours spent agonising over whom I would target on my virgin headhunting expedition were apparently unnecessary.
Following a pleasant dinner, we wander along the village path and into another residence where we have been invited for a cup of coffee. I am notified - not for the first time since arrival - by some of the villagers that I bare a striking resemblance to the man who sits at God's right hand. Now that the secret is out, I feel a certain amount of pressure associated with my role as saviour of the world. Since my contrivance a couple of thousand years ago, I've learnt that it's hard to keep up with expectations and you cant please everyone anyway. Miracles are kind of unfashionable these days, so I prefer to keep a low profile and just do my own thing.
Another common observation is my relative height. I've never considered myself tall. In fact, since childhood I've been consistently shorter than my peers. Now, however, I am forced to realise as I duck beneath cantilever timber beams and squat below elevated houses, I am suddenly the tallest man in the village. The only logical thing for me to do is to exploit any advantages I have over the Bidayuh community. The only practical benefit I can envision is an advantage on the basketball court. Unfortunately there is no village basketball court. Gloating about my remarkable stature will just have to suffice.
Before retiring for the night, Jerome attends to my wounds. A traditional medicine is applied to my blistered hands. I am instructed not to place the solution on the floor, as contact with the ground would render it useless. Red ginger - fresh from the garden - is applied to my swollen ankle and constrained by a firmly wrapped bandage.
Wednesday 31st August 2016
Hello, can you hear me? 1
Today I am one of several Bidayuh guides providing a tour for approximately twenty Kuching tourists. I trust that my extensive Bidayuh credentials and suave sunglasses will compensate for my lack of cat jokes and deficiency in the Malay dialect. The tourists are divided into four boats. Chugging along slowly, our boat is close to exceeding capacity. I wonder whether a diplomatic process should take place to improve the efficiency of our craft. Perhaps we should vote as to who is the least desirable member of the party and eject them from the vessel. Just as I finish finalising the ballot papers, the boat arrives at our destination.
We guide the tourists along the trail, across the bamboo bridges, to the waterfall. There is plenty of potential to lose a tourist or two here. They could fall off a narrow bamboo bridge, become a victim of the waterfall, slip on a rock, fail to provide sufficient leverage on the vine swing, etc.. My mission to encourage an 'accident' is deserted when I remember that no tourism organisation in Malaysia require their guests to sign a waiver of any kind (fortunately there are no Americans in our group).
Jerome and some other Bidayuh guides climb the face of the waterfall and perform a few backflips. Unfortunately my damaged ankle prevents me from undertaking such feats of athleticism.
The boat is again full when the time comes to return the tourists to the dam. We manage to return the full complement of guests. Jerome and I saunter around the dam whilst a group of Bidayuh pile into the back of a four-wheel-drive to collect building materials for the church. Heavy bags of sand, gravel and cement make fine substitutes for the tourists on our return journey. Whilst the building materials are in many ways superior to a boatload of grumbling tourists, they refuse to transport themselves and must be carried and loaded onto the boat.
The boat races towards a glorious sunset on the horizon as our Bidayuh peer surfs the waves created in the wake of our motorboat.
Following a delightful dinner, Lex invites Jerome and I to join him at the guest-house, where he grills marinated chicken wings over the hot coals of a radiant fire. The day could not be concluded in a more satisfying manner.
Thursday 1st September 2016
I'm in California dreaming about who we used to be. 1
It is decided that today will be fishing day. George joins Jerome and I for our Bidayuh adventure. Cruising around the corner, Jerome steers the boat under a bamboo bridge and moors the boat at the rocky foreshore of a gently-flowing river. Some of us seem to glide effortlessly along the uneven terrain, whilst others stumble in their wake. Jerome and George stretch the net from one edge of the river to the other. In accordance with the principles of ecotourism, the fishing net emits zero greenhouse gas emissions and minimal nuclear waste.
The ingenuity of the Bidayuh is on display. Face masks are cleaned using the juice from some local plant collected in the jungle and leaves are stripped from a vine onto which a multitude of fish (thanks to a net spanning the width of the river) are threaded. To me, it is subtleties such as these that are so intriguing and brilliant. I can't help but wonder what will become of these resourceful people in the next couple of generations. Will quirky practices unique to the Bidayuh be lost in the transformation brought about by modernisation?
Friday 2nd September 2016
Hello from the other side. 1
After a relaxing start to the day, Jerome and I decide to walk through the jungle to the family paddy plantation. After sharing lunch with Jerome's parents and Uncle Lex, we spend the afternoon planting our yearly supply of rice. It is hot and sunny. Jerome's family have spent the previous two days burning the field and clearing the land in preparation for the annual cultivation. Jerome and his father pierce the soil with sharpened rods whilst Jerome's mother, Lex and I fill the holes with paddy. It is hard work traversing the steep slope and bending to plant the paddy in the oppressive heat, but again, working with the locals makes for a satisfactory endeavour.
A sleepy late afternoon is enriched by the entertaining observation of an elderly man feeding his chickens whilst staving off feisty roosters. Meanwhile, Lex nurses two shivering chicks who have been left to freeze after falling into a puddle of water. Observing the delightful proceedings of the village after an afternoon of hard manual toil causes the experience to be all the more rewarding.
