I finally reached a Kelabit long house after a week long hike in the Sarawak jungle. My guide told me that the plan was to rest and continue the trek the following day.
Looking forward to the luxury of a mattress that night I took off my muddy boots and laid down my rug sack at the entrance of the Kelabit house dwelling whilst an elderly local stood and stared at me with a smile. He approached and spoke while my guide translated his words.
“We’re going out hunting tonight” he said hesitantly. “We’ll leave just after sun set. You can come along if you wish but you should try to make yourself useful”.
I didn’t quite know what he meant as he shuffle to the far end of the long house to pick up what looked like some sort of a spear. “Here’s a blowpipe”, he said as he handed the pole over to me. “I’ll show you how to use it, but you need to practice this afternoon”.
“A trek in the forest after dark, hunting with the locals, using a blowpipe, what could possibly go wrong?” I thought to myself. It sounded too good an experience to miss.
Sarawak forest canopy seen from my flight to the Bario highlands.
The Kelabit are an indigenous people, native to the highlands of Bario, Sarawak (northern Borneo), not far from the border with Brunei. Up until a few decades ago this ethnic group lived in almost total isolation, shielded from the outside world by what used to be thick, impenetrable jungle.
First “real contact” with the Kelabit communities occurred during the second world war when a number able men from their community were trained by the Australians to fight the Japanese occupying forces. Then, during the fifties and sixties it was the turn of the missionaries from the western world who reached the Kelabit communities to converted the, with success, to Christianity. In more recent years, rampant timber and palm oil industries have devoured most (if not all ) the jungle that separated the Bario Highlands from the coastal areas of Borneo and put an end to Kelabit isolation.
Traditionally Kelabit hamlets thrive around the “long house”. These are wooden constructions home to extended family groups of tens of individuals generally dedicated to farming, hunting and fishing. According to a 2012 census the size of the Kelabit community stands currently at around six thousand however, many Kelabits no longer live in their native highland area. A considerable portion of the community have relocated to the urban centres of Miri, Bintulu, Sibu and further still.
Traditional Kelabit heritage calls for striking body adornments. The most notable of these are tattoos on arms and legs (mostly for for the ladies) and heavy pendants, worn by both sexes, that can stretch ear lobes to well below shoulder hight.
I struggled to figure out how to handle the blowpipe I was given that day. Luckily the Kelabit elder I had spoken to earlier gave me a demonstration of what to do.
He held the blowpipe in one hand and briskly placed a wooden dart into the hollow with the other. Some 20 to 25 meters away in front of the long house entrance was a a worn cardboard target pinned to a tree. My teacher inhaled deeply, brought the pipe to his lips and squinted as he took aim holding the pipe steady. Then suddenly his cheeks puffed up like two small balloons an with a single burst of the lungs the dart shot out from the end of the pole faster than the eye could see. It hit the target, punctured the bark on the tree behind it and half buried itself in the wood with a dry knock. I could tell that what I had witnessed was a fatal stab delivered with surgical precision.
I was impressed. My tutor knew what he was doing and had made sure I was aware of the standards I needed to match. As he handed the blowpipe back to me I felt perplexed wondering how I could possibly hope to reach mastery in the space of an afternoon.
I spent the following hours on a quest to gain a minimum of blowpipe competence. My initial efforts were pathetic, my darts travelled no further than a few feet from where I stood and then twirled to the ground lamely. They were hardly lethal shots.
I persisted though and gradually improved. My wooden little arrows started to travel further and further although none made it close to the cardboard target on the tree. In the end I had shot several dozen darts into oblivion, gained some sore cheek muscles and risked passing out to hyperventilation. It was not going well, but I put my best efforts into the practice session hoping not to disappoint anyone later in the evening.
The Hunting Posse
As the sun came down that evening a small party of five men gathered in front of the long house ready for the hunt. I joined them with my guide, my weapon in hand and a fist full of darts ready for use.
My hunting pals looked at me bemused.
“What are you doing with that thing?” asked a hunter pointing to my blowpipe. I felt confused, what did he mean?
“ I’ve been practicing all afternoon” I replied.
“You wont need that” he replied.
“That’s just a toy for tourists” said another.
“We use shot guns for hunting” said a third as he revealed a two barrel shooter from under his cape.
I’m sure the ensuing laughter that erupted from my friends could be clearly heard echoing across the Kelabit highlands that evening. The joke was squarely on me and my naivety.
I took it all with a smile, nonchalantly placed the pipe and darts back in the long house and joined the the hunting party again this time armed with nothing more than a flashlight. The chuckling however, continued long after we all disappeared in the bush.
Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.
It sometimes feels as though there’s a drive, not to mention unspoken competition, between the larger cities of the world to create iconic architecture and flaunt this as a symbol of local pride. Some older historic towns of the world have always had options available for this. Rome for example has the Coliseum, Barcellona has the Sagrada Familia, Paris perhaps the Eiffel Tower and Moscow always shows off St. Basil’s’ Cathedral.
In recent years some extraordinary feats of engineering have been completed in the Middle and Far East and there are currently some very stunning modern icons of architecture to be added to the list above. The Burg Khalifa in Dubai, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan and the Shard (a real abomination) in London are just some examples of the latest arrivals. They all seem to add a touch of extra glamour to the cities they belong to, and certainly promote tourism greatly. It remains to be seen though how many will withstand the test of time.
