Saturday, August 1, 2009

Borneo Spaghetti

Thu 18/06
Tightening the chain seems to create another problem when the tensioner starts squeaking, so we pull over and redo it in someone’s parking lot. The squeaking stops, but the knocking starts again. Why didn’t we buy those shaft-drive 1200s again? Oh yeah, they were twice the price. Bummer.

At Brunei immigration we’re officially cleared of H1N1 after being scanned and probed by some masked men in a back room. At least they weren’t discriminating - nearly everyone else got probed as well.

Later on at the toll, which we’d been told was free for motorbikes but was actually BR$1 each, Ann does her best dumb blonde impersonation to get us over for free (we’d run out of Brunei dollars again). Call us cheap, but for anyone else doing this, you can get from Sabah to Sarawak on a motorbike for BR$11 and a handful of ringgit.

Fri 19/06

The Miri locals probably think we’re cheap and mental, but the only way to sort out this stupid chain is by the side of the road, riding the bike up and down a couple of hills after each tweak. The squeak is back, but hopefully some WD40 will fix that.

Sat 20/06
Check out Sarawak from Google Earth or Maps and you’ll see little brown squiggly lines snaking their way across the jungle like some form of cancer. The locals call this Borneo Spaghetti. Its nearly impossible to tell from the satellite images whether the jungle is old growth forest waiting to be logged, second or third growth waiting to be re-logged, or just palm plantations. Maybe the government has the statistics.

The current government, or dynasty really, has been in power for 40 years, is hopelessly corrupt, and unlikely to tell anyone anything that isn’t in their best interests. It doles out leases to the land to a select group of conglomerates, who log it, re-log it, plant palm oil on it and con the traditional land owners out of their heritage in the process.

There are a small group of activists fighting for native title rights, but since the government bans most forms of protest their struggle goes on mainly behind closed doors. Its kind of strange talking to one of them, Willie, who constantly seems on edge and aware of who might be eavesdropping on our conversation. Is this Malaysia, or former East Germany? Are we about to be rounded up by the Sarawak Stasi?

Willie has just returned from a protest to stop the signing over of his tribe’s land for a re-forestation project. The protest was unsuccessful and he and his brother are very upset at the outcome. Another member of the activist group, who works in government, is less emotional about the situation and proceeds to give us an insider’s viewpoint on how things are done here. Its not pretty, not transparent, benefits the few, destroys the environment, and is done so calculatingly that the conglomerates are always one step ahead. They’ve done all this many many times before.

Sun 21/06
Ann twists her knee again today while tromping through Lambir Hills NP. Shit

Mon 22/06
We leave for Batu Niah feeling quite depressed at what’s happening in Sarawak, doubtless not the first people to experience this.

The same things have occurred, and still occur in some form or other all over the world, and during conversations with locals when these issues crop up we’re the first to hold our hands up and say “Hey we’re Australians, we know what you’re talking about. We’re not here to lecture.”

We felt the same about Tasmania when we were there a few years ago. And in the same way that your average Australian doesn’t give a damn about the pulping of Tasmania’s forests, life goes on regardless for your average Malaysian.

In the immortal words of Bill Hicks Go back to bed America. Your country is in control. You’ve got your 56 channels of American Gladiators on TV. Go back to bed. Everything will be ok.

Niah Caves are amazing. Amazing for their sheer size and amazing for the way people still harvest bird’s nests using rickety wooden scaffolding at ridiculous heights.

This is supposed to be the off-season where the birds are given a chance to rebuild, but we speak to someone later who witnesses nests being collected tonight. Irresistible, considering their scarcity and the fact the Chinese regard them as an aphrodisiac keeps the prices at crazy levels.

Ann twists her knee. Again. Bloody hell.

There’s a Canadian guy walking around the world who’s about 10ks from us tonight. It would have been cool to talk to him, but he gets waylaid just short of Batu Niah.

