Borneo Jungle and the Malay-se

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July 19th 2009
Published: July 19th 2009
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Borneo last of it

What I'm reading: V.S. Naipaul, Among The Believers: An Islamic Journey

...where was I?...I left off the last blog crashing cross the Celebes Sea on a thin piece of boat, gripping tight to the side of, thinking will I survive? I made a quick glance back and the little brown man was standing upright holding the engine motor arm - totally in control. He looked as if he had done this trip thousands of times already, a boring commuter journey for him. I had to walk to the ATM machine in town to pay the man, I told him I'd be back.

I then got to the dusty town and a fifteen minute walk to the ATM where I had to withdraw the money for the boatman. As I stepped out of the booth, a man approached me, he seemed familiar, but I didn't take any notice until he blocked my way, and it was him. To my surprise he had walked from the wharf and followed me to the bank, making sure that he got his money. We then walked back through the town to the scuba office, I couldn't help but wonder if the boatman had followed me because he had not trusted me.

The two highlights of the evening were as follows: getting dripped on as you sat on the toilet in the so-called 'bathroom'. Listening to someone trying to break open the door (because the door handle had come off). Yes, it was the manager of the place and like a brainless idiot-fiend was trying to smash the latch, instead of sliding something flat down the side of the door. I left him to call his friend as I contemplated an escape in case of fire.

The next morning I woke up early to get to the bus station, said my goodbyes to Kazza and walked to the bus station. I wanted to get to the Kinabatangan River, because there was a tour company who was running three day retreats to tour the river and the jungle, which was full of orang-utans, proboscis monkeys (unique to Borneo), crocodiles, pygmy elephants and a whole rainbow of Borneo-only bird life.

I got picked up at a restaurant station by the side of the road and off we went along with about 10 others to the lodges in the jungle. The final leg was a 2 minute boat ride in the river itself. Within 15 minutes I’d dumped my bag in the wooden hut dormitory and we were off down the river in a speed boat, camera at the ready.

Kinabatangan River

We caught sight of plenty of macaque and proboscis monkey, the latter males are unique for their comic bulbous nose, pot belly and constant state of arousal. They were difficult to see up close so we just zoomed in so to speak without cameras. That night we went on an hour long trek through the jungle and managed to spot a surprising amount of creatures, including a black scorpion, a tiny gecko on a leaf, a huge green grasshopper, and large ominous spiders, all the while the croaking and drone of a noisy jungle.

My companion and room-mate was a Jordanian who was at studying at some university in Toronto, Canada. I'm not sure where, but it sounded like some private international university, where they rob you of money. Anyway, I'm interested in how an Arab is treated in the land of the Muslim, bearing in mind the specialness of Arabs to Islam Mohammed himself was an Arab, Muslims ideally should read the Quadrant in Arabic, and the holy sites are all in Arab lands, etc. Well, he seemed to be enjoying his two month stay in Malaysia, he was treated very well, especially by the Malay Muslim women, and really rather wanted to stay longer.

He warmed to his subject and detailed various escapades with local women and offers of dates etc. Including a bloody nose whilst in a club in KL, this guy was clearly a player in this country and perhaps for the first time in his life, receiving special treatment because of his nationality. Ironically, however, at dinner he was no longer Jordanian but from Toronto in Canada, receiving a complex look from a young Aussie at our table, then a secret knowing grin. I grew tired of his women stories, but thankfully he left after one day and I had the dorm to myself the next night.

The next day was a 7am boat ride up and down the river spotting more monkeys and even a fresh water crocodile lurking around a fish trap. Later on after breakfast, we had a three hour trek around the jungle, running the gauntlet of leeches fresh after heavy rain that night, hanging off leaves and waiting to latch onto you as you passed. Most people checked themselves every 2 minutes for leeches on their clothing, of which there were plenty. Everyone had to tuck their shirts into their trousers as well as their socks into the trousers because these blood-suckers would get into anyway they could. We all looked bloody stupid, but when in the jungle you can't afford to look fashionable.

I was knackered sledging through the mud and jungle with Wellingtons on, sleep was catching up on me and I snoozed for 30 minutes before we headed back. After eating lunch, myself and a San Franciscan couple (both children of South Vietnamese migrants who had left after the fall in 1976) grabbed a kayak each and went for a paddle on the river. We decided to paddle upstream and pretty hard going it was too (but better going downstream and then having to struggle back); I enjoyed doing my own thing again, regaining some independence inevitably lost on these kind of organized trips.

