Last week was reading week at HKU- a very well earned week off from lectures. My friend and I decided to utilise the time and jet off to foreign climes. We found ourselves in Kuching, the biggest city in Sarawak, in the Malaysian part of Borneo.
Kuching itself was a huge, low, sprawling urban maze of highways and suburbs, stretching across the flat land as far as the eye could see. Whichever direction we drove out, we were surrounded by civilisation for a good 20 minutes before it suddenly petered out into rainforest and shacks. However, the city centre, with its leafy avenues, colourful markets and waterside promenade felt like a tiny town, where the locals were ridiculously friendly (they even struck up a very well-rehearsed version of ‘Beautiful Girls’ by Sean Kingston on one memorable occasion!) and everything was within walking distance.
We were based at Nomads hostel, where we met some amazing people, not least Chris, the owner, who was an incredible host and who, when it turned out there wasn’t a bus to the places we wanted to go, took us out on day trips in his own car without batting an eyelid. His spirit and generosity was incredible.
From Kuching we traveled out to three of the national parks: Kubah (where we hiked to an enormous waterfall and took bracing cold water showers underneath it!), Gunung Gading (where we saw a Rafflesia blooming- the biggest flower in the world), and Bako, where we stayed for a night in a log cabin in the forest. At Bako, we saw Proboscis Monkeys- an endangered species indigenous to Borneo- who were amazing to watch, loping across the Mangroves at low tide, scouting out the tender leaves. They are famous for their unfortunate protruding nose…not going to lie, they were really ugly- even the babies!! On a night hike, we were incredibly lucky to see a huge amount of wildlife- snakes, tree frogs, spiders, centipedes, plus a glimpse of a mouse-deer and a wild cat. During the day we hiked through the rainforest, exploring the peninsula north of Kuching. We ended the two days utterly exhausted from scrambling up paths mercilessly criss-crossed by tree roots, but elated at having seen and done so much.
We also took trips out with Chris and others on a couple of occasions- to the beach and the Fairy Cave, which were both amazing, and also to a longhouse and set of hot springs. The longhouse was a fantastic experience. Chris is part of the Iban tribe- the largest indigenous group of people in Borneo- and although the longhouse we visited was inhabited by members of the Bidayuh tribe, he was able to give us insights into what life is really like, inside the longhouse. Unlike what I had imagined (something along the lines of a huge barn, where everyone slept in one long room), the longhouse was more like a terrace, with plots divided up, so that each family had their own space and their own front door. The inhabitants were mainly farmers, and we saw piles of rice and rubber drying on the porches in the midday sun. It was definitely a simple life, but one seeped in tradition yet open to change. Despite the fact that we were literally walking into these people’s homes, I didn’t feel as though I was invading (as I have done in Hong Kong)- I felt utterly privileged that they were opening their doors to us, and that they were willing to show us their secret lives, a million miles away from Hong Kong high-rises. The Iban were renowned as a headhunting tribe, and apparently the same was true of the Bidayuh too, as we came face to face with human skulls in the guard tower- the so-called Head House. The skulls were in a cage to prevent the spirits escaping, but Chris pointed out one which had been placed separately from the others, on a beam in the roof. He said the reason for this was that this skull didn’t fit with the others- the spirits clashed and fought, so they had to be separated.
After the longhouse, we spent a glorious few hours until the sun set lying in hot springs and making home-made mud packs. Having never been to natural hot springs before, I hoped it would live up to expectations- and it excelled them. Lying in beautiful green warm water, watching steam rise off the surface into the jungle- I could have stayed there forever with my eyes closed, listening to the cicadas at sunset.
Borneo was indescribably beautiful- not just the physical flora and fauna, amazing as they were- but the whole spirit of the place, the tradition and the heritage. I’m making plans to go back already; there was so much we didn’t have time to see. I want to drink it all in, absorb as much as I can, see it all. I can’t quite put my finger on what made it so magic, but there was something that really called to me, and I want to go back to see what the message is.
