Sea To Sky – Mesilau Homestay

“All the pathos and irony of leaving one’s youth behind is thus implicit in every joyous moment of travel: one knows that the first joy can never be recovered, and the wise traveler learns not to repeat successes but tries new places all the time.” – Paul Fussell

 Hello Hello,

People are part of what makes a destination interesting, in particular their interaction, family dynamic, lifestyle and day-to-day routine. Some of us experience it when we visit family members in a different country and culture but many of us don’t get to experience this unique opportunity, seeing it firsthand. A homestay gives us that chance. My first homestay was on a pig farm in the outlying area of Le Mans, France when I was 16 years old. The fresh rillette was to die for, and my “mother’s” plump, juicy raspberries made superb jams and pies. I, not so fondly remember there being very little to do and my family decided to help me out by taking I and another boy from a nearby homestay further into the country, dropping us off and making us walk home. While at the farm I mostly stuck to my Walkman, waited for the few times the other teenagers and I would get together and I slept a lot; the stereotypical teenager. My next homestay was the following year when I was in Nairobi and it was very interesting and truly provided an authentic experience. I still savour those memories and in the past year I have been reunited on Facebook with many of my Kenyan friends. It seemed everyone had a maid, no matter how poor they were. We’d walk around the neighbourhood and pick ripe avocadoes off the trees, eating them with salt. We’d hang off open air matatus (mini buses), which shuttled us from one to place to another blaring current hits from their speakers. Our weekend treat was to dance the night away at Carnivore, Nairobi’s still existing outdoor club. All to say, it remains an important part of the travel experience for me and I’ve had several so far here in Borneo.

I read about and was interested in a homestay opportunity close to Mt. Kinabalu where one could stay with the Dusun people in the Mesilau region. The day before my departure I did my recon in KK making my way to the small town bus station where vans leave for the smaller towns and villages. I was told that left every two hours and that they didn’t not leave until they were full so the next day I departed from the Hyatt by taxi to the small town bus station, (a parking lot of vans), and quickly found some coconut water to quench my thirst in the blazing hot sun. I did have a brief encounter with an anti-social Canadian girl who after going to the 7-11 had me worried that the van left without us, with all our belongings inside. I resolved myself to keep my wits about me next time not buying into someone else’s panic.

I’d like to interrupt you to let you know that I am currently melting and may not make it home. As I am writing this I am waiting to leave for the jungle for two nights to see pygmy elephants, crocodiles and proboscis monkeys. No air-conditioning, no bathing in the river due to hungry crocodiles, tons of mosquitoes and macaques (ruthless monkeys). Can’t wait and it is hot as hell here.

Speaking of homestays, I sat next to a man my age named David on the way to Kundasang. David is a Born Again Christian from England who had found the ultimate homestay. Five and a half years ago David left England, moving to Malaysia to spread the word of God. He went into the jungle in Western Malaysia and has been living with an indigenous tribe, only leaving once or twice a year to return home. When I met him he was with two of the villagers who had never left the jungle, experiencing their first flight, departure from the village etc. He had some interesting stories and we discussed his daily life, whether he planned on having a family and what his long term plans were. He said the women he lived with were so small and petite that “it just wasn’t right.” Lol, I could see that, he was 6’4”. I then prodded him some on the whole Born Again thing, I gave him my opinion while respecting his, backing off perhaps more than I typically might, I just wasn’t in the mood to go full throttle, especially in a hot van during such a brief encounter. I think David hopes to at some point export the village’s crafts home to England selling them there and then reinvesting the money back into the village.

I was dropped off at the Kundasang roundabout and was picked up by Aril, the 20 year-old son of the family I was to stay with and we drove to his town, Kambung Mesilau. Mesilau, roughly translated by Aril, means “getting strength from the river.” Known for their agriculture the Dusun are simple people who live immersed in some of the most exquisite scenery I have ever seen. Approximately 1500 people live in the valley primarily growing vegetables, many the same as what we have at home in Ontario; no fruit is grown here as it is too cold. Traditionally they play music with instruments made from bamboo and perform a dance called Sumazau, which is only performed nowadays at special ceremonies and celebrations such as the Lettuce Festival occurring the Saturday after I left. 

