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Tropic Travels- Week 3: Jalan Jalan, Jiri Makan (Walk, Walk, Find Food)

Wisdom comes from walking in someone else’s shoes for a day. Of course, you can never ever truly be someone else, but if you get a snapshot on their lives, their thinking, their surroundings, the way they perceive the world, their aspirations, fears, traumas, anger and everything else in-between, then that is the next best thing. We had been planning for this moment, to go out to the two villages of Kampung Kiau and Kampung Tambatuon, to live, understand and integrate their pains and feelings about the Earthquake into our report for the PACOS Trust. We had no idea what to expect. We’d heard that the group last year had been in traditional dress and were eating frogs on their first night, so we were prepared for something like that.

And so, myself, Christina, Jessie, Jodie and our amazing interpreter and life of the party, Gordon, left the PACOS offices at midday on September 17th. We’d spent the morning sending goodbye messages to family, friends and loved ones, and it was safe to say that we were a tiny bit nervous.

We left from Donggongon, and made our way around the outer suburbs of Kota Kinabalu, before finding our turnoff to Ranau, the main city in the interior of Borneo. Kampung Kiau, the highest indigenous village in Sabah, rested on the foothills of Mt. Kinabalu, and was just off the main freeway. It would be our destination and home for the first three days of our trip.

Thirty minutes out of KK Jessie popped the deadly question, which would haunt us all for the remainder of our trip: “Gordon, do you like Taylor Swift?” After playing (and singing) ‘Blank Space’ in the backseat, (and naming our four wheel drive Tay-Tay), the field trip banter Kampung Kiau was a two-and-half-hour drive from our homestay, comprising of around 800 individuals of Dusun local descent. It is a beautiful town (bar the hundreds of wild dogs that would beat the crap out of each other every night), snuggled up on several crests on the hillside. Once we arrived at the local homestay next to the church we were greeted by over twenty kids who were on their way to choir practise. Despite being totally exhausted and barely being able to speak any Malay, we managed to play tip and bulrush with them until they were called into rehearsal. Most of them were dressed in either Liverpool or Chelsea football shirts, (the premier league seems pretty huge here), and pretty soon they started copying everything we did, including when we started quoting ‘Shake it Off’ (Taylor was around a lot on this trip).

Finally we also got the chance to meet our local PACOS engagement officer, Synthia. He was to be our local organiser and guide for the whole trip. Finally, the band of six were together!

We had two days of research allocated in both villages, which meant we had very little time outside of doing interviews, observing and recording down notes. Kiau is spread out in the form of several smaller villages all around the mountainside, so we spent the morning of our first day going to one of the outer villages that bore the brunt of the landslide damage. We interviewed a group of twelve villagers for close to two hours, observing how they were still traumatised to go work in their fields, and how even the wind blowing and shaking their roofs reminded them of the quake. They even had to sleep on the street in the first few days following the quake, as many aftershocks were common and people didn’t want to go back inside.

What was really great to see was how positive people were. They told us of the response of NGOs and the church, as well as how the community came together to help each other (from sharing food and water, to even risking their lives to help a local get possessions out of their house, which was listing on the edge of a newly-formed cliff). These people had had very little idea about what Earthquakes were, and what risks came with them, but now they spoke with knowledge and maturity about it, which was enlightening, particularly in the face of them telling us of many of the issues they continue to face, such as lack of government help and issues with water.

Most of the locals manage rice paddy fields, rubber, pineapples, cocoa, yams, bananas, maize and much more. Many of them were terrified to go back to their fields for risk of being buried by landslides and mudflows. Looking at the damage that was nearly inflicted to one of their houses, it was understandable why.

They also told us about the river, how in the past it was a free-flowing monster that weaved its way through the jungle, and was a viable source of tourism and fish. When the mudflows came from millions of tonnes or rock, soil and trees that had been dislodged further upstream on Mt Kinabalu itself, it killed all the fish, destroyed many bridges and the local school, raised the riverbed and destroyed the banks, leading it to become what you see in the picture, a small fast flowing stream surrounded by lodged rock from the mountain.

