Sunday, February 1, 2009

Arrival in Borneo!

The first thing that I noticed when coming to Malaysia from Australia was the tropical weather. It hasn’t been extremely hot by Australian standards; maximum temperatures have been around 38°C. However, the humidity has been close to 100% during this first part of my trip. The high humidity means that it’s like living in a sauna. If you sweat, it doesn’t evaporate. The sweat just stays there, soaks your clothes, and makes you feel like you’re wearing a wet-suit. Difficult though it is to spend long hours outside, I've been forcing myself to, and I think that I’m gradually acclimatizing.

My girlfriend and I arrived in the city of Kuching, on the western coast of the island of Borneo, at 11:30 am yesterday. Borneo itself is split among three nations: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. There are two states in the Malaysian portion; Sabah in the south west and Sarawak (of which Kuching is the capital) in the north west.

Literally translated, Kuching means “cat” in the Malay language. There are several cat monuments on traffic islands in the city, some complete with whiskers! The city also hosts many stray cats who seem somewhat more outgoing than those that inhabit Kuala Lumpur.

When we arrived at Kuching Airport yesterday, my girlfriend and I were met by a friend of her family; Mr Pei. We visited Mr Pei’s house to have lunch, and were serenaded by some of the family with an impromptu karaoke performance in Hokkien Chinese. From there, we went on to check in at the Harbor View hotel, situated near the Kuching waterfront on the Sarawak River.

Yesterday afternoon, we were met by another family friend, Uncle Loo, who is a native of Kuching. He took us to visit the weekend market on Jalan Satok (Satok road). Uncle Loo informed us that many of the stall-holders at this market are native river-dwelling people who live further inland than Kuching, and travel to the city only for the weekend market. They sleep on the streets of the market or in their cars. It would be interesting to follow some of these market gardeners back to their homes to see how they live, but that will probably have to wait for a future visit.

Today we visited the Kuching waterfront and collected some supplies for later in the week. We had planned to visit Fort Margherita, which lies across the Sarawak River from Kuching. Unfortunately, though, we caught the wrong boat across the river and landed at a place from which it wasn’t possible to reach the fort. The river boats are very small—maybe 3 m long—and lie low in the water. On the way back to Kuching, the captain of our small boat, with its complement of around 10 passengers, was unable to start the motor, so he paddled the boat by hand across the wide Sarawak River!

Kuching, like much of the rest of Malaysia, has extreme economic juxtaposition. Affluent, western-style shopping centers, complete with Starbucks cafes, are situated beside alleys full of crumbling houses. Dotted among the poorer houses are makeshift mounts for the dishes of satellite TV receivers. New construction work is also happening everywhere.

This year, Kuching has suffered unseasonally-long monsoon rains. The areas surrounding the city have been flooded, and local newspapers have reported that around 800 people have been displaced from their homes due to the flooding. It has rained almost continually since we arrived yesterday, but the city of Kuching itself doesn’t appear to have any flooded areas. We have also not seen any sign of the problems that the flooding has caused, but that may be due to our staying in the most affluent part of the city.

As a caucasian here, I draw some attention as a relative rarity. The Kuching population seems to be comprised of three main groups: native people, Malays, and Chinese. Caucasians are called Gwei Los by the Cantonese-speaking Chinese and Mat Salleh by the Malays.

Finally, this evening, we had dinner at a seafood area near to our hotel. I ate fried fern fronds and various other local vegetarian dishes, which were all very tasty. I eat garlic quite a lot, and the locals here also make very enthusiastic use of it in their cooking.

Tomorrow, we are going to the Sarawak Cultural Centre, and hopefully I will have time to write about it in the evening. Don't forget that more pictures of my journey are online at my Flickr photostream:

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