Friday, February 11, 2011

Reflections

It has taken me a few days to process my thoughts on this trip. This was a trip like none other we have taken. The scenery is certainly not as splendid as the Alps of Austria or the hills of Slovenia. The environment is not as relaxing as being on the beaches of Hawaii. The weather is much less desirable than Yosemite. However, This trip leaves me with a profound awareness of the fragility of our natural resources and diminishing plant and animal life that have lived on our planet since the beginning of time. The fact that these remaining areas are unsustainable and that once gone, irreplaceable, leaves me feeling small and helpless.

It is almost as if I have been transported in time, so great was the contrast between the initial and ending parts of this trip.
I felt a sense of peace walking through the rainforest, so close to nature, yet vulnerable to the unpredictable forces that occur in this environment. The rain, leeches, insects, animals, and changing weather, in this remote environment are beyond my control and made me consider how difficult life was for those forging new paths and fighting for survival long ago. Fighting the elements without the creature comforts of a hot shower, warm bed, modern medicine, 4 wheel drive, running water etc. How difficult that must have been. Flying over the acres and acres of palm trees, born out of land that was cleared of forest, made me gasp. How little remains of this forest; this small enclave of conserved land is all that remains. The local paper tells of the Malaysian government setting aside funds for future development to increase economic returns for local residents. What will happen to the orangutans, the monkeys, the rhinos?

I walk through the streets of Kuala Lumpur, filled corner to corner with high rises, megamalls, overpasses, and towers, a city filled in with concrete and glass, cars everywhere, and think about human consumption and what it really means. Progress is endless so where does it take us? Are we all destined to a life in a mall?

I feel so deeply immersed in the culture of Malaysia and how this island and its people came to be. The audience of this wedding include those from the Bario village of Sarawek, who travelled all day to take part. The 1,000 remaining people in this small tribal village carry on the traditions of their ancestry, an ancestry is is destined to disappear in the next couple of generations. We are a melting pot of cultures and sustaining individual culture is nearly impossible. After a while, all become Malaysian, neither Chinese, Malay, Kelabit or Indian. Just as we all become American, neither Chinese, Japanese, Italian or Russian.

I am grateful for the opportunity to feel the rain on my sweaty body as I walk over the canopy of forest, hearing the gurgling of the frogs and the cooing of the birds. I am also immensely grateful for the chance to experience and interact with an ancient culture of people and the very accepting Malaysians, who live so harmoniously together. They set an example for the rest of us in the world.

Lastly, I was struck by how similar we, as mothers are, regardless of culture and geographical location. The Malaysian young mother, the Muslum mother of grown children, the Irish mother to be - we all share the same hopes, dreams, and pride in our families. We fight the same stereotypes of mothers and women in the workforce, and we share the same frustrations of being the best mother, wife, daughter, and worker we can be. We are more similar than different despite the color of our hair, tone of our skin, our headscarf or lack of.

My life feels significantly richer, the adventure we had will never be forgotten.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Departure

Our last day in Malaysia. We take a taxi to Merdeka Square, Independence Square, which sits in front of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. It is here that the Union Flag was lowered and the Malayan flag hoisted for the first time in 1957. It was the original cricket green of the Royal Selangor Club. the Sultan Abdul Samad Building is one of the most significant landmarks built by the British. The architect was inspired by Indian Moghul architecture and housed the Secretariat and later the Supreme Court before the Ministry of Heritage. The square is surrounded by the National History Museum and St. Mary's cathedral. On the next block is the oldest mosque in Malaysia and we can hear the sounds of prayer chants floating out. I try to capture the varied shapes of the buildings and the contrast between the tudor style buildings, the Islamic mosques and the new highrises. Petronas Towers rises very elegantly in the distance. it is a challenge crossing the main streets as the crosswalk lights do not work and there is a continuous stream of traffic. I think they are putting tourists lives at risk here! The area is beautiful and I linger to take pictures before making my way to Little India and catching a taxi back to the hotel.

We relax and cool off at the Coffee Bean in the mall and I wander around the large bookstore. Bookstores in Malaysia, especially the ones in the airport, cover most of their books with saran wrap. They leave a few out for browsing but for the most part don't encourage reading without buying. We have plans for dinner at Din Tai Feng again. I have my own plans to take a couple of mushroom vegetable buns with me on the plane to eat instead of United's food. Our flight is at 11:30pm but we leave early as the traffic is unpredictable. Good decision as we end up with a flaky taxi driver who obviously has not been to the airport in a long time. He first drives in the opposite direction looking for a gas station, then misses the turn in to the airport and has to drive several miles back to make a u-turn. Over an hour later, he deposits us at the airport. We were not guaranteed a reserved seat on Air China and end up squished in economy class with Ray hugging his legs. Fortunately, we sleep practically the entire way and arrive in Beijing for a long layover.

