Thursday 15th September 2016
It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.*
I've been using Kuching as a base for a month and a half now. Brian and Rosemary have been the perfect hosts (despite the fact that I neglected Rosemary's beloved pot plants). They've taken me to numerous eateries around the place and I've been entertained by several wilderness experiences from orangutans at Semmengoh, waterfalls everywhere from Kubah National Park to Gunung Gading National Park, strangling trees at Matang Wildlife Centre, to a crazy mountain bike race at Batang Ai.
My journey begins with a five hour ride on an express ferry from Kuching to Sibu. Upon arrival, I approach a cab driver and ask him to take me to the cheapest accommodation in town. After dumping my backpack in a hotel room, I stroll to a local café and eat roti canai. I then wander around town checking out the eminent Chinese temple on the waterfront and stumble across some base jumping festival. As evening approaches, I visit the night markets where I purchase a sickly sweet peanut pancake. To appease the unpleasant flavour, I acquire a chicken kebab. After gnawing my way through the chewy poultry, I realise that it was surely undercooked. Either I will get food poisoning, or I'm invincible. Time will tell.
Friday 16th September 2016
All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.*
My day begins at the local Chinese café where I am informed that Sarawak Laksa is unavailable (happy Malaysia day). I then request their "best dish". This happens to be some kind of fishball noodle soup and is indeed quite tasty. More than twelve hours have passed since my disastrous culinary experience and my stomach is showing no signs of ailment. It seems likely that I possess some kind of supernatural power. The base-jumping festival could be an ideal place to test my hypothesis. However, I am uninspired by Sibu (the unpleasant culinary experiences of the previous evening are a heavily contributing factor; but more importantly: A city in Sarawak that allows a licensed café to be devoid of Sarawak Laksa is not a city I wish to be a part of), and thus feel the lure of the river calling me onwards.
I walk to the waterfront and catch the 9:30 fast ferry to Kapit. Travelling along the Rajang River, I encounter forestry camps interspersed with Iban longhouses amidst an abundance of thick Bornean jungle. The charm of weathered timber huts and jetties along the river attracts my attention. A rudimentary timber structure crudely constructed with untreated timber in an imprecise manner and left to slowly rot in its environment is just sublime. It just bleeds character. It looks like it belongs. It's as if, over time, nature has reclaimed what was once hers and allowed its beauty to flourish once again.
Arriving in Kapit, I walk decisively towards my 4MYR accommodation as listed on wikitravel. Arriving at the appropriate venue, I am informed that the accommodation is for locals only. "Please lah, I'm a Sariwakian" doesn't get me anywhere and my Bidayuh heritage is apparently unrecognisable. Thus, I trudge towards the city in search of alternative arrangements.
My fallback option is an unfortunately expensive hotel in the city. I check in for the night before heading to a local café by the waterfront. Noticing a tattooed Iban man sitting by himself, I decide to kill him and dump his body in the river. As a challenge. I've never killed a man before. Not directly anyway. With my bare hands. Who's to say I haven't killed someone in some indirect, obscure way?
"Do you mind if I sit here?" Next thing I know, I'm sitting in the back of his mate's car and we're stopping to buy liquor before circling around the block to pick up his other mate, then doing another blockie to pick up a bit more liquor. Turns out his name is Joe and he's a policeman living in Sibu.
We drive to Unday's family property where he has no key to enter the gate. Unperturbed, a hammer is employed to force open the padlock. We saunter down the driveway to a delightful timber shed 'floating' atop a fish pond. Here I am offered beer and some form of hardly drinkable liquor. A couple of attractive Kayan girls show up and we relax to the sounds of various artists played through smartphones. As I join Becca to feed the hungry piranhas, she invites me - probably jokingly - to play netball with her the following morning.
No-one dies today. Unless of course the cause of death is indirectly related to a game of netball.
The Iban were fierce warriors and the most stubborn of the dayaks. Of all the indigenous tribes of Sarawak, the Iban were the last to give up headhunting and convert to Christianity.
I am shown a traditional blowpipe, a selection of gongs, drums, swords, tuak fermentation drums, etc.. Of course I am more than adequately fed and forced to drink tuak. The mood is jovial as an acoustic guitar is passed around and Iban melodies are crooned alongside modern tunes by Western artists. Further Iban monuments are proudly displayed as we visit Unday's parents house. Aligning with typical Iban hospitality, we are conscribed more tuak. More food. And more tuak.
