Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Mild Man Of Borneo

All things must come to an end, even good ones.  And, looking back, this one wasn't half bad.  Sure there was that scary hour or so in Iceland when I almost killed myself.  And of course the traffic jam that cost me $375.  But there weren't any totally clunker countries; even Finland and Helsinki are okay for a day or two.

Nor was there any hassling.  And only one or two semi-jerks that I had to deal with out of the whole lot.  A pleasant sojourn, even if it was one of the weirder itineraries that anyone has ever come up with.

And I've never had anything bad to say about Malaysia.  Nor am I going to start to now.  Especially since even other Malaysians say that Sarawak is the pleasantest part of the whole Federation.

We entered the country just a few miles from Miri, a city of about 300,000 people.  (Maybe larger than the entire population of Brunei.)  These folk can't subsist off of oil revenue, so immediately there was cleared away jungle and small industrial manifestations.  Our bus pulled into the open air inter-city bus depot, kind of like you would find in a small, poor Turkish city.

But Malaysia, like Turkey, is what economists call a middle income country.  (Definition: One where going to McDonald's is not a preserve of the privileged upper middle class.)  And, like Turkey, there were buses heading out about every hour.  Although here they could basically go in only one direction, west towards Sibu.

Since Malaysia is also one of the best value for money places in the world, the ticket for the 7+ hour ride there only cost $15.  I went and bought some bananas and other snacks and settled in for my 415 km journey.

Once outside of Miri, the Borneo Highway quickly devolved into a two lane road of varying quality, as one would expect in a frontier area.  Lots of grinding of gears as we went up and down hills and around slow moving trucks.  On either side, as I had expected, were endless palm oil plantations.  Bad news for the orangutans; great news for lovers of inexpensive baked goods.

In all seriousness, though, it's kind of hard for an American to be putting down others for trampling on nature.  After all, we've paved the entire landmass of Iowa with corn and soybeans.  And cut down almost all of our native redwood in order to make lawn furniture.  And to the Sarawakans' credit, it's not like the palm trees were planted in rigid rows.  In fact, if you weren't paying too close attention, you might think that you were passing native jungle.

Anyway, the kms slowly ticked away.  As with just about every other bus culture in the world, after a couple of hours we pulled into a giant restaurant stop area, where I wandered around trying to find something to eat.  At almost the exact half way point we got to the bus depot at Bintolu, a city of about 200,000. 

The second half had more jungle and less palm oil.  And, it being the afternoon in Borneo, around 4 PM the rains came.  Pretty heavy and constant today.  By the time we pulled into the drenched Sibu city depot around 7:30 I was glad that here even the taxi drivers are honest, and I didn't have to haggle with the guy who drove me through the rain into the center of town.

 And talk about value for money.  My hotel room here was just about as good as the one in Bandar, and it only cost $20. 

Next morning all the rain had cleared away again, and I found that I was actually on the riverfront, just a couple of blocks from the boat terminal.  Great, because today was my day to travel upriver into the midst of headhunter country.

That is to say, it was 150 years ago.  Still, it would be kind of nice of some of the Borneo of 1950 were still alive.  I bought my $6 ticket for the 100 mile trip, took my seat in one of the enclosed, elongated speedboats that hold about 150 people and leave about every hour, and prepared to find out.

Sibu is a pretty big city of about half a million, so the first few miles along the quarter mile wide river were full of various kinds of industrial yards and small rusted out cargo ships.  Then the jungle took over.  Sort of.  Actually it was regularly punctuated with small clearings, sometimes containing dwellings, but usually being some sort of enterprise involved with piles of logs.  I stared out the window as best I could, trying to re-imagine a more primitive world of even ten or twenty years ago, and trying to ignore the fact that 'Pacific Rim' was playing on the video screen in front.

After about three hours we arrived in Kapit, which even a few years ago was a last tendril of civilization, home to missionary groups and government agencies.  Today there is a lot of traffic and four square blocks of stores, offices, small restaurants, and other urban densities.  I was now just about on the equator, and the heat and humidity annoyance was creeping past Houston but not yet Amazonian.

I walked around a bit, found something to eat, then went back to catch the 2:15 boat.  All full.  Should have bought the return ticket when I debarked.  Now I had an extra hour for beautiful downtown Kapit.

