May 10th, 2015
I toss and turn in the sprawling queen-sized bed as I wake up, trying to concretize my plans following the return to Miri from the Kelabit. As much as I seem to genuinely be enjoying the respite in this area, onward travel is always a problem. I would like to try staying at the Residence 21 in Miri again, assuming they have internet, but have to pick up my backpack from the Dillenia guesthouse, return the key to the Gloria, and then try and make the bus to Niah national park, then do a day trip to Lambir Hills on the way back to Miri.
I can spend an extra day in Miri to give myself time to buy handicrafts at the Miri Handicraft Centre, then catch a direct van to Bandar Seri Begawan – assuming I can still get money out of my bank account.
Breakfast takes the form of the same food as yesterday, reheated, with some terrible coffee, a huge beetle banging repeatedly against the corrugated plastic canopy roof above us as I eat. Julian fidgets with his phone as I eat and drink coffee, flipping through the books on the history of the Kelabit highlands and its people, including the relationship between the orang ulu from upstream Sarawak and the native peoples such as the Iban, who live closer to the coastal areas. I am finding it difficult to concentrate on making a coherent impression from the books, but glean tidbits of information nonetheless.
Julian’s grandmother sits passively by the wall, then slowly moves to the couch. He carries the book describing the history of the Kelabit to her, and as he turns the pages and shows her the photos of people in the community from decades in the past, she slowly intones their names, telling him she remembers them, although most have long passed away. He tells me that at 95 she still has a very good memory, as she was the story teller of the longhouse, having memorized all of the peoples’ songs, which are apparently still lodged in her memory.
Julian points me in the direction of Lian Lugud, another member of the longhouse, who leaves in one of the neighboring sections, and who wants to take Julian’s mother’s vegetable cuttings and plant them in the garden. He tells me he works in the neighboring national park and loves the challenge of growing food gardens, telling me he has taught many local people how to grow their own personal food gardens, rather than buying expensive food from Miri, but he has a hard time maintaining his own space since he is gone so often for work.
Lian walks me to the living room and over to his somewhat ramshackle private living quarters. He tells me he has a pet project he was wants to embark on here, involving farming the fish that people pay so much money for in West Malaysia. Despite the fact that this fish is so valuable, it is very easy to harvest, and can apparently be raised without cages, as they are very passive and will remain in the same place.
The cost of the fish is a result of their only growing in very specific conditions, as they need clear water and a certain plant that grows on the rocks in the river. All he would have to do is secure that area of the river for his project, repeatedly telling me that it takes putting up a sign to inform locals.
I really wonder if just putting up a sign to inform people to not fish a fish worth 500 RM a kg would be enough to keep them from pillaging the water. I explain the details of what would be involved with his project, including cutting the fish as per market requirements, having proper cold storage, locating freight forwarders, getting good buyers and also researching the proposal process to make sure he is successful in getting the money to fund the project.
He seems overwhelmed just at the thought of having to do all this work, his face a combination of drawn and introspective. He offers me some tiny sweet bananas to eat, and cuts open a wild mango from the forest, whose shape and rind looks more like a sapote, and whose taste seems like a cross between mango and durian, with touches of sapote and jackfruit. With the foul touches of durian, I would hardly say the taste is that stellar, but the buttery orange meat is sweet, with an excellent creamy texture.
Lian waves dismissively in the direction of the bulk of the village, indicating that all people can think of here is to make homestays, although there are so many other business opportunities. When I return to the Sinah Rang homestay, Julian tells me he would be prepared to help anyone here with the creation of a good proposal, as he created a successful one for his aquaculture project, but he wants to see the person actually take the project seriously, as it takes a lot of work. You also need a lot of money – the first few years he lost money, although now he is making money and things are getting better.
The next longhouse character I meet is Johnny Kapong, who sprawls on the couch, lighting one cigarette after the other. He is vocal, outspoken to the point of being incendiary, but a fountain of local political and social history. Our conversation ranges over a variety of topics pertaining to local and international politics, the point of departure being Sarawak, and certainly a golden opportunity to find out about local issues.
He speaks about the history of the region from the times of the British Rajah James Brook. The only Malay involvement in Sarawak in old times was on the part of the Sultan of Brunei, who had to had to ask James Brooke for assistance in maintaining peace. Once the Brooke dynasty ran out of successors, Sarawak was handed over to the British – and should have stayed with them, he continues.
Sabah and Sarawak’s role would definitely had been interesting had they not joined Malaysia, although conceivably under increased pressure from Indonesia. He is skeptical about my positive comments regarding the Malay sultans, indicating that they have a place in the modern society, but no more than that.