When everyone is considered sufficiently drunk enough, we are permitted to leave the village. Before I know it, I am at an Iban longhouse attending a wedding ceremony. Speeches are succeeded by lots of eating and drinking. The guests and longhouse residents are all spread out along the shared area of the longhouse chatting in clusters. The bride and groom approach each guest with a shot glass filled with tuak. Everybody is expected to drink to the happy couple. And thus, when my turn comes, I must oblige.
Saturday 17th September 2016
That there’s some good in this world… and it’s worth fighting for.*
Despite the fact that she had perhaps had a few too many shots of tuak at the time, I insist on taking up Becca's invitation to join her for a game of netball. Becca picks me up from my expensive hotel and drives me to the local secondary school where my presence is seemingly met with great delight by the group of assembled females. I am assigned the centre jersey, which allows me to run freely around the court. Becca is my opposite number, and, based on the pre-match huddles from my football days, my main aim is to completely demoralise her. In any way possible. Get in a hard tackle early. Show her I'm here to play. She can't run without her legs.
Admittedly, I was never really known as the enforcer in my football team. But today I have the size advantage for a change. Time to ruffle a few feathers. Break a few limbs even. A contested possession provides the perfect opportunity to assert my dominance on the game. As I prepare myself to run in and perform some kind of unlawful martial arts manoeuvre, I remember that Becca holds the key to the car. Is this enough to persuade me not to provide her with an opportunity to inspect the condition of the polished timber floor? Or does she also hold the key to my heart? Either way, Becca remains on her feet, oblivious to the intricate details of the fine timber fibres clustered tightly together to form solid timber boards lining the court.
It soon becomes apparent that Hafeez is in fact a hobbit. His uncanny resemblance to Samwise Gamgee and his unnatural obsession with spicy potatoes are just a couple of the telltale signs.
The Hobbit gives me a tour of the area. Green is the predominant feature of the landscape. Lush green jungle is abundant across rolling hills on either side of the road as we drift along the highway. Abandoned timber huts have been consumed by the hungry jungle floor, rekindling that feeling of awe inspired by the charm of nature reclaiming her own. Returning to town, the four of us enjoy dinner at one of the many cordial cafés in the area.
My next option is to press the eject button, at which point I will be catapulted from my seat and into the abyss. The facilities here are too basic to allow for a big red button and thus, I have no option but to accept the microphone as Becca asks "why can't we be like that".
"Sorry Becca", I begin, "but it's rather complicated." Suddenly I find myself declaring that "I won't hesitate, no more, no more. It cannot wait, I'm yours..."
We return to the residence of my Kayan family where we finally crash for the night.
Sunday 18th September 2016
A hunted man sometimes wearies of distrust and longs for friendship.*
The day begins as a standard Sunday in dayak communities: at the local church. Following church, Skate and Becca take me to a café where my iced lemon tea is accompanied by a pork bun.
We then head home to prepare for a trip to the hobbit hole. All manner of things come to mind when considering a visit to the charming residence of a hobbit. Visions of a cosy existence in a quiet corner of the world, where the point of life is to eat, drink and be merry are rudely interrupted by the noisy chimes of an inconsiderate wall clock. I'm not sure which is more intrusive of a sleepy morning: The obtrusive chimes of a noisy wall clock every half hour, or the joyful tones belted out by an immoderately happy father. In any case, neither of these experiences have happened yet, as its only Sunday. As anticipated, lunch is delicious. After a generous serve of Kayan fare, it is time to succumb to the afternoon heat.
Following a competitive afternoon match, the four of us drive along the road to nowhere. Bridges are the theme today. That and more green jungle.
The Hobbit has offered me a place to sleep for the foreseeable future. His family are extremely welcoming. Is it his Kayan heritage or the fact that he is a hobbit? Either way, his cosy hospitality, comfortable manner and phenomenal cooking abilities allow me to quickly feel at home.
