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Blowpipe hunter, maybe.

Blowpipe hunter, maybe.

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 man 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 understand 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 be true.

Forest Canopy from the plane

Sarawak forest canopy seen from my flight to the Bario highlands.

The Kelabit

The Kelabit are a small indigenous ethnic group, native to the highlands of Bario, Sarawak (northern Borneo), not far from the border with Brunei. Up until a few decades ago these indigenous people 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  the missionaries from the western world who reached  the Kelabit communities and converted them 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 northern coastal areas of Borneo and put an end to Kelabit isolation.

A Kelabit elder

A Kelabit elder.

Traditionally Kelabit hamlets thrive  around the “long house”. These are wooden dwellings lived in  by extended family groups of tens of individuals dedicated to farming,  hunting and fishing. According to a 2012 estimate 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.

A Kelabit Lady with the iconic ear pendants

Kelabit Lady with the iconic ear lobe pendants.

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 level.

Target Practice

I struggled to figure out how to handle the blowpipe I was given that day. Luckily the Kelabit elder I had spoken to 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 30 meters away in front of the long house 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 potentially 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 match the mastery I had just witnessed 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.

Blowpipe Practice

Blowpipe Practice, sore cheeks and pitiful results.

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 a dozen darts  into oblivion, gained some sore cheek muscles and risked passing out several times due to hyperventilation. It was not going well but I put my best efforts into the practice session hoping I not to disappoint anyone later in the evening.

The Hunting Posse

As the sun set down that evening a small party of five men gathered in front of the long house  for the  hunt. I joined them with my guide, my weapon and a fist full of darts ready for use.

My new friends looked at me bemused.

“What are you doing with that?” asked a hunter pointing to my blowpipe. I didn’t quite understand what he meant.

“ I’ve been practicing all afternoon” I replied.

Everyone sniggered…

Another Kelabit elder

Another Kelabit elder

“You wont need that” he replied.

“That’s just a toy for tourists” said another.

“We use shot guns” said a third as he revealed a two barrel shooter from under his cape.

I’m sure the ensuing laughter that erupted from my hunting pals could be clearly heard  echoing across all of the Kelabit highlands that evening….the joke 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. I remember my pals  still chuckling at me t  even after we all disappeared in the bush.

Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.

Georgetown, Penang

Georgetown, Penang

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 when it can.

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 if they will withstand the test of time.

Kids on a Bike.

Children a bike, another captivating piece of work from.

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 to visit.  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 and encouraged them to use the town as their own personal canvas.  The results are fascinating indeed.

The Oarsman

Some interesting wall art here with “The Oarsman”.

One young artist in particular, Ernest Zacharevic from Lithuania, set the standards very high when working on the Penang street art project back in 2012. I personally I found his work clever and entertaining.  Ernest’s   “Kids on a Bicycle” and “Boy on a Chair”  murals are definitely eye catching and good examples the artist’s creative style. I wasn’t alone in appreciating his work as there was always a small crowd of admirers in front of his creations with cameras and words of admiration.

Boy on a chair

“Boy o a Chair”. This scene looks so realistic it’s hard not to stop and stare.

Within the space of a few years the murals in Georgetown have proven to be a huge success. Teams of young backpackers from all over the world fill the town’s many guest houses and spend days roaming the narrow streets seeking out bigger than life  paintings to admire. There are mapped itineraries to follow, with or without a guide, available at every hostel to make sure visitors miss nothing of what there is to see. A walk around Georgetown admiring the many murals on display can take several hours, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

Night life, in the George Town area of Penang.

Night life, in the Georgetown area of Penang.

Of course there’s night life in Georgetown as well especially around the Love Lane area. Here there  are plenty of bars and clubs with live bands, music and cheap beer to enjoy.

I liked  Georgetown and it’s street art quite a lot. It had a friendly and relaxed atmosphere which was exactly what I needed  when I got there in late December 2016.

The Biker

My favourite! Always help a biker in need…

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, while I took a cheap Air Asia flight to Medan from Penang. .

Waiting for the Sets Jaya

At the harbour in Penang waiting to load Lucy (my bike) on the Setia Jaya, her chariot to Sumatra.