In it’s own small way, colonial Georgetown on the island of Penang in Malaysia has found a clever (and certainly less costly) way to promote itself and attract masses of younger tourists. Steering away from colossal works of architecture, Georgetown has placed itself firmly on the tourist trail by embracing stylish street art as a way of embellishing its narrow alleys and fading building facades. For this it employed several talented street artists from around the globe and encouraged them to use the town as a canvas. The results are fascinating to say the least.
One young artist in particular, Ernest Zacharevic from Lithuania, set the standards very high back in 2012 with some clever and engaging work. Ernest’s “Kids on a Bicycle” and “Boy on a Chair” murals are eye catching, good examples of the artist’s creative style and are favourites with the visiting crowds around town.
The murals in Georgetown have proven to be a huge success. Teams of backpackers fill the town’s many guest houses and spend days roaming the narrow streets seeking out the bigger than life paintings. There are mapped itineraries to follow, with or without a guide, available at every hostel to make sure nothing is missed of what there is to see. A walk around town admiring the murals can take several hours, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
Of course there’s night life in Georgetown as well especially around the Love Lane area. Plenty of bars and clubs here with live bands, music and cheap beer to enjoy.
I liked Georgetown and it’s street art a lot. It has a friendly and relaxed vibe which was exactly what I needed at the time of my visit.
Penang was also my departure point for Sumatra, Indonesia. Lucy (my motorbike) was ferried across the Malacca Strait on two day voyage on board the Setia Jaya, a well known cargo vessel that has ferried the machines of hundreds of overland bikers throughout the years.
I was separated from my beloved motorbike as it travelled to Indonesia for no less than 5 days. No damage, no mishaps, all good!
Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.
A “man’s job” in European (Western) culture is understood to be physically demanding and perhaps involve the use of heavy machinery or hand tools tools such as a pick, an axe or a sledgehammer. Manual labour in the mining and construction industries, steel works and farming are considered typical jobs of this kind.
Things are different elsewhere in the world and southern Asia offered ample opportunity for me to observe how attitudes can vary greatly between cultures. Nepal in particular introduced me to some surprisingly tough roles reserved for women.
Tradition in Nepal is such that most manual labour is carried out by the ladies of the land particularly when it comes to agriculture and life on a farm. In this country it’s almost exclusively the women that manage the muddy rice paddies, grain fields and harvest the crops. It’s the ladies that collect fodder for livestock, take care of the animals, gather firewood and fetch water from the wells.
Of course, women also give birth and take care of the young, manage the household and perhaps run a small catering business on the side for the odd tourist or two who happen to stop by. It seemed to me that no job was too demanding or hard for the ladies in this part of the world.
For sure its known that illiteracy, a strong patriarchal society and religious beliefs have limited opportunities for women globally, not only in Nepal. This has led to the trap of low social standing and subserviency for the female gender, a condition that is transferred in subdued acceptance from from mother to daughter, one generation to the next.
There is little to no chance of economic empowerment for the ladies either. Farming in Nepal pays no wages and inheritance laws at present do almost nothing to favour the women of the households.
There are other matters that appear controversial for those like myself brought up in the West. Child brides for example are a part of the Hindu culture and in Nepal it’s common practice for young girls to find themselves in wedlock by the age of fifteen.
Marriage to foreign men isn’t encouraged either. The right to Nepalese citizenship for children is passed on at birth by the farther, not the mother. Children born from a non Nepalese farther risk remaining stateless.
Regardless of the above, things for Nepalese women have improved (albeit slowly) over the past decade or so. New legislation has been imposed that recognises equal rights between genders and women can know file for divorce at their own will and apply for jobs in the civil service. In fact, a substantial percentage of all government jobs in Nepal are reserved exclusively for women these days. However, old ways are hard to give up and there’s hostility in some areas of the country towards the new laws.
Domestic violence is also rampant in Nepal and without a substantial shift in culture, there will be countless more female victims of abuse before real change is achieved especially in more rural and remote areas.
The men? As far as I could make out, Nepalese men are generally involved in the forces: the army, the police. They take the lion’s share of the booming tourist industry as well, employed in the many guest houses and hotels of Pokhara, Kathmandu and elsewhere. Some work as taxi drivers or guides on the Himalayan trails. The privileged have government jobs, work for banks or are professionals and entrepreneurs. A few become holy men and gurus.
Of course there are privileged women amongst the privileged men but I honestly felt that a huge part of the country’s female population was forgotten, left behind in the muddy fields, stuck with the sickle and the rice harvest, with little hope for a future with options to choose from.
It needs to be said that Nepal carries the scars of a ten year civil war that ended in 2006. The social fabric of the country is still damaged and will take time to heal.
Furthermore, a massive earthquake in 2015 destroyed a noticeble part of the county’s infrastructure substantially hurting the economy. Also, Nepal is fighting to preserve it’s autonomy and identity from the political interests and pressures of India and China, it’s ambitious and often bullying neighbours.
Nepal remains beautiful with warm welcoming people and magnificent sights to admire and explore. Of course it has its problems, as all nations do in this age of unstoppable globalisation. It’s undoubtedly well worth a visit and one that I would thoroughly recommend.
Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.