Saturday, June 14, 2003

Swampiní it in Malaysia
An Educated Redneck Let Loose in Tasek Bera
by Matt Salleh

Every night when I lay my head down in the constructed comfort of my Kuala Lumpur apartment mysterious things happen outside. Tigers, tapir, mouse deer and cobras conduct their nightly rituals, invisible in the dense vegetation known as the Malaysian rainforest. Birds and bats flit about catching moths en route to chase the moon. Bird, bat and moth alike spread the germ of life from stamen to pistil. So it occurs, witnessed by few human eyes and largely unheeded in human thought, an endless cycle, night after night.

The events of the natural world take place without our permission and most often without our knowledge. We have to make special efforts to get out of our cities and into forests to witness these things. Malaysia offers an abundance of opportunities to visit wild places and see things that few have seen. That is one of the reasons I came to live here, to witness the miracles firsthand, to see local flora and fauna act out their daily dramas.

Tropical rainforests, coral reefs, mountains, wetlands, rivers, lakes and caves comprise the physical geography of Malaysia, one of the 10 most biologically diverse areas in the world. Each ecosystem is important and unique in its life sustaining capabilities. Each one should be experienced intimately in the deepest sense by every one of us if we are to truly appreciate the profound importance and mesmerizing beauty they effortlessly possess.

My passport tells me I am a foreigner in this country. My heart tells me otherwise. Deep inside I know I am a citizen of the world. Consequently, itís important to me to feel as at home in the rainforests of South East Asia as I do in the piedmont plateau of Georgia, USA. Wherever I go, I consider home. I belong here as much as I belong in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains or the backwoods of the Okeefenokee Swamp. As a citizen of the Earth, the places of natural beauty in Malaysia are in my care. So I go out seeking, reconnoitring for adventures of experience to reinforce my sense of stewardship. Today will find my friend Badrul and I in a wetland a few hours outside Kuala Lumpur.

I met Badrul a couple of months previous during a snorkelling trip off the island of Pulau Lalang. The trip was organized by the Malaysian Nature Society, which I had recently joined. While relaxing and eating, between the rise and fall of the tides, we chatted about our mutual interests. It was then he invited me to accompany him to a remote place in Malaysia where he was to begin work on an eco-tourism project. He spoke of native people living in traditional houses, mysterious wetlands and exotic wildlife. I was intrigued. He didnít have to ask twice!

We met around 8 a.m. at a Petronas station in Sri Hartamas and made a short visit to his office before we hit the road. Badrul works for Wetlands International, a team of folks working to conserve wetlands in various countries around the world. His office is typical of those dedicated to the preservation of natural places. Decorated with posters of fish and plants on the walls, it exudes a more casual feel than offices dedicated to business. Iíve been in many such offices, even entire buildings dedicated to ecological research, but I still havenít gotten over the irony of buildings with air conditioned offices full of computers and fantastic technologies dedicated to conserving things outside.

Shortly, we were on the road to Tasek Bera, Malaysiaís only protected wetlands and home to the Orang Asli Semelai, an indigenous people who have lived around the swamp for nearly 600 years. The trip held promises of adventure, exotic plants and animals as well as conversations with Semelai people.

Tasek Bera is a slow moving, alluvial black-water swamp in the state of Pahang, a few hours southeast of Kuala Lumpur (KL). Flowing northward through a wide channel at an almost imperceptible rate it eventually joins the River Pahang and empties into the South China Sea. The wetland encompasses 25km x 35 km. Its sheer size makes it an important asset to Malaysia. The people that live there and their way of life are disappearing as modern society encroaches upon their world.

We bounced down the highway in a squeaky Mitsubishi Pajero through small town Malaysia. The sights and sounds were tantalizing. The pungent odor of fish-head curry simmering in a street stall and cili padi frying in a blackened wok blanketed the streets and flooded our vehicle. The diversity of people hobbling around chaotically buying the wide array of colorful products on the streets awakened my senses.

As we drove, Badrul and I chatted about world affairs and how people could become ìcitizens of the worldî ignoring race, nationality, politics, and religion in terms of relating to each other and focus on the fact that we are all human with human needs. We decided humans have more in common than different.

Around noon we stopped at a roadside stall for lunch. We ordered nasi goreng pattaya and limau ais to take away. We didnít linger to eat. Tasek Bera was within spittiní distance. The swamp was calling us.

