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The hotel staff prepares Iban dances for the Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching, Malaysia - photos by Max HartshorneThe hotel staff prepares Iban dances for the Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching, Malaysia - photos by Max Hartshorne.

Sarawak, Malaysia: Adventures on the Island of Borneo

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Time to Fly Again

I usually pack for a one-week trip. But last night I stuffed my biggest suitcase fuller than usual because my trip tonight will take me far, far away on the longest non-stop flight you can take.

I'll take off from Newark tonight and go over the pole to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Then another flight to Kuching in the heart of the Sarawak province, on the right side of this sprawling republic of nine distinct regions.

Malaysia Tourism likes their megafams. That means hundreds of journalists and tour operators, from all over the world, but most represented will be fellow Islamic countries. We will assemble in a grand hall and hear speeches and encouragement about Sarawak as a great tourist destination. I like being able to meet people from places like Iran, and Syria, and Indonesia, all of whom will no doubt be in attendance.

On my long flight I will be joined by Sony Stark, who will be toting dozens of pounds of video equipment with which she will film the Rainforest World Music Festival, which will bring dozens of musicians out of the jungle and from around the world to this remote island city.

Fly with me, and read along. I promise to introduce you to some fascinating people and places and show you as much of this wild place as I possibly can. It's traveling time again!

Rainy Kuching is a Diverse Combination of Faiths

We didn't fly over the pole, we headed straight for Stockholm and an hour later were airborne for a tough eleven and a half more hours. Then a little break in Kuala Lumpur and after two more hours, we landed in Kuching.

This city is named for the Malay word for cat. Also for a plant name that sounds like a cat. It's at the tip of this sprawling, wild island of Borneo, the capital of the Sarawak province.

We asked our guide about the prevalence of Muslims here, and he surprised us by saying that the province is split, about a third Chinese, a quarter Malay, (Muslim) and the rest among 27 different tribes. "I am Iban," he said. He had dark skin and said that his people used to be animistic but now are mostly Christian. We passed by an Anglican church, and a school just letting out, with uniformed kids pouring out into the street.

A motorcyclist braves the rain in KuchingA motorcyclist braves the rain in Kuching.

"Muslims here are not fanatic," he told us, reaching over to pat the driver on the shoulder. "I can have my beer, and he is ok with that, he is Malay."

So I won't find that wonderful Islamic music that hypnotized me during my last trip to the northern city of Kota Boru I guess. I remember from last time that every meal on Malaysia's famous 'Mega Fams' are giant buffets. They invite hundreds of journalists and VIPs from all over the world, to assemble in a giant hall and hear the latest on tourism here.

In the hotel buffet, Sony and I dug into a wonderful assortment of noodles, crab dishes, calamari and curried chicken, with lots of rice, and water. We'll get used to the water thing, since booze isn't big here.

Why Do They Call The Island Borneo?

We're just back in the hotel after a tour of this lovely city of about 500,000 on the banks of the Sarawak river. This huge island is called Borneo because way back in the 1800s, a British explorer came up the shore and a man was husking a coconut, or a 'Borneo.' Where are we?', he asked, and the man just replied that this was a coconut. Hence the name Borneo, that is the name of the entire island, the third biggest after Greenland and Madagascar.

Most of the land mass on the bottom is now Indonesia, but up here on the top, is Sarawak, see the map here. The air is clear and the humidity high, the lawns are manicured and well taken care of. We drove past China town, and the Malay village, and to a museum where we found stuffed snakes, birds and fish.

Max Hartshorne and Sony Stark in Kuching, the City of CatsMax Hartshorne and Sony Stark in Kuching, the City of Cats.

Upstairs, we toured an exhibit that showed long houses, the dwellings still favored by the Iban and other tribes in the jungles of Sarawak.

Today they have satellite dishes and flush toilets, but back then it was a little more primitive. On the ceiling human skulls were draped in netting, dozens of them, taken by headhunters who did an 1800s version of ethnic cleansing, killing their enemies and putting their skulls up there to be smoked by the fire.

Our guide Ambrose Nalo told us that though he is an Iban, he has no body art, the famous tattoos of his ancestors. These were etched on people's knuckles, they crafted little skulls to indicate how many kills each man could claim, and this attracted Iban women. Today he said you need more like the 'Three Cs: Credit cards, a car and a condo."