Wed 24/06
We make our way to Bintulu, and while tromping through nearby Similajau NP Ann twists her... no she doesn’t. She gets attacked by a kamikaze cicada instead. They do breed ‘em big here. Hehe.

Sat 27/06
Sometimes you ride into a place and go wow, it looks like someone here actually cares. Sri Aman is like that, a place whose claim to fame is a tidal bore, apparently quite rare, which runs up the river about as regularly as say... the tides. Because we can’t find any information on tide times, we rely on local knowledge instead, and are up at 5.30am to see the phenomenon for ourselves.

6.30 comes and goes.

Its 7.00am and people seem to be milling around the river bank, but we can’t be quite sure whether this isn’t something they just do here. We hang out until 7.30 and hunger gets the better of us, wondering if we’ve just become the latest victims to some sort of local practical joke.

Sun 28/06
The roads on the way into Kuching are the only decent ones we’ve encountered in Sarawak, but soon after arriving realise that finding parking for the bikes will be difficult. We know its a dumb idea, but decide to try the Tourist Information Centre for some help with accommodation.

In the last 5 months TICs have been, on the whole, a complete waste of time. But every now and then you get a really helpful one and that keeps you coming back for more. You’re new in town, tired, looking for a scrap of information which might make things a little easier.

Kuching’s TIC is difficult to find (they mostly are) and, true to form, a monumental waste of time. Just as well we’d googled a couple of places the night before, one of which pointed us to a strange looking hotel on the top of a hill, not too far out of town.

Mon 29/06
The museums here on the other hand are great, free, and perfect for a rainy day. Unless you’ve got a dodgy knee of course. Ann’s is really starting to bother her and she’s convinced she’s torn a ligament. The prospect of getting it fixed is something that’s giving us both sleepless nights and we talk about seeing someone for advice.

Tue 30/06
We decide to give the accommodation thing one more shot today (the place we’re in has no breakfast and the internet is almost useless), so after tracking down a supply of local coffee (possibly more important), wander around town on the bike.

A For Rent sign prompts Lucas to make a u-turn and we walk in to a small cafe. We end up spending the rest of the afternoon with Melbournian Tony, who while really here to escape Australians, makes an exception for us. Bizarrely, a friend of his Francesca, is the same person we’d been given a contact for in Miri a week ago and he also thinks that another friend James, a local journalist, might be interested in our story and so sets up a meeting for a couple of days time.

Sorted then. Sort of.

Wed 01/07
We actually get time to do some sightseeing today.

The new parliament house dominates Kuching, from some angles looking like a huge War of the Worlds alien spaceship, from others distinctive and impressive. But always dominating, maybe pointing to the fact that the Sarawak government operates more like a benevolent dictatorship than a democracy.

Thu 02/07
After meeting with Tony, James and Francesca who between them will arrange our social life for the foreseeable future, we head down to James’ paper The Eastern Times, to do an interview with Wil.

That’s the thing with Malaysia. You really need a mobile phone just to keep up with the social life. We’d already bought a SIM card in KK for this reason and so like good little Celcom slaves find ourselves recharging the phone every week or so.

Speaking of slaves, something doesn’t quite add up at the place where we’re staying. It obviously wasn’t built as a hotel, so we’d been idly speculating on its origins, even asking one or two of the staff who seemed a little evasive on the subject. A little research on the internet reveals that it was used as a women’s prison camp during the Japanese occupation, and later as a brothel for Japanese officers. Spooky.

Fri 03/07
We’re kind of flabbergasted that our story merits column inches, but there we are on the front page again. Its not like we’re doing this for UNICEF or anything.

We seemed to hit it off with James yesterday so follow him out to his place this morning, weaving in and out of traffic, trying to keep up with the little 110 that he pilots like a maniac. This will be the first of several James Ritchie mystery tours of Kuching, which usually involve meeting as many people as possible in a short space of time, and always involve copious quantities of alcohol. He’s a journalist. He’s got a reputation to uphold.