We stopped in Pos Iskandar, a tiny settlement drowning in a sea of palm oil and rubber plantations, a stark contrast to the riparian flora of Tasek Bera. When we arrived, Badrul introduced me to our guides Yohanif and Rashim. They were short, lanky, and were clad in deep brown skin. They exuded backwoods experience. My first impressions were that they knew what they were doing and I could trust them to lead me into the swamp. Large smiles plastered their faces. They were eager to show us around and share their knowledge. Theyíd lived on the banks of Tasek Bera most of their lives. They knew this place. To them it was not an exotic locale; it was home.

Pos Iskandar is home to the Orang Asli ìofficeî for eco-tourism. The office itself is a fusion of traditional construction methods and modern materials. A tin roof rests on thin plywood walls. A traditional woven mat blankets the floor. With four rooms: a kitchen, bedroom, toilet and main living room, itís small, no bigger than 500 square feet. A perfectly efficient design. It reminded me of cabins I had seen in the mountains of north Georgia. Not really an ìofficeî by modern standards with only a crude desk marred with candle wax, a half painted chair, and a computer screen for which Badrul brought the rest of the hardware from home, the place is cozy. It is aptly described as the cradle for the Orang Asliís newborn eco-tourism project. I felt at ease.

After we swallowed our lunch, Badrul and I were itchiní to get to the swamp. Yohanif handed us our paddles and we carried them down to meet the canoe. We followed a freshly cut dirt trail and I noticed a little girl sitting near shore. I guessed her to be about eight years old. She was working on something of utmost importance. A large parang dangled from her side, at least half as long as she was. I thought it necessary to learn how to use such a knife at an early age if you live near the swamp. I wondered what else she might know that I had yet to learn in my 32 years of existence. She focused on her project to the extent that we walked by unnoticed.

Already, I could tell I was gonna learn heaps from these fellas. My thoughts were confirmed when I saw the canoe. A 12-foot tree had been hollowed using fire and adze and carved to a point on both ends a little wider than my hips. It reminded me of a blade of grass.

The paddles were a treat as sweet. They measured an arms length and 2-hand widths with sharp tips. Their detail exceeded that of the canoe with intricate designs engraved on the body. The handle fit neatly into the palm of my hand with indentations for the fingers. I suddenly realized I was holding six hundred years of ergonomic design evolved in the swamps of Malaysia. I was elated.

Back home in the States I had been a canoe instructor for several summers. I taught teens how to paddle flat water on Lake Chapman in Athens, Georgia. Once in a while we ventured into the realm of kayaking. I was familiar with watercraft, but this canoe was a different animal.

The canoe itself sat less than an inch above the water when loaded, at least partially due to the fact that they werenít built for the likes of me. In general, Orang Asli are much smaller in stature than I. Most of them rise to my shoulders when standing side by side. I am not large by U.S. standards at five foot ten inches. I hoped I could demonstrate a modicum of competence and not appear as a total dummy to Yohanif.
We pushed off and floated out. Yohanif guided us on the canoe trip while Rashim departed and returned up the bank.

A few basket-like fish traps floated near the surface with lines dangling in the water. Obviously, the Semelai use the swamp for food and fishing is one of the main sources.

We paddled upstream towards a kampung Badrul wanted to show me. Tasek Bera has a very mild current that flows ever so slowly and gives minimal resistance. Even so, it had been months since I had paddled and I could feel the demands on my shoulders and back.

The canoe trail was severely overgrown. In some parts we had to lie down in the canoe so we could pass under fallen logs.

As we paddled we passed impressive stands of pandanu whose sturdy leaves reminded me of yucca. They were pointed and thorny on the edge. More than once I was jabbed by a pandanu leaf in the shoulder or leg as we drifted near shore or crossed under the overgrown canoe trail. Later I learned that pandanu is an important plant for the Orang Asli. I recalled seeing a pandanu mat on the floor of the eco-tourism office.

Not only is pandanu important to the Orang Asli, but is also an ecologically important species at Tasek Bera. It co-dominates the landscape with sedge known as Lepironia. Turtles and fish breed within the maze of pandanu and Lepironia roots safely hidden away from most predators. Birds and insects nest in the upper branches of pandanu. Both species provide camouflage for predators and prey such as water monitors and mouse deer. A complex web of life has developed in the swamp based around the pandanu and Lepironia. The Semelai are part of the web as they depend on the swamp for their livelihood.

As we floated, my mind drifted around thoughts of the complexity of ecosystems, the delicate balance of life in the world and the subtle beauty surrounding me.

Shortly, Badrul told me the kampung, a Semelai village, was nearby.

As we rounded a corner we encountered a tree that had fallen across the stream. It was too low for us to go under. The water was too deep and the banks too overgrown to portage the canoe. We made our way to the tangled mass of weeds, pandanu and tree trunk. In succession, we each perched precariously on the prostrate tree and slid delicately back down as the canoe passed underneath. Any slight movement in the wrong direction would mean a flipped vessel. I had to be extremely careful. I figured a wet mat salleh ainít a pretty picture and I didnít want to find out.

