BORNEO - THE CHANGING FACE OF BARIO AND THE KELABIT PEOPLE
Fifty-five minutes after takeoff, we manage a perfect landing on the grass airstrip. Captain David is a jolly, freckled, forty something Kiwi who was long ago seduced by the opportunity to do 'real' jungle flying. He has cemented his commitment here by taking a Kelabit wife.
Nestled in a remote bowl, 1500 meters above sea level, Bario is the highest settlement in the Malaysian State of Sarawak. Steep mountain ridges have, so far, served to defend and isolate residents of the Kelabit Highlands from neighbouring Kalimantan - and the world.
Gasoline; diesel for generators; school books; staples; mail - everything must be flown in. The government-owned helicopter hovers overhead with a septic tank dangling from its underbelly. A patchwork of logging roads surrounds the valley. A nod from the government would see this little community connected to the 21st century, but the issue is a contentious one.
Elias, my wiry, diminutive guide is waiting. He arrived two days earlier as the 20 seat Twin Otter had been fully booked. Passengers and freight compete for space on the daily flight from Miri. A Kelabit by birth, he was brought up and named by missionaries.
The airport is a social hub. Two bright-eyed young English girls have come to teach at the local school - their “gap-year” project between high school and university. An old lady is greeting her son. His Nike sweat pants, runners, and reversed baseball gap contrast with her tattooed arms and legs and a tight skullcap packed with tiny beads once gathered from the river. He has picked up city ways. We all clamber onto the Isuzu pick-up. This is the local bus.
The JR Guesthouse is one of seven. It is immaculate and always humming with passers-by dropping in for a chat and a friendly, quizzical, glance at new arrivals. “Belongs to my cousin”, says Elias, who I later discover has five grandmothers. His grandmother has four sisters so it is customary to share the title - Must be great at Christmas? No - Christmas is a religious affair without presents. Whoops!
“You must be hungry” It was a fact rather than a question since my lunch was already on the table. “Mouse-deer, Python - Oh and a Catfish that I caught in the paddy field this morning” he adds with pride. The high cost of running the generator precludes refrigeration so meat must be freshly hunted or salted. Python has a tough, hairy texture. I resist a second helping. “My aunt is a great cook” With five grandmothers it appears that Elias is related to the whole community, making him the ideal guide!
The Kelabit people number around 6000, of which 1200 or so still live in this valley. As warriors they once struck fear into the hearts of their neighbours. Neat pathways divide the paddy fields, cross bridges and disappear around gentle hills. Tiny kampongs consist of a few houses, a church or two and a longhouse built for ten to twenty families. A single lane track provides cruising or working space for the half dozen trucks flown in by wellheeled inhabitants. Motorbikes and scooters are replacing buffalo carts despite the high cost of fuel.
Heavy rains have turned mountain trails into quagmires, so trekking is out. Elderly women, in wide-brimmed hats worn over headscarves, wade through tiny paddy fields clearing dead stalks in preparation for the next crop. Kelabits are the only indigenous people in Borneo to have developed an intricate irrigation system for wet farming.
We pass the remains of a burned-out longhouse. Two years ago, a young boy went to school leaving behind a flickering candle. The wick eventually reached the planked floor in a pool of melted wax while his parents were working in the fields. Forty people, including the chief's family, were suddenly homeless.
Around the corner the chief is putting finishing touches to his new residence. A long low-set modern bungalow with picture windows framing the school and his land. His wife brings tea and sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. A traditional kitchen fire is burning on tiles set in the centre of the floor. A chimney drops from the ceiling to vent the smoke. She admits to using a two-burner propane stove in the height of summer.
The ears of the chief are scarred by holes, which once held carved leopards teeth. His face is lined and wise. The fifth generation, he must settle community disputes that cannot be resolved by the longhouse headman. He must liaise with the government to protect the rights of his people. He must settle arguments over land ownership. He must be able to accommodate visiting dignitaries. The cost of the house was partially born by his son who made a spectacular leap from the village school to become an administrator at York University in Toronto.
Now 68, he is ruling in a time of radical change. Before missionaries clambered over the hilltops in 1939, the people followed a complex life of animism. Rice was planted at the first siting of a migrating Yellow Wagtail. But, if a black-tailed Spider-hunter happened to fly from the left to cross a man on his way to the paddy field, he must wait for another to pass from the right before continuing on. If a woman heard “banned sounds” or had “forbidden thoughts” during pregnancy, the newborn must be buried alive. (Elias assures me that one of his many uncles was dug up by a well wisher and went on to live a productive life). Christianity has produced simpler rules for people to follow.