Aril’s house is home to almost his entire family. He has 6 siblings ranging in age from 17 to 27; all but one brother lives there. In addition to his siblings are his brother-in-law, sister-in-law, three cousins, his mother, father and an aunt. There are seven bedrooms and two homestay rooms in a separate building next to the house, each with a washroom. Aril’s brother Amrin is a guide at the mountain and is an entrepreneur as well as it was his idea to get the village involved in a homestay program. The only concern I had is that in Borneo “homestay” just means a home to stay in overnight, no guaranteed interaction, sharing and learning. The two brothers have asked me for guidance and advice in developing their program, managing foreigner’s expectations, figuring out costs etc so we are now corresponding by email to do so.

On the way home we stopped at Kambung Mesilau’s downtown, where the village’s two roads meet and I grabbed lunch at the restaurant while the adults stared me down and the children laughed at me. I often stare back at people here until they look away, however, you’ve got to be ready for a serious match. Luckily, I have conditioned myself to many a stare off with my cats so I’m a worthy challenger; I refuse to let them win. After I finished eating we walked through the town for the three minutes I needed to accurately capture it and I particularly liked the village library, which also has the one computer with Internet. Many of you have likely experienced taking photos of children in other countries, and they love to see themselves on the camera’s screen while erupting into fits of giggles when they do. I have now realized that this giggle fit happens regardless of whether they see themselves or not as demonstrated when my I went to show them the photo, the picture was delayed coming to the screen and they died of laughter anyway. That was very amusing to me. Aril then took me to me to my room which was much more pleasant than expected and I settled in while Aril prepared what we needed so he could teach me the traditional fishing methods of the Dusun people.


Learning How To Fish Dusun Style

I was very excited to learn how to fish traditionally and if Survivor decides to allow Canadians to participate I think I would be a valuable member of the tribe as long as I could keep my opinions to myself. I digress. We walked down to the village creek and Aril began to prepare everything explaining the process along the way; I found it all to be pretty cool. First, a thin rod, about three feet long is made from a piece of bamboo. A slit is made in the end where a thread is inserted and tied around the end. Before thread existed they would have used a long thin fiber from bamboo or grass. After, a small hole is made through a sharpened stem of grass, creating a needle. The thread is threaded through and tied. The needle is then inserted into the end of a freshly dug worm and the needle is threaded through the length of the worm which is then run up the length of the thread until it reaches the end of the bamboo rod. It is then looped around the end of the thread. The process is continued until several worms have been used creating a “bow” of worms then used as bait for the fish and crabs that we caught. We fished holding the rod vertically and quickly jerking it if a fish bit and raising it a bit slower when a crab latched on. It was a very interesting experience and we went back to Aril’s home with 8-10 crabs and a ton of little fish, which were fried for dinner. I do have to admit though that I was unable to eat the crabs as the entire crab was consumed in one bite and I just couldn’t do it. They did look good though.  

Aril and his family were very kind and hospitable and Aril drove me around the valley for photo opportunities. I spent time with his family at dinner and another homestay guest, Han, joined us. Han was there to do the Mt. Kinabalu Climbathon which was being held Saturday-Sunday that week, however, I was to be climbing Friday–Saturday. This leads me to my biggest frustration and obstacle so far. I’m finding the Malaysian people, and if I remember correctly, a few other Asian cultures, to be very unforthcoming with information that proves helpful to travellers. You have to ask the right questions, pick apart the answers for the right information and worst of all, this needs to be done without knowing what questions necessarily to ask. I had corresponded with Amrin, a Mt. Kinabalu mountain guide for weeks and had called Park Headquarters for the climb and no one mentioned the Climbathon. I would have missed my chance to climb the mountain if Han hadn’t mentioned he was doing the climb on Saturday and that it would be closed to non-competitors. So, at 8pm that night I called the Park Headquarters and was luckily able to get on the climb the next morning. I have definitely had some luck on my side and have planned it well so that I have some legroom to work with. Both planning and flexibility has bestowed upon me the greatest rewards.

Next Up: Mind Over Matter – Conquering Mt. Kinabalu.

What Was Spent In This Post: Taxi to the small town bus station in KK RM 10, “bus” to Kundasang RM 20, drink RM 2.50, homestay RM 100 (included 3 meals, accommodations, fishing and transport (Kundasang – Mesilau Homestay – Mt. Kinabalu Park Headquarters).

Total: RM 132.50 / CAD $41.29

Miss you all. J 

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