Badrul went first with no complications. I was next. Yohanif, of course, hopped over like a civet leaping after prey. Success! We smiled as we paddled away and continued upstream another 50 meters. I figured I had proven my worth to Yohanif. Something he never asked for and probably never thought of although it was of utmost importance to my male ego.

You can imagine our dismay when we saw another log in the same position squatting lower in the water with more tangled mess and fewer places to step over! We crossed again, with more confidence, one such obstacle already conquered.

We landed on shore and sauntered up a dirt road towards the kampung. As we approached I could see traditional houses with motorcycle parts strewn about the yard. Having grown up in semi-rural Georgia, I was used to seeing car parts in the yard. I immediately felt at home.

A wiry old man with beautiful bronze skin greeted us. Badrul spoke in Bahasa Malaysia and the man smiled, baring his teeth. Most were missing and the few dangling in his mouth were stained red.

He welcomed us into his home. A young woman began preparing coffee in the house while the men walked around the yard.

A homemade musical instrument, a gambang, stuck upright from the ground. It looked somewhat like a xylophone permanently held in place by the soil. Short wooden stobs poked out of the ground with string pulled taught between them. In between each stob were pieces of wood of varying lengths arranged from shortest to longest from left to right. The man picked up what looked like a xylophone mallet and lightly tapped the suspended pieces of wood. A beautiful sound resonated from the gambang. His bronze body convulsed like James Brown as he played a little tune. He proceeded to pick up 2 hollow pieces of bamboo and tap them on a stump. They resonated with a warm hollow percussive sound.

How sounds of different pitch and volume entrance us is a mystery I do not claim to understand. I am only a lucky witness to the miracle. Itís innate. We identify with it. Just as we need food as nourishment for our bodies, we need music as sustenance for our souls. Perhaps, deep within us lies a connection to the natural rhythms and cycles of the Earth. The ebb and tide of cycles constantly rising up and down, like a lung inflating and collapsing, seem to be embedded within our collective unconscious. Maybe that rhythm flows through our veins and music reminds us of our connection to the world in which we sometimes forget we are immersed. If we listen, if we remain silent long enough, we feel those cycles and become captured by the pulse of the Earth. It is grand indeed! We are part of the music. We are part of the magical orchestra of creation. So few of us know it and even fewer of us slow down long enough to truly connect. Being outdoors surrounded by wildness gently reminds us of the feeling of peace and belonging we often loose touch with.

Our host gave a brief speech about Semelai music, none of which I understood but listened intently the same. It was a treat to hear the melody coming from the instruments of the Earth. I imagined a whole chorus of instruments singing and twanging through the humid forest air during a ceremony or celebration. That would be the feast of which I had only been afforded a taste.

Yohanif, standing off to the side, picked up a stick about 10 feet long with a trident of metal secured to the tip. Badrul informed me it was a spear for fishing. I had imagined such. It looked like a frog gig I had possessed as a child. I had bought mine at K-Mart in the fishing section and dreamed of spearing fish with it. I never learned to use it properly but had imagined its use. Like so many things from childhood my frog gig disappeared into a void during a move from house to house. Or perhaps, I lost it out in the yard buried in the soil by now, an artefact to be discovered by a future archaeologist. Even so, the fact that I had owned one connected to me to the Orang Asli kampung further. I was at home and could feel it.

He used the trident to knock down a few round green nuts from a tree that was leaning like a red faced Englishman. About ten or twelve dropped quickly to the ground and rolled around like weebles wobbling. He quickly gathered them up.

A light rain darkened its attitude and pushed us to shelter. As the water pissed down like it was poured from a boot, the girl served coffee. We sat cross-legged on the porch while she placed a jug and a platter of crackers in the center of our circle. She sat off to the side with an older lady, I presumed to be the mother. Neither said a total of three words during my stay. I could only catch occasional glimpses of their smiles and heads nodding, as I quickly glanced, not wanting to stare out of fear of appearing rude.

The men were talking about things of which I had no idea in Bahasa Malaysia. Once in a while, our host rolled a cigarette on dried leaf. He had two types of tobacco, a green type, which I was informed, was more traditional, and a dried brown type, more like the tobacco Iíd seen before. He rolled a cigarette with the green tobacco and offered it to me. I accepted. Iím not a smoker but I figured I would give it a shot. I pulled a Clinton and didnít inhale. The flavor was surprisingly mellow, not offensive at all, even to a non-smoker.