Across the street from the boat landing, and totally surrounded by the modern town, was a white clapboard building with plaques that read 'Fort Sylvia' and '1880'.  I went inside, checked out the small exhibits, and for a moment picked up a sense of what it might have felt like 133 years ago.  But going back outside again and walking along the river bank, it was obvious that the longhouses were long gone. 

Although, if you were given the possibility of air conditioning in this stinking heat, you'd probably give up your 'traditional ways of living' too, now wouldn't you?

3:15 was the last boat out on a Friday afternoon, and it was one stuffed boat.  The boat up was less than half full, but now my knees were permanently squashed into the seat in front of me.  After about an hour the guy next to me pointed out that for $4 more I could have had a much more comfortable seat upstairs.  Oh well, I would survive.

So it was down a lazy river in a hyper-fast speedboat.  A little excitement when the afternoon rains came hard and we could barely see the shore.  There was enough light left when we got back for me to walk along the seedy, but safe, waterfront to a Chinese pagoda which is Sibu's only tourist sight.  Then back towards the hotel as I tried to forage for some food in a very meat eating city.

 Next morning at 11:30 was the speedboat to Kuching.  First two hours down the river some more until we reached the sea, then two and a half hours over the open ocean.  This time the video was 'The Gods Must Be Crazy', which was somehow more appropriate for the wilds of Borneo.  Followed by 'The Gods Must Be Crazy 2'.  Followed by 'The Gods Must Be Crazy In Hong Kong'.  Which is where I kind of lost interest.

Anyway, another half hour up the Sarawak River, and now we were in Kuching, the capital of the place.  A taxi ride through the light rain to the smack dab center of town, an elevator up to my 13th floor room, and now I was gazing out of panoramic glass across the river at what must be the coolest looking Parliament building in the world.

As I have intimated, Malaysia is one of the best value for money places in the world, and for about $50 I finally had a room that was up to Euro-American standards.  That is to say, all the accoutrements were solid, and you expected them to work.  To my immediate right were the Hilton and four or five other high rise luxe places, so that at least this part of the riverfront looked like the tropical Dubai that I had expected in Brunei.

Back down at street level, and across said street, was a backpacker travel agency I knew about.  My big desire while in Kuching was to get out to the orangutan rehabilitation center for the morning feeding.  Would it be best to rent a car?  And how would I ever find my way there and back?

Turned out that for $15 they had a shuttle that went there twice a day.  With that settled, it then turned out that there was a moderately upscale Indian restaurant two doors away.  This was all too easy.  And after dinner there was a clean, modern riverfront walk, just like they would have at some fancy city.  I tell you, nothing spruces up a place for the tourists like a riverfront walk.

Sunday morning at 8 I was back across the street waiting for the shuttle.  And then off we went.  It was only about a half an hour out to the rehabilitation center, and, as with the Pyramids in Cairo, the city had spread out just about to it.  It covered about six square kilometers, and was the home to 27 orangutans, all orphans and/or rescued from captivity.

The ranger opened the path to the feeding area at 9.  Since the apes are free to roam, there is never any guarantee that anyone would show up for the free food.  But today three of them, two with babies, did, slowly swinging through the tops of fifty foot trees and then down the guy wires to the feeding platform.  Legs and feet were totally interchangeable with arms and hands, so it was fascinating to watch them get down to the platform, pick up the bananas with whatever appendage, then climb back up to leisurely eat them, all the while with junior crawling all around them.  And did I mention how orange they were?

At 10 the ranger kicked us out, and it was back to downtown Kuching.  Around 1 I was back along the river, up through Little India (where all the stores were Chinese), and then a few blocks more to the Sarawak Museum.  Kind of a so-so place.  But I was able to find out a little more about James Brooke, the White Rajah.

Back around 1840 Mr. Brooke used his inheritance to buy what was essentially a private warship.  He then sailed to Southeast Asia, where one thing led to another, and he found himself working for the Sultan of Brunei putting down a rebellion.  When he succeeded, the Sultan made him ruler of Kuching.  For the next hundred years his family actually owned the place, slowly expanding their domains until they included the entire 50,000 square miles of present day Sarawak.  Britain only succeeded in taking over after World War II.

