The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club. 1
Today marks the beginning of a real Sarawakian adventure. Through my Kuching connection, I have managed to wangle myself into a trip with a not-for-profit organisation going by the name of Barefoot Mercy. This institution undertakes projects in rural Sarawak to provide assistance to disadvantaged communities by supplying basic facilities which many living in developed areas take for granted. The purpose of this particular trip is to be present for the Puneng Trusan Pineapple Festival and engage the locals in a soap-making workshop, as well as monitoring/repairing any micro-hydro systems (previously provided to several small villages by Barefoot Mercy) that are not functioning as they should be.
Flying from Kuching, I meet the rest of the gang in Kota Kinabalu. Aside from an intrusive Australian tourist, there are three representatives from a large corporate organisation (considering donating equipment to the village), one soap-technician consultant, and the intimidating leader (and fiercely proud Sarawakian) of the whole ordeal. Five of us pile into a mini-bus, whilst the sixth member of our squad goes rogue. The bus takes us through lush tropical green rainforest, past grazing buffalo, amazingly street-smart dogs wander the sides of the road as we wind south-westward before stopping for fuel at Sipitang. An inspiring sunset is in progress as we pass by a beautifully constructed mosque and can be further appreciated as we stop by a vibrant harbour to purchase some form of deep-fried treats involving fish and bananas. Our next stop is a border control station which bizarrely operates between the two Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. It is suggested that this border control might have something to do with politics. Having zoned out at the mention of the p-word, I am left to speculate and draw my own rational conclusions.
As we arrive at Lawas, four faces light up at the sight of the fancy hotel on the corner. The leader chuckles to herself when four faces fall as the bus saunters past the hotel and pulls up at the not-so-fancy joint down the road. After checking in to the satisfactory accommodation, we wander across the street for an evening meal. Fresh coconut milk accompanies an enjoyable repast of fish and chicken.
The second rule of Fight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Fight Club! 1
We begin the day with breakfast at a local eatery consisting of a generous serving of toast and noodles. Having satisfied ourselves, we set off to begin our journey to the Pineapple Festival in Puneng Trusan via several small villages which Barefoot Mercy has assisted previously. Our first stop is at a local school in Siang Siang where we were apparently somehow involved in the donation of a volleyball court. Little time is wasted before an impromptu game of volleyball is underway to inaugurate the court. Over the years I have learned that winning is everything, so I get my game face on and do what has to be done. After winning the volleyball game, we go inside to listen to speeches of thanks and then pray before being treated to second breakfast consisting of a selection of deep-fried goods and sweet drinks.
We have long ago lost phone-reception and my expectations are to observe a village cut-off from the outside world, living the traditional Lun Bawang lifestyle in accordance with their cultural roots. As the villagers entertain with their traditional three piece band consisting of drum-kit, electric bass and acoustic lead guitar; fellow villagers record the performance with their go-pros and iPhones.
Traditionally, the Lun Bawang hunting method incorporated the use of an iPhone as an essential tool to track and capture food. Specially designed Lun Bawang apps were prevalent around the eighteenth century when the tribe was strong. However, as the tribe lost its way, the coding required to produce such sophisticated apps was lost to a sort of primitive version of what is now known as Pokemon Go. As the tribe spent more time trying to 'catch 'em all, lah' and less time foraging for food, the living conditions worsened to such a state that the once strong tribe decreased significantly in numbers to the extent that they were in real danger of dying out completely. To their credit though, they did manage to capture the much elusive Pikachu.
In the early twentieth century, Christian missionaries from Australia turned up and told the Lun Bawang tribe about a cool dude from the Middle East who spent much of his leisure time doing some pretty neat party tricks such as walking on water and turning water into wine. Inspired by the life story of this eccentric fellow, the Lun Bawang stopped playing Pokemon Go and became devout Christians. I think they also gave up rice wine.
Many performances transpire this evening, but without doubt, the most memorable would have to be Johnny with his rendition of a Malaysian classic. Poor Johnny never looked comfortable on stage and given that I could not understand the lyrics, I can only interpret his tone of voice and body language, which screamed: what am I doing I don't belong up here this is a most unpleasant ordeal oh god get me out of here oh god this is painful how embarrassing what will the girls in the village think oh god I was doing this to impress them not to repel them oh god how will I ever live this down how will I find a wife I know I'll move far away to a distant land and earn a modest living mowing lawns with three hungry kids to feed and a demanding wife I'll die young and discontent oh thank god it's over. With that, Johnny mopes sheepishly off the stage, much to the amusement of his fellow villagers.