I was separated from my beloved motorbike as it travelled to Indonesia for no longer than 5 days. No damage, no mishaps, all good!

The Setia Jaya

The amazing Setia Jaya, an old wooden cargo freighter that has has been used by hundreds of overland bikers to ferry their precious machines from Malaysia to Sumatra in Indonesia.

Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.

Brave Women of Nepal

Brave Women of Nepal

A “man’s job” in European (Western) culture is often understood to be of a physically challenging nature and more often than not may involve the use of heavy tools such as pick, an axe or a sledgehammer. Manual labour in the mining industry, in construction, in farming and so on are jobs of this kind.

Ladies carrying wood
Nothing seems too hard for iron women of Nepal

Things are different elsewhere in the world though and southern Asia offered ample opportunity for me to observe the difference in mentality between the East and the West with regards to physical work and who it is that’s expected to perform it. Nepal in particular introduced me to some surprisingly harsh, local womanly roles.

Tradition in Nepal has it that most manual jobs are carried out by the ladies of the land particularly when it comes to agriculture and life on the farm. In this country it’s almost exclusively the women that manage the muddy rice paddies and grain fields. It’s the women that harvest produce from the fields, that collect fodder for livestock, look after farm animals, gather firewood and fetch the water from the wells.

Nepalese ladies at work
Nepali ladies take care of the grain harvest

Of course, women give birth and take care of the children, manage the household and perhaps run a small catering business on the side for the odd tourist or on a hike. 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 imposed low social standing and subserviency for the female gender at large. It’s a trap for the women involved and a condition that unfortunately gets transferred from one generation of women to the next in a sort of subdued acceptance.

Harvesting grain
All have a role in the fields, both the young and the elderly.

There is little chance of economic empowerment for the ladies as well. Farming in Nepal pays little to no wages and inheritance laws at present do almost nothing to favour the women of the households at all.

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 many young girls to find themselves in wedlock by the age of fifteen.

Marriage for nepalese women to foreign nationals isn’t encouraged either. The right to Nepalese citizenship for children is passed on at birth from the farther not the mother. Regardless of all 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 in the country 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 for women only these days. However, it appears that occasionally laws are not enforced at all. Domestic violence is also rampant in Nepal and without a substantial shift in culture, progress in the condition of women, especially in the more rural and remote areas of country, is slow.

Nepalese ladies carrying hay.
Hard work with the hay for the ladies again.

The men? As far as I could make out, men in Nepal are generally employed in the forces: the army, the police. They take the lion’s share of the booming tourist industry as well, working 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, entrepreneurs. A few become holy men and gurus. 

Guru In Nepal
Guru poses for a picture at the Pashupatinath Templein Kathmandu

Of course there are privileged women amongst privileged men but I honestly felt that a huge part of the country’s female population was discarded, left behind in the muddy fields, stuck with the sickle and the rice and with little hope of a better future.

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 was damaged (still is) and it will take time to heal.

Furthermore, a massive earthquake in 2015 destroyed a noticeble part of the county’s infrastructure  hurting the economy, too. Also, this landlocked nation is fighting to preserve it’s autonomy and identity from the political interests and pressures of India, it’s ambitious and often bullying neighbour.

Nepal is a beautiful country 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 but it’s undoubtedly well worth a visit.

Ladies in Nepal relaxing in the shade.
Nepalese ladies relaxing in the shade.

Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.

Snake Charmer’s Bluff

Snake Charmer’s Bluff

A Hike on a Warm Day

The heat started to get to me that day on the trail to the waterfall on the hills around Manali (northern India). I could feel the noon sun bite the back of my neck and the uncomfortable sting of sweat in my eyes. The views in the Summer heat though were enchanting with pine forest, rich green hills and rocky outcrops to admire. There was also the occasional small challenge on my path from “holy cows” laughably determined to block my way forward. Suddenly though, somewhere ahead, a sound unexpected, caught me off guard. The eerie repetitive notes of a Pungi drifted and curled in the air and beckoned my curiosity from somewhere not far off on my trail. I knew the sound was no ordinary one as the Pungi, in India, is a snake charmer’s tool.

