Friday, 3 December 2010

Rum 'un

Hey there chaps, sorry for the delay, I know that I promised a sparkly new post much earlier than this, but the fates have conspired against me somewhat this week. Yesterday I had my camera stolen from my bag in Kuching, so all the pictures that I took over the last four weeks are gone, including the most amazing picture of a hermit crab which I was going to amuse you all with. That'll teach me to back them up. Ah well, you'll just have to use your imaginations until I can steal some of Jonas' to put up here.

So where was I? Oh yes, I was going to tell you all about my beach-type adventures. It's probably a good thing that I don't have photos to show you, I hear that the snow over in Blighty is becoming slightly out of hand and don't want to you all to destroy your monitors in a fit of jealous rage!

So on Friday morning, Jonas, Breeze, Daniel and I all left Danum Valley in the tiny minibus and headed off back to Lahad Datu- Bah! Bah indeed, for once we got there, we couldn't get out! We found a public minibus that was heading to Semporna, but the driver insisted that he wouldn't set off until the bus had a full contingent of passengers. So we wandered about a bit, buying dried banana slices and nuts for the journey, then sat at the bus stop to wait. The boys went off to get some cash from the bank across the road, leaving Breeze and I alone. Now Breeze is very beautiful, her mother is Burmese and so she has a dark, exotic look which puts this pastey beast to shame! As we sat there, five or six middle aged muslim men came up, put their arms around her and took photos of with their mobile phones. None of them spoke any English and so we sort of just sat there, trying to maintain a normal conversation whilst Breeze's admirers flapped about us. This is something that seems to happen quite a lot out here and I don't think I shall ever get used to it. Yesterday I had lunch in a small cafe in Kuching. I was sitting there, on my own, enjoying my Roti and writing in my notebook, when a woman in a headscarf came and sat down in the seat next to me. Suddenly, there were four other people there, all taking photos with their mobile phones. It's so bizarre! I've never felt so conspicuous in all my life.

But I digress. After over two hours of waiting in Lahad Datu, we finally set off in a bus crammed with people. I was squashed against the wheel arch, with Jonas taking up half of my seat as well as his own. He of course was perfectly comfortable, whilst I spent the entire three hours in a murderous mood, trying to stave off the cramping in my legs.

Semporna is a tiny town, with the majority of one side completely crammed with tiny stalls, all interconnecting in odd, labarynthine passages. On the other side, there is the marina and that consists almost exclusively of dive shops and hotels. Semporna, you see, is the port from which you are able to travel to Sipadan, said to be one of the best diving areas in the world (I have even heard Australians say it's better than the Great Barrier Reef!). Just like everyone else, I was hoping to be able to get one of the precious 120 daily passes and hopefully do my open water PADI. Sadly though, the dive shops that Jonas and I tried confirmed my suspicions, I was not going to be allowed to dive- apparently my DVT back in March is a bit of a blot on my medical records. Still, we were off to Mabul, one of the other islands off the East coast- Jonas to do his PADI and I as a humble snorkler.

(I did not take this photo, I stole it from Google, sorry about that but I couldn't have this post completely without images. This gives you an idea of the buildings on Mabul)

Despite feeling slightly like a child with stabalisers, whilst all the other kids zoom about on their raleigh bikes, I enjoyed myself snorkling about. It's quite an amazing feeling, you're completely isolated, with only the sound of your own breathing to focus on as you look down at the coral and the fish streaming around you. The fish were so beautiful, shoals of brightly coloured beauties flashed past me, jelly fish with purple necklaces flouncing along (damn them and their stinging ways, but they are stunning), and tiny pipefish hiding in the coral. And then the icing on the preverbial cake- a gorgeous sea turtle, swimming languidly along right in front of me, occasionally popping up for air. The sun burn all down my back and on my bum was totally worth it just for that!

There is a massive flaw with Mabul, which you just can't ignore, and it is, yet again, the litter (I know, I know, I'll stop complaining soon, but it really is bad everywhere here and I find the extent of it quite shocking). There were plastic bags caught on the coral, an old tyre left to the algae on the sea bed, water bottles and food wrappers and batteries... It was pretty upsetting since the island could be so beautiful. The beach is in a similar state. All along the coast there are small shanty towns; lean-to shacks made of various odd bits of wood and sheet metal on tall stilts fill the beach, along with hoards of feral dogs and children. That evening, Jonas and I wandered through the alleys between the shacks and discovered stalls filled with shall and coral-based nicknacks, no doubt hacked off the reef. Sharks teeth too, seem to be popular as decorative items. The people who live on Mabul are almost exclusively filipino and their waste disposal method of choice appears to be to throw it on the beautiful white beach or into the clear sea.