However what was heart-lifting was the fact that were smiling and laughing, about how the struggles of the past were long-gone, and now the community was adapting, and despite many challenges, healing. When the interview finished we exchanged food (a very important part of Dusun custom). We tried a Durian, a type of local fruit with a flavour resembling something like an onion (Christina and I learnt the hard way how bizarre this tasted), whilst the villagers tried Vegemite (which left many ‘interesting’ looks; they thought it was ‘baby food’). Following surveying damage we left, and made our way back to our homestay, where we had another interview with the Head of Security for the village.

This guy was a local, appointed by the government, and he spruiked much about how much he knew about Earthquakes, how the response was good, and how now the community was already all back to normal (in a nutshell). He was even fluent enough in English to speak to us without the need of Gordon interpreting. He was a great source of knowledge, was western educated, and had travelled to Japan to observe their response of Earthquakes, (to which a 6.0 magnitude quake, which this Borneo one was, is actually quite weak).

We had mixed feelings about this man, his responses seemed totally in contrast with some of the information we had been told earlier about how many sections of the community were still struggling. We hadn’t heard many positive things about the government, and this would be a recurring theme throughout many of our forthcoming interviews, so while fascinating to hear, it certainly created a lot of uncertain ambiguity around the community’s response. It’s amazing how misinformed people can sometimes be, and even more amazing how much damage that really causes.

The second day we spent firstly by going for an amazing walk, surveying many of the local farms (and how many locals used the land for agriculture, such as methods of rubber tapping and multiple types of agriculture in one plot. We also looked at routes to the mountain, as well as seeing Cynthia’s house.

The sheer size of Mt Kinabalu is amazing, its jagged rocks make it out to be an intimidating sight, yet also unbelievably beautiful. It was certainly not hard to see why the locals held the mountain spirit in such high regard. It was even more impressive when it was surrounded by clouds. Even though you couldn’t see it, you knew it was there, staring down at you. The mountain had been heavily scarred by the quake; its tree line falling drastically, leading to the multiple mudslides and destruction of the river. As a result, it was scarred, with white rock exposed everywhere, occasionally interrupted by “hanging gardens”; small sections and outcrops of trees from where the tree line hadn’t fallen. It is nearly twice the height of anything we have in Australia, and is the highest mountain in South-East Asia.

With the walk done, we went to the local community field for our second batch of interviews. We arrived in this old beautiful bamboo thatched traditional hut, complete with working fireplace and ornaments. Over 15 female villagers and farmers, including a local teacher, came to meet us. They told us of the importance of respecting the mountain spirit, and how, despite their conversion to Christianity, they had been able to blend religion with local practise and maintain their indigenous identity. This interview for us made many things clear, this section of the community was more knowledgeable about the earthquakes, which (with the context of how the interview went in mind) seemed to show that different parts of the community had different knowledge about the disaster.

Again, the villagers here were optimistic about the future, particularly the teacher, who viewed that disasters happen everywhere, and that they, like everyone else, had to adapt with these challenges. This teacher was awesome, she even mentioned how the kids had been dealing with trauma through drawings and pictures of the Earthquake aftermath, particularly with the shroud of dust that covered the mountain when sections of the tree line began to fall.

Following lunch, we had to sit down with the guys. The female villagers had always been engaging, talkative, and happy to take part. However, when it came to us interviewing the guys, it was a lot more difficult (us blokes who barely talk about anything outside of beer, girls and the footy. Grumpy old men). We met the village chief, as well as two other builders, whose views were more in the middle ground, compared to the two conflicting interviews we heard the day before.

They mainly spoke of the size and ferocity of the mudslides, which was so intense that it took boulders the size of cars and semi-trailers down with it, as can be seen by the picture of Gordon next to one such boulder. While the impacts here seemed enormous in the foothills, it would be more interesting to observe when we moved downstream to our second village, Kampung Tambatuon, on Sunday.

We left early in Tay-Tay, and took a detour to the town of Kota Belud, with its famous Sunday markets. After over an hour of haggling, refusing, buying (or in my case, getting frustrated at not being to buy anything because Malaysians don’t have anything in my size), and trying many local delicacies, we made our way into town for Roti, a pan fried bread with curry for lunch, before heading to Tambatuon in the afternoon.

The stage was set. We were welcomed by a winding, rocky mountain path, and even came across a section where a landslide had gone over the road (though it had now been cleared). Additionally, we encountered many anti-dam signs (Tambatuon is fighting a fierce campaign against the building of Kiduan Dam, a project to increase the water supply of KK, which will put the town deep underwater), and gates. Then, when we got to the bottom of the hill, we arrived in probably the most beautiful town in all of Asia.

