Friday, 12 November 2010

Hello London, this is Miri, come in London...

This is pretty impressive, is it not? - I'm about 7000 miles from home and can still annoy you all with my witterings. Though to be honest, I'm finding it a little difficult to decide what to tell you, there's just so much that I've seen and done already (plus there is a giant German ecologist talking on his phone in the background and it's very distracting- pipe down Jonas I'm trying to concentrate!)

It's been a whole week since I arrived in Sarawak, and I still haven't quite worked out how I ended up here. Borneo is a place that I have always wanted to visit and if the past week is any indication, I don't think I'm going to be disappointed. The original plan had been to go out with a group and do some voluntary conservation-style work for six weeks, before heading out on my own. Devastatingly though, about four days before I was due to leave that all fell through, and so I was left with the choice of either not going at all and losing all the money that I had put into the trip, or getting on the flight and finding my own way around. Of course I chose the latter and so set off with my backpack, a copy of the Lonely Planet (thank you Julia!!) and no small amount of trepidation.

I finally got to Miri after an epic twentyfourish hours of traveling (the bus journey from Miri airport took almost 5 hours in itself, what with having to wait for the drivers to turn up etc. Still, I managed to kill some time chatting to the incredulous locals, who simply couldn't believe that I had come here on my own. One lady told me that she lives in Kuching with her husband and six children, but her employer made her relocate to Miri earlier this year and so now she works here and only goes home to her family once a fortnight, traveling for ten hours by bus to get there.)

I had planned on staying at the hostel I'd booked in Miri for a couple of days, in order to acclimatise myself to this new world and work out what to do next. Of course this didn't happen. There was another girl staying in the dorm with me and she'd been looking for someone to go to Mulu with her. In my exhausted and overheated state I agreed to accompany her and before I knew it, she and Mrs Lee (the owner of the hostel) had booked me on a flight at 8.30 the next morning and Anna and I were heading off to buy provisions from the local supermarket.

I am so lucky to have bumped into Anna so early on in my trip. She is a communications officer in the Australian army and so knows quite a lot about living out of a rucksack in the wilderness. She can also speak Malay, which is pretty useful since, although almost everyone here speaks English fluently, in some of the more remote places communication can be a bit hit and miss. I feel like such a rookie by comparison, but Anna was incredibly patient with my incompetent bumbling and gave me the perfect introduction to life in Malaysia. Well, I say perfect, more like throwing myself straight in at the deep end with no idea how to swim.

Whilst waiting at the airport for our flight to Mulu, Anna and I met two guys going the same way. Belgium-born Tristan and the large German, Jonas. Together the four of us made our way from dorm to campsite to longhouse, traveling by plane, boat and very dodgy van from Mulu to Limbang, meeting all sorts of interesting people along the way.

Of all the things that I've seen so far, the bats at Deer Cave in Mulu National Park was probably the most spectacular. David Attenborough mentions this daily exodus of 3 million winged beasts in his Planet Earth series and I cannot tell you how incredible it was to witness in real life. The main cavern itself is unbelievably huge. The picture above doesn't really show the scale very well, but I'm using this one because (as well as being pretty pleased with it) it clearly shows the dark patches on the roof that look a bit like moss, but which are actually thousands upon thousands of bats.

I far prefer wandering through the jungle to spending time in the city, at the moment at least. Although after five days of continuous walking and sweating we were all getting pretty ripe and the luxury of a warm shower and a washing machine cannot be dismissed. It's strange here, they add sugar to pretty much everything. Apparently diabetes is becoming a serious problem, not altogether unsurprising when they add condensed milk to tea and then add extra sugar. Bleugh! I think I've finally worked out how to order black tea without sugar, but it's been a lot of trial and error. There's also an odd, slightly unpleasant smell that seems to permeate everything, at first I thought it was my hiking trousers (they were pretty grim by the end) but now that they're clean, the smell is still there, so I think it must be the city rather than me!

There is another shadow that falls upon everything here and of which you are constantly aware- the palm oil plantations. As we flew to Mulu I got my first sighting of this devastating industry. In the middle of stunning forest there were swathes of perfectly straight grid lines cut harshly into the land, rows and rows and rows, extending off as far as the eye could see. Whilst we were staying at 'Camp 5'; a campsite set beside a river, between two mountains in the Mulu National Park, we spoke to the Ranger Ishmael about the plantations. Ishmael is Penan, a peaceful, nomadic tribe who've lived in the forest for thousands of years, and he told us that the government of Sarawak have been forcibly buying up land and relocating people in order to make way for the palm oil. Ishmael went to court to try and stop his people's land being taken, but he is unable to read or write. The English he has, he learned from guiding tourists and he simply doesn't know what the law is or how it works. He said that his lawyer told them not to say anything, so they obeyed and lost the case.
He believes that the forest doesn't just belong to his people, or even to Malaysia, but to the whole world and he knows that he is powerless to save it. The look of despair in his usually cheerful face was beyond upsetting as he asked us for guidance. Ishmael needs someone to tell him what to do because at the moment, the prediction is that in less than twenty years all of the rain forest in Sarawak will have gone forever.

I don't want to end this first post on such a sombre note, but this is one of the major reasons that I decided to come here, to find out about the plantations and how the local people feel about it. It seems that those living in the cities never leave them, I spoke to a lady today who has never been to Brunei or to Mulu, but lived in Miri all her life. She once went to Kota Kinabalu, but that's as far as she's been. The contrast between those living in the forest and the city dwellers couldn't be more stark.

Anywho, it's getting late and I have rambled for far too long. Tomorrow evening Jonas and I head off to Kota Kinabalu (or KK as it's known- see I'm getting the hang of this traveling lingo!) in Sabah, where hopefully I should be able to see some exciting beasts!

Will write again when I can, over and out xxx

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