Like Australia, this part of the world doesn't feel like it is suffering from the recession and the pains of bad loans, layoffs and a tough economy. Instead, they are building a massive new parliament building, relocating a grimy fish market away from the riverfront and putting in new walkways, and we see condos and new hotels going up.

"There is very little crime here," said Ambrose, "we don't have many problems with illegal immigrants since there is no beach front where people might enter."

Our guide Ambrose NaloOur guide Ambrose Nalo.

Of course part of this low crime might have to do with the capital punishment and strict jail time that is meted out for drug smuggling and theft. In today's Borneo Post, a headline said 'Castrate Rapists: Dr Ng' which described a top minister's view on the solution to cut down on rape crimes. Rape is rising significantly here, and this might be the way to stop it, Dr. Ng suggests.

An Ironwood Mask, Found Amidst the Dried Fish

I walked out into the humidity and bright sunshine of a Sarawak afternoon. Strolling down the street, I turned onto a street that was all Chinese. Vendors dozed in darkened shops, no lights on, no one asking for sales, but eyeing me over, not friendly, not curious, more like what the hell do you want? I walked on, wanting to shoot photos but not feeling eager, or willing to anger these sleepy shopkeeps.

The stores were tiny, the sidewalk a portico. It felt good to get out of the sun, my eyes still sensitive to light, sunglasses on. I walked up and down the street and then back toward the waterfront.

Here there was a mix, more Chinese owned stores but a friendlier bunch, more people wearing headscarves, more dark-skinned Indians with bad teeth but smiles, and lots of shops selling spices and huge baskets of dried fish. There were so many different sized little fish, each a different price, and the customers sifted through the baskets of fish, checking I guess for the ones they liked.

I went into a shop that said antiques, and at the back was a row of carved masks. I found one I liked, and a shopkeep approached me, and told me it was ironwood, and was Iban. I liked this guy's grin and big round eyes, and it felt substantial. "480 ringets," he said. I was curious but at that price, no sale, it was around $150. "For you, I can do a discount. How about $250?" I was interested but walked away. "Well, tell me how much you want to pay," he said. I came back with $100 and at $150, ($50 US) I had my mask.

A market in KuchingA market in Kuching.

He will make a great addition to the office, and ward away bad spirits and bad payers. I like that he's made of ironwood, the same wood they make telephone poles with here, sturdy and built to last for years. He will look great up on the wall of the GoNOMAD office.

Bidayuh Music Is the Beat Behind These Dancers

The last time I visited Malaysia, I remember the music was one of the highlights of the trip. It was in a market, the tunes blared out and just caught me. On TV early one morning, watching thousands of men circling the Ka'aba at the great mosque in Mecca -- a ritual that's part of the Hajj -- the music was mesmerizing. I've often tried to find music like this and tonight, some of those magical tunes touched my ears again.

We were watching a show, it was dancing by chambermaids, busboys, front desk clerks and sales agents who work at the hotel. They practice Iban dances to perform at special events like tonight's gathering of more than 200 journalists from around the world for the Rainforest Music Festival.

We were at a dinner and they entertained us, coming out wearing glittering tiaras, festive headpieces shaped like wedding cakes, or gold cones, or a red doo-rag. The women smiled as they joyously danced in their sparkling costumes, and the men toted long poles, holding them up as the women danced and swayed beneath them. Bidayuh music was the mesmerizing sound that tied it all together.

Vendors in a Kuching marketVendors in a Kuching market.

After the show, a man in a suit named Bidari came up and said he was the one who puts together the music. He mixes these sounds, some influenced by the Portuguese who traded in Melaka in Western Malaysia, and other songs that are called sea dayak, or land dayak, into a blend that works perfectly for these dancers.

I asked him where I could find them...but the answer wasn't a website or an iTunes download. "You have to go to Mahua music, at the Sarawak Plaza, a shopping mall a few miles away," he said.

He asked me how long I had to stay here, and then he said if I could make time he'd take me over to the shop. I asked him if could just burn a CD of the show's tunes, since he's mastered the art of mixing and chopping and I just like how it sounds. But indeed a trip to a Sarawak music store might be a lot more fun than just getting a copy on CD.

Next Page

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Tags: storySection: Destinations
Location: Asia,Borneo,Malaysia,Oceania
author: Max Hartshorne
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