Touts and Tour Guides

Trip Start Aug 14, 2009
Trip End Nov 13, 2009

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Where I stayed
The New Rejang Hotel and an Iban Longhouse

Flag of Malaysia  ,
Friday, August 28, 2009

So after Sibu and its strange small town delights we headed for Kapit.  Smaller, dirtier and somehow more menacing.  I think that it may have been that the boat dock was just a row of Express Boats that had docked to the concrete steps and you had to thread your way over a series of narrow boat decks to get to the steps, combined with the determination of people to run us over whilst carrying heavy boxes and being greeted by a motorcycle riding travel guide who insisted that we take his card (Joshua is his name) in case we needed a guide.  That wasn't the only time we saw him.  He rode passed us three times in 5 minutes, each time with a new bit of info, including not to go with the Chinese tour company as they don't know the local customs of the Iban.  Erin began to think that he was stalking us but he was mentioned in the travel info we had picked up independently of him so he checked out.

Our main concern though was not a tour guide but a bed for the night.  We tried a couple of different hotels; either full or expensive and inadequate.  We finally got to the New Rejang Hotel, a clean and affordable hotel that was able to put a mattress down on the floor in the tiny room so that all three of us could sleep in the same room.  It was squashy but not terrible and the shower was great! Hot and cold water and good pressure!

The next morning we left the hotel to find some breakfast and there was Joshua, riding passed on his bike.  It seemed too good to be true that he just happened by but we dismissed it as we he was friendly, knowledgeable and came recommended.  We struck a deal with him at the little cafe that he hung out in.  It seemed rather expensive, though we were going to spend 2 nights at an Iban Longhouse way up river which we needed to get supplies and petrol for and he arranged a visit to another Longhouse the other side of Kapit, a very traditional one that still had its trophy skulls from its headhunting days.

I don't want to sound disparaging or anything but I must say that I was less than impressed with Joshua's guidance the next day at our Longhouse visit.  He seemed more interested in conversing with the headman in Iban than speaking to us about traditional life and the history of the longhouse.  When we asked questions no real explanations were given and the 'gifts' we brought for the longhouse were sugar laden chips and lollipops for the children (some as young as 18mths) and sugar laden cordial to share. 

I'm all for gifts to acknowledge hospitality and show respect but I expected a little better from a man who claimed to know the culture and should therefore know the health issues faced by his people the Iban (and other indigenous peoples the world over) regarding sugar, diabetes and kidney failure.  The whopping big renal dialysis centre in Kuching was testament to the high prevalence of kidney disease in the mainly indigenous population of Sarawak.  I was saddened that our visit may well add to that toll.

The other thing I was less than impressed with was this 39 year old man flirting with my 16-year-old daughter; offering her cigarettes, alcohol and to take her out and show her the 'nightspots' of Kapit.  He did this while Cait and I were exploring the Longhouse; watching a woman in her eighties (at least) using the traditional weaving loom to make another beautiful 'pua kumbal' and another woman of similar age binding the pattern into the threads so that they could be dyed before being woven.  When we came back Erin quickly hid what she was doing (drinking rice wine) but Joshua's casual mention of his invitation and his guilty look when he invited me to accompany them said it all.  I was thankful that he was not going to be our guide on our home-stay at the Iban Longhouse on the Mungar River - if that was the case I would have demanded our money back.  When we got back to Kapit and he had the driver drop us at our hotel Erin got out of the bus and I sent her on up to the room.  I then told Joshua what I thought of his flirting with Erin, firmly but respectfully - more than he did with us.  I don't think he was used to women who were not enamoured with his 'charms', hopefully he'll think twice the next time.

That night we did not see Joshua.  We found some food, nothing to write home about and Cait had her umpteenth noodles and egg dish - the interior of Sarawak is not known for it's vegetarian options.  The next day we were expecting our guide to take us up river to our Longhouse stay.  We got up reasonably early, Joshua called us at our hotel to let us know that the guide was on his way and that he was doing the shopping for our supplies for the visit.  I was dressed by this stage and I should have insisted that I go along and shop with him as what we ended up with (discovered at the longhouse) was white bread (full of sugar and not to our host's taste), coconut jam, unripe banana's for the journey and I'm not sure what else but it was of very little nutritional value and contained no supplies for Cait even though he knew she was vegetarian.