That reputation includes being criticised by some for being a pro-government reporter and The Eastern Times, which he publishes, is actually a quasi government paper. But to be fair all the media here are pro-government. You’re not really allowed to be anything else.

Sat 04/07
The next morning James takes us to see an old friend, the ex-Director of Kuching hospital, about Ann’s knee. He takes one look at her walking in and tells us it isn’t serious enough for surgery, its just going to take time. We’re both pretty relieved, and even though it doesn’t help her pain in the short term, we end up getting a knee brace later for a bit of support.

Oh, and if there are any actual or wannabe medical professionals reading this going Oh my god, you need to get an MRI, physio, a proper orthopaedic brace bla bla bla... thanks for your concern, we know.

Another day, another mystery tour.

The people are a blur, but everyone we meet has a casual, easy-going nature. Eating and drinking is a national pastime in Malaysia and there’s obviously a system of who pays or who shouts, but its completely incomprehensible to foreigners like us. Every now and then we manage to throw down some money before anyone has a chance to argue.

Sun 05/07
The Sunday markets are another Kuching institution, but something they’ll be moving out of town soon as a result of some absurd urban cleanup scheme.

Afterwards James picks us up with his daughter Rebecca and boyfriend Aaron and we visit the longhouse of a local musician, before heading out to a music festival. The festival seems more like a good excuse for a piss-up and we all take turns downing shots of lankau, the local rocket fuel. Just as well, because to our horror, the next stop is a funeral.

We’ve never gatecrashed a funeral before. You just wouldn’t, would you? Ok, so its not the actual funeral, but the family are all sitting around the home looking sad, and after being introduced to them one by one we’re led over to the open coffin, where the deceased is lying in his Sunday Best. Ann, who’s worked as an aged care nurse, has seen plenty of dead people. But Lucas and the others find the whole thing a little uncomfortable.

Just as well the next stop is a birthday. The Chinese consider it extremely bad luck to visit a birthday straight after a funeral, but we can’t really comment on that. Poor taste maybe. A good pickmeup anyway. One of the three old guys at this birthday is playing his old favourites on the guitar, Aaron is murdering some Bob Marley and everyone is drinking plenty of the local stuff.

Mon 06/07
Successful local artist Ramsay has a gallery down by the waterfront. We’d met him before and so were keen to have a look at his work.

Have you ever tried durian? Ramsay asks when he discovers us wandering around the shop “Well, no actually.” Ann replies a little apprehensively. Well you simply must come back to my place and try some.

We spend the rest of the day with Ramsay, who shares durian and part of his world with us. Its interesting to hear the similarities between Malaysians and Australians and their attitudes to the gay community.

Tue 07/07
We’ve never “done” a photo shoot before. Before we left Oz, you’d be lucky to get us posing for photos at Christmas dinner. Maybe Indonesia cured us of camera-shyness, but outside the Eastern Times with the paparazzi its still funny to see the tables turned on Lucas, who is usually quite happy behind the lens.

Robert, the GM of the newspaper, treats us all to lunch at a posh restaurant afterwards, apparently the first time this has happened at the paper. We feel pretty honoured, and our stomachs are grateful for a break from nasi this and nasi that.

Today’s mystery tour ends up with James and Francesca at a birthday-cum-house blessing. Because we’re gatecrashing again, we bring along the obligatory local wine, only to discover embarrassingly that they’re Seventh Day Adventists. Oops. Well the guy we followed there was half smashed. How were we supposed to know? James!

Wed 08/07
Apparently Ann’s tail light wasn’t working last night, but the bulb looks fine today. Screw it out. Screw it back in and it works again. Maybe its another one of those made in China bits.

There are a couple of photographers staying at the hotel, here to cover the Rainforest Festival. Zam and Iwan are from KL and really into motorsports so ask if we could do a photo shoot with them before they leave. Hey, no problem, we’ve done this before right?

What we’d never done before was anything like the meditation full moon worshipping thingy that was on tonight, out of town near one of the national parks. But there’s a full moon tonight, so what the hell.