After a second cowboy dance the evening finally comes to a surprising conclusion as an impressive fireworks display is launched from the middle of the village field! For several minutes, colourful explosions conspicuously light the night sky. After a quick (cold) shower using the old scoop and pail system, it is well and truly time to retire for the night.
Third rule of Fight Club: if someone yells “stop!”, goes limp, or taps out, the fight is over. 1
Two members (Taufiq and myself) of our ensemble arise early in preparation for the official Puneng Trusan Pineapple Festival Cross-Country. We were informed by the local officials that the race would begin at 6:00am. Arising at an appropriate time in order to prepare ourselves physically and psychologically for the stresses of the upcoming race, the two of us immerse ourselves in our separate intense routines to warm-up for the big event. As the hour approaches, we make our way to the starting line, confident that our strict training regimes leading into this illustrious event would hold us in good stead for the pressure associated with such a significant race in our respective careers. Scanning the field, I am confident of a podium finish. The other runners look strong, but I am calmed by a strong confidence in my ability and solid preparation in the lead-in to this popular event. Actually, I should probably point out at this junction that it might have been more accurate to state that 'the other runner looks strong', as opposed to 'the other runners look strong'; since despite the clock ticking to well beyond the hour, only the two of us have shown up. If this is a cynical move by the local contingent to inflict psychological damage on the visiting field, it is not working. Our team psychologist has prepared us for all sorts of cruel mind-games and a fiercely parochial home-crowd. As the minutes tick by, we wait for any local competitors to arrive. But arrive they do not.
Thus, at approximately twenty minutes past the hour, a quality - if not extensive - field of runners take to the course. Neck-and-neck we follow the course down the rough track and across a timber suspension bridge. Despite the intense jostling for first position, the scenery is not lost on us. We are mesmerised by the mysterious mist creeping silently through the valleys, allowing the hilltops to reach above the haze and breathe the cool, clean air of the highlands. The turn-around point of the race is somewhat arbitrary. As we continue further down the road, we come across a herd of buffalo. Seizing my opportunity, I push Taufiq in front of the oncoming stampede and without a backward glance, turn around and hustle back to the village where victory awaits. Allowing my adrenaline to carry me, I dash across the bridge, and as the finish line draws near I am overwhelmed by a great flood of emotion. I realise that my whole life has been building towards this point. Such glory I have never dreamed of achieving. I will be crowned the winner of the prestigious Puneng Trusan Pineapple Festival Cross-Country and nobody will ever be able to take this away from me. I have brought honour to my family and will be respected by generations to come. Admittedly, when I cross the finish line, the atmosphere is a little subdued. The small crowd gathered to witness the memorable occasion are no doubt thrilled to be part of such a historic event. With my job complete, I head off to shower in preparation for the festivities and the upcoming medal ceremony.
Also wearing the Barefoot Mercy colours is John Thoo (the seventh member), our engineering expert from Penang (a small island off West Malaysia). Outside of engineering, John appears to spend a large proportion of his time pursuing his musical talent with the rambutan leaf. John conducts regular workshops throughout the festival which essentially proceed as follows: John plays a tune. Others fail to sound a note. John plays a stirring melody. Others fail to sound a note. John plays another tune. Others fail to sound a note. John walks off to an unknown location. Others fail to sound a note.
The festival continues with more indiscernible speeches, cowboy dancing and presentations. Finally the big moment arrives: The winner of the Puneng Trusan Cross-Country is to be announced. I lean forward in anticipation. Strangely, prizes are awarded to several competitors who were not present for the beginning of the race. I shrug this off and await the announcement of the winner. Forgiving the announcer for seriously mispronouncing my name, I rise from my chair in triumph and begin to strut towards the stage in a manner befitting a champion. Just then, a local villager steps up to the platform and receives my prize, my applause, my glory, my prestige, my dignity. I've been robbed. This will surely go down as one of the most controversial moments in the history of sport.
Leaving the abhorrent injustice in the hands of my competent legal team, I reluctantly move on. The second most exciting presentation of the festival is underway: The award for the heaviest Pineapple! Given that I haven't submitted an entry to this competition, it is highly unlikely that I will be subjected to another miscarriage of justice. Bizarrely, the top three prizes are awarded to one person.
