Up The River – Part 2
Kapit, Sarawak – During our overnight in Sibu, the desk clerk recommended a Chinese restaurant for Foo Chow cooking. We were surprised at the strange, fresh, clean taste of the meal. Absent the oily flavor associated with Chinese food in the states.
Instead, the palate left a fresh sensation but with the pork and jungle veggies leaving an imprint. As you can see, it’s hard to describe.
We looked warily at the long, yellow torpedo-shaped vessel we were to board for Kapit, much further inland. Piled and strapped to metal grips, goods wrapped in cloth were destined for towns further up river. The inside – quite comfortable and, thankfully, air conditioned – held the same chairs and played the same Chinese film we had seen before.
The trip took another four hours to the last major landing on the river. The waters, still muddy because of the bare, eroded cliffs, battled a strong current. The boat cruised through submerged logs with a loud thud, startling Christine and me. We finally got used to it.
At the top of bluffs, fairly new elementary schools, flags flying from masts, housed teachers and students. A pier, located at the bottom of the hill, hosted long green boats. They pulled in to disembark the young students. Dressed in the school uniform of blue shorts, white short sleeve shirts, or blue jumpers with blouses for the girls, they climbed the 30-or-so meters carrying books and lunch.
Longhouses, home of the Iban people, appeared occasionally. They had about 20 to 30 doors. ‘Door” is a term that is used to describer the size of the house. Behind each door is a two or three room home plus a kitchen, bathroom and squat toilet. United with a long porch at the front, the elderly sat in front of their doors similar to the front of any American nursing home.
The longhouse is governed by a “head man,” for lack of a better translation. He interacts with government officials and is responsible for the harmony of the group. Selected by consensus instead of ballot, he solves the problems of the group. This avoids interference by outside government officials and both the government and the people prefer it that way.
The most common problem is the challenge over the demarcation of the rice field. Each home is given a set area to farm, and sometimes a neighbor will encroach on another person’s plot. There are no boundary markers here. The problem is resolved by the headman, who holds court in the front room of the home of the person making the allegation. Rice wine is served and the occasion is treated with great respect. Cakes and other foods are served. The errant man must usually pay in rice or money.
Because of the close proximity of the homes, sexual problems between a man and his neighbor’s wife occur. The dispute is settled by the head man, with the wayward persons forced to pay each other, again, in rice or money.
The wooden longhouses are gradually being replaced with cement ones by the government. Fires will burn down a 30 door home in a matter of minutes with great loss of life. The new structures, built in the traditional mode except with electricity and plumbing, are constructed next to the old ones.
We arrived at Kapit, the last major town on the river. Timber workers, who log the rain forest, live here. A modern hospital serves the interior. The injured and ill, boated down from the rain forests, pay about US 90 cents for treatment. A free boarding school for middle and high school students, based on the English system, educates those who matriculate from the primary education centers located on the bluffs.
The 16-foot boat arrived to take us to the eco-lodge. We motored another hour, crossing the Pelagus rapids. We passed long green boats powered by an outboard taking school-uniformed kids to school, transferring fruit to sell in Kapit and people visiting others.
The eco-lodge is a very modern facility constructed of wood and built on a high bluff. The 40 large rooms are clean and comfortable with private baths. The restaurant serves both western and local meals. No pork in this Moslem land. The Pelagus Eco Resort is a contradiction in this land of rainforest and rivers.
The Malaysian government built the structure to provide jobs for locals who have been displaced by logging. They want the people to stay in the area instead of moving to the cities creating slums so infamous in South Asian cities. The business employs many more people than it needs.
The staff was grateful I spoke Malay and we all got along well. I translated for Christine.
Mosquitoes, a major problem, caused us to stay drenched in “Off” during our entire stay. We barely had enough and, if you come to the tropics, bring twice as much as you think you will need.
Next Time: Life in the Eco Lodge
(Editor’s Note! Mr. McLaughlin and his daughter Christine are traveling throughout Indonesia. There will be continuing columns from Tom on their adventures.)