The ferry trip from Kapit to Belaga has a reputation. And not a good one. A particularly fierce section of river, known as the Pelagus Rapids, has claimed several lives in the history of the express ferry route.
Probably some combination of the above.
Friday 30th September 2016
A few days in Belaga have allowed me to reflect and transcribe my memorable experience in Kapit. The next step in my epic journey is to find my way to the coastal city of Bintulu. Emerging from my hotel where I have been staying the last few nights, I ask some locals at a café where I can hail a four wheel drive to the coast. My enquiry is met with the offer of some form of alcoholic beverage and a cigarette, despite the fact that it is before 7:30 in the morning.
One of the group speaks English fluently enough to understand my enquiry and takes me to a local convenience store, where the owner supplies me with a phone number for the local four wheel drive guy.
My transport is arranged. Shortly, a sturdy vehicle pulls up outside the café. The driver confirms that he is the transport to Bintulu and after confirming the price, I jump in the back seat.
Just now, a second vehicle turns up and an unimpressed driver asks me through the window if I called him. After some confusion, the two drivers come to some agreement and I am transferred to the second four wheel drive.
Two other passengers are collected on the way out of town and we bounce along the bumpy road towards the coast.
It is not long before the driver pulls over to assess some sort of engine troubles. I believe the correct technical term is broken. He collects some water from a stream beside the road and, with the bonnet lifted, performs some sort of mechanical procedure to alleviate the problem. I believe the correct technical term is to dabble. Where possible, the highest gear is used to limit the strain on the engine. Driving uphill, we go extremely slowly and often have to stop halfway up a hill to repeat the dabbling process.
Just after passing the turnoff to Murum, there is some kind of pit stop. Here our driver steers the vehicle into the carpark. The other two passengers and myself are transferred into an unbroken vehicle, in which the remainder of our bumpy journey to Bintulu continues without incident.
I am abominably conspicuous as I step from the four wheel drive on to the Bintulu pavement, hauling my large hiking pack onto my back. Before my foot touches the ground, I have been approached by no less than three seemingly desperate taxi drivers. There are numerous budget hotels within easy walking distance on this main street in central Bintulu. To hire a taxi would be akin to stealing a free meal, or straightening your already straight hair, or taking a photograph of a photograph, or taking a photograph of a photograph of a photograph, or taking a photograph of a photograph of a photograph of a photograph, or... you get the picture (doesn't the final pun just top it off?). My point being, I didn't deem it necessary to hire a cab.
After checking in to a nearby inn, I decide to wander the streets of Bintulu a while. I wind through wet markets and along the esplanade, before invading a Chinese temple. Admittedly, the décor of these Taoism temples scattered throughout Sarawak has become far less novel since my first inspection, and a brief visit is sufficient to satisfy my mild curiosity.
Suddenly, I am awoken from my daydream by the enrapturing final of the Asia Sportkite Championship (there is no indication that any form of physical confrontation took place, nor is my world obscured by vertical bars - perhaps Mr Events Coordinator never met my elbow after all). My mind has re-joined my body at the delightful kite festival, where just now Richard from France is performing expertly. His kite twirls and dives to the dramatic sounds of an operatic composition. The control he exercises over his vessel is utterly remarkable! Some admirable performances from other competitors provide an entertaining afternoon, however, none of the other contestants can match Richard's mastery.
The days festivities conclude with the poco-poco dance which proceeds as follows: An extremely overenthusiastic host runs around inviting people to join him on stage. Most refuse. The host sings along to the backing music. Badly. He continues to encourage the nonchalant audience to join him. He dances to the backing music. Badly. A handful of people relent and join him on stage. He continues to sing a few lines and shuffle his feet. Badly.
Returning to my hotel, I walk through a food court (there's no shortage of these in Sarawak) where a Chinese restaurant owner is quick to suggest I might be interested in purchasing a beer. Clearly the wealthy Western man has come to Malaysia to drink beer and strut through town in a state of intoxicated disrespect.
