• Evelyn Roberts

Borneo


Three days after the workshop ended I headed to the airport to fly to Kuala Lumpur and then Borneo, only I had the time wrong and had missed my flight, so of course I also missed the next connecting one. So back to Ubud, very embarrassedly, multiple good-byes I do not like, so I snuck over to Alej's house and hid there ( at least she found my plight amusing). Truth is I couldn't have gone back to my house anyway, it was already rented out.

2nd time was a charm, and I finally found myself in the delightful town of Kuching (which means cats, and there are lots), in Sarawak, Borneo. Borneo is primarily Indonesian, but I am on the north west strip that belongs to Malaysia. The travelling has turned out to be rather intense, lots of long river trips, logging roads (a story unto itself), or the need to fly because there are no roads. I am now taking a quick trip to Kota Kinabulu, Sabah, close to Mount Kinabulu, the highest mountain in Asia (as usual since starting writing I have covered a lot of miles and several weeks). I had really wanted to climb this mountain (it is walkable to the top,13,000 feet, piece of cake after Bolivia).

However my beloved Ecco boots spent 2 years in Bali waiting for such a trip, but when I got them to Borneo, I found the soles had melted, as they do in the tropics. Consequently I have been trudging through a lot of jungles in my Tevas and because it has been so wet and muddy I have developed a crop of blisters that look like I have climbed several mountains. Sad to say my feet have grounded me.


In Kuching I ended up in a hotel above a street market where they were celebrating the Chinese "Moon cake Festival" (I love Asia)... and on the very 1st night there were traditional Muslim women drummers and chanters right below my window. I was optimistic that it might be a sleepless night, but I was so delighted to be there I was sure it would be a happy one.


Well it was a very sleepless night because after the Muslim chanters came the karaoke at a million decibels, "happy" was definitely not the dominant sentiment at 1am, that will teach me. I had been so excited to find this room, because it had a window. Yes, I discovered that windowless hotel rooms are very common here. The traditional houses are "longhouses", that can house close to 100 families in huge long structures on stilts... apparently they originated so when there were invasions (from headhunters and the likes), everyone was safer being technically in the same building.And what does this have to do with no windows? Well these longhouses are really quite dark inside, making them cooler in the jungle of course, and consequently windows aren't so important to them. And I hadn't realised how important they were to me until I spent a couple of nights without one. I am pickier than I thought, I don't like it one bit. In one room I only had a tiny sky-light that was literally 14" x 4", and I greatly cherished that smidgen of natural light.


Malaysian Borneo is an interesting mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Tribal people... multiple different tribes. According to everyone I've spoken to here they all live together very harmoniously. Malaysia is a Muslim country, but most of the tribal people are now Christians. They were converted from animism through missionaries and the British Occupation, and are mainly Anglican, Catholic and Methodist (although many still practise animism to a degree). The Indians are descendants of workers and soldiers that the British again brought in, and I met a couple of guides whose fathers were Nepalese Gurkhas. Then of course when the British left they had no way of getting home.


While wandering around Kuching one day I suddenly found myself in an enclosed Muslim marketplace. Being the only tall (now blonde) whitey in there... I kind of stood out, and the whole place turned around at once and I swear they bathed me in the warmest, most generous group smile. It was one of those moments that take your breath away, and remind you of how truly kind people can be, despite any preconceptions or religious differences. And nobody was trying to sell me anything, it is remarkably hassle-free in that way, plus there are government laws about fixed pricing.


As usual I haven't bought a thing, except for several of the local chocolate bars. In truth there isn't much to buy, and what they have is straight from Indonesia anyway. “Friendly" is a word that does not even begin to describe Malaysia, I must have heard "Welcome to Malaysia/Sarawak/Sabah" over a thousand times from people of all ages.

From Kuching I went to see the orang-utan in one of the only 4 reserves in the world where you can see them in the wild. I'm trying not to gush here, but it was one of those experiences that you will never forget, in a very good way. First of all, we were apparently very lucky because we saw 7 at very close quarters, including a small baby, a couple of mischievous youngsters... and the dominant male... Ricky. What magnificent, beautiful creatures, it was breathtaking watching them move through the trees, and then seeing the male just chomp into a coconut like it was an apple.


I spent a couple of days at a coastal park called Bako, only accessible by boat, and did some great treks and saw proboscis monkeys, silver face ones, and lots of the rascally little macaques. Also wild boars, tree frogs, endless butterflies and a bright green (big) tree viper. I then started on a bit of a long-house trail, and took a 2-day river trip to remoter parts, hardly a tourist to be seen. Loved seeing the river life, but could have done without the blaring movies they so love to have on, (and I now know who is still watching all the old Steven Seagal movies!). The boat engines are incredibly loud, and they turn up the videos as loud as possible in attempt to drown them out... so you can only imagine?