Cow, no doubt a holy one in the hills around Manali.
Cow, no doubt a holy one in the hills around Manali.

A few twists and turns ahead on my path and I broke through to an opening where indeed, I found a fakir practicing his charming art. There were two baskets in front of him and only one open from which a small brown hooded cobra swayed and danced to the snake charmer’s tune. I stared at the spectacle with awe, almost in a trance myself. Such bravado was rarely displayed in my part of the world. Actually, the times I ever encountered a snake in the wild were very few back home.

The charmer noticed my mesmerised gaze and motioned me to come closer. Like the cobra under his spell I obeyed and shuffled by his side.

In my school days, as a lad, I read of far away lands and would sometimes reflect upon the marvels of nature. I boyishly wondered of things such as sharks in the barrier reefs, the pay load capacity of a condor or the likely winner of a fight between tiger and lion. There were also pressing questions about snakes and their bites.

Suddenly one of those schoolboy queries, specifically from the snakes and venom department, came thundering back to my mind. Finally there was a chance for a long awaited answer!

“Sir, what do you do if you get bitten by one of your cobras?” I asked with a beam.

The charmer stopped playing his pipe and looked at me with a smile.

“I have my own remedy here in my bag” he replied.

“Have you ever been bitten? I enquired.

“Yes, several times”.

“Can I see the remedy, Sir?” I asked with excitement expecting some kind of magic like potion, a concoction of herbs and maybe animal parts, too.

The charmer opened his black sack, rummaged for a while and handed me a worn looking book. Quickly he resumed his snake charming antics on the brown cobra in front of him. The animal danced a metre or so from me and for a second or two I looked the snake in the eyes. Somehow I knew I was in no real danger and with a hint of disdain I opened the book that I had been handed.

It was a photo album. Pictures of family including parents, siblings, cousins and friends. The charmer had pictures of himself in Hindu shrines, meditating inside temples and embracing holy men. Nice, but clearly this was no remedy for a snake bite let alone the venom of a cobra.
“Interesting pictures Sir, but the rem…..”

I had hardly finished the sentence that the charmer grabbed a basket from behind his back and forced it into my hands. Like a flash the cover came off and the Pungi started to whine. I watched as the inevitable unfolded. The hooded head of a cobra emerged and extended out of the box. The flustered snake glanced and darted its tongue at me briefly and then adjusted its sights on the charmer.

The only thing I could think of though was that all this was a ploy to avoid the answer to my burning question. The boy inside me was raging. I would not pass on the chance of a lifetime for a real answer on what a snake charmer does when bitten by his own snake, not even a dancing cobra within striking distance was gonna stop me.

Poisonous snakes?
Poisonous snakes?

“Yes, really nice..ehh….what do we do if the snake bites?” I asked still with basket in hand.

For my insolence the charmer opened another box from behind his back, fumbled inside with his hand and pulled out one more reptile that he placed gently around my neck. I hoped there and then it might be a harmless python but at the time I couldn’t be sure. Steve, my hiking buddy that day, took a picture of my sorry state with cobra and adorning living necklace.
At this point I figured it was best to stop asking questions.
Slowly the snake charmer ran out of breath and put down his flute like instrument. The cobra relaxed and fell back into its basket which was then taken from my hands. The snake on my neck was next to go back in its box.
With the threat of venom gone I turned my gaze back to the snake charmer’s eyes. He smiled and knew that my question was coming again.

“Sir, the remedy for snake bites?” I insisted with a smile.

“Ah, yes”.  The poor man rummaged in his black sack once again and produced a piece of pink polished clay-stone about the size of a grown man’s thumb. He handed it to me and said:

“When I get bitten by cobra I rub this stone on the wound and after two or three hours everything is well”.

I looked at the small rock in disbelief. There, the mystery was solved. Finally, my boyish desire to know was satisfied. Now, I had the truth!

So, what to make of it?

So my friends, it certainly doesn’t take a background in geology to figure out the reality behind the appearance.