I fix him with a look that says: Mate, if I'd wanted to sit in a Western style pub and drink beer I would have stayed in Australia. And don't even think about offering me a burger and fries. My staple diet consists of laksa, mee goreng, and nasi lemak, accompanied by iced lemon tea, thank-you very much. By the way, you're wearing odd socks and your colour coordination is abysmal. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to buy myself in iced coffee from the authentic Malaysian café next door.
Despite the fact that I have mastered this particular look, the owner of the premises returns my gaze with a look of incomprehension. Would you like ice with your beer sir?
Saturday 1st October 2016
I've decided to eat breakfast, buy some supplies for Similajau National Park, then get away from this hostile town as soon as possible. I can't walk past a cab driver without being hassled and the Chinese restaurant owner adds to my frustration.
As I leave my hotel, I am drawn to a noisy procession that marches down the street. I can't help but be swallowed up by the impelling festivities. I thus follow the parade down the street and gradually towards the oval where the Asia Sportkite Championship played out on the previous afternoon. I decide to hang around for the morning and leave town a little later today.
Sunday 2nd October 2016
Beginning my day at the International Kite Festival, a cooking competition is underway. Also on offer is a colouring competition. Judging by some of the entrants, I fancy my chances in this ruthless contest. However, I think I'm a little too late to enter.
Disappointed in myself for missing the opportunity to rise to stardom as the champion colouring technician, it is time to wander again. Searching for a museum, or at the very least, a gallery of some sort, I stumble across what appears to be an abandoned cinema complex. Some sort of gaming arcade is still functioning in one room, however (judging by the décor), the remainder of the precinct looks as though time has stood still since the seventies.
I continue to wander the streets in search of a museum, but to no avail. Over coffee at a local café, my worst fear is confirmed. Exasperated that a city the size of Bintulu could be lacking a museum, the only reasonable course of action is to fabricate a history of Bintulu myself.
A sleepy village by the coast, the people of Bintulu minded their own business and it appeared that the world ignored them. They were extremely satisfied with this arrangement since there was enough fish in the sea to eat, enough timber in the forest to build with, enough neighbours in town to gossip with and enough rice in the fields for supper with a significant surplus to make naughty drinks with. However, little did the residents of Bintulu know, that sooner or later, this idealistic lifestyle would be turned on its head. The turning point finally came in the early eighties, when a small group of ambitious life-forms from a distant planet discovered Earth.
In search of the planet's leader, they happened upon Bintulu. In their narrow understanding of the world, the villagers could only assume that the little green men were from somewhere far, far away, such as Peninsular Malaysia. The little green men advocated for development and guided the small rural town into a substantial sized city, where new industries replaced the traditional cultivation of the land. The aliens had never been exposed to anything like tuak before and at a celebratory ceremony marking a year since their arrival, each of the aliens was to be ordained into the community in a traditional dayak ceremony. Sadly, the strong fermented brew was a little too much for the new citizens to process. The following morning the official population of little green men in Bintulu was comparable to the population of sober Irishmen on St Patrick's Day.
I eventually retire to a shady spot to escape the intense afternoon sun. A period of introspection follows: Who am I? What am I doing with my life? Wow, is that a giant stingray in the sky? What does it mean?... All the usual stuff. Further along the treeline, a friendly-looking dayak smiles at me. I thus decide to initiate conversation. Unfortunately, he does not speak English, and my Bahasa Malay is about as advanced as the aforementioned cinema complex.
Walking in the direction of His Holiness The Sacred Giant Stingray, I return to the kite festival, where I am subjected to another fine display from a number of professional kite technicians. An English chap impresses with his manipulation of three kites at once; a Japanese team performs some impressive manoeuvers to a techno soundtrack; a team from Taiwan is, well, less inspiring.
Once again Richard from France stands out from the crowd with his phenomenal precision and control. I am left spellbound by his expert manoeuvers and otherworldly skill.
