Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Welcome to the jungle

I spent the past two weeks exploring the steamy jungles of Borneo. The highlight of my trip was hiking through virgin rainforest. The lowlight of my trip was watching filthy flea-covered dogs eat people’s vomit as they were throwing up.

Luckily, the vomit-eating dogs didn’t make an appearance until the second week of the trip. The first week was pure bliss. The best part was the five days spent trekking in Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak.

The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a true tropical wonderland. According to the park’s brochure, Mulu is home to a mind-boggling 75 species of mammals, 262 types of birds, 74 species of frogs, 47 species of fish, 281 species of butterflies, 52 species of reptiles, 458 species of ants and 20,000 species of invertebrates. But trying to spot all of these creatures in the dense jungle wasn't easy. There were too many hiding places.

The park boasts 1,500 species of flowering plants, including 170 species of wild orchids and 10 species of carnivorous pitcher plants.

Gunung Mulu National Park is also home to the largest cave system in the world. The caves were awesome. It was like going back in time a few million years. It was an otherworldly experience. None of my photos do the caves justice.

A local guide took us into the caves and explained the significance of the different rock formations. He liked to negate every scientific statement he made by saying “that’s what they believe” after every sentence. For example, he’d say, “This cave is 20 million years old. That’s what they believe.” Or he’d say, “These limestone formations were caused by the movement of ancient rivers. That’s what they believe.”

On our fourth night in the park, we hiked to a giant cave to watch 2 million bats fly out for their nightly feeding. They didn’t all fly out at once. They came out like a plume of smoke from a chimney, clustered together in a long, thin band that snaked across the sky. It took more than half an hour for all 2 million bats to come out. It was an amazing thing to see.

I went to Borneo thinking I would see lots of exotic wildlife. I assumed I would see boa constrictors curled around trees and orangutans swinging from vines. I thought I would see crocodiles resting on the riverbanks and elephants tramping through the forest.

Let’s just say my picture of Borneo was a little out of focus. I did see lots of wildlife but on a much smaller scale. I saw lots of termites and ants and butterflies and beetles. And giant cockroaches and centipedes too.

There were leeches galore. I was a little disappointed to be the only one not attacked by leeches. Everyone got bitten but me. I was even walking through the leafy areas to get them to jump on my legs but they just weren’t interested. Stupid leeches.

Aside from hiking, our main mode of transportation was by longboat. The river systems are the main arteries of transport in Sarawak. This is Kalang, one of our guides, using a pole to push us through one of the shallow sections.

Kalang also took us to visit his village where some of the locals were selling handmade crafts. Once nomadic people of the rainforest, these Penan were now living on a government settlement. They were also converts to Christianity, as evidenced by the religious messages stitched into most of their beadwork.

We grudgingly left the park on Day 6 and spent a night in the city of Kuching before heading out into the wilderness again. The next three days and two nights were spent at a traditional Iban longhouse.

I have mixed feelings about the longhouse. It had nothing to do with the Iban people. They were lovely. Like this old guy who tried to teach us how to fish with a net (we didn’t catch anything).

It was the longhouse itself I didn’t really enjoy. There was garbage strewn around outside. It was oppressively hot inside. The smell was almost unbearable. Everyone was smoking. There were mangy cats and skinny dogs everywhere. I got flea bites up and down my legs and arms and all over my ass from sitting on the floor.

There were chickens and pigs that lived under the longhouse. The roosters started crowing at 4 a.m. and didn’t stop until dusk. The chickens would wander in and out of the longhouse. I woke up one night with a chicken flapping its wings by my head. I hate chickens. They are filthy, mean birds.

On our first night there, the Iban people had a rice wine party to welcome us. It was fun with lots of traditional dancing and music. But some people got so drunk they were vomiting right where they were sitting and then the mangy dogs would come over and lick up the vomit. I almost got sick just watching that.

There wasn’t much else to see or do. We were trapped in the middle of the jungle. Most of the Iban didn’t speak English so conversation was limited. I found it difficult to spend a lot of time inside the longhouse because of the smell and the heat so I spent most of my time down by the river, sitting in one of the longboats reading a book.

After three long days at the longhouse, we went back to Kuching for a couple of days. Kuching is a vibrant little city with its mix of Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and indigenous people and I would have liked to have spent more time there.

I spent most of my time in Kuching exploring the colourful shops in the market, like this store that specialized in Muslim headscarves.

Overall, it was an amazing trip. I was lucky to end up with a great bunch of people. It was my first time on a group tour and I was a little nervous about traveling with complete strangers but everyone turned out to be lots of fun. (On a side note, I booked the trip with Intrepid Travel and can't recommend them enough. Everything was well-organized and smooth. We had lots of free time to do our own thing. Our guides were excellent and took us way off the beaten path.)

The group was relatively small. There were only eight other people on the trip, ranging in age from 24 to 64. There was not one person in the group I didn’t like. My favourite people were a British couple on their honeymoon. They said their idea of hell would be to spend their honeymoon at a beach resort surrounded by other married couples talking about their weddings. I also took a shine to Evert, a 30-year-old chef from Belgium, and Paul, a 34-year-old archeologist from Australia. The five of us played cards and drank beer almost every night.

There’s so much more that I haven’t mentioned, like how we were invited to Christmas dinner at a local guy’s house where we gorged on wild boar and jungle ferns. I’ve really just skimmed the highlights (and lowlights) of the trip. But it’s getting late and I have to get ready to go back to work tomorrow. So I’ll leave you with one last picture of this tropical paradise.

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