May 8th, 2015
A leisurely breakfast unfolds at the Mulu River resort with the couple I met here yesterday evening. Alan tells me about the downward slide of South Africa, the country of his birth, and which he abandoned finally in 2008 after a number of his friends had gotten killed in minor robberies.
It doesn’t matter how trivial the theft is – you are killed simply to prevent you from testifying against them. The final blow came when Sharon was stabbed multiple times in some minor confrontation, the intruders leaving her for dead. The level of random and cruel violence is staggering, he tells me. In times of apartheid, there were some 240 murders in South Africa, while now the rate of murder runs upwards of 24,000 a year.
As with many other parts of the continent and for that matter the rest of the world, Nigerians drive crime and illicit activities in South Africa, another one of the government’s failings having been the lax control over immigration into the country from other African countries, which has provokes the ire of much of the South African population.
In old times, immigration from other countries was permitted, but only if people had jobs lined up, but they were not allowed to randomly go wherever they wanted to. Today South African city centres are home to overwhelming numbers of illegal immigrants in turn controlled by gangs, and hence quagmires of crime and violence.
Now that apartheid is off the radar, the international community is no longer interested in South Africa, but it is approaching the status of a failed state. The infrastructure in what was once an essentially developed country is now crumbling due to lack of money and mismanagement. Roads that were once tarred have become so heavily pot-holed the tarmac has been laid bare to create dirt roads again.
One of the biggest problems in Africa is the chieftain culture, the manner in which people with authority can take over and be revered without being questioned. If a ruler does so in a constructive way, it may not be so bad, as Yuseweni has done in Uganda, having enriched himself and his cronies immensely but the country also experienced tremendous economic growth and stability over three decades and counting. Yuseweni himself stated that democracy may not be ideal in Africa, as there are too many other challenges, the culture of the overwhelming authority of the chief being one of them.
Nelson Mandela may have been revered as a peace maker, but he was responsible for an incredible amount of bloodshed as well as the importing of vast amounts of assault rifles into South Africa, which is also a reason for the tremendous crime that persists today. So much of the country has gone to pot over the years of ANC government. Despite the fact that the mass of people are now against the government, they are far too afraid to not vote for them – if blacks are found out to not be supporting the ANC they could be murdered.
There were two ruling black elites in South Africa, the educated ones who returned from abroad at the conclusion of apartheid, and the ones with little or no education who had been fighters, of which Jacob Zuma was one, and given his background, he is ruthless and will not tolerate any competition. As long as he is in power, South Africans should rightfully be afraid.
He is very pessimistic about South Africa and Africa in general – he has seen too many positive changes disintegrate with another outbreak of senseless violence or endemic corruption. As politically incorrect as it is to say, South Africa enjoyed a high standard of living during apartheid, a high level of safety, as well as economic prosperity – both for whites and blacks. Apartheid was not around that long, and was not just intended to keep blacks suppressed, but keep them away from each other, as they were warring tribes.
In ancient times they were one people, and then they split into competing tribes upon migration to southern Africa. Despite the idea outsiders had that the conflict in the country was between whites and blacks, Zulus and Afrikaners were always on relatively good terms, Afrikaners and English on bad terms, and Zulus and other black tribes also on bad terms.
The entrenchment of the English in the Cape drove the Afrikaners into the hinterlands of southern Africa, to which the black tribes migrated later on in search of wealth. And yet the original people of Southern Africa were the San, who were themselves driven away by the other black tribes.
At the park headquarters, the young Brazilian women I met on the first day in Mulu is now sitting on a bench near the cafeteria entrance, waiting to go on a local caving trek, having also come back from the Pinnacles yesterday. It was a tough hike and she is definitely not in the mood for anything more challenging today.
She is looking forward to returning to England, where the weather is not so hot, having lived there long enough to not feel that comfortable in the extreme heat anymore. With the problematic economic policies of Dilma Roussef, the Brazilian economy has gone sideways, and the currency dropped substantially. Now is the best time to visit the country, as prices will have dropped a lot for tourists, and it certainly is also a good time to send money home.
I am appalled at how terrible the plunger coffee the park cafe is this time around, a teaspoon of coffee powder thrown into a small French press filled with lukewarm water. But the matter is too trivial to raise with the staff here, for whom the idea of drinking coffee from a French press is probably utterly far-fetched, never mind spending ten RM on such a beverage. And I can just see Alison confronting me about questioning the sanctity of her enterprise …
A few stragglers gather at the virtually empty airport, the entire check-in and security clearance experience belated at the best of times, and yet consistent with the entirely laid back feeling that this rural outpost of Malaysia. The MASWings jet makes a perfect landing against the emerald green backdrop and taxis to a stop as a few more passengers gather in the departure lounge.