Monday 19th September 2016
Who knows? Have patience. Go where you must go, and hope!*
Whilst Skate goes back to work in the agriculture department and Becca plays the role of a pretty nurse, I am left in the hands of a very talkative hobbit (presently on holiday from studying in Kuching). Following coffee at his aunt's home next door, The Hobbit drives me to a popular breakfast district via Skate's office. Following a more-than-adequate brunch of roti canai followed up with the mandatory Sarawak Laksa (controversially lacking in prawns), we escort Skate to the wharf, where she catches the fast ferry to Sibu for work related purposes.
The inevitable happens. I blink and I am in a familiar room staring into Becca's chocolate eyes as she serenades me with Secret Love Song.
Dickson is handed the microphone and suddenly the room is transformed. The world stops. For Dickson is not just singing, he is transcending beyond the realms of this world. I am awestruck by the sound emanating from this diminutive man. You can feel the emotion behind his every word. Beauty comes at the most unexpected moments in life. My lack of cyanide pills prove to be a blessing tonight.
If you ever have the undesirable task of delivering bad news, hire this man to soften the blow. The magnificence of his voice could win the heart of a beautiful young maiden; heal the sick; persuade a professional wrestler to embrace veganism; alter the decision of an uncooperative official refusing your entry to The White House or Windsor Castle; or even exonerate your mass-murder charge. Such immense beauty may prove too much for the forces of evil and thus, if you have a morally deficient enemy to defeat, bring Dickson with you. If you are a morally deficient person, avoid him at all costs.
The rest of the evening passes in a state of euphoria.
Tuesday 20th September 2016
Well, I am going back into the open air, to see what the wind and sky are doing!*
To market. Fresh produce from the Kapit municipality is sold here everyday by the (predominately Iban) farmers. Agriculture is still the dominant industry amongst the indigenous Iban people, many of whom still live in traditional longhouses in rural Kapit. Fruit, vegetables, spices, seafood, wild boar, and all sorts of exotic delicacies are sold here.
As is the case in much of Sarawak, these communities are in an era of transition. Much of the current generation of Iban people are choosing to seek employment in the city, leaving only the older dayaks to continue the cultivation of their native land. My limited visits to Iban longhouses give me an impression of a close community spirit with a strong emphasis on the three f's: family, faith and food. It is their strong sense of family in preference to a career or wealth driven society that impresses me greatly.
However, as I have eluded to previously, the tide in Sarawak is changing. Hello globalisation. Hello consumerism. Hello materialism. Goodbye old fashioned values?
Forestry has also become a major source of employment for the community. Whilst logging is a necessary industry, the current deforestation rate in Sarawak is unsustainable. It has been suggested that the forestry tycoons are far too powerful in Sarawak and hold far too much political influence.
The Hobbit negotiates his way through a crowd of Iban vendors to a tightly packed cage of roosters. The Hobbit chooses a proud looking cockerel which is packed into a small cardboard box for transportation. No-one in Sarawak bats an eyelid at a process such as this. For all the mysticism in Sarawak (almost everyone is either Christian or Muslim; Buddhism and other traditional Chinese practices are also common. Aside from mainstream religion, a large proportion of the population appear to be extremely superstitious), animals are widely considered inferior and treated as such.
After dropping Skate off, The Hobbit drives me to the local oval where a football match is in progress. Being cooped up in a hobbit hole for days, I can't resist the tantalising prospect of burning off some steam. I thus remove my sandals and dash around the athletic track circling the football pitch. After clocking several kilometres of pure barefoot liberty, my physical restlessness has been satisfied and we can return to the hobbit hole for a shower.
Later we are subjected to The Hobbit's poor taste in entertainment. Becca and I recoil in horror as one by one the protagonists in a highly graphic film are consumed by a primitive tribe of cannibals. Before nodding off, I politely enquire as to The Hobbit's present state of hunger. One can never be too careful...
Wednesday 21st September 2016
He loved mountains, or he had loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away.*
This morning, we drive to town where The Hobbit selects a few of his favourite buns to accompany our morning coffee. A relaxing day at the hobbit hole is mostly spent reading. The Hobbit presents me with an Orang Ulu necklace (Orang Ulu encompasses a number of ethnic groups in a certain region of Sarawak), symbolic of my Kayan heritage. I can feel the strain of living with a very sociable Hobbit finally catching up with me. I feel exhausted. My throat is no longer politely enquiring about a break, but has progressed to screaming at me for some respite.