Across the street was a more ethnographic building.  Here I found that longhouses are indeed still built today.  Although now they look like very long, straight, two story motels from 1962.  Sigh.

Back across an open, grassy rectangle and... a new mall!  Not quite Dubai standards, but classier than ABQ, what with international chain stores and... my first Pizza Hut of the trip.  As you may know, one of Maureen and my singular achievements is that we have eaten in Pizza Huts on six continents.  (We still haven't gotten to the one on McMurdo Sound.)  And Borneo would be the largest island so far, eclipsing the time we had found one on Sumatra.  So dinner was served.

Monday was my trip to Bako National Park, which again was less than an hour from downtown.  Well, at least the entrance was.  From there you were supposed to rent a small speedboat which would take you for a twenty minute ride down an estuary and across a small bay to where the real park was.  There were three passengers in our boat, and we were doing fine until halfway across the bay, when all of a sudden a ton of sand shot up and the boat's engine died.

Turned out that it was a very low tide.  Even though the shore was hundreds of yards away, when the guy got out the water was only a foot and a half deep.  And there we would stay for the next two hours, while he waited for the tide to swirl back in.

So once I was on dry land, and had waited out a short downpour, there wasn't that much time left for exploring before we had to go back at 3:30.  I therefore picked a very modest goal, an 800 m trail over a hill to the nearest primitive beach.  Who couldn't do that?

Well, anyone with the slightest flexibility and ability to scramble sure could.  But in my decrepit condition, one twisted knee and I'm a goner.  So every step up and then every step down on every slippery rock and every slippery tree root had to be carefully planned and positioned.  In a hot, sweaty jungle.

Not to mention that I hadn't eaten all day.  So I pulled some peanut butter cookies out of my day pack and started munching.  But after a minute or so all of a sudden there were three monkeys blocking the path ahead of me.  Aggressive monkeys.  Who wanted my cookies.

But these were my cookies.  If they wanted cookies of their own, they could go design a couple of clever t-shirts, sell them, and then use the proceeds to buy some.  Just like I had done.  I stretched my arms out to appear as large as possible and then bellowed aggressively.

They looked surprised and maybe a little bit hurt.  Surprised since I was probably the first hiker to ever fight back.  Hurt because they weren't getting their free cookies.  But they retreated a tiny bit, which gave me a chance to turn my back and put the cookie package back in the day pack.  Since primates are primarily visual, that did the trick.  I continued on my trek.

When I got to the beach I realized that I had been so slow that I would now almost immediately have to turn back on my surprisingly sore legs.  And who knew if the monkeys had gone and gotten their friends and were waiting to ambush me?  Fortunately there was a boat guy hanging around, and for $2 each he took me and two young Malaysian couples out to see some interesting sea rocks and then back to the main beach.  There I found my original boat guy, and with the tide nice and high we were back at park headquarters in plenty of time to get the 4 pm bus back to Kuching.

Over to a bad Lebanese restaurant (at least they're trying...), then back to the evening stroll along the river.  Kuching was being a pretty pleasant end to a long and idiosyncratic journey, at once modern and funky, efficient and laid back.  Even 'mainland' Malaysians are totally taken in by the place. 

And for the first time on my trip there were actually some souvenir shops.  And a few small things that weren't horribly tacky.  Finally a memento or two.

Tuesday morning it was--what else?--back to the orangutans.  I mean, what better $15 purchase could there possibly be?  This time the park ranger was pretty pessimistic, since not one had appeared yesterday morning or afternoon.  But I seem to get along with all the great apes except man, and, sure enough, about six of them ended up showing up.  And this time they didn't immediately retreat back up the guy wires, but instead hung around on the platform being insanely cute as only orangutans can be.

Better yet, in the parking lot on the way out, a mother and her independent child were sitting in a small tree just ten feet from us curious onlookers.  Orangutanomania.


A late afternoon flight back to Kuala Lumpur.  A late morning seven hour flight to Tokyo.  Two hour stopover, then a nine hour flight to LA.  Six hours later that final connecting flight to Albuquerque.  And then my patient loving wife waiting for me.

Maybe I am getting too old for this.  But it was kind of fun. 

 

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