The end of the navigable river (before the dam that nobody can explain the reason for) is a small town called Belaga. Actually met a young German couple who live in China, and we shared a guide to take us to some of the more remote longhouses. We spent a night in the chiefs' part of one longhouse. Many of these people were head-hunters but now being Christians they don't like to talk about that. The older people still have the tattoos and the stretched ear-lobes (almost to their shoulders) ... but nobody under about 65 has these markings, so in one generation it will be a thing of the past. Apparently it is not unusual, in the longhouse culture, for women to live to be 115, and the men 90. They say this is because of their stress -free lives.


Of course the young people are leaving for the cities, and in a way they have to. The life style is dying out because they are rapidly losing their natural resources. The people in the longhouse we stayed at put on a traditional dance for us, only their clothes were all sequins and garish colours.... and oddly Vegas-like (not at all tribal looking). They had paper feathers taped to their hands, because they no longer have the horn-bills that they used to collect the real feathers from. And the reason is the logging. This has been the harsh reality-hit part of this trip. You hear about clear-cutting and logging, but when you suddenly see it and find yourself hearing firsthand how it is affecting people's lives, it becomes nauseatingly real.

I started my travels on the river, and the trees and foliage around the banks are still pretty lush, but then would come the rafts piled high with logs, proving that what you were seeing was a bit of an illusion. And then talking to the tribal people you hear how the animals have all gone upriver because there are no more forests. Then I started going overland from Belaga to the north, on a rather arduous logging road, and all of a sudden it was just plain shocking. A decimated landscape, with patches of how it once was, like a cancer or a parasite moving through the landscape. I actually felt my spirits falling, and I had several days of sadness and outrage over this. It is irreversible and seemingly unstoppable, and living "in your face proof" of what so many people are telling us.


They are cutting down the hardwoods that take centuries to grow and are home to countless species. I travel a lot but have never seen anything on this scale before, and in my naivety I didn't think about what I'd be seeing before I came. I took 6 internal flights and it is even more shocking to see it from the air, and then once in a while you fly over a stretch of virgin forest, and it is breathtakingly beautiful. While in the lovely little remote town of Bareo, I was told that the loggers are just 5 km away and coming in from every direction, and there is an ever present haze in the distance form the burning.


I keep thinking back to Greece, which was also completely forested at one time, and how they lost their forests to boat-building centuries ago. So it is far from a new practice, it just seems to be going at breakneck speed now. I have a seemingly unresolvable moral dilemma myself. I was so shocked at what I'd seen here that I stated out loud that from now on I would only buy antique wood, otherwise I only wanted to use bamboo. Never say never, within 48 hours of saying this, my friend Alejandra sends me pictures of exactly the house I've been imagining, I have literally dreamt of this house. However, it is teak, it is affordable... but it is only 9 years old. I don't have an answer, except that it feels like it is "my house", and yet it flies in the face of something I feel very strongly about. And yes I'm getting it, so in truth I am as much a part of the problem as anyone.


It is of course also easy to lament and wax sentimental at the loss of certain lifestyles and traditions, as a visitor. But truth be told, if time were to have stood still around my own heritage, I would be in the highlands of Scotland, braving the elements, married to some thuggish Neanderthal wearing a kilt, collecting peat, slogging over an open fire making thistle soup with heather in my hair. Phew, I am most happy to have escaped that fate.

One remote place I visited a tiny settlement called Bareo. No phones, no electricity (they have generators they turn on for about 3 hours a night), no roads... the only way in or out is on a little twin prop plane. Everything they don't grow themselves comes in on these planes, and of course without electricity there is no refrigeration. I came on the plane with chickens, and coke cans piled to the ceiling. The oddest thing was when lining up to check-in for the flight, a complete stranger came up to me and asked me to carry a bag on the plane to Bareo for him, because he couldn't go but needed "whatever it was" delivered. I must have looked at him like he was completely insane, this being exactly what we are warned against incessantly in the west. Then the woman at the check -in counter says, "it's not a problem, go ahead just take it for him, everybody does it".