We continue our walk. Three boys are fishing in the irrigation ditch. A football match is in noisy progress near the school. Elias greets the driver of a new Suzuki motor scooter; a “cool” uncle dressed in preppy gear; sports shirt; shorts; baseball cap, even a pair of sunglasses. Heavy brass rings adorn his stretched, shoulder-length, earlobes.
We round a corner and head up a narrow path towards the next kampung. The Penan boy is preoccupied. His eyes are combing the treetops. A wooden tube filled with poison-tipped darts, a gourd containing carefully crafted feathered flights, and a hunting knife hang from loops on his belt. The blowpipe is held firmly to his lips. Finally he sees us. His shy furtive eyes take on the anxious look of a cornered deer. The Penan are nomadic hunter-gatherers. They rely on their skills with a blowpipe and foraging in the jungle to feed their families. Like old-time cowboys they prefer to sleep under the stars away from civilisation. He had gathered firewood along the way to sell to the housewives of Bario and was now looking for dinner.
In the ensuing days, I sat on tiny stools around the twinkling kitchen fires of many longhouses where only a handful of old people and a smattering of grandchildren remain. I spoke to kindly men with traditional basin-cut hairstyles and stretched earlobes. I was told laughingly of the pain endured by a woman whose young legs were blackened in intricate patterns by the tattoo artist's needle to better her chances of marriage.
Today's youth are more interested in pursuing an MBA in the city than body decoration and harvesting rice. The Malaysian government, with the help of CIDA, Canada's international development agency, has just introduced ten new computers to the only school at a cost of 120,000 ringgit or US$31000. Surfing the net will soon become the norm - when the generator is functioning. Suspicious locals are being promised new markets for their rice - if anyone is around to greet the Yellow Wagtail and plant the crop?
At the airport, Captain David is joking with the locals in his immaculately pressed uniform. Familiar kindly faces appear to say goodbye. Elias will stay a few more days; he hasn't seen his cousin yet. “Come back and do some trekking when the trails have dried out” - The engines of the trusty Twin-Otter roar into life and we rumble down the bumpy airstrip gathering just enough speed to clear the ridge. The logging roads appear below. How long will it be before they cross into the valley?
I can't deny that progress has allowed me to visit these gentle kindly people. They are emerging from their happy cocoon to embrace what they believe will be a better world. There is no turning back now.
WHY GO: Bario is a base for excellent trekking through government protected jungle. Trips can be prebooked, arranged on arrival or even taken independently. The cost of a guide, guesthouse and food will run around US$20 a day if booked locally. Option #2 is to just chill out and write that novel! THE TIME TO GO IS NOW!
VISAS: Canadians do not require visas to visit Malaysia.
GETTING THERE: There are many ways to fly to Kualar Lumpur the capital. Most connect through Hong Kong. There are regular flights from KL to Miri. The tricky bit is getting from Miri to Bario as flights are often full and should be booked in advance. At US$20 the cost is heavily subsidised and a change of plan won't break the bank.
GETTING AROUND: Having flown more than half way around the world, Bario should be only one of the many reasons for an adventurous traveller to visit the richly endowed province of Sarawak. There is an excellent airport infrastructure with some short flights as cheap as US$8 but they fill quickly. Roads and bus services to most destinations are surprisingly good.
USEFUL WEBSITES AND INFO:
Tourism Malaysia, 830 Burrard St Vancouver. BC V6Z 1X9 Tel:1 604 689 8899 Fax:1 604 689 8804
USEFUL READING: 'World Within - A Borneo Story' by Tom Harrisson who parachuted into the valley in world war 2 and convinced The Kelabit people to help oust The Japanese. Currently out of print but a magical book available at Langara College and Victoria Public Libraries in BC (my search has thus far failed to turn up a copy in Alberta) - Sam Lightener draws on Harrissons memoirs in 'All elevations unknown' available at good travel book stores. Lonely Planet and Rough Guide also do a good job.
WHEN TO GO: January to May are the driest months with October being the wettest.
IF YOU GO:
Copyright © 2005 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.