When we got back, I had a snooze in the dormitory and then went to lunch, before another later afternoon cruise of the river. This time we struck wildlife gold and spotted an orang-utan with a baby in a tree. The mother was eating away and the baby was delightfully hanging off a branch without a care in the world. We were told that it was lucky to see them because other groups on other boats were not as fortunate.

Anyway, here's a video of my jungle trip on Face Book

Back in KK and the question of Malay-sia

I just chilled out for the day before my flight back to Singapore, checking out a very cheap (relatively) Japanese restaurant, gorging out on sushi. I went to the cinema too. What an experience, forget the film Public Enemy - why oh why is Johnny Depp cast in these serious movie roles? He clearly cannot act beyond the lone blank stare of defiance. However, arriving at the cinema in a maze of concessions stands, slot machines, arcade games, karaoke bars, I got lost a few times, oh and the screens are called 'halls' for some reason.

I had to choose a seat in between loads of taken ones but the usher didn't bother to usher me to my seat but just shooed me in to the darkened hall to sit anywhere I liked. For the entire film, five seats along two young punks talked, spat and used their mobile phones with abandon. There was much violence in the life of the gangster John Dillinger, but that didn't worry the cinema owners or the parents of small children who were in there with them. Oh, and the sound jumped up and down for half the film, which didn’t bother the audience much seeing as they were reading subtitles. Have I said how much I love Malaysia yet? It's what all travel is about right? Embracing the differences and laughing when bad things happen to you. Hahahahahahahahahahaha (gritted teeth)!

The more contact I have had with the local Malays the more despondent I have become with them, if it wasn't the surly looks and service, it was the lack of information they could provide to me the tourist. It got me thinking about Malays in general and how different an experience it was compared to cities in peninsular Malaysia. A book I've recently been reading has provided some historical explanation for these impressions, Among the Believers by V S Naipaul, Booker Prize Winner (and not that it holds that much esteem for me personally) winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

He's an Indian from Trinidad - a British colonial subject who left his country in the 1950s to go to England at the age of 18 - and didn't go back: a unique background. He's a great travel writer and he's really opened my eyes to what good writing is, exposition, allowing your subjects to speak for themselves. His initial thoughts on Islam and tow which I have shared since I have been in Malaysia, I now quote:

Islam, going by what I saw of it from the outside, was less metaphysical and more direct than Hinduism: The doctrine, or what I thought was its doctrine, didn't attract me. It didn't seem worth inquiring into the glories of this religion were in the remote past; it had generated nothing like a Renaissance, Muslim countries, where not colonized, were despotisms; and nearly all, before oil, were poor. p.16

Naipaul on the Malays...

...They grown to understand that in the last hundred years, while they or their parents slept, their country, a new idea: a composite of kingdoms and sultanates was colonially remade; that the rich Malaysia of today grows on colonial foundations and is a British-Chinese creation. The British developed the mines and the plantations. They brought in Chinese (the diligent, rootless peasants of century back), and a lesser number of Indians, to do the work the Malays couldn't do. Now the British no longer rule. But the Malays are only half the population.

The Chinese have advanced; it is their energy and talent that keep the place going. The Chinese are shut out from political power. Malays rule; the country is officially Muslim, with Muslim personal laws sexual relations between Muslims and non-Muslims are illegal, and there is a kind of prying religious police legal discriminations against non-Muslims are outrageous. p.214

On the veil for Malays and their fundamentalisms

The veil is more than the veil; it is a mask of aggression. Not like the matted locks of the Ras Tafarian in Jamaica, a man dulled by a marginal life that has endured for generations; not like the gear of the middle-class hippy, who wishes only to drop out; these are the clothes of uprooted village people who wish to pull down what is not theirs and then take over. p.216[/h1 center]

This is terribly good stuff and has answered a lot of the questions I had about the Malays I had met and the impressions that I got from personal encounters. I include conversations I've had with Chinese Malaysians who have expressed concern about their existence with Islam in Malaysia, whether justified or not.

Anyway, my time in Malaysia was up and I caught a late night flight to Singapore, a modern and secular metropolis in the First World, where my impressions were to change.

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