We board for the flight and then take off, the plane bumping its way through the thick cloud cover, occasionally distracting from the conversation about the state of the country with the flight attendant. The conversation is launched with the discussion of the provision of so much service to the Gunung Mulu park when the plane are flying almost empty.
The flight attendant shakes his head, telling me that the route has no chance of making money, but the scheduling of such routes is political, the decision of government authorities who have their own political agendas. He expresses disappointment at the government of the country, but I caution to look at the problems the country faces in a more granular fashion.
Not everything in the country is that disastrous, and Malaysia not only effectively supports large and very different minorities but also is one of the wealthiest and most developed countries in the region. Sure, it lags far behind Singapore – but it lies far ahead most of its neighbors. He is astonished by the knowledge of Malaysia I have, but it still emanates from the mind of a person experiencing the country as a tourist, without having to deal with the repercussions of mismanagement, corruption and nefarious politicians on an ongoing basis.
It turns out that the young Flemish couple from Bruges are being driven to the Dillenia hostel I had thought about staying in, although I had in the end made up my mind to stay at Residence 21. The entire experience of trying to find a hotel fizzles badly, and costs unnecessary time that I could have spent more constructively. The stout and somewhat ebullient Chinese woman driving us in her small compact car assures me that while the Dillenia may not have private rooms, I could always stay at a neighboring homestay.
Hong tells me that the handicraft store on Jalan Merbau has very good prices, much cheaper than the store in the Miri Handicraft centre. I pay her, turn around to climb the steps, and upon reaching the landing realize that I am in the same establishment Frank and I visited with the presentable lounge and foyer and yet with utterly miniscule rooms that can house no more than an individual bed.
So I decide to leave my backpack in the locker, eat at the colourful modernistic Shukie establishment downstairs, the air barely breathable and my ability to enjoy lunch impeded by the cloying rejoinders of the Filippina waitresses. Believe it or not, I didn’t come into this place to sweep you off your feet and take you to my country. And no, I have no intention on visiting your country – Thailand was bad enough as it is.
More importantly, a nice power coffee at Mayland in the mall across the street, and then down the long boulevard southwards past Ming’s, the town’s main intersection and a block further to the turnoff to the Residence 21. They do have the 95 RM room free that I had been thinking of taking, but the Visa machine doesn’t work. After several attempts, the receptionists become frustrated with me, although it would seem inconceivable that a hotel passing itself off as budget could not be able to accept Visa payments. No matter – I should return to the homestay where I left my large pack, then return, and I can try the card again then.
The Sarawak handicrafts store Hong raved about is no cheaper than the Sarawak Handicraft Centre and has far fewer interesting items, featuring mostly mass-produced items of little consequence. Returning finally to the Residence21, it turns out they have no internet now, which is a game-changer for me, driving me to go back upstairs, retrieve my daypack, and head across the parking area to the Gloria hotel, where the somewhat sullen staff resent my questions.
No, I don’t want to just check into your room if I don’t know the internet works. I am shown a room that evokes a compact 80s-styled American motel, and yet the lingering smell of cigarette smoke drives me away. The receptionist is hardly interested in trying to make any alternatives available, given that this first weekend of the local jazz festival virtually all rooms are taken, and when I get around to looking at an alternative, it is a slightly less expensive and somewhat larger room, but far shabbier and older.
I am not happy with it but the internet works, and I have just wasted several hours on the simple act of trying to find a hotel room in Miri, which is not a good way of spending my time. It turns out that Frank is also in town, but he is waiting to connect with Alison, and so I trudge alone up Jalan Merpati scouring the wide array of eateries tempting me if it weren’t for the fact that most this Friday evening are full.
A few tables remain free further down the road at Majid, a pleasant-seeming Malay eatery, with stomach-filling standards and very courteous hosts, the fluent English-speaking waiter apologizing on behalf of the Muslims of his country about the behavior of the man who opened fire in the Canadian parliament buildings some time ago.
I shake my head … I would hardly even call that man a Moslem of convenience, although given the number of faces now looking at me intently, this is probably not the place to be discussing the issue …
May 8th, 2015