The food’s great, the people are interesting, but we discover that singing and dancing and waving our hands up in the air while hyperventilating really isn’t our cup of tea. As if we didn’t already know.

Thu 09/07
Its a rush to get out to Semenggoh orangutan sanctuary the next morning, and while the experience is radically different to Sepilok, we decide to come back again in the afternoon for the second session.

Its raining prior to feeding time and so we chat to a couple of the guides, who explain that they train the orangutans to distrust humans. They’ll attack if they feel threatened, and to prove the point one of them shows us the scars on his leg.

Luckily the rain eases and the orangutans start straggling in, looking a bit wet and grumpy at having to face a hundred tourists just for a bit of fruit. They’re much closer this time and the guide struggles to move back the tide of Nikon-wielding orang putihs, each one determined to get “the” shot. One of the males (orangutans that is) seems determined to crack his coconut on a branch of a tree, but the whole thing looks a bit optimistic.

All of a sudden someone calls out Ritchie! It seems the dominant male has decided to show up after all. He’s about 80kg, has the strength of six men and with his shaggy coat looks absolutely massive. Ritchie was named after, you guessed it, James Ritchie, who bought him off an illegal trader just over the Indonesian border and returned him to the sanctuary. Well that’s the official story anyway. He had every intention of just returning him, but while he had Ritchie safely stashed at his place over the weekend a mob of machine-gun wielding cops surrounded the house and made absolutely sure.

Ritchie, unlike the other wussy male, proceeds to pick up a coconut and smash it into pieces with an almighty crack. We’re all impressed.

Fri 10/07
We’re not impressed however, with the effort it always takes to try and find information on Indo ferry schedules. All they’d need to do would be to employ any half-arsed web developer for a few months and the whole thing could be made available to the public.

Lucas is volunteering for chrissake. Hello Indonesia! He’s got nothing better to do. Really.

Assisting us in our never-ending quest for the Pontianak-Surabaya ferry schedule, James takes us down to the Indo embassy and tries to prise some info out of the front desk. Strike one. Well, strike two actually. Tony has a friend in Pontianak who assures him that there is a ferry, but can’t tell him when it goes. Strike three comes when another one of James’ friends strikes out with his connections.

To make up for it, he suggests we might like to embark on another mystery tour.

Exorcism did you say? What was that about a shaman?

We’re up for anything, so meet at “the usual” before heading out to MAS Uni, behind which sits the kampong and the home of the “possessed” woman. Well, her leg is possessed anyway. It seems she has arthritis and the drugs aren’t working, so they’re preparing for a shaman to come and exorcise the evil spirits from her leg. We’re here today to make sure its ok to come and watch tomorrow and hopefully take pictures.

We’re not sure if its deliberate, but James seems determined to show us a complete cross-section of Kuching. He seems to be getting a kick out of our reactions to all these different people, and we’re just getting a kick out of the whole thing, so it works. We spend the rest of the afternoon drinking lankau with a war hero, a guy who fought in the guerrilla war with the communists back in the 70s. He talks to us about his trans-Borneo expedition a few years ago in a serious looking Land Rover which sits in pieces in the garden, and the resolve to finish our trans-Borneo expedition at Pontianak becomes even firmer as a result.

A lady with connections to the Victoria Arms big bike club invites us to their weekly meeting tonight, but we’re shagged. Our livers need time to recover.

Sat 11/07
This morning we follow up another possible lead on the ferry, which comes to nothing of course.

In what’s obviously turning out to be One Of Those Days, Ann, against her better judgement, but at the encouragement of her better half, gets her hair done at a trendy looking hair studio. The end result is laughably bad (Lucas actually laughs out loud in front of the hairdresser when he sees it), but hey its blonde again. Sort of. Hehehe.

Meanwhile, out at the kampong, the exorcism has been in full swing all day and will continue into the morning. While waiting around for some interesting shaman action, we talk with one of the locals over a shot of moonshine. He’s Catholic, as are most around here, and doesn’t believe in what’s happening down at his neighbour’s place.