Beijing - site of the Olympics has outdone itself with this airport. Spacious and beautiful, the lights above sparkle on the marble floors below. Large plate glass windows look out over the airfields and the city. What an impression it must have made with visitors. Upscale stores are in the center and the upper level has food courts galore. We area able to enter the Star Alliance Club which is enormous, with many seating areas and 3 different sections of food. Unfortunately, wireless is not open and free for visitors. One must officially sign up with a passport in order to use wireless, even in Starbucks. The time passes quickly and we soon board our United flight back to San Francisco.

We have bulkhead seats which is a not too shabby way to travel. Across the aisle from me is a young woman with a 9 month old baby traveling to join her husband in Monterey. She doesn't speak English and the flight attendants, none of whom speak Chinese, continue to try to speak English to her. It is rather amusing as they obviously have learned after a few hours, that she speaks no English at all. Service is rather miserable - she asks for warm water for the bottle and gets cold. She is a very devoted mom, who wears a face mask most of the time and handles her baby with plastic gloves on. She holds the baby the entire 11 hour flight and does not eat or drink anything. I am so curious about her that she provides inflight entertainment for me. Her baby is very cute.

Landing in SF, we relish the dry cool weather and feel quite lucky to call this place home.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Kuala Lumpur



As we leave Kuching, it is raining again. Our flight is to Kuala Lumpur for the last leg of our trip. The flight time is less than 2 hours and we arrive to the hustle and bustle of a major Asian city, full of cars and overpasses. This definitely is a city made for driving not walking. It takes us nearly an hour to get to the Cititel hotel, located in the mid valley mall on the southwest outskirts of the city. The room is tiny! We meander into the adjoining mall and I am in awe at its size. Kuala Lumpur is home to some of the biggest malls and this one is the biggest mall in southeast asia at 4.5 million square feet and 430 stores. it seems to be a mile long and several stories high. Decorations are up for Chinese New Year and it being sunday, is full of families and shoppers. Can all these stores stay in business, I wonder? I recall a comment one of the wedding guests had made, that she likes to shop because it is too hot to walk around outside; she doesn't like to sweat, and sweat you will upon stepping foot outside. Can you imagine living your life inside shopping malls? We find the dumpling restaurant Ray has been telling me about, and it turns out to be the famous Din Tai Feng, also located in LA, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia etc. We gorge ourselves on Shanghainese dumplings, filled with a pocket of juice and tasty filling. We roll out of there and decide to visit the Golden Triangle and the Bukit Bintang area, the premier shopping and nightlife district. It is a bit like Fifth Avenue, mall after mall and a shoppers heaven.
Somewhat overstimulating! We decide to buy sushi at the downstairs grocery store and end the day with gelato. California seems sweeter by the day.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Kelabit Wedding

The day was clear and the skies blue, a wonderful day for a wedding. We assembled early to catch the transportation provided for wedding guests. The Church was a distance from the hotel, a simple church with a huge worship hall decorated for the occasion.
Among the guests were families from Taiwan, villagers from Bario, friends and family from Kuching and Kuala Lumpur, and the few of us from overseas. It was a traditional western wedding translated between English and Mandarin. The bride's gown was incredibly beautiful with the longest and widest train I have ever seen. The sermon, delivered by a Malaysian minister, was somewhat amusing as he talked about subservience on the part of the wife and following in his footsteps, showing obedience and respect for her husband. As with all weddings, it was a happy and touching ceremony followed by photos and more food.

We spent the afternoon in the Islamic Museum before heading to the dinner reception.
The dinner reception was quite the affair and we found it to be both fascinating and entertaining. The hotel hall accommodated approximately 500 guests, several hundred from the Kelabit village in Bario. It was more than a family wedding, but a village celebration. The guests were treated to dancing performances traditional to the Kelabit tribe. The bride and groom entered the hall in native costume, complete with headdress and blowpipe, and made their way slowiy to the main stage. Midway through, a group of local woman made a traditional rice wine toast by chanting a folk love story as they walked slowly toward the couple. They also presented the couple with a beautiful traditional musical instrument. Dinner consisted of 10 courses of Chinese banquet style. It was a wedding like no other!

Friday, February 04, 2011

Sarawak History

Contrary to the hotel’s information, we find as we walk the city, that the museums are indeed open today. We spend some time in the textile museum and then the Sarawak Museum where after 2 hours, have a thorough knowledge of the history of Sarawak, from prehistory to modern Malaysian independence. Chinatown is like a ghost town with all businesses closed until Monday.