When the festivities are finally over, our favourite driver, Singa, offers to take us on a tour of the local villages. Five of us decide to pile in the tray of the vehicle for the experience. Taufiq, Vincent, Sue Ann, John and I arrange ourselves for the journey. We swing by a few villages including Long Tanid, Long Karabangan, Long Beluyu and Long Semadoh. Each village has a similar layout: A square (football) field in the centre is surrounded by charming timber dwellings. Checking out a micro-hydro system at Long Kerabangan, we walk along a path behind the village through the jungle. Allowing my curiosity to get the better of me, I wrap my hands around some variety of bamboo to sample its texture. Unfortunately, the plant is adverse to being handled, and administers me with a multitude of thorns of an unpleasant textural quality. Tea and bananas from yet another generous local numb the pain significantly.
Fourth rule: only two guys to a fight. 1
This morning I have time to stand quietly in front of our homestay and simply 'dig' the village (as Jack Kerouac so eloquently puts it in his beat culture classic, On the Road). The morning is quiet and a few locals meander about on their verandas, across the field a man walks his buffalo to graze around the edges of the paddock, the weathered timber dwellings sitting silently below the swirling mist of the surrounding mountains make for a picturesque backdrop to all this nonchalant activity.
After giving out souvenirs to the local children, it is time for Taufiq, Vincent, Sue Ann and Amily to depart. But not before cracking open a special treat. In the lead up to this moment, I've eaten dabai, rambutan, langsat and tarap, amongst other things. But this is the moment of truth. Having offended my companions earlier by ignorantly labelling their most cherished delicacy "shocking smelling", it is time to make amends. A fresh durian is on the menu as a departing Sarawakian rite. The menacing-looking fruit reluctantly splits after some forceful blows with a sharp instrument. The smooth, delicate interior of the durian contrasts with the spiky, unwelcoming exterior. I scoop a soft segment of flesh from the ajar wedge and cautiously place it in my mouth. The first thing I notice is the texture. The product is silky and smooth and melts on my tongue. Savouring the pleasing texture, I extract the flesh from around the seed and allow the fruit to be digested. Analysing the unique flavour, I realise that I do not dislike it. In fact, I find the overall culinary experience to be quite pleasant. And thus, my induction is complete. I am now officially a Sariwakian, lah. I would be lying if I claimed that it was easy to say goodbye to these four wonderful people. Watching them depart, I decide that a trip out west is now mandatory in my future travel plans.
Later, Elaine and I wander across the village field to where a group of young children are running about causing havoc. To further enliven the scene, we offer the children sugary sweets, which they gratefully accept. We then watch the ensuing chaos unfold with interest. The distribution of sweets is not entirely even, despite the efforts of a couple of equality advocates amongst the youngsters. Some environmentally conscious members of the institution use their authority to encourage their peers to put rubbish in the bin. As the hyperactive party is enhanced by our gift, Elaine and I slip off to leave the overzealous youngsters to drive their parents to madness (we have essentially fulfilled the role of an uncle or aunt). A relaxing stroll up the hill behind our homestay affords us a peaceful respite and a fine view of the village.
With the numbers at our homestay diminished, we now have time to appreciate the local entertainment. A more than adequate substitute for social media, a walkie-talkie sits on the table broadcasting the talk of the town. Our hostess - Rumi - translates some of the conversations that take place. All the important issues are discussed such as what's on the menu for lunch tomorrow, etc., etc.. Further entertainment is provided by two cats - a kitten and mother - that inhabit Rumi's home. Presently the two are embroiled in a light hearted confrontation. The kitten hurls itself at it's mother, who nonchalantly extents a paw and sends her offspring crashing to the ground. Undeterred, the kitten tries again with the same result.
For a third time today I find myself on the front porch appreciating where I am and what is on offer. This time a 'storm' of sorts unfolds in the distance. The air is cool and the sky relatively clear. It is not humid, nor is heavy cloud present. There is no rain. No thunder can be heard. The sky is lit up in a series of silent flashes showing glimpses of a sky intricately textured by a light cloud covering complete with a crescent moon. The lack of thunder seems extraordinary to my uninitiated mind. The silence of the display adds a dimension of beauty to the whole performance. It isn't long, however, before the stray dogs begin howling in protest. I feel that it is not my place to inform them that their histrionics will not prevent the 'storm' from continuing. The storm will finish when it wants to finish, regardless of whether a community of dogs are upset or offended by the audacity of the whole display.
