May 20th, 2015
Another stellar day goes by, and I mean that very sarcastically. I had intended on going to Lambir Hills park first thing in the morning, and do in fact get up very early – after the usual late night session – but the morning slides by on me, and by the time I leave the hotel, it’s something like 11 am, utterly disgraceful, really.
I was intent on getting at least some text written for the day before yesterday’s escapade to the park, but then my computer continued acting up. For some reason launching Facebook and Yahoo is causing my laptop to freeze, which I suspect is to due to some corrupt background file or service, comprising the vast amount of crap that these applications rely on to function. If not perfectly synchronized, everything shipwrecks – not just the application, but the underlying operating system. Given the amount of time I am increasingly wasting on contending with my laptop’s hysterical episodes, the more likely I am to finally make the jump to Ubuntu.
Once I have finished my writing commitments, it’s time to cross the street and take in some of the great market fare at Taman Seroja, as I have been in the habit of doing for brunch and dinner many of the days I have been staying in Miri.
This morning I decide to try the purely vegetarian options, spinach, spinach with pumpkin and tapioca, all in slightly different curried sauces. I hold the various generations of women in rapt attention with my soliloquy as to the compelling beauty of the Malay cuisine. I think my words are largely lost on them, and not just because of their limited English, but because they genuinely have no idea as to what I am intending to convey.
As usual, I seem to be one of the only customers of their establishment in the mid-day time slot, although they are the only place that is open in this market during the day.
I want to go to the post office and buy stamps, even though I really need to be leaving for the park. I could in theory leave the post cards that I lovingly wrote for Kota Kinabalu, but that would again involve postponing things for the absolute last second. Not that the walk there is so far or terrible, amidst the pleasant administrative buildings on Jalan Sylvia, north of Jalan Merbau, just west of the Bintang Centre.
The sky is bright blue, the temperature is very warm, in fact hot, the blue-tinged billowing clouds staring down upon this peaceful setting from up on high, and the pavement below carpeted with mauve trumpet flowers.
Miri is a pleasant although not necessarily extravagant town, but given the climate it is set in, it is hardly that difficult to let one day flow into the other and just enjoy life on the most basic level. If only that mindset was defining in my travels! The service is very polite and efficient, the stamps are inexpensive 50¢ floral stamps (coincidentally also purple), and for some reason the father and son seated behind me seem to be absolutely mesmerized by what I am doing, if not a touch suspicious.
At the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, the largely male clientele is also mesmerized, but in this case by their cell phone displays. The coffee is pointless, as I was definitely already wide awake, and this dosage of coffee is nothing but a nuisance in the hot and humid weather. But then I am not someone to let bad habits die easily.
The dirt path weaves through the scattered trees in the narrow band of grassy parkland bordering the highway, a handful of people at the stop waiting, a reliable indicator of the imminent arrival of the bus, at least during day time hours.
Since I somehow gapped on taking photos of the Dayak market at the bus station when I returned from Lambir before, I make a point of snapping all of the modest but perfectly arranged fruit and vegetables on display this time around. Present are bunches of tiny bananas, plates of brilliant red chili peppers of various sizes, plates of what look like oversized ripe quinces, kasturi lime, midin, bok choy, squash greens, forest mushrooms, baby mangos, pineapple, what appear to be fresh capers but undoubtedly are not, torch ginger flowers and fruit, fresh turmeric, plump green gourds, cress of some sort, okra, pomelo and jackfruit. Many of the vendors are busy eating, others attempting to catch up on their sleep, and others just happy to see me.
Today catching the Bintulu bus is not particularly complicated, although the older Chinese driver intent on setting his radio does not want to be disturbed, given that he reacts angrily when I ask him whether he is going to Bintulu. He almost flies into a rage when I ask him whether he can stop at Lambir Hills.
Needless to say, I continue to not be much of a fan of Malaysian bus drivers, although as long as he drives the bus to the park and stops to let me off, I don’t care about much else. The bus departs with no more than a handful of passengers, and some half hour later the bus pulls up to the park entrance to let me off.
The park warden at the ticket wicket encourages me to stick to the loop that defines the eastern confines of the accessible park, and not to go beyond. I am with him in principle, although will also rethink my plan once I have made significant headway on the trails.
The female park wardens laugh as I apologetically put on the leech socks, assuring me that they wouldn’t think about going into the bush unprepared either – they have no desire to encounter some of the sinister creatures in there, big or small.
The cement trail takes me through the relatively drab housing compound, nowhere nearly as inviting as the one at Niah, and then into the forest, the trail climbing suddenly and dramatically, twisting amongst the slender placarded tropical hardwoods, trees that look almost identical apparently of entirely different species.