Once in a while, one of the other men would take a pair of wire-cutter-like pliers and cut sections from the nuts that had just been harvested. He would take the nut and wrap it in a leaf and chew on it. I finally recognized it as betel nut, which I had been fortunate enough to try at a Malay wedding. I had told Badrul about that experience on our drive to Pos Iskandar. He informed the guys that I would like a taste. They smiled as the old man cut off a bit and wrapped it in leaf. Everyone, including the women, watched intensively as I popped it into my mouth and chewed for a while. The taste was very bitter, rich in tannins. A mild tingling effect hit my tongue and throat as I swallowed. Chewing betel nut is something they do regularly here, especially with a tree 10 feet away. Which explains the missing and red stained teeth on many of the people. It wasnít the most pleasant taste I had ever had, but it also wasnít the worst. The physical effects were mild and not especially intoxicating. But a different sort of euphoria was taking hold. I was sitting on the porch in an Orang Asli kampung, drinking coffee, smoking hand rolled cigarettes on dried leaf, and chewing betel nut after paddling through a swamp in a hand carved canoe. I knew it was the stuff of dreams and I was living it! I was exhilarated, excited, and thankful to be living this life.

When locals ask me to try something new they are usually delighted and surprised when I accept. Itís fun and works to my advantage, meaning that I am readily and quickly accepted. Chewing betel nut was one of those experiences.

Many travellers, especially Americans, have the reputation of staying within a realm of ìsafetyî and comfort when travelling abroad. Often, Iíve witnessed Americans go to foreign countries only to eat at American food chains and stay in American hotel chains, getting rude and angry when things are different in a foreign place. What are they thinking?

As we chewed our betel nut and drank our coffee, one of the men displayed hand carved replicas of the canoe I had just paddled. It was in their plan to sell handicrafts as part of their eco-tourism venture. They were as exquisite and detailed as the real thing, beautifully simple. I bought two of them.

The rain subsided and Badrul, Yohanif and I reluctantly found our way back to the canoe. They informed me of plans to erect camouflage blinds and salt licks so tourists might see mouse deer or tapir if theyíre lucky and patient.

Night engulfed us as we paddled. The forest began to take on the mystical, eerie feeling that escorts twilight. The time of mysterious events when people see things they donít normally see was upon us. I felt my body slow down and settle into the magic as darkness crept in.

Yohanif whispered that two tigers had recently been spotted on the bank in the area through which we were paddling. That sent an electric sensation through my spine and put me on a cautious alert. I dreamed of spotting a tiger. Being in a place where you are no longer top carnivore can scare you out of your wits and send you running or put you in touch with a side of yourself that lies deep within your psyche, a place we modern folk rarely venture. It depends on your experiences and state of mind whether you flee at such moments or settle into the calm gentle waters of your mind, breathing deeply, thankful to be truly in touch with the experience of being alive.

After a silent float, we arrived at the rustic ìofficeî sad we hadnít seen a tiger. We collected a small pail and a bar of soap and went to a staircase that was built into the swamp where we proceeded to bathe.

For millennia people have bathed in rivers and lakes. Nowadays we hardly do at all. We prefer running, heated water in a safe sterile environment. Thereís something to be said for cleansing out in the open in a natural body of water. Water symbolizes the unconscious and by immersing yourself in it you are surrendering yourself to your fears, thereby making peace with them. I donít know about that, but I do know I somehow feel cleaner and my spirit feels freer when I submerge myself in a river and come up gasping for air after a good soaking. That night was no different. It felt good. I was more in touch with myself than I had been in ages. Those were the healing powers of nature that Badrul and I had come to experience and ultimately protect and conserve.

After our bath we walked up the hill to the office and changed into dry shorts. We hadnít eaten in quite a while, save a few crackers, and were famished. We possessed the kind of hunger you have after a good days physical labor, the kind that transcends your body and punches a hole in your stomach. We jumped in the squeaky Pajero and blazed down the dirt roads. I didnít know where we were going. About 20 minutes later, we pulled up to a house with a sign and a few tables and chairs. I guessed it to be a restaurant of sorts. They served nasi goreng, mee goreng, limau ais and milo ais. That was it, the totality of the menu. I ordered the mee and limau ais. Badrul ordered the nasi and milo.

A couple of minutes later the proprietor turned up the karaoke machine. Wait a minute!? The karaoke machine? We were sitting smack dab in the boon docks of Malaysia at a restaurant that only served two dishes and they had a karaoke machine? Not only that, but a damn fancy karaoke machine! It took a few minutes for that to register in my brain. I couldnít believe it, but it proved my point about music being sustenance for the soul, didnít it? Badrul said the music was Javanese. He disliked it greatly. It sounded a bit whiney to me, but what did I know? I was simply amazed that I was looking at a karaoke machine in the middle of hick-ville Malaysia. I would be less surprised to see an outdoor ice hockey rink in the Mojave Desert of Barstow, California.