The concept is about as plausible as me replacing my beloved hat. Which, since everybody keeps enquiring (in a tone of voice - I might add - I find most offensive) as to it's age, I might as well enlighten the broader community. I am willing to give a live press conference to clarify the matter once and for all. However the essence of my hat is of such interest to so many people, that the costly organisation and implementation of such an enormous event would require years of careful preparation. There would be lead up events for at least a month beforehand to build up to the big announcement. Concerts, clowns, fireworks, fairy floss and catered ceremonies are all essential components in the build up. Celebrity speakers, passionate volunteers and sponsors all have to be arranged.
I will issue a brief statement here. Hopefully this low-key medium will be enough to satisfy the masses before the appropriate event can be organised in the future. Those who still harbour unwarranted animosity towards my innocent garment should consider a career in hairdressing, or some such occupation where malicious discussion is mandatory.
My hat has character. It's been places. We've shared moments of madness. Moments of great joy. Suffered together. Fought together. Survived together. Regrets? None.
Thursday 22nd September 2016
He longed to shut out the immensity in a quiet room by a fire.*
I feel horrible. I have a sore throat. I'm exhausted. I'm in no mood for the jolliness exuded by friendly hobbits.
Reluctantly, I allow The Hobbit to drag me to town where we visit Fort Sylvia - a historic remnant of the Brooke era of governance. The fort-cum-museum is quite interesting. It was initially built in the late eighteen-hundreds by Mr Brooke in response to some over-enthusiastic business ventures by Mr Iban. Essentially Mr Iban said "I like the look of that land, lets go and live there", despite the fact that Mr and Mrs Orang Ulu had been living peacefully there for generations. Mr and Mrs Orang Ulu were persuaded to relinquish their land after some aggressive negotiations. Mr Brooke was unimpressed at the discourteous manner in which Mr Iban conducted his business and thus decided to build a fort in which to pursue some aggressive negotiations of his own with Mr Iban. It was not long before Mr Iban was convinced that Mr and Mrs Orang Ulu were quite content to stay where they were, thankyou very much.
I spend much of the day trying to not die. At some point in the afternoon I awake from my slumber and decide to take a solitary stroll. Wandering through the backstreets of urban Kapit, I encounter a mixture of longhouses interspersed with dwellings in a range of conditions from unwealthy timber shacks seemingly on the verge of collapse to quite upmarket dwellings protected by a stainless steel framed fence. Even here, it is common to find people selling home cooked food outside their residences in the suburbs.
Friday 23rd September 2016
Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.*
From "do you mind if I sit here?"; I've been taken on a wild ride through Iban longhouses, culinary experiences, weddings, culinary experiences, karaoke, culinary experiences, and the general mayhem of hobbit life. And culinary experiences. I emerge from the madness a Kayan. It's the smallest of margins that change the course of a life. Had I been ten minutes later to arrive at the café on that fateful Friday afternoon, I would not have met Joe. The chain of events that followed would be confined to a parallel universe where Sarawak Laksa is devoid of prawns and iced lemon tea is taken without ice. Or lemon. The proposition of living in such unbearable conditions sends shivers down my spine. Timing? Coincidence? Luck? Some would attribute my experience to fate.
I now jump on the back of a motorcycle handled by Shafiq - a rural Kapit school teacher whom I have been fortunate enough to meet - and ride towards the horizon where my next Sarawakian adventure awaits...
My next Sarawakian adventure doesn't work out quite as intended. A restrictive administration department prevents me from visiting a rural school in remote Kapit. Thus, I return to the hobbit hole.
Tuesday 27th September 2016
Home is behind, the world ahead, and there are many paths to tread through shadows to the edge of night, until the stars are all alight.*
Why is it that after knowing people for little more than a week it feels like I've known them for my whole life? Perhaps I was always Kayan? My true identity has now been uncovered. It's hard to leave another place where I undoubtedly belong. But, I'm a traveller. I still have so many places to go. Situations to understand. People to meet. Things to see. Challenges to endure. Stories to share. Mischief to make. Lives to unsettle. Unwise decisions to make. Beards to grow.
Goodbye to the ever-gracious Skate. Goodbye to my sweet nurse. Goodbye to the unique Sariwakian Hobbit.
Until we meet again. Akui nyalam ikak. Akui kawah ikak.
*From J.R.R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings