A week with the Lun Bawang people 2/4

Previous post: Part 1

Traditional backpack

Traditional backpack

During my trip to Long Semadoh, I stayed at Dr Francis Lisa Muga’s family home which is built at the top of a rise that overlooks a meadow. Dr Francis’s family have long since moved out of their longhouse and now, as most of the other villagers, live in houses made of concrete and wood. What struck me when I walked into the house were the two chairs placed right by the window. He said it was his parent’s favourite spot. I can imagine why his parents would sit there as the view was that of an open field, houses at the edge of the field and mountains in the background. Stanley put it best when he said these were ‘Doraemon’ houses with their A-shaped roofs. It was a breathtaking view of nature.

Most of the villagers in Long Semadoh and the outlying villages do not live in long houses anymore. Bee Keng, who is married to Dr Francis, spoke of how her mother-in-law was insistent that they did not completely tear down the longhouse in which they used to live. The kitchen was kept intact and up till today, it remains at the back of their new house. Bee Keng also mentioned that before the installation of solar power in the village, her mother-in-law used to start a fire every morning in the old kitchen of what was left of their longhouse.

Global warming is quite evident here. Francis commented that when he was a young boy growing up in the village, it used to be really cold at night, and the whole family would huddle around a fire in the longhouse. These days, it is much warmer. Indeed, at night, I could move around the house without donning an additional layer though I observed that his parents were in their cardigans. Amenities wise, they have filtered water fresh from the stream uphill. Their house is also equipped with a proper toilet though we did not have hot water. The reason why I mention this is because having electricity all day used to be a luxury here till 3 years ago. Astro is also available in Long Semadoh which got me wondering about whether the satellite dishes could be used to bring the internet to this village. One more item for my to-do-list for the villagers.

The sun sets quite early in Long Semadoh. It is dark by 6:15 PM and the sun rises early at 6:00 AM. Francis’s parents are up by 5:00 AM and in bed by 7:00 PM but I guess we disrupted their schedule when we were there. I was awakened early the following morning by the sound of chickens being fed and running all over the yard. I definitely had images of the ‘chicken whisperer’ as Francis’s mother, Saran Tui, moved the whole group of chickens at will with her hand gestures. I had to be careful where I stepped but that is the charm of village life isn’t it?

Nature is a big part of everyday life here. For instance, while taking a bath, I would notice all kinds of insects crawling on the bathroom walls. Worms also featured on the bathroom floor along with reminders placed by the roaming chickens that they too share space with us. You have to get used to it as in the cities; we usually have to deal mainly with mosquitoes and lizards. Not forgetting giant rats at some of the eating establishments which shall remain unnamed. A mosquito net come in handy as it keeps the lizard’s poop from dropping into your open mouth as you sleep. I have a mosquito net that I bought from the friendly folks at Corezone in Petaling Jaya.

Wild boar meat is quite common here but for my Muslim brothers and sisters, there is also beef and chicken. The people here love the ‘pucuk paku’ vegetable that I enjoy immensely too, and Bario rice is the ultimate. I was told by the headmaster of the local school, Jonathan Labo, that the people in the villages here prefer to eat their rice simply with vegetables and meat and not a lot of sauce. The rice by itself is delicious.

We walked around the village and out to the paddy fields. Along the way, Francis would greet each person like an old friend. There’s no internet service nor phone lines here, so most of the folks have to rely on face-to-face communication and I can see how it’s something we need to nourish in the cities. It was refreshing to have meals where not everyone had their faces buried in a glowing screen. And selfies.. a rarity here though I must admit I was guilty of having everyone wait while I photographed the food before each meal. You can see a hint of impatience in the face of Francis and Stanley as they wait on me.

On the other hand, it’s difficult for the village to sell itself as a tourist destination if they’re not able to maintain a website or even email their customers let alone call anyone. There’s intermittent connection at the local primary school but other than that, Long Semadoh is quite isolated.

In contrast, the villages of Ba’ Kalalan and Bario are connected to the internet, and it could explain why tourists do frequent these villages. I spoke to some of the members of FORMADAT in Long Semadoh, and they said that having a reliable connection to the internet is critical if they are to be successful in marketing their village as a tourist destination.

I heard a funny story about one of the founders of FORMADAT who went on a trip to the US for a speaking engagement. Apparently he had some problems with leaving the plane upon arrival in the US as he had travelled with a similar woven backpack. This is also the same chap who when spoken to in English will say that he does not see any Englishman around. They have kept a little shack for him in Long Semadoh when he visits. The only criteria he had was that he did not want electricity. I want to meet this man.

I was not able to trek in the forest this trip due to time constraints but will do so during my next trip there. The best months to trek is between March and October. In the rainy season, it is not a good idea as the trails will be muddy and leeches will be out in horrifying numbers. I broached the subject of leeches to the trekkers I’ll be working with during my next trip here, but they were not impressed.

Unfortunately, I missed a must-go annual trek, The Heart of Borneo Highlands Eco Challenge in July 2015. The trek was organised by FORMADAT and took place over eight days, making stops at the villages of Ba’ Kelalan, Pa’ Rebata, Lepo Bunga, Long Belaban, Pa Lungan and Bario.

(FORMADAT was established in 2003 as a trans-boundary, grassroots initiative to increase awareness and understanding of the communities of the Highlands, maintain cultural traditions, build local capacity and encourage sustainable development in the heart of Borneo)

With Stanley at the wheel and me riding shotgun, we made it to Ba’ Kelalan for the day. There are a number of homestays and inns in Ba’ Kelalan. For the first time in days, I had a line to the outside world which resulted in too many SMS and missed calls but somehow, it did not matter. I had already learnt how to slow down and allow whatever was supposed to happen, happen. Nature is to be enjoyed without the distraction of technology except for my trusty camera and iPad.

There’s an airport in Ba’ Kelalan making the trip there easier for those who don’t travel well in 4WDs. The drive from Long Semadoh was bumpy and tiring, but there were interesting stops along the way. There’s the salt spring in Pa Umor and numerous picturesque villages along the way. No matter how many times we stopped along the way, the view of the valley below and the paddy fields never failed to take my breath away. We also drove past many buffaloes. I would stare at them and held their gaze but as soon as the car is stopped, they would scatter. Someone told me that before they had a road from Lawas to the villages, it would take days to walk all of the buffaloes down the mountain for sale in the market. I don’t even know how the owner managed to sleep as buffaloes are prone to wandering off to do, well, whatever buffaloes like to do.

There is a level of trust here that does not exist in the big towns and cities. For instance, while driving to Ba’ Kelalan, we passed a stall by the roadside selling vegetables and fruits. There was no one manning the stall. The table was filled with produce and a plastic jug for the buyer to put what was thought to be a fair price for whatever was taken. At the end of the day, the farmer would come by to pick up the money left behind. I managed a peek into the container and found a fair amount of money in it. In Kuala Lumpur, we have cars broken into for small change. Progress you say?

Unlike the big towns and cities in Peninsular Malaysia, it is never difficult to find someone with a friendly face out here. I know it is a stereotypical comment to make but yeah, the people who live outside of towns and cities are friendlier. The local residents here are proud of their culture and heritage. You only need to ask and there will be such stories to listen to. To see their animated faces as they recount past events is something I won’t ever replace with a small screen.

These trips help me put a perspective on what I do. In Kuala Lumpur, it’s easy to get carried away in your own importance but out here, people are working for the collective good. They are so much more appreciative of what they have and nothing seems to faze them. I hope my writing, my photographs can contribute a little to the task of preserving their way of life and creating an environment that will expose more people to this beautiful part of Malaysia.

Link to part 3 of a 4 part series on Long Semadoh

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