Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sabah Trip cont.: Behind the Kampung

Glorious Seafood
On our last day in Kota Kinabalu, we treated ourselves to a yummy seafood dinner at Sedco Complex.

The steamed fish was excellent! The fish was of course caught live from the tank, and cooked immediately, what other way is there? The prawns and clams were a little too strong-flavored for my taste, too much sauces on what would have tasted fine with just a sprinkle of salt. Oh well, they liked it that way here. And we had a nice plateful of 'Sabah Vege' (first time I'd heard of such a thing, but it was yummy).

Keningau - Original Home
The next day, we caught a coach and went to Keningau, my home town. It's a 2.5 hours drive by coach, by car you could nix a half-hour. Up and down the slopey road we went (is there such a word as slopey?), with the coach's engine growling mightily up some slopes.

But we made it to Keningau, no problem, with both of us having enjoyed good naps on the rolling-like-cradle coach. Met up with my mom, who gave us great home-cooked meals at home. You know how moms are, they can't wait to feed their children yummy stuff. And we had loads! My fav: poached tender chicken, with golden yellow crunchy skin, with a liberal dressing of spring onion oil. Oh be still my saliva glands.

Let's Visit a Kampung!
It only too K one day to go stir-crazy from all the in-house chatting and eating. The next day, he immediately requested a sojourn to an authentic local kampung or village. In my pre-marital life, I was definitely not the adventurous type, so I actually didn't know of any interesting local kampungs.

But mom came up with the goods. Apparently a Keningau kampung was selected as 'The Best Kampung in Malaysia' a few years ago.

Really! said I, quite surprised. Which one?

Kampung Bayangan (Shadows Village), said my mom.

Eek, Kampung Bayangan was only a mile from our house. Sure I knew it existed, and I think I'd been there once, in a quick pass-by in a car. I had no idea what it looked like now. But guess where I was going that afternoon?
(to be continued...)
(A few months later... I just discovered that this blog actually has 2 readers, thanks guys!! And they drew my attention to the fact that my Sabah Trip story isn't finished! So sorry... really bad blog ettiquette... I'll get back to this and finish it after the Silk Road Trip story.)

Monday, February 25, 2008

Sabah Trip cont.: Goodbye Gaya Island

We had asked our boat driver, Mr. Main, to pick us up. I wasn't sure he was going to show, but he did.

We said goodbye to the friendly villagers, with a couple of kids coming down to send us off. We got on the boat, waved, and sped off back to KK.

What a great trip, breaking all our preconceptions of the place. There was poverty sure, but the people were nice, friendly, open; ordinary families just getting on with life. Maybe they didn't have a lot of worldly goods, but they adhered to good parenting, caring for each other, earning an honest living.

Maybe the criminal elements were asleep or hiding inland. But they wouldn't stand much of a chance with the good people around.
(End of Gaya Island Water Village posts... Next, 'Behind the Kampung')

Friday, February 22, 2008

Sabah Trip cont.: Water Village Characters

Bajau Man
We talked to a number of people in the village. Everyone had an interesting story, that contributed to the history of this place. A history that was not short (some people had lived here over 30 years), and filled with lively experiences.

There was the Bajau man, who carefully cleaned his knife in preparation for cleaning some fish for lunch. Bajau knives are famous for their practicallity and deadliness. The man's blade was typical, gleaming sharp with frequent tending, black handle wrapped with rope for a tighter grip.

Did he catch the fish himself? asked K, as he snapped the man's picture. I translated.

No, the man said, I bought them at the fish market in KK.

Further talk revealed that he worked as a temporary construction worker: pouring concrete, stacking bricks, and such labors. K and I had worked in construction before, and we knew of these temporary laborers. They went from site to site, one day with work, one day without, and was only paid on the days they worked. There were no benefits, no retirement funds, no security.

I can't afford a concrete house, said the man, so I live here on the water. But he seemed accepting of this, and mentioned that at least it was cooler on the water.

