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ASIA > Indonesia > Borneo

Malaysia - Life in the Slow Lane

Wolf Oberhammer

Article & Pictures © 2006 Wolf Oberhammer

T/T #53
FreeStyle 3.2

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

Before reading this article, you might like to read Wolf's earlier article that proceeds this continuation of his 'dropping-out' adventure: Dropping Out: High-tech to Low-tech


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

Gunong Santubong - click to enlargeGunung (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.

It 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.

The busy streets immediately below tell a different story. The shops depict the everyday life of the Malay, Chinese or Dayak residents. Motorbikes, small Malaysian made cars, Japanese SUVs, mirror the demographics of Kuching, consisting of wealthy Chinese businessmen going about their business. Malay are focused on achieving a middle-class standard of living. Dayaks (the indigenous) get by living on native land, tax free, growing vegetables and fruit, perhaps augmented by a fish pond; they work from 9 to 5 to get the money for the necessities of life like a cell phone and, yes, school books for the children and rice for supper.

Market scene - click to enlargeI 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!

Balcony view, Muara Tubas - click to enlargeWhile 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.

Bamboo sticks house - click to enlarge"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.

The beach - and the South China Sea - click to enlargeThere is also a brand new car in the yard. This investment is sheltered by a corrugated metal roof on top and tarp on two sides. Nine year loans are common on cars that last six. A set of photographs illustrate the family visit to the South China Sea two days earlier. I did not inquire how a car so small can transport so many. Again I caught myself applying western values to a region where the sun and rain produce an immense array of vegetation and diversity of life, where each day is lived and western views and values are as foreign as Swiss cheese.

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.


For visitors with no personal connections, the Malaysian side of Borneo offers more modern infrastructure and safety than its Indonesian neighbour, Kalimantan. English is widely spoken in east Malaysia (Sarawak, and Sabah were under British rule until 1963), and guided tours are readily available to explore the culture, flora and fauna of the island. While the cultural portion seems very staged, Bako national park and Matang wildlife reserve are just an hours drive from Kuching and offer a unique glimpse into the biology of the Rainforest.

Malaysia is rapidly developing into a modern country. Modern airports, tourist facilities and communication infrastructure, make travel as safe and convenient as in Europe or North America. Borneo is being transformed from a, tribal, hunter and gatherer civilization, to the modern world within a few generations. This transformation offers a glimpse of a wide spectrum of human existence from primitive long house dwellings to western style offices and hotels.

Borneo’s many cultures and ethnic groups interact peacefully and offer cultural displays spanning three civilizations. Within a few city blocks of Kuching, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim temples are found. Christian churches are found in the city and country side.

While Malaysia and Indonesia are a Muslim countries, the predominantly Dayak population of east Malaysia is Catholic. East Malaysia is a very western friendly. The purist traveler, willing to put up with small delays, and other inconveniences occurring in rapidly developing countries, is rewarded with a culturally very colourful and ecologically unique destination.

 

 

If you enjoyed reading the above article then you will probably also enjoy Borneo, also in Asia, and our latest articles covering the Orinoco Delta, La Mata, Marbella and Beijing.



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