Sing a Song

“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” – John Steinbeck

I feel so honoured and privileged to have been invited to the village of Nanga Bangkit located a six hour boat road from the nearest city, to an indigenous village of 300 people, most who have not seen a foreigner since 1992 when a swinging bridge was built there by Canadian and American students. 

My journey began with a hope and a prayer and almost nothing planned. Not knowing whether I would succeed in my quest to reach the village and “live” amongst the Iban for two days and one night. During the planning of this trip I had come across a post of a man who had done the same years ago, maybe even ten years ago and thought “that is exactly the experience I am searching for.”

I woke up Monday morning in Kuching having no idea what was ahead of me. Franky delivered me to the river where I purchased my ticket to Sibu, a four hour ride up the river on a boat that held approximately 100 people. I sat outside with my sweatshirt (that’s right, Lululemon) acting as a seat cushion and enjoyed the mostly uneventful ride, other than being startled by a pissed off rooster. And then towards the end of the trip one of the men on the boat, who had consumed his share of morning brewskies, decided “I was very beautiful and he loved me;” the extent of his English. I politely and sternly told him I was not interested, although it took about an hour of him following me around and the passengers watching it go down until he passed out. Soon thereafter we arrived into Sibu.

Sibu isn’t a city I wanted to spend any time in so after perfecting the balancing act of a 15kg backpack on my back while I peed (I dared not put anything down in the washroom) I immediately made my way to the boat for Song. It was departing in 15 minutes so they were no longer selling tickets for seating and so up I went on the roof with the luggage and a few other passengers. I sat there and my “seat cushion” came to the rescue yet again providing the padding for this leg of my trip. 

I was quite happy to sit there, the sun was hot as the Schwarzenegger/Shriver scandal and this would be the first of many, many times I would be advised to cover myself up to keep myself from getting brown. Here in Malaysia and most of Asia, the ideal is to be as fair as possible in skin tone. I have explained several times, since then that in many parts of the world brown skin exhibits health and status; that one has the funds to travel. My reasoning doesn’t matter to Malaysians, I have been questioned again and again and again, in fact looked upon with disdain as I sit in the sun and the Malaysians cower in the shade, often with heavy jeans, long shirts and another shirt covering their necks, faces and heads. Yes, I must look ridiculous and ok, I might be burning up right now but damn I look good! The next day I definitely got some disapproving looks as I splashed river water on my body to cool me down.

I had called from Kuching the previous day and made a reservation at the Sukarami Inn in “downtown” Song. Song, located on the Batang Rejan River is a very basic town of about 1500 people, downtown is two blocks long and as I got off the boat, collected my belongings I could already see my accommodations from the jetty.

I walked in and was greeted by Saibah, a Malay (all Malaysian Muslims are called Malays) and she check me in to my RM40 per night room. Her English was fantastic as she had lived in Kuala Lumpur and she then invited me to her home after she was off work. I accepted her invitation. The room was very basic and most would not have been ok to stay there but it had a/c and I took a much needed cold shower. The bed was somewhat bearable although the blanket was stained, the sheets had hair on them and the pillows, well, there was no way I was using them. I did for a moment contemplate sleeping standing up.

I hadn’t really eaten that day so I went downstairs into the town and hoped to find some food. It was 5pm, dinnertime and I thought I’d have plenty of choice but it seemed everything was closed. I went into one restaurant where some people were gathered watching what seemed to be a soap opera and begged for food. They made me a noodle dish with some chicken in it, it was pretty damn good and I washed it down with a can of A&W root beer but instead it says Sarsaparilla on the can – the root used to make rootbeer. 

My next task was to find out about getting to this remote village, was it even possible? I truly hoped so because Song wasn’t exactly where I wanted to spend my time and after walking around for 20 minutes I had seen it all. I was invited to have a drink with four gentlemen sitting down in a café next to the hotel (they had said hello a few times and their English was good) and so I did. I was in the right place at the right time. One of them, Bennett, was born and raised in Nanga Bankit. His mother, brother and his family live in the longhouse and after contacting the village’s leader I was invited to join as the village’s special guest. I was to call him in the morning to confirm all the details and we were good to go. To be honest, I had no idea what a privilege this would be.

