Gunung (mount) Santubong majestically rises out of the South China Sea; it, along with Gunung Serapi Matang to the left, skirt the city of Kuching like a fence on its north side as if to protect it from the waters. Pulau (island) Satang Besar and Pulau Satang Kecil, are two islands visible in between these mountains; it's like through an opening of a giant harbour.
is this abrupt change of terrain between sea and high mountain plus
the proximity to the equator that give this tropical city its spectacular
skies of blue interrupted by dark white and orange colours changing
in shape and colour as if in time-lapse photography from National Geographic
— all within view of my temporary Kuching residence.
I am totally integrated into this society for a few months. Going with the pulse of day-to-day life, I concern myself with daily necessities such as what to cook and how to furnish my home most frugally. Investing $30 in materials and tools to produce a few items of furniture resulted in several trips to the lumber yard and hardware stores. Of course, life here includes a daily visit to the markets where countless vendors peddle fish vegetables fruit and chicken. Chinese shops offer pork and beef as well as liquor and merchandise not 'halal' to the Muslim rulers of the land.
By now the sight, sounds and smells are very familiar. The shelves are stocked with everything that swims in the murky rivers and the South China Sea and the smell of fish or curry and other spices that in the western world are only available in sealed packages. The intermittent use of Malay, Chinese and the English language fill my senses on a daily basis and it is becoming as common to me as snow is to the Canadian.
This is not my first visit to Borneo. It was more than two years ago that I fell in love with a country, a climate, a land, a seascape and, yes, a special someone. Now I have come back (on a three-months leave) to explore life away from corporate America. This is my opportunity to see if I can learn about life and old fashioned values. I am here to find out if a peaceful life in the tropics is what I would prefer over the material hectic life in the west, which has lost its appeal. Of course, I would leverage the magic of this land with the western connections I already have!
While adjusting quickly to the physical environment, I realize it takes many many months to understand or see this world the way those who always lived here do. An intense conversation in Chinese at the lumber store was not about my specifications as I wrongly assumed. Having a b-putis (white man) more than 3 blocks from the water front where western hotels cater to those paying for western conveniences always results in inquiries as to my origin and purpose. The conversation, instead, was about the owner of the shop buying shoes in Vancouver that were made in China. Remarkably these shoes lasted 9 years unlike the Chinese products marketed in Malaysia which are known to be of much worse quality. The geographic grandeur of western Canada was obviously not as noteworthy.
Dayaks and Malay stop and wait till they have my attention. In Sibu, some toothless man tapped me on my shoulders to exchange a few words in English (I was told). I did not understand a word but the expression on his face spoke of his friendly intentions and the novelty of conversing with a westerner. More often than not, though, only wordless expressions greet me as I pass the many ethic groups in the streets of Kuching. I can only guess at the fate of their lives. Spending their day peddling 20 baskets of fruit for 30c a piece, one can project the accessibility of material wealth to many in this part of the world. In North America it is easy to forget that there are treasures of life not measured in dollars. The happy faces in the almost cash-less society of the native villages like Singai illustrate this so well.
"Nuoh" (drink), the middle aged man utters as he places a beer in front of me. His smile, partly born of friendliness partly of shyness, reveals he has no front teeth. I always feel welcome and comfortable in this house constructed of bamboo sticks and wooden cladding placed on a concrete platform. The kitchen has a large table, two small refrigerators supported by a 1 foot high wooden base. A two-burner gas stove produces meals more tasty than many a fine restaurant can produce. The central part of the roof is made of dry leaves; palm, I presume. The walls below the roof, at eye level, are completed with a couple of narrow planks, reducing the gap to smaller than can be penetrated by something bigger than a cat.
Perhaps the planks are only there to give a sense of privacy in an area where kids, from infant to teens, cousins, uncles and grandparents share the space. The corrugated metal is extending the authentic leaf roof and complementing the walls. A structure, wider than a ladder, narrower than stairs, leads to the next room which has no outside walls. Another set of steps lead to the middle room furnished with mattresses and colour TV.
There are no glass windows. The opening in the wall, from my vantage
point, shows the bananas on the tree in the yard. Only 1.5 degrees from
the equator, the temperature between a January night and July day differ
by no more than 10 degrees centigrade. The beer I was offer cost more
than 1 Canadian Dollar, maybe 2 or 3 hours pay for the host. There are
no taxes on properties of the indigenous villages. Vegetables gardens
and fruit trees yield a harvest year round. Chicken roaming the yard
and rich fish ponds offer ample of protein. Potentially one could feed
a family for a few cents of rice and a few purchased spices, complemented
by your own harvest.
Most significant is the hint of happiness in the faces of those who know my world only from TV. Their skill is surviving each day and they puzzle why someone like me, with a bank account, should worry. So many travel to see the sights and landmarks, yet the real treasure and noteworthy discoveries are in the hearts and minds of those whose land we visit.