After the mandatory poco-poco dance, the Last Man Standing competition gets underway. This is exactly the same as the primitive Roman Gladiatorial Exhibition. Except with kites. The competition turns out to be quite exhilarating despite the fact that no blood is actually spilled.
Finally, the festival concludes with the contest everybody has been waiting for. The main event. This is the major reason I have decided to hang around Bintulu for the weekend: the famous Lollipop Drop. Here a series of lolly bags parachute from a large kite, whereupon a group of hyperactive children fight to the death over a bit of sugar. If you thought the Last Man Standing was violent, you certainly haven't witnessed a classic Lollipop Drop. Brutal. Adorning a motorcycle helmet, I elbow a dozen small children out of my way en-route to the ultimate prize: Malaysia's famous Green Tea Kit-Kat.
Monday 3rd October 2016
This morning Anne has offered to take me to Taman Tumbina (a 'botanical and zoological garden'). Four of us - Anne, Zharen, Nor Farahain and myself - explore the gardens. The highlight being Zharen's somewhat disrespectful exchange with a lethargic tiger. As the three ladies leave the enclosure, trailing the group, I leave the antagonised beast with Zharen's address in case of escape. This cheers up the tiger immensely. On my next visit, I plan to leave it the key to the cage.
I return to my hotel where I escape the worst of the Bintulu heat. After reading a while I decide to go wandering again. I discover the Chinese area outside the main city, where I eat roti canai (which ironically is Indian cuisine). I wander into the suburbs where I encounter weathered timber dwellings alongside modern rendered houses. Eventually I find access to a sandy beach tucked behind private residences. I observe this uninhabited stretch of sand from a wall of large boulders where I watch the waves wash gracefully over the rocks a while as the sun gradually lowers in the afternoon sky.
Obviously, I decline. What a terrible idea.
And so, our Teh Tarrik Session (as described - somewhat incorrectly since tea was conspicuously absent from our meeting - by Nina Ainina) proceeds at our regular ice creamery. I think I successfully convince the ladies that Tasmania is the capital of Australia and Sydney should be avoided at all costs since it is under the tyrannical stronghold of a tribe of giant kangaroos.
Tuesday 4th October 2016
Beginning my morning with a jog along the promenade, I discover an alternative route to my secret beach. Surprisingly few people seem to walk or run along this fine stretch of pavement. Or perhaps I am not here at a popular time of day? Following some sort of fried noodle dish, I settle into an unobtrusive location on the upper floor of the markets and observe the unhurried activity in the markets below. A busker croons a melodious (Arabic sounding) tune whilst people wander around leisurely to purchase their fruit, vegetables and seafood.
An easy afternoon is whiled away on the promenade reading a novel.
Upon arrival at her family home, I am warmly greeted by her parents and brother. Some people collect stamps, others coins, or perhaps some form of geeky science fiction memorabilia. It soon becomes apparent that Azzel's mother collects people. I am added to her numerous list of adopted children. Due to my Australian identity, I am considered a prized trophy. I am thus lead to a small cabinet, where I am locked behind polished glass.
The key is hidden somewhere in the depths of the Bornean jungle. It can be located via a quest involving a series of riddles and confrontations with wild beasts and evil witches.
Alternatively you could simply smash the cabinet glass.
Wednesday 5th October 2016
A revised history of Bintulu is obtained from my adopted family, which I will roughly summarise here.
A sleepy village by the coast, the people of Bintulu minded their own business and it appeared that the world ignored them. They were extremely satisfied with this arrangement since there was enough fish in the sea to eat, enough timber in the forest to build with, enough neighbours in town to gossip with and enough rice in the fields for supper with a significant surplus to make naughty drinks with. However, little did the residents of Bintulu know, that sooner or later, this idealistic lifestyle would be turned on its head. The turning point finally came in the early eighties, when oil and gas was discovered in the area.
Suddenly, the world no longer ignored the small fishing village of Bintulu. And almost as suddenly, the small village was not so small. Explained using some complex economic terminology, prices of goods skyrocketed to absurd levels. Some locals prospered in their business dealings, however many were left in economic ruin. Foreigners from near and far came to work in Bintulu and many locals were enticed to sell their land for what appeared to be a neat profit. In a modern economy, this did not turn out to be a wise decision.