At about 11am we were introduced to Thomas, our guide and his children Josephine (18) and Augustine (11), who all spoke English but in the end only Thomas did most of the talking.  Our journey up river started in the hottest part of the day and we relentlessly ploughed up against the stream for the next 2 and 1/2 hours.  Shade was none existent.  The longboat we were on was basic but perfectly functional.  Erin used her Hello Kitty umbrella as a source of shade (unfortunately a bit into the journey I was holding it and the wind caught it and turned it inside-out - bye, bye, hello kitty umbrella) and Cait and I sat under our hats and were thankful of the breeze caused by the speed of the boat. 

Thomas pointed things out to us but it was hard to have a great conversation over the noise of the outboard motor.  We were exhausted once we arrived.  We had travelled up three different rivers to get there.  We went into the longhouse - the communal space was very neat and tidy - and Thomas beckoned us into his house where we dumped our packs and then sat on the floor drinking sars cordial and eating dry crackers.  Thomas introduced us to his mother See-am who looked to be in her 70's but who knows.  She is a tiny woman with wirey strength and a captivating smile.  She spoke no English at all - every communication with her was in improvised sign language.  There were two other women there but we didn't find out there names until later, they were Thomas' wife and sister.  They didn't speak English either.  I tried to talk to Josephine but she wouldn't really engage - every one of them except Thomas were too scared to use the English they knew because they didn't think it was good enough.  Cait, Erin and I tried to encourage them to speak with us as our Malay and Iban were none existent but it was left to Thomas to be the interpreter.  This meant that for the most of the visit we didn't really know what was going on if we sat with the women as Thomas didn't translate women's conversations and if we sat with the men then those conversations were for the men and we were usually not invited to join in.  We asked questions but even Thomas' English was limited and the hoped for cultural learning was by implication not communication.

I'll tell you all now - the accommodation was BASIC!  Thin mattresses on the floor, lumpy, mouldy pillows, rickety squat toilet, bathing and washing! (not naked mind you - fully clothed) in the river that everything else went into or else 'showering' in either of the spaces within the longhouse that had cold water running from a tap and a hand bucket.  The first night's food was filling but not imaginative and not a patch on Emily's cooking but then they had little running water, no plumbing, a two burner gas stove and a wood fire and no laminated bench tops or anything to be fancy with, just a floor and a few bowls and a kitchen table and chairs.  We were lulled to sleep by the sweet sounds of 90 decibel WWE - Triple H versus Umaga in a 'streetfight' where anything goes, including ball grabbing, crotch pounding and use of sledgehammers - I'm not saying anymore.

We woke the next day at about 5.30 am to the chorus of roosters that were strategically placed around the longhouse so that no area was hidden from the sound.  Today was the day that the people of the longhouse were going to celebrate the start of the building of their new longhouse on a site about 15 mins down river from the current longhouse.  We were invited to the party.  First Thomas' father (Bangkong, the headman) was going to go down and pray at the site (they were Roman Catholics) and then everyone was to go down, the first concrete poles were to be poured and a party was to be had.  We were up, dressed and breakfasted (weak, sweet tea with powdered milk, white bread and sickly sweet coconut jam compliments of Joshua) by 6.30am.  We waited another hour and a half before we were told that we were off.  Everyone came along except Bangkong who was already there and See-am who stayed behind to look after the household chores and probably to keep an eye on the severely disabled man (probably a son but we were never told, another topic that was not discussed) who was on the floor in the room next to the kitchen and gently ministered to by See-am and Bangkong at breakfast and dinner. 