Soon the restaurant was flooded with locals. Most of them walked up, a few rode in on scooters. I was the only mat salleh for miles, a novelty for sure. I was stared at, something Iíve gotten a little more used to since I moved to Malaysia. Itís not that I wasnít stared at before because of my super model looks, itís just that these were different kinds of stares.

The cook brought out fried tit-bits. I was anxious to give them a try. I didnít know what they were but I am certain that anytime you deep-fry something itís gonna be yummy. I wasnít wrong. There was a spicy dipping sauce on the side.

Turns out that the tit-bits were tapioca and the sauce was a chilli, garlic, soy-sauce. Man-o-man, I in heaven! I tossed down 2 slices before our food arrived and I had already finished my limau ais. I decided to do the unthinkable and order the other half of the drink menu, so I ordered milo ais. They asked me if I wanted my mee pedas and the vigorous shake of my head up and down inspired them to see how much the mat salleh could take. We both broke a sweat while eating. Meanwhile, the stares were not subsiding.

After we finished, we paid and saddled the squeaky Pajero, for yet another harrowing ride down a pothole-ridden road. Badrul drove at unthinkable speeds in the pitch-black Malaysian night while bird-sized moths flapped spastically in the headlights. As we pulled off, I mentioned that for the first time since I arrived in Malaysia I had felt uncomfortable. I had been stared at more than usual. He casually said ìOh, theyíre all Indonesians. They work here on the plantation.î

What?! No wonder. I was an American surrounded by Indonesians! Since the events of September 11th and the protests by Indonesians worldwide against America, I was leery and cautious. Right about now, I figured, theyíre plotting on how to rip my eyes out! Not really, but for a brief moment my CNN induced paranoia kicked in and made me feel like it. Despite the current state of affairs none of the Indonesians Iíve met harbor any ill feeling towards America or me. Theyíre just like the rest of us, trying to get by, earn a living and put food on the table. I never felt threatened at all. Now at least I knew why they were staring at me so curiously. They were wondering why Brad Pitt was eating at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere.

The next morning I awoke at daybreak as Badrul slept in. I didnít want to wake him so I sneaked out of the room. I boiled water and scraped one last spoonful of Nescafe from the jar. I was wide-awake with nowhere to go in the middle of a Malaysian wetland. It took a few minutes to come to terms with the fact that I had nowhere to go and nothing to do.

Itís amazing how we are so geared toward constantly busying ourselves that we have to make a conscious effort to slow down and live life as it comes.

I remembered my binoculars. I pulled them out and sat on the front porch to watch birds and sip coffee in the cool Malaysian morning. I was elated when a Racket-Tailed Drongo scooted by.

Shortly, Badrul awoke and we breakfasted on crackers and peanut butter. Hashim showed up an hour later and we followed him down to the staircase where we had bathed the night before. A motorboat was idling. We loaded up.

Today would reveal another part of the swamp. Badrul wanted to show me huts for eco-tourism because I was interested in bringing high school students down for a visit. On the way we discussed the possibility of refurbishing an old building at Pos Iskandar and converting it into a nature center. I was excited and honored to be a part of the plans for Tasek Bera.

We motored through the swamp gawking at lotus, lily, pandanu, and Lepironia. We managed to spot a cobra swimming curly-Q, parting water like Moses in its path. A giant catfish rolled in front of the boat prompting Hashim to spring forward, spear in hand, with a futile jab at the murky depths.

We toured the huts and talked of the endless possibilities Tasek Bera offers to students and tourists interested in the outdoors. The day was growing old and we still had a drive back to KL. We decided it was time to get back to Pos Iskandar and the squeaky Pajero. Barn swallows raced and dipped in front of the boat as we skimmed back to our vehicle. A raptor carved itís way through effervescent clouds high in the sky. It felt incredible to be out of the city where swallows, cobras, raptors and pandanu replaced taxis, sidewalks and skyscrapers.

Our tour lasted several hours in the direct sun and I was now the proud owner of lobster pink legs. Hashim noticed and giggled. He looked at his bronze thighs and with a few gestures we both laughed out loud.

We arrived back too quickly, exhilarated and energized as well as exhausted. A contrasting state of affairs only achieved if mind, body and spirit have all been engaged simultaneously and exercised to their fullest capacity.

Our adventure concluded with a lightning speed trip to K.L. As Badrul and I parted we decided that we would do it again sometime, sometime real soon.

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