The heavily rooted trails are covered in leaf litter, my concerns about nasty creepy-crawlies quickly dissipating as my body temperature rises and the sweat pours off my body. The trail doesn’t flatten out, though – it just keeps climbing and climbing, although no views are afforded through the narrow screen of trees lining the somewhat precipitous ridge.
I see no animals on the trail, but hear crashing in the bushes far enough away that I can’t make out any shapes, possibly a wild pig or small deer. At least there are animals in the vicinity, while the ironically heavily touted Gunung Mulu park seems almost bereft of wildlife due to the vast amount of people plodding up and down the trails.
The trail levels out and my panting subsides somewhat, leaving me to relax enough to appreciate the serenity and natural beauty around me. Even at this slow pace, I reach the western end of the loop in roughly half an hour following departure from the park headquarters, which should probably give me enough time to climb the mountain up ahead and return.
Yet again, my impulsiveness gets the best of me, and I decide to at least continue up to Bukit Pantu, which can’t involve that much more of an effort over the remaining 1.3 km. Judging by the position of the sun, I should still be able to make it easily there and back before it gets too dark. At least I feel thus inspired standing drenched in sweat at the small wooden gazebo at the park crossroads …
Initially the trail seems reasonable enough, meandering along in the form of a country trail amidst the slender trees, occasional views appearing of the forest now far below. The gently sloping path begin rising to far more dramatically, shifting to extremely steep portions that turn into virtually vertical staircases.
I was overheated and sweating profusely at the outset, heavy breathing now turning into wheezing as the trail becomes steep, and then after repeated portions of vertical climbs, heaving spasmodically in a manner that is quite frightening. I may not be in the best shape otherwise, but I do a lot of walking and am fairly used to the heat, and cannot imagine why my body has reacted in such a violent fashion.
I am incredibly thankful that there is absolutely no one around, because this is very embarrassing! Beyond the high heat and humidity, lack of sleep, coffee and dehydration, I think something else is at play, such as the possible effects of salt and/or MSG in the food. I attempt to regain composure, then trudge despondently amidst the drooping foliage rising dramatically towards the inclines far above me, stopping every few metres to attempt to regain my breath, then pushing on.
The path arcs through the darkening forest under a towering cliff, one final push reaching straight up to the top, and then I am clear of the forest, breathtaking views opening up of the pointillist tropical forest dotted in nuanced shades of lawn green. Only a few interruptions in the form of human development are visible on the horizon. Undulations in the topography subtly disrupt the sightlines, the cool breeze drying the rivulets of water that had been pouring from my body.
This is of course the perfect moment to take some photos of the expanse of forest unfolding below, and so I rummage in my daypack for the now damp cloth bag I store this version of camera in. I pull it out, point it at the landscape below me, press the power button, and – nothing. I press the power button again, then nothing. I put the damp camera down, wiping moisture of the chassis, removing the battery, and busy myself trying to dry my shirt, checking the contents of the bag for anything else that may be wet, and wander back and forth along the narrow shelf in front of the wooden gazebo peering from its precarious perch into the lush landscape below.
When I return the battery into the camera chassis and try powering the unit on again, yet again, nothing. I begin panicking, but am so exhausted and dehydrated, depleted not just from the heat and debilitating hike but the tribulations of the last few months of having had to deal with my other camera’s failure. And now this.
My immediate challenge is just to descend from Bukit Pantu, the trail all the way to the park headquarters happily largely downhill. I am actually a poor downhill climber, having to go slowly to balance properly, although it is not much effort. Fortunately, the lighting improves as the foliage opens up lower down along the steep ridges returning to the western junction of the loop trail.
I can’t descend fast enough in the falling light, plowing mindlessly through the heavy leaf litter, the falling light a red flag as to the kind of creatures that may be hiding underneath the thick carpet. All I can think of making as much headway as possible – until I reach the loop junction, where I decide naively to take the upper trail past the Latak waterfall I visited two days ago, and which should take not much more time than the steep trail to the park headquarters I accessed the park with earlier on.
Another very poor decision on my part – but how could I have known the trail would drop steeply to small creeks, then climb dramatically again, not just once, but repeatedly? I am so exhausted I can barely walk, never mind climbing up the steep returns back to the original level of the trail, holding on to the slender saplings to keep myself from collapsing.
This upper trail is far longer than the one I entered the park on, even the relatively even portions running on with no apparent end in sight. Finally, the trail drops to the entry of an enormous viewing tower. The light is falling and there is no way I want to risk getting stuck here after dark, never mind barely mustering the energy to walk. So forget about climbing the stairs to the top of the high tower!