So "when in Sarawak", I threw up my arms in surrender and ended up escorting an unexamined piece of luggage on a plane, from a complete stranger... in a Muslim country. On top of this I was already slightly over the limit on weight, so I had to pay the equivalent of 75 cents, and said "gentleman" had to pay about 40 cents.The plane was packed to the gunnels with everything you can imagine, besides the chickens and soda pops there were large propane gas canisters, no stewardess or security of any kind, and the door to the cock-pit wide open. So no, we do not represent the rest of the world with our laws, rules, restrictions, etc, etc. And I did not even see who spirited away the mysterious bag I was a "mule" for, I was too busy wading through the unbelievable amount of stuff they managed to get onto this teensy plane to even notice.


They did however manage to scare me on my way out of there. First of all not only do they weigh your baggage, but they also make everyone stand on the scale to see how much they weigh (imagine how well that would go down in the US?). Anyway, all weighed and most happy to see, with my own 2 eyes, my little red suitcase safely put on the plane. But lo and behold we get to our destination and my suitcase is not to be found. They received a hefty serving of Scottish wrath, but since there were no phones of any kind in Bareo (even in the airport), I had to wait for the plane to make another return flight to Bareo (only an hour total). Luckily on the next flight it reappeared, apparently having been removed from the previous flight because the plane was too full and the rice was more important than my bag. A happy ending, and by the skin of my teeth I only just caught my next flight.


I then flew to, (again only accessible by air) another remote area called Mulu. It is a state park with some of the most incredible caves in the world. One has an estimated 3 million bats in it, and is the largest cave in the world. It is the size of several cathedrals, at dusk we watched the bats leave in endless streams, periodically being attacked by waiting bat hawks. However while in the cave (so vast you could fly eleven 747's through it in formation... trivial pursuit wisdom straight from our guide!!), knowing there were that many bats above us made any drips on the head extremely suspect!


It has been encouraging to see a few of the national parks, and this one is a particularly pristine World Heritage site, so very well protected, although the tribal people can hunt, but only with their blow-pipes using the natural poison from the plants. For the first time I went on a canopy walk, they have built platforms about 100 feet up and you walk across tiny suspended bridges between the trees. it was amazing, although ever so slightly scary. At this precise moment I am in Kota Kinabulu listening to the Muslim call to prayer, quite lovely, especially because they seem to have really good quality speakers for once.


I just arrived in Sabah, the northernmost part of Malaysian Borneo, just above Brunei. It is more predominantly Muslim here, and I am in a lovely little hotel looking over a night market. I'll report later on how this bodes for sleeping. Tomorrow I am going to head for Mount Kinabulu, and I plan to go and spend a couple of days at a hot springs at the base of the mountain. My dear friend Wendy just sent a picture of her at the summit of Kilimanjaro, one of my (many) goals. Well done Wendy. I'm feeling like a bit of a wimp in comparison, but I'm still bootless and blistered, so I shall just soak my tootsies in the hot springs instead.

Mount Kinabulu is the highest mountain in Asia, and a popular, walkable ascent. I really wanted to do it, and hopefully I will one of these days, but my feet were still in bad shape (they were beaten and blistered from sock-less treks in the jungle), so instead I headed for the natural hot-springs (Poring). They were fabulous, apparently the only positive thing left by the invading Japanese troops during WW11. Only problem was they took over 2 hours to fill (everybody had their own little individual tiled tub), but it was worth it. I spent several hours parboiling myself until I was lobster pink and wonderfully giddy.

I stayed in a hostel in the park, that was kind of colonial and very charming. The greatest joy about staying there was a tame orang-utan, Jackie. I was lucky enough to be able to spend about half an hour with her and some Malaysian park wardens she trusted. When these creatures look into your eyes close up, (and can they ever hold a stare!), it touches you in an indescribable way. And smart beyond words... a tourist van came rolling up the hill and Jackie took one look at it and headed for the brush. All the bananas in the world weren't going to seduce her into providing entertainment to a bunch of photo clicking gawkers.


Back to Kinabulu, and I decided to take a boat-ride out to one of the tiny islands off the coast, oops that was a mistake! I sometimes get a little delusional that I am the only person having some particularly good idea, and I do end up in some remarkably magical places, often by myself which is a miracle on such a crowded planet. However this was not one of those instances. The islands did look pristine in the distance, there were only about 5 of us on the boat, but the boat driver was driving like a bat out of hell, practically hydroplaning this rather rickety vessel (with an disturbingly powerful outboard motor), I would have bet a lot of money he didn't own it!


And the rush was - there were about 200 people on the tiny dock of this tiny island, waiting to leave, while another 200 were eating barbecue and ice creams on the teensy little pristine white beach. I had inadvertently found every single tourist in Malaysian Borneo, and trapped myself on an island with them! I would have turned around and left except for the fact that the queue to get off the island was so long that I might have been thrown overboard for taking up a seat without even having gone ashore. This was the maniac boat-drivers motivation, return fares.