Due to some complex economic phenomenon, the native residents soon exhausted the money acquired from their land sales and found themselves without land, money, or livelihood. This was not an ideal situation to be in. The people became known as "squatters", and to this day are still in a multi-generational cycle of unemployment. The squatters build temporary dwellings on government land until the area is developed. They are then forced to relocate to their next temporary 'home'. Some economic theory suggests that high rates of unemployment leads to high rates of crime. It's little wonder that I haven't come across an economist in Bintulu. They certainly have a lot to answer for.
My adopted brother, Haniff, takes me on a tour of the local area. Riding on the back of his motorcycle (sorry Mum - no helmet), we buzz past the local wet market, industrial blocks, mixed Iban/Malay housing areas consisting of timber dwellings interspersed with modern rendered houses - each dwelling built in close proximity to the next. Several large five-story flats house a large population of locals. Copious amounts of clothing hang from virtually every balcony, giving the place a clustered sort of vibe.
Sitting on a beached boat watching the sun set over the South China Sea, I am extremely glad to be on the coast. That feeling of contentment washes over me as I am spoilt by a vivid orange horizon.
So instead, I'll tell you the secret to making a good iced lemon tea great. Assuming you have been served said beverage at the correct consistency (i.e. correct ratio of water to tea), a generous (but not too lavish) smattering of ice (preferably not too chunky) and a sufficient quantity of fresh lemon (three relatively thick slices is ideal); then you can improve your brew considerably with a seemingly basic (but often overlooked) technique. With a straw or similar implement, the fresh slices of lemon should be firmly prodded until the lemon pulp is lavishly distributed through the brew. Now you can enjoy a truly magnificent concoction, far superior to coca-cola or Dr Pepper.
Thursday 6th October 2016
This morning my adopted uncle drives me to Similajau National Park. Here I embark upon a ten kilometre stroll to Golden Beach. Trekking through the jungle adjacent the coast, the path is very good. The terrain around the track varies from thick green jungle to open forest. Alone on this straightforward trail, I am able to move at a reasonable pace.
Leaving the children to fly their kites on the beach in the fading evening light, my adopted family drives me back to their residence where we retire for the night.
Friday 7th October 2016
My day begins with a sedap (delicious) meal of Nasi Lemak cooked by my adopted aunty. A little later I am taken to the local markets where ingredients are purchased for lunch. More sedap food is followed by a lazy afternoon.
I am very fortunate to have spent time with such a generous family. In addition to welcoming me into their delightful beach house, I have been treated to excellent home-cooked meals and compelling conversation. Even the trophy cabinet was relatively comfortable - well maintained, regularly dusted, etc.. My adopted uncle drives me to a hotel near the bus terminal in preparation for a morning departure.
Later Anne collects me from my hotel and we enjoy a great evening together. More sedap gila food is (of course) followed by another gula apong ice-cream. And sadly it's time to say goodbye to another fine human being. Kind. Generous. Loving. Actually, no, I'd better not say that, it might cause some sort of scandal. Ignore that last one. Anne is a most hateful person.
Saturday 8th October 2016
From excessively large flying whales to sedap gila (crazy delicious) gula apong ice-cream, Bintulu has been brilliant. Fun. Gila. Some great friendships have just commenced and I've been adopted into another Sariwakian family.
Mr Ice-cream Man has offered me a lift to Niah National Park on his way to Miri. Aside from his profitable ice-cream business, Mr Ice-cream Man is an Islamic scholar, having pursued religious studies in Kuala Lumpur for five years. He also flies planes in his spare time. Needless to say, I am anticipating a highly interesting discussion during the relatively long drive from Bintulu.
God has certainly blessed his business. Either that, or people just like ice-cream.
I certainly do.
And so, the final question as I leave Bintulu is thus: Do I think of Anne as gila? Or merecik bak hang?