Brooke made forging peace with the orang asli in Sarawak a priority in his governance, which locals are grateful for to this day. He points out that the historic lack of animosity between the Malaysians and British heralds back to contending with the mutual enemy of the Japanese, who ended up at loss in Sarawak, and were preyed upon by the intense heat, disease, and stealthy hunting tactics of the natives. In fact, there were still Japanese pushing deeper into Sarawak well after armistice.
He acidly tells me not to jump to any conclusions regarding the embattled prime minister Najib – he has his faults, but is not all that bad, despite the fact that everyone seems to want to get rid of him. In any case, Johnny has his own agenda, and as deputy secretary of UMNO could not be expected to criticize Najib.
Najib’s father was the legendary early prime minister of independent Malaysia who did a lot to create an coherent social and economic vision for a prosperous modern Malaysia. Johnny dismisses my statement regarding Mahathir’s positive qualities – yes, he may have done a lot for the people, but he had huge faults.
In terms of Mahathir’s local failings, Johnny points to Mahathir’s passing the island of Labuan onto to the direct control of the federal capital, which was effectively a project to benefit himself and his cronies.
Johnny may be part of the central party system, but acknowledges the leading party is majorly on the take. It is deplorable but that’s the way this country functions. If Johnny had the opportunity, he would do the same, as everyone else does the same.
Continuing on the subject of local politics, he tells me it is very unfortunate that the Malays attempt to control the political agenda in Sarawak, even though they are in the minority. The big issue locals have with the Sarawak government is that they want a 20% royalty on their oil, rather than just 5%. No other states in the country get that much, but they are demanding that the capital stop draining wealth from the state.
He believes the current Sarawak chief minister genuinely wants to work for the integrity of the state, including putting a definitive cap on illegal logging. The fact that the northern tip of Sarawak’s forests is still intact is a testimony to the local peoples’ political prowess. He concurs that people here are quick to run the country down, but Malaysia is the best country in southeast Asia in terms of democracy, development, tolerance, accountability and distribution of wealth.
He concurs that the Bumi Putera laws are controversial and not necessarily fair, but the voracious appetite for money of the Chinese really needs to be curbed, and in any case, enough Chinese have made their fortunes in Malaysia. Our discussion meanders on vehemently over one cup of sugary coffee after the other.
The volunteers return for lunch in the late afternoon, we are still at it. He chides the young diminutive volunteers, commenting on the young women’s looks and on his own eligibility in a rather comical way. I think the young Indo- and Sino-Malaysians are simply at loss for words upon meeting this character.
The owner of the Jungle Blues Gallery comes by with a guest, the owner quiet and seemingly lost deep in thought, the guest a tall and overweight Belgian from Brussels.
Johnny tells me about his own life, having worked for international oil and gas companies, but now only contracting out occasionally for work. Oil was in fact found in Malaysia first in Miri, and not on the peninsula. He has no need for money here as he makes so much money in oil and gas. His wife works in Kota Kinabalu and his daughter lives somewhere else again, and yet curiously, Johnny has decided to continue living in Bario. He shows us photos of his wife and daughter, quixotically using this as a springboard to flirt with the young women in the volunteer group.
He tells me he was instrumental in putting the effort of yesterday evening together, organizing all aspects of the music, the food, the speeches, the coordination, and the funding thereof, although this kind of event really would have taken some basic organizational skills. He knows and goes after what he wants – he expects people to follow him. After all, he is of royal background, his family’s prominence ranging back into the mists of time, and is used to having a position in society, which all sounds really pompous, given his current circumstances.
On the other hand, from speaking with people here, I hardly have the impression that people are complete victims, although it would seem that the orang asli in Western Malaysia are definitely disenfranchised compared to people elsewhere.
Johnny dismisses my claim of the diminishing appeal of the community for young people. The youth who want to leave go elsewhere to make money, but then when they do come back, they have resources and know-how at their fingertips.
The native land agreements essentially gave title to indigenous people if they had occupied the land as of a certain year. At the same time there are mechanisms in place that prevent outsiders from coming in and opening businesses or buying anything.
Johnny demands to know more about my country’s treatment of its native people, which I happily inform him about. I point out that there are next to no countries in the world that have successfully integrated normative minority ethnicities into a successful model of government. He confirms that the state is different from West Malaysia, people sensing far more freedom here and being far accepting.
Julian scowls blandly once Johnny has left, insinuated that he is a bit of a menace, not very accomplished, but prone to grandstanding in the longhouse, even though he doesn’t live here. Later Julian tells me that locals nickname Johnny ‘Justin Bieber’ as he thinks he is famous. Julian tells me that few make it in Bario, as life here is extremely difficult and requires hard work.