We’re all a bit disappointed afterwards when it turns out that we can’t take photos of the ceremony, but the family are adamant. However we’re allowed to watch, and peering in through the windows we discover the interior of the house has been transformed into a mini-... something. There’s a miniature house strung from the ceiling. Miniature hand-carved boats and crocodiles in the middle of the living room are surrounded by food offerings and the four shaman are in full swing, throwing rice and chanting. It seems to be women and children only inside, all the men are sitting outside the house. At one point the men move their chairs out of the way to clear a path for one of the shaman. The idea seems to be that the shaman will take the evil spirits into their body, eventually taking them down to the river and transferring them to one of the crocodiles.

Wish we could share some photos. Sorry.

Sun 12/07
The Blog’s hopelessly out of date, so while he’s in the mood, and at the prompting of James, Lucas writes a letter to the editor about the Kuching TIC.

Tue 14/07
Ann’s bike tends to sit around for long periods while we take the other one out and about (its got the GPS). So when it gets fired up today for the photo shoot with Zam, she finds the throttle is sticking. It would have been good cruising up through the NT, but right now its a pain and we don’t have time to look at it. Later we discover that the bar ends rust onto the end of the handle-bars with these bikes, causing the throttle to stick.

Zam and Iwan dodge the round-a-bout traffic as we ride round and round, posing for the two guys.

Its mid-afternoon when we catch up with James out at his golf club for a farewell mystery tour. He gets a good laugh when he produces and reads Lucas’ letter to the editor, which has been published today and been tweaked ever so slightly to ram home his (James’?) point.

Later he announces that we’re off to the jungle. Huh? Its a piece of land he owns out near the golf club, which some of the locals have been trying to use as a communal garden. Next to a little lean-to, Gilbert and his wife have cooked up a jungle feast, complete with some jungle juice of course.

Thanks Sandy.

Thu 16/07
We really, really loved Malaysia. We really tried to come to grips with its complexities, but in the end failed. The longer we spent there the more we realised we knew nothing. And sure, the country has its problems, but the people are so genuinely welcoming and friendly and the lifestyle is so easy-going its going to be difficult for us to leave. Why are we leaving again? Oh yeah, we’ve got an Indo visa that’s going to expire if we don’t use it soon. Oh yeah, and we’re supposed to be going round the world on a couple of motorbikes. Suppose we’d better be off then.

Back to Indo and mixed emotions. The people are equally as friendly, but we can’t understand them, so really aren’t getting the most out of the experience (Lucas would love to tell a becak driver to fuck off in Bahasa. Just one. Oh please...). The traffic is horrendous, but at least most of the hotels have parking for the bikes. The country is filthy and chaotic, but brilliant to photograph. Living is cheap, but everyone wants a piece of you.

An insurance agent at the border wants a piece of us too and tries to make us believe he’ll prevent us entering the country unless we buy at least a week’s fully comprehensive cover from him. The cover is a rip-off and really won’t cover us for anything. As foreigners we’ll be expected to pay up even if its not our fault and as for comprehensive well... if you call about a fifth of the value of the bike comprehensive.

Its confusing because he looks like an official and acts like an official, but eventually, when surrounded by immigration, police and customs officials who’ve all just agreed to let us into the country, he’s made to look a little foolish. He threatens to stand in the road and block us entering, to which Lucas responds by suggesting he may not appreciate half a ton of BMW imprinted on his shirt front.

Eventually, a few hundred metres down the road to Pontianak, we pull over for a quick bite to eat, a little apprehensive, a little excited, adrenaline still running through our veins. We’re back in Indo...

1 comment:

  1. Come on Hurry up and catch up compltetely with this story. Its like having to put down a good book your reading and can't read any more.
    Hope the knee is getting better Ann :)
    EKKA starts this week, going on Thursday and buggar the swine flue.
    Take care as usual , and keep focused on your trip around the world or we just might be coming over there to visit you both in a few years time . Love as always N.