On arrival we were ushered to a makeshift hut, out of the now gathering heat.  On board with us and subsequently at the site were Thomas, Augustine, Josephine, Sina (Thomas' wife), Thomas' sister and her husband food supplies and four live chickens (caught that morning by See-am and placed in a cardboard box with air or head holes for easy carriage).  All the women (us included), the food and the chickens were gathered together.  Other boats started to arrive with a variety of families on board.  The site became a little more lively and we were introduced to Thomas' mother? who spoke a little English.  We were instantly confused by this as we had already met his mother but we realised that she was actually his mother-in-law and that the complexities of our labelling system were immaterial to them - once you married someone their family became yours and your sister's children were yours as were your brothers by marriage and so on...

The ceremony finally began after the men had busily set about hammering makeshift walkways between the wooden molds for the cement.  The women (not us, we were guests) had prepared the vegetables, banana stalk - peeled, sliced and then the sticky bits taken off - which is round and white once peeled and broken dried bean curd into water; Cait thought that the message about her being a vegetarian must have been communicated.  Now was the time for the public praying to be done.  Everyone gathered around while a man read in Iban from a book, seeking blessings I'm sure for the new site and peace and prosperity for its inhabitants.  They then ended the prayers with a Hail Mary and an Our Father - even in Iban the cadence was the same.  To top off the ceremony the chickens, who had been placed a little to the side of the central area and who were popping their heads out of the little holes suddenly became the centre of attention.  A man with a knife stepped up to the box and hacked off the head of one, then two, three and four chickens - their little bodies flapping about in the box and blood spurting from their severed necks.  These chickens became our lunch - an essential distinction for Thomas who told us that the Iban used to sacrifice and waste animals but now they just killed them to eat - a subtle distinction I feel - the interweaving of Catholicism and ritual sacrifice is never too far away.

Some boats had brought some of the young men from the village too, suddenly we were the centre of attention as the young men all vied for Erin's attention.   Rice wine was passed around and Omar, the smiliest and most handsome of the young men (and we dubbed him Romeo), was most enamoured with Erin's pale beauty and blue eyes.  He tried very hard to win her over, his white teeth flashing as he smiled and chatted with her but she remained steadfastly true to Ian.  We were befriended by a very happy woman who spoke little English but was determined to get us slightly pissed.  Thomas disapproved and came to save us from their friendly shelter. 

Lunch was served.  Stewed chicken and banana stalk and bean curd cooked with sardines, oh and rice.  Cait ate rice.  Thomas tried to give her the fish and bean curd, he didn't get vegetarianism it seemed.  Celebrations ended, boats back to the old longhouse were taken.  Cement had been poured and everyone was exhausted.  The longhouse became a haven for people to sleep off the heat and the activity (and the rice wine).  Dinner that night was pumpkin (not cooked with meat), rice and leftover lunch all mixed together (chicken, beancurd and fish!).  Sina took pity on Erin and I and fried some unadulterated chicken in mild spices - delicious.  Again we went to sleep to the sounds of WWE but this time I had managed to turn down the volume without anyone realising and so it wasn't so obtrusive.  Every one of the family watched it at some stage - bizarre!

The morning started the same way - ROOSTERS!  We convinced Thomas to take us back in the morning to beat the heat - I think this worked for him too, he needed to see a doctor about his very sore back.  The trip back only took about an hour and a half, going with the current.  We dropped off his dad at the junction of two rivers - later that morning we bumped into him on the streets of Kapit. Sina came along to so the hopping.  When we arrived in Kapit we thanked Sina and Thomas for their generous hospitality and started to head for the dock to get a boat back to Sibu.  I was disinclined to speak to Joshua as I was very angry with him for sending us to the longhouse with inadequate supplies (Thomas had not liked the jam , juice or white bread).  He called Thomas on his mobile, got to speak to me.  Insisted we meet him at the coffee shop but when we got there he was busy with some friend. "Ten minutes", he said.  Half an hour later he had disappeared to 'do something'. We finished our food, gathered our packs and walked to the dock - just in time to get the 11.30am boat back to Sibu - we did not encounter Joshua on the way, he does not have any way to contact us, that is as it should be.

If you are ever in Sibu steer clear of Joshua the tout of the black bike and black outfit - go with Alice Chau tours instead, you'll get a fairer deal I'm sure.
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