Many snakes used by snake charmers have been mutilated. Their poison glands ripped from inside them and their venomous fangs filled with wax. Occasionally the mouths of these poor creatures are sowed shut with thin fishing line and in extreme cases the snakes are not even fed while in the custody of their charmers.
I am by no means implying that there are no real snake charmers out there doing the real snake charming thing. Nor am I saying that all snake charmers are charlatans. What I am suggesting though, is that those who resort to a lump of clay to cure unlikely poisonous cobra bites, most probably are.

Travellingstranger Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.

Orangutan Hand Shake!

Orangutan Hand Shake!

A pause along a jungle path

As I reluctantly heaved my muddy and sweaty back pack onto my shoulders one more time that mid morning in northern Sumatra I couldn’t help thinking how the final day of my jungle hike had not gone quite as planned. Sure, there were the leaches, the mud, the humidity not to mention the mosquito bites to contend with but what had just happened was on an entirely new level and had gotten my pulse racing.

My group of four hikers and a guide, had made its way slowly in composed silence perhaps for a couple of hours already that morning along the old logging trail that lead to the Bahorok river a few kilometres away from our night’s camp. Each of us was absorbed by the slippery, mud caked path upon which every step had to be chosen carefully to avoid a grimy fall. The humming and the buzzing of insects all around us was as intense as ever and somewhere in the distance I remember the occasional howl of a lonely Gibbon.

Jungle treck
Jungle Hike

Suddenly, there was a sound of crushing undergrowth not too far ahead of us. We froze as the rummaging got louder and closer to our position. I felt the a surge of excitement and reached for my camera not really knowing what to expect. Our guide was stiff, a look of apprehension over his face, one arm raised in the air, a white knuckle fist urging us all not to move.

Then, some 40 metres or so on the path ahead an adult female orangutang appeared from the bushes. She was perhaps four feet tall, apparently in her prime with a healthy shiny orange coat of fur. She peered straight at us for a few intense seconds and then slowly started to approach unthreateningly, with the clear intention of joining our party.

Our guide remained still but gone was his sense of urgency. He knew this ape well and assured us, as it wobbled closer, that the animal had grown in a rehabilitation centre and had been fostered back into the wild some years ago. She had no fear of humans and occasionally made an appearance on the trails trodden by tourists.

The Drama

I barely had time to take off my backpack anticipating a few minutes of rest when the ape was on us and in a fraction of a second, before I could react, my left hand and arm were in her firm clasp.

Orangutang hand shake
…still finding it amusing at this point.

I felt calm to start off with and there seemed nothing to be alarmed about. I took this extraordinary encounter as a photo opportunity and asked others in the group to take some frames with my camera. The ape’s touch felt soft and warm, not unlike the hand of a human. It was reassuring. Also, the the orangutang seemed to pose willingly with me for some pictures and looked straight into camera for a couple of frames.

However, once I had satisfied myself with the shots, I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable with animal’s grip as I could see there was no sign from my newly found buddy of relenting the clasp. I tried to pull myself free whilst keeping a smile on my face. Of course there was absolutely no chance I could get away from the animal’s hold. She was immensely stronger than I could possibly have imagined and her hand held tighter and tighter the more I struggled. Now I was getting anxious, this was becoming threatening and I could tell the orangutang could easily overpower me and even snap a bone or bite should she choose to do so. Struggling was futile, I decided not to antagonise my captor any further and simply stood still.

The ape had me totally in her power and I looked around for support from my hiking pals.  They all saw my concern. Someone reached for the contents of their backpack, pulled out banana and waved it in the air. That was all it took. My arm was released instantly as the the ape made a dash to snatch the ransom. I was free and spent a moment examining my arm. Just a bit sore, no damage, no bruising.

Eyes of an Orangutang
Orangutang stares inquisitively

Lesson learned

So, the moral of the story is: do not attempt to shake hands with an ape. It’s a trick to win some bananas off you and if you have none to offer then you’re pretty much fecked. Apes live in the jungle, many on trees where they jump, swing from branch to branch all day, we all know that. What we might not be aware of is that although they can appear smaller than us, make no mistake, they are a damn sight stronger than you could possibly  think.

Travellingstranger 2018 ©. All rights reserved.