Saturday 3rd September 2016
At least I can say that I've tried. 1
Due to pick up a group of "tourists", I can't help but wonder if these are the evil forces we are to be fighting. As we wait for the group to arrive, I prepare myself for a fast-approaching battle. Our ambush is avoided, however. Some misinterpretation of the enemy code has caused us to arrive a day early. Thus we return to the village without any heads to show for our quest. Despite the apparent absence of purpose to our journey, the boat ride is pleasant none-the-less. Returning to Kampung Nyegol, I relax on the balcony and we make plans to spend the afternoon fishing with Lex.
As we speed along the river, dark cloud ahead threatens to sabotage our plans. We leave the boat by a shallow landing and make our way upriver on foot. We cross the stream on several occasions as is necessary to traverse the rocky terrain. Upon arrival at Lex's pepper plantation, Jerome ambles off in search of bamboo and wild ferns for dinner. A fire is employed to prepare a hot brew. We enjoy a meal of rice, noodles and fish. Meanwhile in the heavens, Zeus starts bawling after his chocolate milk is knocked over, thereby providing the landscape with a significant smattering of rain.
As we return to the village, it is hardly possible not to be impressed by the stunning sunset over the distant mountain range. I rush up to the guest-house, where I have a prime view of the silhouette of the distant mountain ridge merging with a pink-blue sky textured by a captivating layer of wispy clouds.
Sunday 4th September 2016
To tell you I'm sorry for breaking your heart. 1
After the morning church service, Jerome and I speed along the river to pick up a family of Kuching tourists. The visitors empathise with me as I tell them of the sentimental value associated with my old village and the resultant trauma after the flooding. My village; the river where I played, fished, bathed, washed, contemplated; and much of the land I used to roam and hunt is no longer. These happy childhood memories exist only in my mind. How do I know what is real? Could I have fabricated my whole Bidayuh existence? Without being able to visit the sites of my childhood, these treasured memories cannot be verified.
It is apparently selfie day. Stopping at every bamboo bridge our guests ensure that each strand of hair is positioned appropriately, each item of clothing is stylishly arranged, and the body is positioned to achieve the most flattering angle that can be obtained. We eventually reach the waterfall where the photo shoot continues. A well organised shoot proceeds with varying camera angles, subtle adjustments to attire, a variety of facial expressions, etc..
The second waterfall is higher and the flow narrower than the first, providing a completely different ambience. Water crashes onto boulders below and is sprayed over a considerable area. I spend several minutes atop a large boulder inside the spray zone of the powerful waterfall. Whilst the tourists take selfies in front of the roaring falls, I have plenty of time to simply admire the beauty of the scene.
Upon return from our daytrip I collapse on the couch exhausted. It is not long before I doze off. Perhaps the daily recital performed by the fervent roosters has contributed to my state of fatigue. The performance begins at an inordinately inappropriate hour of the morning, each day without exception. Hardly the most creative of melodic phrases, it does get monotonous after a while.
Monday 5th September 2016
But it don't matter. It clearly doesn't tear you apart anymore. 1
As the boat escorts me from the village for the last time, I turn my head to take one final look at Kampung Nyegol as it exists today. The village is evolving. I have visited Kampung Nyegol near the beginning of a major period of change. The possibility of a road through to a national park in the future would provide the village with convenient access to transportation, electricity and modernised communication. I love the village as it is today. In ten years the character of the village is likely to be completely different. Traditional skills may be relics of a rich cultural history, no longer practiced in a technologically dominated world of Westernised clones.
Apologies for the inconvenience, but my sarcasm quota appears to have been exceeded. And just when I was about to make a profound statement that would have changed the course of the world. What a pity.
Jerome has been an exceptional guide and become a wonderful friend. Likewise, Lex is a great fellow and I now consider him a great friend of mine. Jerome's parents were generous and welcoming. The rest of the villagers were also friendly without exception. My whole stay here was an overwhelmingly positive experience. There comes a time, however, when a man must pack his bags, wash his face, straighten his shirt, don his suave glasses, ensure his socks are matching, stroke his beard in a moment of reflection, brush aside a stray hair obscuring his vision, wipe away a tear, sing the final line of Adele's Hello, pretend to be busy (i.e. repack bag, re-straighten shirt, etc.), take a quick selfie, run out of things to say whilst lost in the emotion of the upcoming departure, straighten his tie, realise he is not actually wearing a tie, steal a souvenir, switch his phone on, and continue his journey beyond the horizon.
Have you ever seen any of those 'reality' television programs where a group of insecure young women decide that the most appropriate method of finding a life partner is to enrol themselves to participate in an artificial enterprise and humiliate themselves in front of a mindless audience who tune in every week to watch a real-life fairytale unfold over the course of several conveniently timed episodes? I am proposing a similar format for my young Bidayuh friend, with a few minor amendments to the standard formula. To improve the entertainment value, the traditional Bidayuh practice of headhunting will be incorporated into the program. If a woman is deemed to be unsuitable, the villagers will embark upon a team-building exercise to obtain the rejected lady's cranium to add to their collection and appease the spirits.
This is the opportunity of a lifetime. Jerome is a dashing young fellow of exceptional repute from a respectable Bidayuh family. If you are a young lady of suitable temperament, please do not hesitate to apply.
So hello from the other side, lah, it's been bagus!
1 From Adele's Hello