I’m not joking. Even Jessie, who had been all over South-East Asia, and Christina, who had lived in Sri Lanka, were finding it hard not to be taken back by this place, with its breathtaking views, vibrancy, relaxed feel, and its vivid colours and people. Within half-an-hour we concluded that none of us wanted to leave, and we’ve decided that we intend to live here the rest of our lives (not really, but we were seriously considering it).

While we interviewed close to thirty in Kiau, here people are much more on “Malaysian Time” (i.e. people come when they want to come. You say 2pm; they might turn up at 4:30pm). Synthia’s influence here was also not as strong as in Kiau, so the interviews we conducted here were more informal, relaxed, and in the end, it felt much more like we were on holiday.

Tambatuon, unlike Kiau, is much more in touch with the outside world; it is a conservative Christian village, that doesn’t engage in traditional indigenous practises remotely as much as in Kiau. What was interesting though was that the community itself seemed much more tightly-bound and close. Everyone knows everyone. The village was not spread out, like Kiau was together like towns we in Australia are more used to. The men would always meet at 5pm for a soccer match, while the women at the same time would all come together to talk, and occasionally watch.

We had dinner brought to us by two lovely guys, Aaron and Ipoch (who also cooked it themselves). Interestingly, all this talk about not leaving seemed to be rubbing off on Jessie, cause she was quickly developing a small little fascination with Ipoch, that our little group mercilessly egged her on about (But seriously Jessie, he was good looking, could play soccer, had excellent musical taste cause we heard him playing songs from Frozen, as well as Ms Swift’s music, and he can cook. What else do you want in a man? Very good taste, our Jessie has*). Classic Banter.

Our first day in Tambatuon began with a relaxed (interview) chat with five local ladies, who talked much about the progress of the village in three months, and how much more knowledgeable they are about Earthquakes. One of the first things we noticed was how much more positive this village was about the future (even more so than Kiau). Maybe it was because they may have received help quicker or maybe because they were a closer-knit community. Or it might’ve been that they were more in touch with outside influences, and so more of an idea what was going on. But on top of the place being beautiful, the people were as well.

After that interview, and a swim in the gorgeous river, we were due to meet the men for an interview at 3pm (you can tell where this is gonna go). So we waited. We had a nap. Then went for a walk, came back, waited some more, napped again, sat by the river, took some pictures, waited some more, checked out the rugby world cup results (Seriously, South Africa lost to Japan?!), and waited more. By 4:30pm we realised the boys weren’t coming and so decided to go to them, as they starting to play soccer on the local field.

When we arrived, we discovered that an event was being set up on the volleyball court; a wedding that was set to happen on Wednesday (23rd September, and our day of departure). We ran into the Native Chief and interviewed him, and afterwards I went and joined in the local soccer match (which received rapturous applause from the locals. For about twenty seconds, I felt like Messi).

Within five minutes, I’d somehow scored a goal (I hadn’t scored a goal at all during my social soccer days at DLC. Funny world we live in). That night was really peaceful; we all played rounds of Shithead and introduced Synthia and Gordon to it. I finally broke my six game losing streak but the highlight of the night was Synthia, in only his second game, turning Jessie the veteran inside out. Somehow, Christina still hadn’t lost (her luck is freakish, no one knows how she does it!). We’re convinced her winning streak will end…. Soon… please be soon!

Our last day of research began with us getting a tour of the amazing rice paddy fields and gardens. The amount of agricultural enterprises locals are involved in is remarkable, ranging from rice paddies to fish ponds to orchards and plantations, and more. What was more impressive was that they had turned the negatives of the Earthquake into a strength (such as using all the sand from the mudflows as a valuable resource to make concrete, as well as gathering up all the driftwood, cutting it up and using it as a building material, as seen above.

In the afternoon we went to talk to Youths, who were helping set up the wedding. When we got there we were confronted by the lovely sight of an enormous recently deceased pig being cut up for the wedding feast tomorrow (Actually, despite the gore, it was really interesting to watch. I didn’t realise how clinical locals were in butchering this pig so not a single part was wasted). But we eventually looked away when we saw its legs getting split (that won’t leave our heads for a while).