We didn't stay to watch him cook the fish on the big fire he'd prepared. He sent us off with a friendly warning of the crumbling walkways.

100-year-old Man
We moved on and found a group of people sitting in front of another house. An old man carefully cut beans into a pot, while his family gathered around him.

How old is he? asked K as he snapped a picture. I translated the question.

A hundred years old, said one of the kids who followed us. The old man did not lift his head.

K and I both exclaimed at his age and physique, he was in pretty good condition. After we chatted for a few minutes, the old man lifted his head, smiled and agreed that he was in good condition.

They were also Bajaus, and had been here for many years.

K mused that it was amazing that someone could live to a hundred in these conditions. Is poverty actually more conducive to long life? Less indulgence in over-eating, drinking, and all sorts of debilitating luxuries? Maybe.

We left them to their lunch and moved on.

Chat on Stoop
It was blazing hot, and we had nearly gone around the entire village. We wanted to get off the water, and move inland. But the villagers warned us of possible muggers there, so we turned back.

A woman invited us to get out of the sun and sit on her stoop. We did, and the entourage kids collapsed around us. They were probably hot from following us around as well. Most people who live in the tropics don't enjoy the sun much, and try to keep out of it as much as possible. Too much of a good thing sometimes.

I chatted with the woman as K wandered around taking more pics. Here was another story. She had lived there for over thirty years. Her husband had two wives, she was the first wife. She'd had eleven children, but three had died. The youngest was barely three years old.

Her grandchild was also about three-years-old. She laughed when I commented on how close in ages they were. My daughter's doing family planning, she said, but I'm not.

I didn't understand at first, but eventually realized she meant birth control. It is difficult to raise so many children when the paycheck's scarce and unreliable.

K had been curious about where their fresh water came from, so I asked her whether they had a well inland?

No, said she, we get it from KK in barrels, the price is RM4.50 a barrel. I use a barrel up in two or three days: for cooking, cleaning, washing. My kids all need to bathe at least twice a day in this heat.

I knew now why the kids were so clean. They had moms like these, who devotedly took care of them despite the lack of resources. I guess in that sense, they were luckier than some unfortunate kids.
(to be continued...)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Sabah Trip cont.: The Lost Boys

Bright Kids
The kids who followed us around were bright, curious, and totally unreserved. They peppered us with questions: why are you here? what do you want to see? where are you from?

And they acted like little guides, telling us which way to go, which way to avoid, and be careful of the rotting steps. Having them around certainly made me feel safer, like we had the inside track to the village.

They were also clean and nicely dressed. Was I surprised? Yeah a little. They lived in obvious poverty, but appeared well taken care of.

At first they told me they went to school, but after we've walked around a bit and talked more, they revealed that they actually didn't go to school. This did surprise me. Malaysia has virtually free schooling for all citizens, primary and middle school. Perhaps they weren't citizens? I didn't ask.

One boy, with dramatically intense eyes, seemed the most... angry I suppose, that they didn't get any schooling.

But another boy told me cheerfully that they were home schooled. They could read and write.

Who teaches you? I asked. My sister, he said. That made me feel a little better for them.

Harsh Reality
It is sad really. They were beautiful, bright kids. In another environment and life, they would have had so much more opportunities. Here, they were destined to follow their parents into a life of hard labor, or worse, crime.

I hoped they wouldn't.

There are a lot of aid agencies in the world, but some pockets of need are still left unattended. Did I have a rush of impulse to help them? Yes. But aid needs commitment, and is not to be taken lightly, a commitment that I wasn't able to give right then.

All I can say is, thank you boys, for showing us around. We had a great time talking with you. (to be continued...)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sabah Trip cont.: Idyllic Village

The Art of Haggling
We got to the Wet Market, and looked around for the 'jetty'. There was no signpost, just a bunch of people gathered in a roofed open-wall shed. This must be it!

