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.
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.
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 was thought about. I boyishly wondered of things such as sharks in the barrier reefs, the pay load capacity of a condor and the likely winner of a fight between lion and tiger. 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.
“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.
As I heaved my muddy back pack onto my shoulders once more that morning in northern Sumatra I couldn’t help feel a sense of relife. Sure, my hike had challenged me with leaches, thick mud, heat and mosquitos but what had just happened was on an entirely new level and had sent my pulse into overdrive.
My hiking buddies and I had already marched in composed silence for a couple of hours that morning along the old logging trail that lead to the Bahorok river ahead. Each of us was absorbed by the slippery, mud caked path upon which every step had to be chosen wisely in order 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.
Suddenly, there was a sound of crushing undergrowth not too far in front of us. We froze as the rummaging got louder and closer. 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 all over him, one arm raised in the air, hand clenched in a fist urging us all not to move.
Then, some forty metres or so on the path ahead, an adult female orangutang appeared from the bushes. She was perhaps four feet tall, apparently in good health with a long shiny orange coat of fur. She peered straight at us on the trail for a few intense seconds and then slowly started to approach unthreateningly, with a clear intent 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. The orangutang had no fear of humans, he said and occasionally made an appearance on the tourist trodden trails.
I barely had time to take off my rugsack hoping for a few minutes of rest when the ape was upon us and in a fraction of a second, before I could react, my left hand and arm were in her firm clasp.
I felt calm to start off with as 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 snaps with my camera. The ape’s touch felt soft and warm, not unlike the hand of a human. It was reassuring. My new primate friend seemed to pose willingly with me for pictures and even looked straight at the camera for more than just a few.
However, once I had satisfied myself with the shots, I began to feel uncomfortable with animal’s grip. I could see there was no sign from ape of relenting her clasp. I tried to pull free whilst keeping a smile but of course there was no chance to get out the animal’s hold. She was immensely stronger than I could possibly have imagined and her hand held tighter and tighter the more I fought. Now I was getting anxious, I felt threatened, breaking free was a matter of urgency, but I realised that the orangutang could easily overpower me and even snap a bone or bite should she choose to do so. Struggling was futile, there was no way i could win so I chose not to antagonise my captor any further and simply stood still.
The ape had me totally under her power and I looked around for support from my pals. They all saw my concern and told me reiassuringly to remain calm. Someone reached for the contents of their backpack, pulled out banana and waved it in the air. That was what it took. My arm was released instantly with a dash by the ape to grab the prised ransom. I was free and spent a moment examining my arm. Just a bit sore, no damage, no bruising, all good.
So, please don’t even think about offering a hand, arm or limb to an ape. Apes have evolved to live on trees where they climb and swing from branches all day, we all know that. What we might not be aware of is that although they appear smaller than us, make no mistake, they’re immensly stronger than a human, more than you could immagine and once they have you in their grip there is no getting away … unless you have bananas that is.