This last interview we did was actually one of the most interesting. We spoke to four nineteen year old girls who had just finished their schooling, and the fact they were not afraid about the quake in the slightest was bewildering. We later found out that they were already knowledgeable on the Earthquake due to social media (one of them thought that the first thing to do after the quake was post a Facebook status about it), which was so fascinating when in comparison with the older generations. Then when we finished the interview and asked if they had any questions for us concerning any worries or problems about the quake; two of the girls turned to me and asked if I was single! (Don’t worry Meg, I said I wasn’t).

With our research complete, we had a really peaceful final night in this beautiful town. Poor Christina was feeling sick, so she went for some shut eye while Jessie and I went to check out the wedding preparations. The pig had been sorted into two enormous woks that were cooking full belt. We found out that the wedding was for a couple that had actually been married two weeks ago, but often you had to have two weddings (one for the bride’s side and one for the grooms). Weddings are a big deal here in Malaysia, and are horrendously expensive.

On top of Grooms often paying dowry for wives (which is often quite expensive), their weddings are enormous. Like, seriously enormous. We found out that this wedding had a casual 500-1000 people turning up (which is actually quite modest by Malaysian standards, according to Gordon). To feed all these people, the village was butchering an entire cow, two pigs and over 300 kilos of chicken, not to mention hundreds of kilos of rice and vegetables! And this was the second wedding?! Jessie and I couldn’t believe it! Neither could Christina, who herself is getting married next year! For the record, if we Aussies ever complain about the logistics of getting married, I think we can count ourselves very lucky.

Unfortunately, we had to leave the following day, so we never got to see how amazing this wedding would’ve been. After a last dip in the river, we parted company with Synthia, and we departed this amazing town. But we had to make a final stop.

I had wanted to travel to a war memorial in Borneo for while: while here, I am currently completing my major creative writing work, which is the story of an Aussie soldier on the Sandakan Death Marches in World War II. So we stopped at the Kundasang War Memorial, and found out about how bad the experiences were. The POW camps in Borneo were some of the worst of the war (with a POW fatality rate of 99.97%!). Of over 2600 POWs in these camps, only six would survive by wars end.

We were all left in an appropriately sombre mood, touched by how beautiful the memorial was, but also shocked about the brutality of the event (and the fact that so little of us Australians know about it). For me it was very clarifying. If I am to do this for my creative writing piece, I have to do it properly, out of respect for many of these brave soldiers.

On our way back we stopped to check out the Kundasang Botannical Gardens, which is a world heritage listed site. This gave us the chance to take some great pictures (I am pretty average with a camera, until Jessie showed me how to do focusing properly. These pictures below came from my endeavours to try and get my focus in order). Some of the flora and fauna was amazing, including many types of orchids, the Pitcher Plant (which is similar to a Venus Flytrap) and many others. We then enjoyed a peaceful final trip back to Kipovo, looking forward to a day off ahead, due to Hari Raya Haji (Festival of Sacrifice), a Islamic public holiday (24th September).

As a final coda, after arriving home and being greeted by our amazing cooks Dana and Doreen, we found out that Monkey the cat had had kittens while we were away! Unfortunately, that didn’t stop her from whining for food the whole night!

I think I can speak for Jessie and Christina when I say that when all three of us are going to look back on and think of this trip to Borneo, most of the memories will be of this field trip. Going to “walk, walk, and find food” (Jalan Jalan, jiri makan), as the Malays call it was something we totally didn’t expect. We had no idea what we had let ourselves in for, we didn’t know what we were going to see, if it was going to be hopeful, hopeless or something in-between.

What we got was two communities, after pain and suffering, rising above their troubles. While they still have a long way to go, it really made us appreciate why we were here, and what we were doing. We are really grateful for the amazing hospitality and care shown towards us by these communities, and we hope that our work contributes to their future ongoing prosperity.

But now, to the future… we couldn’t believe that we now have only one week left to complete this report and present it. Then, poof! We’ll be on a flight back to Australia, just like that! It’s really daunting, and quite frankly I don’t feel ready to go back yet. But at the same time, I feel excited. We as a trio are ready to take on this challenge and see it home, because we realise that we have the chance to be a small building block in the recovery of these communities from this quake. And being part of something like that is something really inspiring and something that I am proud to be taking part in.

I never thought I’d say this, but I can’t wait to get stuck into work! (Does that make me a nerd?).

*Please don’t kill me for this one. I have so much to live for!

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