We went down the stairs leading to the sea and found the speed boats. Drivers came up to us immediately, offering 'charters'. The cost: RM40, RM30, RM20; one way? get off? how long stay?

We haggled, with me as a go-between. K is a much better haggler than me.

After several haggling sessions with 5 or 6 drivers, we finally found a potential driver, and lobbed RM15 and RM10 back and forth with him a couple of times. If we waited for a boat to fill, it will cost RM1.50 per person per trip. But it would take some time, so we opted to charter.

I guess in haggling, the party in a hurry loses. So we pretended we had time, could wait for the boat to fill, chatted idly about the water village conditions. Finally the driver came back with an acceptable offer: RM12 per one way trip.

Okay, we said, and got onto the boat.

Boat Trip
Off we went to Gaya Island! It was a quick trip, maybe 5-7 minutes. Great sunny weather, invigorating salty wind, bumping on the gentle waves.

We headed for the landmark we always saw from our hotel window, the Green Mosque. Are you sure? asked our boat driver. Wouldn't you rather go to the school?

We're sure, we said. Besides, we can walk to the school later right?

You have to cross two hills, said the driver, looking a little anxious for us.

We were too excited to take notice.

We arranged for him to pick us up after an hour, and he agreed.

Rickety Steps
First impression of the water village? The steps sure are rickety.

We climbed up onto the walkway. I'm not fond of heights, so walked with cautious timidity at first. K of course was in his realm. He'd walked roof parapets, climbed steel bars, slept on narrow wooden benches... well, you get the picture.

While he's excitedly snapping pics, I'm trying not to imagine how falling into the water would feel.

Friendly Villagers
We walked around. It looked like a normal village. No evil pygmies sharpening knives in readiness to rob and kill us (saw the Mummy 2 recently).

The people were normal, a little curious of the two strangers suddenly in their midst, but friendly, smiling and greeting us. The houses were a little ramshackle, but they had roofs and walls.
(to be continued...)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Sabah Trip cont.: Of Urban Legends

Why did I always think Gaya Island was a den of criminals and other undesirables?

They're all illegal immigrants; they don't have id, there's no way to identify them if they commit crimes; they have weapons and M16s imported illegally from the Phillippines; even the local police are afraid of them because of their superior firepower.

Image of a lawless place overrun by pirates and criminals? Yeah.

Still I personally had never been mugged in Sabah, by Gaya inhabitants or other, though my parents' home was robbed once when they were away for a month. And that's once in their over 60 years' life in Sabah.

Is this urban legend spread by word-of-mouth? When everyone says it, it's automatically considered the truth? I'm sure psychologists and sociologists have studied this phenomenon in detail. And it's probably a protective instinct, saving people from testing potentially dangerous activities or going to dangerous places. But it is rather limiting, and reliability of information is at question.

Well, all I can say is for me personally, I'll be looking at my prejudices a bit more closely before taking them as fact next time. And if I don't, I'm sure K will find a way to bump me out of them. (to be continued...)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sabah Trip cont.: Braving the Den of Thieves

Family Dinner
That night, we had dinner with my aunt and two cousins. My aunt has the inimitable ability of carrying on a one-sided conversation, all night long. I was able to catch up on all the latest family gossip and events, in one go.

K was left to his own devices, and seemed to get on well with my cousins, who are nearly half his age. And he popped the question: have any of you gone to the water village on Gaya Island?

No, said my elder cousin, but I have friends who've been there. It used to have a bad reputation, but the authorities did some cleaning up, and it's safe now, most of the inhabitants are citizens.

Thanks coz.

With that encouragement, K was all fired to go, and dug me out of bed early the next morning to embark on the trip. My curiosity was pricked by this point, so I didn't put up too much of a fight. I guessed it wouldn't hurt to find out more about it before deciding to go or not.

Jesselton Jetty
We took a taxi to Jesselton Jetty, the only jetty in KK town. I asked the driver whether he'd ever gone to that water village.