I met up with Saibah who took me to her home on her scooter. I loved her scooter and riding past the houses; the street was beautiful as everything here is so lush.  It is hot and sunny during the day, almost unbearable at 35C with 95% humidity and then at 4pm, much like in the Caribbean, it rains. Difference is that here it pours and when I say pours I mean, monsoon like. Fat juicy drops of clean, fresh, delicious water. I love the rain, I love it here, I love it at home, and I love listening to it as it hits the roof of our cottage in Muskoka, Ontario. I loved growing up with it, I loved dancing with my father around the cul-de-sac we still live on and placing the lost worms in the grass, saving them from their demise the next day when the sun would dry up all the rain. I love the romance of the rain, I love walking in the rain and I’m not sure there is anything better than Paris in then rain. I had my poncho from a lodge I had stayed at in the Amazon and I was quite content.

Saibah’s house was simple but also large. I met her son and his children as well as her two daughters, her aunt and her mom. The made me tea, soup and gave me some Malaysian snacks. Her hospitality was greatly appreciated, as was her wireless Internet. She scooted me home around 8:30pm and I entered into my room looking forward to my slumber.

Unfortunately some type of creature was also looking forward to slumbering with me. There was a fresh dropping on my bed and even one on my bottle of toner in my toiletry bag. Ok, now I was freaked out and I was in full warrior mode. I looked at the air conditioner and the top part of it was missing so I believe it was open to the outside letting whatever walk right into my room. Light bulb moment, I had packed duct tape! I went over and covered almost the entire hole save some space for air to pass through but not a creature of any size. Next, I peeled back the disgusting top sheet and blanket and threw them aside and lay down the towel I had been given and then the towel I had bought in Kuching. I blew up my airplane pillow and had my blanket. I was nodding off to sleep, thank God I was so tired due to the time difference or that would have been a hell of a night, when I had a thought about whatever it was, crawling into my mouth as I slept. The visual of what I must have looked like that evening still makes me laugh. I had confiscated all the facemasks in my doctor’s lobby after a visit to the doctor before I left, so I grabbed one from my bag and put it on. And then I lay down like a mummy with my inflatable pillow around my head and neck and didn’t move a muscle all night. In the morning I quickly showered wanting to get out of there as soon as possible when a roach the size of Texas ran from my garbage to behind the far table leg; my screams might of woken the entire floor – all natives of Song. My final coup d’état was to slam the table into the wall as I left crushing the roach but they’re indestructible and I didn’t get it. Ugh, disgusting.

I met Saibah for breakfast and Bennett came and met us to discuss my transportation to Nanga Bankit. As we talked it seemed that I was really going to need someone who spoke English and Saibah recommended I hire Bennet to take me to his family and stay with me. I was up for it if he could get off work. Well, let’s just say that there isn’t a whole lot of work going on in Song. At all. Saibah sits at the desk at the hotel and waits for a foreigner to come by, maybe once every few months and she talks to the people who live there. Bennet works for the communication company that is responsible for sending updates to Sibu about Song and the villages/longhouses within a four hour radius. He travels from time to time, basically perpetually hanging out. When there is an election things get exciting. So with six colleagues, all doing absolutely nothing, he was free to come with me. I paid for his boat ride there and back plus RM 80 / CAD $ 26.50 but could have paid him RM 50. He did an excellent job and was invaluable so the RM 80 was well spent. Bennett’s office also has a few computers with Internet for the townspeople to use for free.

Bennett and I bought food to take with us, spending RM 46 / CAD $15 for two days. He made sure we had transportation and as Song is an outpost for supplies we shared the boat with about 20 other villagers and their supplies going to various villages along the river. We set out on our 2.5 hour ride and I had no idea that I was about to embark on an adventure I will never forget, possibly the coolest thing I have ever done, my heart sang that day! 

What Was Spent In This Post: RM 45 – boat from Kuching to Sibu. Snacks and washroom visit – RM 5. Boat from Sibu  – Song, RM 17. Accommodations RM40. Dinner RM 5.50. Breakfast for me and Saibah RM 10.50. Food for Bennett and I, RM 46. Boat ride for 2 to Nanga Bankit, RM 34.

Total: RM 203 / CAD $68

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