The warden had insisted I be back at the entrance at 4 pm, but that time came and went a long time ago, and I don’t even have any way of checking that time … the camera did not come to life by the time I had reached the junction, and I had been checking the camera for the time.
Concrete steps drop to dizzying depths below me, the trail joining the gentle trail I traversed several days ago to the modest waterfalls. Soon I climb back to the park encampment, a number of park management types from Kuala Lumpur seated at one table, and a handful of residual guides and wardens at the table I sit down at.
Somehow I can’t visualize any of these well-fed and sedate people clambering along the relatively challenging trails, but then what would I know. One drink after the other follows, but now I am beset by another challenge – having to buy some cheap camera to tide over the last ten days of my trip. To whatever extent the camera is reparable or covered by a warranty, I may as well assume I am saddled by another $700 of useless electronics at this point.
A short wait for the bus ensues, but the trip back is not the weak part of the day. On the other hand, the short wait at the bus stop across from the Boulevard shopping centre is another exercise in futility, although at least I don’t waste my time waiting here for some unreasonable amount of time as I did two days ago.
I march resolutely along the main road in the encroaching darkness, never seeing any sign of any passing bus. I continue past the suburban sprawl leading to the Pelita Centre, then the park, and finally the Bintang centre, no kind soul stopping for me today – but at least I didn’t waste my time waiting in futility at the bus stop! There is no question about the fact that the poor urban public transport has a significant negative impact on budget travel in Malaysia.
The Boulevard Centre is no place to look for a camera of any sort, given the tawdry nature of the shops, but the upper levels of Bintang may be of some hope. There is one modest enterprise just behind the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf with a handful of cameras, but nothing to inspire me to open my pocketbook.
The owner recommends trying to dry the camera with the battery outside the camera, then retrying, but other than that, it’s just a question of luck. I should probably just wait until reaching Brunei and exploring the options there once I determine conclusively that my camera has died. What an utter pain …
My return to the Miri hotel is interrupted by one last stop, involving a return to the craft market to get a sense as to whether I should in fact buy something here or not. I wander back and forth in a daze, induced by the debilitating hike earlier on and the loss of the camera. I am unsure as to what I should be doing or what kind of handicrafts I should even consider buying, given that I may just have lost $700.
The low-hanging fruit would be the more beautiful bead arrangements, usually coming in the form of belts and bands, some more artistic than others, the merit diminishing with the presence of gaudy lettering. The tiny flared bead skirts lined with pom-poms are enticingly colourful – but not cheap at around $300 CAD. The baskets, knives, and knives all run into the same problem, namely cost as well as bulk.
One woman whose goods I had eyed in my trolling back and forth through the pavilions in previous days has much larger bead tapestries, which she is prepared to sell at a cut price, and which for me becomes the deciding point. I will come back, I promise, and after moping around the hotel room ostensibly to cool off and clean up, I return to the market brandishing my credit card well before the 10 pm closing time.
At this heady hour, the stage as been taken over by crooners whose painful croaking has somehow enticed some of the locals to attempt some very unimpressive dance moves in tandem with the singing that would normally chase the utterly deaf away. I can’t imagine how bad these people would sound if they were drunk. And who do I see in the crowd but Juliana from the stand.
Casting aside my usual indecisiveness, I quickly make the appropriate choices, and then am forced to weave back through the pitiful musical presentation to the cash, where I can apparently pay by credit card. Several attempts to use the card fail, but not before having entered my PIN number, which is a huge red flag, and hopefully won’t lead to any stress with Visa.
Finally, we migrate to Taman Seroja for dinner, where I chatter with Juliana about her business. Her salt-induced psoriasis is painful to look at, never mind what the experience must be for her. Her friends are far younger and prettier, but they all happily share the enthusiasm for manufacturing the handicrafts.
They migrate from publicly-funded market (such as here in Miri) to the next as the year progresses, each market presenting its unique challenges and opportunities. Since the vendors return to the same place every year, they have their preferred customers, and are usually guaranteed some degree of business. This also means that the enterprise of maintaining local cultural artifacts can thrive to some extent.
In the confusion reigning at the last in the row of eateries, my food never arrives. When the restaurant is almost entirely shut down and the last congregants remain smoking in front of the blaring television, the young Indonesian employees may wind down their day. In the end, I am handed a hastily thrown-together mee goreng, whereupon I can finally return to the comfort of my room in the Miri hotel across the street, concluding one last grueling day in northern Sarawak.