No, said the driver, but I've friends who've been there. I hear it's ok now, not dangerous at all.

Hmm. Heard it's ok, but never been there. Sounded familiar.

We arrived at the jetty, which was newly renovated, and shone with a fresh coat of paint. The building housed tour operators who provided boat trips to the islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman park.

Nearly Ripped Off...
The tour operators were a little surprised to hear we wanted to go to the village, and not hit the touristy beaches of Sapi, Manukan or Mamutik. If we chartered a boat, they could bring us there, and around the other islands, for a nominal fee of RM200.

RM200?! The one way trip shouldn't cost more than RM1-2.

You shouldn't get off the boat there, said two tour operators, it's dangerous, even us locals don't go there.

We looked for a second opinion, and talked with a couple of shopkeepers. Some echoed the 'it's too dangerous' theme. But one woman said it was ok, she had friends who'd been there, but no she'd never been herself.


Finally the Truth...
One of the tour operators got tired of our persistent questions, and found a guy who actually lived on the water village. He looked like a normal guy, no eye patch, wooden leg, or M16 strapped around his chest. He drove a tour boat for a living. And he was really nice, gave us lots of information.

The water village's inhabitants took boats from the Wet Market not this jetty, and the one way trip cost RM1.50. Tourists may be ripped off, RM40 per trip. But he had a friend who was a boat operator, named Idrus. Just tell him Ramadan sent you, he said, giving us Idrus' cellphone number.

Ramadan also assured us that the water village was a safe place, there were schools (primary and middle), mosques, and peace-loving people.

Now we were psyched. The wonders of accurate information, and its calming effect. We set off on foot to the Wet Market, all ready for our island adventure. (to be continued...)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

080202 Sabah Trip

KK WaterfrontThe Story Begins
The first destination we'd like to share is our trip to Sabah, Malaysia for the Chinese New Year (CNY) holidays.

Since I was born and raised in Sabah, we've already been to most of the touristy destinations like Kundasang (town below Mount Kinabalu), Sepilok (Orang-utan sanctuary), various islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman park.

This time, I was planning for a relaxing trip, since we'd both been working really, really hard for the past few months. Spend a few days in Kota Kinabalu, relax, a little window shopping, walk beside the beach... Then a leisurely visit with my mom in Keningau.

Whim for Risky Adventure
But K, being a more adventurous, can't-sit-still type, had other ideas. Oh he gave me two days of recovery from the plane trip, haircut-massage, walking sedately around town in KK. Then he looked out of our hotel room window (our hotel was right next to the sea), and saw the water village on the island across the way.

And he wanted to go there. Just to have a look at what it was really like, and take pictures and stuff.

Oh no, I said, that's Gaya Island, which is a well known den of criminals, thieves and illegal immigrants. Lots of muggings, murders, rapes and other horrors.

Really? said K a little skeptically. Couldn't be that bad surely, the authorities wouldn't allow such a thing to exist near the town, right? Let's ask around.

I rolled my eyes. What was the man getting me into this time? (to be continued...)

What's In a Blog?

Starting this blog was not my idea. And at first, I was beset by the negatives: will I have enough time to update it, since I'm either busy working, or busy writing. Will K and I get into another tumultuous wrangle over the formats, colors, and design? (since we have vastly different tastes in such things).

But after a while, I decided to do it. I'd have to start a blog someday in my life, before I'm forever labeled as LKK (Lao Kok Kok - old-fashioned as an old chicken, or something like that in Chinese).

Found a blog server, fiddled with the layouts and colors (as predicted, it took a bloody long time). After going back and forth between reds or blues as a main color, I've stuck with this format, at least for the moment.

But enough of that... The whole point of this blog is for K and I to share some of our travel musings. No theme or whatever yet. Maybe after we've done several posts, we can see the whys and whats in our travel choices and plans.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

And so it Starts...

Start of blog