Jonas and I had not booked our accommodation in advance (what a surprise!) and so when we went to the resort where all of the other westerners were staying, there were no beds left. Unperturbed, we set off down the beach and found a little longhouse, tucked away in one of the shanty villages. There we found the most amazing little filipino woman. Her name is Jenny (she was so unbelievably excited when she found out we share a name!) and although she looks no more than 35, she has six children back in the Philipines. After she had asked us all the questions she could think of, she sat behind the serving hatch, battered guitar on her knee, and sang us songs. She has a fantastic voice, but I think that she propably learned the lyrics before she had full command of the English language, for some of them were very strange indeed!

That evening, Jonas and I walked around the island trying to locate Breeze and Daniel who we knew were staying somewhere on Mabul after their day's trip to Sipadan. On our way back to the longhouse having failed miserably in our mission, we came across a group of men sitting around an old tree stump on which was set a bottle of rum and an old plastic petrol can filled with water. They insisted we join them, which we did with pleasure, nervously sipping at our watered-down rum from chipped tea cups. Before long a guitar was brought out and some of our companions began to sing, the others around the tree stump happily clapping along, with only the man swinging lazily in the hammock behind seeming to take no notice. A drum kit appeared as if from nowhere. I say drum kit, it was a series of plastic gallon jugs, old paint tins and planks of wood lashed precariously together in the vague shape of a traditional drum kit- it was one of the best instruments I've ever seen.

The rum was really smooth and really quite easy to drink- although I didn't dare ask about the source of the water. I've spent the past three weeks obsessively ensuring that I only drink water that has been boiled or filtered to within an inch of it's life, but I couldn't decline the kind entreties of the musicians and so didn't think about it and after a couple of mouthfulls, forgot to care at all!

We all suddenly realised that it had become very dark, we could no longer see the smiling face of the guitarist, Ross, and so the band moved into the huge veranda at our longhouse, where the party began in ernest. The music was brilliant. The patched up and improvised instruments played with expert hands and the guitarist only stopped strumming when he was down to four strings. A small interlude took place, during which more strings were acquired and more bottles appeared as if by magic. The rum it seems is made locally in the Philipines, but due to fairly recent pirate actvity (tourists were taken hostage off Sipadan back in 2001 and other incidents have occured since. There is now a very heavy military presence off the coast of Semporna, with all boats having to sign in and out at a security check point) there is no direct ferry from Sabah to the Philipines, despite their close proximity to one another. The inhabitants of Mabul therefore, set off to the Philipines in one of their little boats, where they load up the boat with incredibly cheap rum and cigarettes and head straight back.

At around 8.30ish, four other westerners came to join our group, which had grown quite a lot, and the party turned up a notch. I was singing quite unashamedly along by now, to the Beetles, Oasis and at one point, Boyzone (oh the horror)! I think that I was the most active singer/audience member, dancing about in my seat (did I mention that they were feeding me a LOT of rum?!) with cries of 'Inum' (filipino for 'cheers') and 'Minum' (Malay for the same). A storm had broken out around us, the sound of torrential rain and thunder encroaching on our cosy scene, so we pushed the tables together and the band played on. There was a small, older man sitting on my left (I had the best photo of him...sigh) whose name was Arafat Balboa ("you know, like Rocky"). He was a hesitant singer, but played the guitar beautifully, and so I joined in when I knew what he was playing and Ross sang along too. Arafat seemed really shy and quiet at first, sitting back and quietly taking in the atmosphere, that is until the kareoke machine was brought out and he tried to get the Australian girl, Amy to dance with him. It was then that we learned about his snake hips! Seriously I don't think I'll ever get the image of this wiry, barechested man around a head shorter than me, girating his pelvis against one of the pillars in the hall, to the gleeful cries of "5 ringit, 5 ringit" from the other Australian, Isiah. I found myself wondering, not for the first time on this trip, how exactly I came to be here in this place, with these happy, drunk, dancing people on a tropical island in the middle of a storm.

The party finally broke up at about midnight, just as well really since it had started to get a little out of hand- old snake hips in particular seemed to be enjoying himself just a little too much! Jonas and I helped Ross and the drummer (I never caught his name, but that guy was super talented, both on his bespoke drumkit and on the guitar. Every so often the spindly legs of his instrument would start to splay out, threatening to cause the structure to collapse and had to be kicked unceremoniously back into place amid hoots of laughter and applause) to clear up. I didn't count the bottles, but there were at least a dozen, as well as dirty mugs and bags containing the melted remains of icecubes. The men had been using huge conch shells as ashtrays and these were filled with soggy butts. I felt so sorry for Jenny having to clean the detritis the next morning, but we did our best before collapsing into sleep.

I only spent that one night on Mabul, I left for Semporna the following afternoon, there being no real reason for me stay since I couldn't dive. Jonas however remained with Jenny in the longhouse, he still had the rest of his PADI to complete and was then planning to head to the Philipines to snorkle with whale sharks. So we said our farewells on the jetty and I set off, alone once more to see what Kuching had in store for me.

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