On the other hand, looking at the utterly lethargic lifestyle, I find it hard to believe people do much of anything here. How can maintaining rice paddies be that much work if people do the same thing in the rest of Asia? Well, there are not enough family members here to help out, he tells me, but that is due to the fact that people have highly paid jobs elsewhere in the resource sector.
I really should do something today – it’s fairly embarrassing to have spent the entire morning and afternoon chattering without having left the lognhouse. I supposed I am getting a taste of longhouse living, but at this point it just seems like one big coffee klatsch.
I ask again as to where the Jungle Blues Gallery and home stay may be. The young volunteers have no idea, so Julian offers to show me the way, as he is planning on playing soccer in a nearby field. As we trudge towards the high school, I find it difficult to believe that even the slow pace I am walking, he is walking even far slower than I am.
He wants to play soccer to stay fit, but I think this place just overwhelms you with lethargy. When I tell him of the plans that Lian has for raising fish in the river, Julian waves dismissively towards the rice paddies around us, telling me that Lian has a government job that he has to attend five days a week, and doesn’t have the time or energy to even work on his paddies, never mind do anything else.
One long house home stay raised on a slight incline that I encounter seems completely abandoned. Wandering around the lower paved platform, I find a surprised-looking older woman, who in turns calls to her young son or grandson, who apparently speaks some English. I had only wanted to know whether there are any other travelers here who would be interested in sharing a guide on a longer trek, but my quest will prove to become somewhat more complicated.
It seems there are three other guests, the fact that they are Chinese Malaysian a possible impediment for trekking together. And given that our communication seems to be going nowhere, I had best continue on to the Jungle Blues Guesthouse and Gallery, which in and of itself becomes another challenge, apparently being housed in the longhouse ranging along the opposing hillside that I had visited yesterday, but only upon inspecting the housing fronts, do I see a small sign on one of the facades where a few trucks are parked.
I have to return to the women in the opposing building to find out where exactly the guesthouse is, since the common hall area inside is empty, with no further signage. Not only does nobody here really seem too intent on advertising their services, but most of the longhouses just seem abandoned and untended.
I pass through an unmarked door, and suddenly I am on an open-air landing surrounded by huge and colourful paintings, and then up another set of stairs to a second terrace lined with paintings, looking out over the countryside.
The three Malaysians staying at the guesthouse I just visited are there, looking at the owner’s paintings and discussing the trek to the neighboring Pa’ Lungan village, although they want to embark at a very early hour, and want to come back to Bario by the evening. Beginning early apparently gives you a chance of seeing some bird life, which usually dies down by mid-day.
The owner of the guesthouse shows me a series of hand-drawn detailed maps describing the four hour walk to Pa’ Lungan, which can be done entirely on one’s own. Apparently the Belgian will be walking there also today, but as he is sleeping, Steven can leave a message with Julian later as to the Belgian’s intentions. I think it would be a better idea to go on the walk with someone else, irrespective of how good the maps are.
We rise up to the second level of the longhouse, reviewing the mostly large canvasses brightly painted with impressionistic vision quest imagery, somewhat pretty and ostensibly inspired by local culture and themes, although falling considerably short on artistic sophistication.
Stepping out into the somewhat barren courtyard, I feel completely lethargic and unmotivated, falling into the spell of Bario. I had planned on continuing on to Lucy’s Labang home stay, but given that it is so far away and already quite late, I think I would best return back to my own homestay, have dinner, and get some writing done.
Sinah Rang shows me the few of the remaining arts and crafts she has on stock. She is somewhat apologetic, not having very much to offer anymore, given that she hasn’t been able to do any of the work in two or three years, the crafts being very labour-intensive, and no one else really being around anymore to do this kind of work.
Much of it involves beadwork, including the simple pendants and necklaces, the broad dried leaf hats crowned in colourful patterned beadwork, and headbands and caps emanating tufts of goat hair and feathers.
I advise her that I potentially plan on leaving tomorrow for Pa Lungan, spending the night there, then coming back the next day. Another dinner unfolds of basically the same food that has been sitting in the steamers all day, with some additions – the same boar meat, now in pulled form.
Following dinner, Sinah Rang walks by me smiling sweetly as she apologizes for leaving the room, as she wants to lie down for a while. An elderly woman crawls past, her back heavily bent and drooping earlobes hung with golden pendants. Julian reappears with a guitar, and strums chords from the Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’…
Early in the evening, the young volunteers arrange a gathering with their clients for what seem like social purpose in the neighboring living room. I write in my room, then drift off to sleep, waking up near midnight, my young cohorts now engrossed in their excited chatter, tromping loudly back and forth between their rooms, holding loud discussions. I lie in bed, eventually getting up to check the time, somewhat incredulous as to what the volunteers must be thinking. Finally I walk over to one of their rooms to ask them to quieten down …
May 10th, 2015