Bear Lake California
Greetings from Kuching ,
Located near the western most tip of the island of Bornio, there are no longer head hunters here. Around Kuching Malaysia no one has taken a head for over fifty years. However, on this island of Borneo some of the old men in the remote villages still display trophy skulls in the long houses I'm told.
I got a room in the centrally located Harbor View Hotel right on the river. It's a first class house and only $37 per night including the breakfast buffet. My hotel is directly across the street from the Tua Pek Kong Chinese Temple with its bright dragons and strange gods. One of the most colorful attractions in the city I filled my Minicam with photos of dragonheads.
The first thing I immediately noticed upon arrival: Kuching has no hustlers, no touts, no obvious predators! People are unhurried as they go about their business on this tranquil jungle island. However, a modern metropolis has grown up out of the dense rain forest. Many people in the rural areas still retain their tribal identities, a few even continuing with the old traditional dress and speak the old languages. Here in the city though, nearly everyone speaks passable English and dresses in the latest western fashions.
The government has been promoting the use of English and during my stay decreed that science and mathematics shall be taught only in English from now on, something the predominant Chinese business community has been opposing. Wages for unskilled labor like store clerks seem low to me: around $150 to $500 per month.
Friday, the Sabbath I visited the enormous Kuching Mosque during the noon services, snapping pictures as I wandered the grounds unmolested by the trickle of mostly older men coming and going. Concerned my presence might offend the devout I asked one old gentleman about limitations on my activities at the mosque. "Just take off your shoes to enter the mosque itself. Otherwise go where you like; take all the picture you want." It looks to me like religion is a rather casual affair of importance only to a few non-Chinese old men in Kuching.
Many religions are practiced on the island. The Sikhs, the Catholics, the Baptists, the Anglicans, the Taoists, the Hindus all have their centers of worship in the city center. While I personally saw only harmony, an Anglican minister told me recently their churches have been the target of Muslim extremists in Malaysia: several have been fire bombed.
The Chinatown reminds me of the one we have in San Francisco: same abundance of stores selling pure gold ornaments, same exotic smells, same traditional Chinese medicines. In fact, Kuching could be California except for the oppressive humidity and oodles of noodles. This morning the unusual temperature and humidity caused the trees to weep creating an artificial rainstorm as I walked beneath them.
During the five days I spent on the island I managed a brief jungle walk and a boat trip up the West Coast to Sibu. The fast Express Bahagia boat left Kuching at 08:30 and raced north for five hours up rivers clogged by barges, sea going cargo ships and tugboat towed floating log "rafts" heading for riverside saw mills. Dense jungle lined the riverbanks everywhere except where interrupted by sparse habitation or lumber processing plants. Our sleek capsule boat contained two large air-conditioned passenger compartments: economy class with its $10 fare and first class at $12.30. No one smoked inside, but the small cargo platform out in the weather became both an observation deck and smoking room... until it started to rain. I spent a lot of time out there snapping pictures, enjoying the river traffic and jungle margins.
The sleepy logging town of Sibu had a surprising level of tourist infrastructure considering its remoteness. Just how remote I learned first hand as I took my dose of reality at the "express bus" terminal. Hourly buses take nearly ten hours to make the return trip back to Kuching... and there is but one fast boat back each day at 13:30... the one that dropped me off and departed almost immediately on its return trip. Well. I like bus trips through remote places, but the length of the trip and the late starting time (15:00) meant most of the traveling would be done after sun down. Still, the few hours of daylight did provide a wonderful immersion in the jungle and its gushing green abundance.
The bumpy graded dirt road had been cut out of the primal rain forest with a swath of twenty meters cleared on either side of the roadbed. Already the underbrush had reestablished itself in much of the cleared shoulders. Several times the road climbed above the forest canopy providing wide vistas of the treetops. It reminded me of a giant green Berber rug of uneven weave. Somehow we managed to cross all the rivers on bridges, except one. This one kept us in the vehicle queue for an hour before reaching the ferry for our five-minute river crossing. During my entire stay on the island I saw not a single wild animal other than birds and insects.
The flight back to Kuala Lumpur gave me another chance to see if my little pocket knife would make it through the security scanners without alarm, packed as it is among the clutter of my toiletry bag contents. Had I pulled it from my pocket, I am sure it would be confiscated again. My fingernail clippers aroused no special concern when deposited in the plastic dish with the rest of my pocket's contents, however. I know security has been heightened everywhere, but to tell the truth I don't see much difference anywhere I've been this year here in Southeast Asia compared to last year in Africa and Europe. I'll remain in KL long enough to get my visa for Myanmar and then be off to that shrouded land of ancient Buddhist temples where military generals continue to defy international calls for democracy. More in the next postcard.
Fred L Bellomy