The wedding prewedding reception is on the hotel pool pavilion deck overlooking the river, and we feast on Chinese, Malaysian and native Kelabit foods. We learn that the rice wrapped in leaves is special rice from Bario, grown in the mountain hillsides without rice paddies. This type of rice is difficult to obtain and is unique to the village Gabriel is from. Bario is located in the Kelabit highlands near the border of Indonesian Kalimantan. It is home to one of the smallest ethnic groups in Sarawak, with only about 1,000 remaining in the village today. Some of the villagers have driven 16 hours to attend the wedding. The small group of guests are from Malaysia or Taiwan, delightful company that makes for a very pleasant evening.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Longhouses






Looking down from our hotel window, I see the river cruise ferry boat meandering its way upriver to the sounds of the call to prayer, the chanting from the nearby mosque. The sights and sounds of a city unlike any other. The day starts out clear but it quickly begins to pour. We are beginning to realize that this is a common occurrence and don't leave the hotel without umbrella in hand. The hotel breakfast buffet is quite a spread of fresh fruit, Asian dishes, pastries, eggs and breads and is quite filling. Upon the recommendation of the bellboy, who apparently is working in conjunction with a local tour guide to fill his minibus with visitors, I reserve seats on the minibus going out to the Sarawak Cultural Village, a 45 min. drive away. 12 hotel guests cram into a rickety old minibus - no one seems to be worried about the lack of seatbelts, or the little girl sitting in between the driver and her dad in the front seat, or the young man on the fold down bench along the side. The ride takes us out of the city past orchards and farms, more and more palm groves.

The Cultural Village is set around a small lake, a combination of houses that describe the indigenous tribal ways of life in Sarawak. We spend the day walking among the various longhouses where the different tribes of Sarawek had their origins. Each house is very different and the cultural show, consisting of dances from different tribes is quite interesting; the costumes are beautiful.Most were river tribes who subsided on fishing and the houses were built of wood, reeds or grasses, and sit on high stilts. The most fascinating tool they used was the blowpipe, a long ironwood tube around 8 feet long that they blew spears out of. Each of the houses has artifacts on display and native people demonstrating cooking, weaving etc. Ray is particularly interested in the Oran ulu, an upriver tribe in Sarawak, Gabriel’s ancestry. More specifically, their family is of the Kelabit group, a population of originally 3,000, but currently only 1,000 that live in the remote plateau of Bario. The local people are rice farmers but many from their tribe have moved to Kuching to find work. Their long house is built high above stilts with posts that are intricately carved and painted. In order to become a "man" and be eligible for marriage, a boy must come home with a "head"! As I walk out the back of the long house, two monkeys dash into the forest and up the trees.

This is monsoon season and the rains come unexpectedly throughout the day shifting from clouds to pouring rain within minutes. After returning back to the hotel, we go out in search of dinner and find ourselves at the Coca Restaurant in the Riverside Majestic Hotel. We have a delicious Chinese meal while watching others having a hot pot buffet dinner. The food in Malaysia is a combination of Chinese and Malay, with some traditional Chinese dishes but others that appear to be a hybrid with curries and spices.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Kuching




Our flight leaves Miri and within an hour, we are circling above Kuching. Kuching, located at the southern end of Borneo is a beautiful capital city situated along the Sarawak River. The river curves like a brown ribbon through the flat bright green landscape before entering the South China Sea. Kuching is a city honoring cats. Today is Chinese New Year and all businesses are closed. As we ride through town in the taxi, we can see fireworks lighting up the sky in many directions. The Grand Margherita Hotel is along the waterfront and our room looks down on the river, which is lit on both sides with colored lights. Fireworks can be seen in the distance. We are unsuccessful in finding dinner and end up in the hotel coffee shop with an unsatisfying meal.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Miri

Miri is in the state of Sarawak, which extends the length of Borneo down to the southern coast. 29% of the people in Sarawak are Chinese. It is the largest state in Borneo and is known as the "Land of the Hornbills".
A little bit of history - Western Borneo was traditionally trading ports and there was regular trade with China and the East Indies and England from very early on. The Sultanate of Brunei ruled much of North Borneo in the 15th -17th centuries. In teh 19th Century, james Brooke, an Englishman was given the area to rule after suppressing a rebellion. Their family ruled for 100 years and were known as White Rajas. The Japanese occupied Borneo between 1941 - 45. In 1945, it was liberated the Australians helped it to recover from the war. In 1963, it declared its independence. Miri is one of the northernmost cities. Much of the population resides along the western coast as the inland and eastern areas are not well developed, with few roads. Those areas remain forested, or are palm groves and farms. Many of the tribal groups still reside in those remote areas.

We learn that traveling to Mulu to see the caves takes more than a day and we decide to stay in Miri and explore the small town. We spend some time shopping and eating before heading to Kuching. Malaysia is one country where so many races of people live harmoniously. Black haired people are predominant but their ancestry may be Malaysian, Chinese, Indian or a combination. Christians and Muslims have a seemingly mutual respect for each other. The call to prayer sounds regularly and women in headscarves are a common sight, yet people wish each other a Happy Chinese New Year and at first glance, it is difficult to distinguish one race from another.

We walked to Canada Hill, the sight of the first oil well in Malaysia and spent the afternoon at the petroleum museum which was quite interesting. The displays show the process of oil exploration all the way to production. Dinner at the Imperial Hotel was surprisingly good.