Fifth rule: one fight at a time, fellas. 1
Sadly, the time has come to leave Puneng Trusan. Call me an idealist if you must, but there is something inherently attractive about living away from technology without communication with the outside world for an extended period of time. In my opinion, this is one of many attractive qualities the village possesses. However, progress is inevitable. Eventually, accessibility and communication will improve in this village and it will never be the same again. For me, an outsider, I feel (perhaps selfishly) a sense of pity that the great big machine of modernisation will greedily eat villages like this. Is the quality of life here particularly miserable? What are the ambitions of the local villagers? If they are unimpressed with this lifestyle, then why would they not move closer to town?
I must now pay tribute to our extremely hospitable hostess. Rumi has been exceptionally generous and kind to all of us. She continually went out of her way to welcome us, cook for us and make us feel comfortable. She is extraordinarily generous and has a consistently caring demeanour. Her hospitality was a phenomenal experience of its own accord.
A native Lun Bawang, Baru was from a generation that inhabited the villages in a time before the rough four-wheel-drive track was constructed. To get to secondary school, Baru and his contemporaries had to trek barefoot (shoes were too expensive) for three arduous days through the Bornean jungle.
An afternoon stroll to check out the state of the micro-hydro system is undertaken by Elaine and I, however the conditions are too hot for John, who is left behind to pursue his leaf-playing. As we walk down the overgrown track, I notice a thistle that appears to close itself upon contact. The amusement obtained from brushing against semalu (Elaine informs me that malu means 'shy' in Malay - all I can do is trust that she is not teaching me an offensive swearword) is considerable.
Baru, his wife Yu Ching Sieu and son Ben arrive in the evening. Upon arrival, Baru gathers timber and lights a fire. From behind a hot cup of coffee, we gaze into the horizon as Baru tells us of life growing up in the jungle. A little later, I tag along with Baru and Ben as they trek into the jungle to hunt for wild cats or mouse-deer. The trick is to look for the eyes, I am told. We return home after midnight having sighted no wild beasts.
Sixth rule: the fights are bare knuckle. No shirt, no shoes, no weapons. 1
To summarise in one sentence what should be investigated in several large heavy volumes, rural Sarawak basically adheres to the constraints imposed by a complicated love triangle consisting of the Dayaks (native Sarawakian tribes), the forestry tycoons, and the Malaysian government.
Obviously, the forestry workers are out to make money. The Dayaks are opposed to the clearing of their traditional land without compensation. The government issues licences to the forestry industry in accordance with what it considers to be state land. Without the forestry industry, the access road to all these villages would not have been constructed; additionally, many natives have gained employment through the forestry industry. The definition of native land is itself ambiguous. Traditionally, the Lun Bawangs purposely left a portion of land undeveloped to use for hunting. And so, the debate as to what belongs to the natives and what belongs to the government rages on...
The morning is spent inspecting the state of Baru's micro-hydro system. After inspecting the state of the generator; John, one of Baru's workers and I trek a few kilometres into the jungle to the source of the water supply. We essentially establish that there is insufficient flow to power the generator during the dry season.
An alternative hypothesis is that we were in fact kidnapped by inquisitive aliens. The curious creatures subjected us to a series of experiments and extracted the data from our brains to educate themselves about human unintelligence and learn about the planet Earth. Upon return, the experience was erased from our tiny human minds. Captivated, by the data found in our brains, the creatures then flew off in search of a durian tree.
Seventh rule: fights will go on as long as they have to. 1
Elaine and I spend the morning pretending to be farmers (planting some sort of seeds, collecting strawberries, etc.) and are lucky enough to observe a couple of eagles gliding gracefully overhead without getting shot by one of the locals. An easy afternoon reading and digging the landscape is followed up with dinner, before another evening drinking coffee by the fire. Before bed, I finish Baru's extremely interesting book detailing his life story from childhood in the highlands through to his current political endeavours.
And the eighth and final rule: if this is your first time at Fight Club, you have to fight. 1
The day is essentially spent travelling. We ride the four-wheel drive out to Lawas, where our mobile phones buzz with a thousand unnecessary notifications. We have again been spoilt by another brilliant host. The Bian family was extremely accommodating and generous toward their guests. The catering was again exceptional and we were welcomed with comfortable living arrangements and warm conversation.
As I finish this post, I know that I must visit the members of our crew soon since I am already missing Taufiq's wit, Sue Ann's captivating laugh, Vincent's Chinese naming lectures, Amily's warm demeanour, and Elaine's general brilliance.
Okay, lah, I must now go and eat more durian.
1 From Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club