So what to do now, well I found a little map and there was a trail all the way around the island... so when you are handed lemons why not try making a Pina Colada? So off I set, and it started out to be scenic enough, and on the whole walk I only ran into one group of Malaysian kids, everyone else stayed glued to the beach by the dock, for fear of being stranded I would imagine. I couldn't help envisioning the whole island tilting over into the sea because of how disproportionately heavy it was on that one side. It took a full 35 minutes to go around the whole island. But I wasn't in the best mood, I'm a traveller who is a touristaphobe (I know it is the pot calling the kettle black, and I should be embarrassed at what a snob I am), but as I walked on 2 other things were increasingly irritating me. Garbage and bugs, it was a pretty island, but there were bits of plastic and styrofoam everywhere and these daytime biting things, and I had forgotten my bug spray.


I came to a little wooden bench and sat down, and there again some awful person had thrown down a plastic tube of something. I am a bit foolish in that I sometimes walk around with my hands full of garbage, as though I can single-handedly clean up the planet. Anyway muttering outrage, I pick up the tube, and it was a full tube of "Natural Insect Repellent Cream". The joke was on me, lighten up Evelyn, happy rest of walk, no more bites, middle-aged Scotswoman completely alone laughing out loud at herself on the Malaysian island of Sapi. That same tube of insect repellent sits on my nightstand to remind me to be less intense.

Malaysian Borneo - wow what an eye-opening wonderful place. I just had to reread my own letter, and as is happening increasingly these days, I was amazed at what I was already forgetting about where I was and what I did. I do believe a diary is going to be as vital as brushing my teeth one of these days (at least if I want to remember anything). It is akin to having a completely full computer chip, there simply isn't any room left.


I have to laugh because my closing wish in my last letter was that I should find an Internet Cafe. Well... I did. I arrived in the very exotic town of Kota Kinabulu, Borneo... and as I wandered around I came across... wait for it... a Starbucks.


Horror, shock, amusement... indignation. But I nonetheless entered the air conditioned cavern, to find an exact replica of any other Starbucks, any town, any where... is this what they mean by Globalisation? And the prices are the same as the West, which of course means that no "man on the street" is going to enter and spend a day's wages on a cup of coffee. Which makes it all even weirder.


But I went in, got my Tazo Passion tea, tapped into the free wi-fi and Skyped every friend I could find for the next 4 hours. Which particularly tickled my friend Rick as I caught him standing on a street corner in Seattle (probably in the rain) waiting for a ride from another friend of ours, laptop to cellphone with not a single wire in-between! My hotel was overlooking another night market, and this time it was children who kept me up all night screaming and running around at an hour when they are far more endearing asleep. So I grumbled about it the next day to the hotel staff, only to be informed that the area is full of Philippine refugees who are homeless or living in unbelievably cramped conditions.


Sure enough the next night I looked out at the slum across the street and there were so many people in one apartment that there were people sleeping on the window-ledges... 2 storeys up. And the children didn't have anywhere to sleep. I am still not sure why these Christians are running away to a Muslim country for refuge. I do know the Philippines have terrible poverty and a bad government, but I am embarrassed to admit that I am pitifully uninformed as to the details. Obviously their situation doesn't warrant the US government making too big a fuss about it, and Paris Hilton's life challenges are obviously far more important to the media than these people's plight.


So on my 2nd trip to Starbucks, after realising the living conditions just a block away from it, felt even stranger than the 1st one, and my thoughts about noisy children who still know how to laugh and play when they have nothing much to look forward to gave me a swift attitude adjustment to giggling and raucous fun at 2 am.


Then I slowly made my way back to Bali. The 2nd workshop of 2007 came and went, the agony and the ecstasy. Rather an over dramatised summation on my part, but not too much so. These projects demand a great deal of thoughtfulness to get all the logistics right (speakers, topics etc. etc), so any time I have been less than scrupulous in my planning the results tend to be glaringly obvious. I am seeing that my impulsive, sometimes blindly optimistic nature is great in the planning stages, but needs to be reined in more around the actual execution and some choices I make. I say this in very general terms, and it applies to all the workshops I have done to date. And I would count this particular workshop as another successful one, but I learned a lot from it that wasn't only to do with Tarot or Astrology.


But I made some incredible friends, connected with some old ones... and it was a lot of fun. Doing something with the Tarot also encouraged me to broaden my horizons and include many new topics.