Yesterday was a bit of a hard day- for the first time since being here, I’m feeling homesick and a bit miserable. I think it’s mainly due to work piling in, and the weather being incessantly grey and dull. So, after a whole weekend of staring fruitlessly at my computer screen until I literally went cross-eyed, I finally got up and left. I intended only to go to the local 7-Eleven for some emergency bisucits, but when I got there, the fresh wind made my legs want to move, and so I went for a wander. I stayed in familiar territory as it was dark, and headed straight down Pok Fu Lam Road, towards Cyberport and Aberdeen. There was no one about, so I literally gave myself a talking too as I walked. I have been given such an unbelievably fantastic opportunity, to come here and study at Asia’s best University for free, to live on the other side of the world and to have the freedom to go where I please. What right do I have to be unhappy?! If I were at home right now, I would be stressed to the eyeballs with final year projects, dissertation proposals, essays, coursework deadlines and the like. I’d barely have time to socialise, I’d never see my boyfriend and I’d have no time to play sport, take part in societies, or have any fun. Every time I logged into Tumblr I’d feel a crushing guilt that I wasn’t working. And here? My “looming” coursework deadline is for an art portfolio full of scribble drawings, next weekend I’m going to Borneo, tomorrow night I’m going to a parkour session and the night after I’m going to a Lindyhop class. The biggest stress right now is whether I’m going to have to buy ugly hiking boots, and deciding which country to spend my 21st birthday in. It’s not even remotely comparable. Aside from the travel, the freedom, the eye-opening experience of living in another continent etc. this opportunity is also teaching me so much I didn’t know about myself. I realise now that I’m a strong person- and what a revelation that is! I realise that the only time I’m truly happy is when I’m truly being myself, and I’m resolving to be true to my will and to my inner child more every day. I’m learning the talents that I have, and that I should have faith in things I’m not so comfortable with, because I surprise myself with what I can achieve. I’m only 20 years old- I have a whole life ahead of me- and I’m so glad I’m finding out these things now, and not once my life is part way through, or even over. I do not want to have any regrets. So, this was quite a deep conversation that I ended up having with myself, on a dark and windy night, walking to Aberdeen. When I reached Aberdeen harbour, I caught the tiny sampan ferry over to Ap Lei Chau- which apparently is the third most populated island in the world, but it certainly didn’t feel like it as I strolled along the promenade. People were out jogging and walking, many were stretching, practicing tai chi or using the exercise machines which are in all of the parks in Hong Kong. I watched a middle aged man bend over at the waist and, with straight legs, put the palms of his hands flat on the floor- I was well impressed! I think it’s fair to say that people look after themselves later in life here- and not in the gym-obsession-heart-attack way we like to call fitness in the UK. Despite the craziness of the city, people take time out for themselves here. They meditate, they practice tai chi, they go to the temple to be healed from dark spirits. They live long, happy lives. They don’t get fat and lazy in their middle-age, and when they do seem old and grumpy, and eye you with distain on the bus, it’s all just an act: when you give up your seat, they beam from ear to ear and you see that twinkle in their eyes. I walked back to Aberdeen over the bridge, watching the boats moored in the middle of the estuary bobbing around in the dark. I felt calm, and at peace with myself. I’m so glad to be here, and I don’t want to waste any time feeling miserable. I’m thoroughly looking forward to this week, I’m keeping as busy as possible, and I’m trying not to miss everyone too much. I know that it’ll pass, and that I’ll be stronger for it.
Yesterday we set off at the crack of dawn to catch the ferry to Macau- an hour away from Hong Kong. As I have the ability to get seasick just looking at boats on tv, it wasn’t a journey I was looking forward to. But, travel sickness tablets clenched tight in sweaty hands, I boarded the ship, heading for the former Portuguese Colony.
We arrived after an astoundingly smooth journey (not to say that I didn’t feel like death), had our passport stamped, and emerged into the open air. We were firstly accosted by rickshaw drivers, which certainly doesn’t happen in Hong Kong; then accosted by bus drivers representing the various casinos: they run free shuttle buses too and from the casinos and the ferry terminus, knowing they’ll get their moneys worth in the end. We declined all offers and jumped on the public bus which took us right into the heart of the city, whereupon we disembarked and ended up in Lisbon.
The architecture was such a surprise to start with. I am a lover of classic European architecture, and the main square we found ourselves in (Senado Square) had stunningly beautiful buildings of pale yellow with white windowsills, high arched doorways, shutters and wrought iron balconies- all connected overhead by strings of fairy lights and intricate flower-shaped lanterns. We walked through the open plaza, following the signposts (written in Portuguese, then Chinese, then English) until we reached the Ruins of St. Pauls (good for a snapshot outside, but we didn’t linger) and the fort (views over the new and old parts of the city, the narrow European streets and the huge, garish neon casinos).
We spent the morning wandering the streets of the old town, finding church after church (including St. Anthony’s, where one can see a relic of the saint himself- a little piece of arm bone- and pray to him to be bestowed with love and relationship success, and St. Josephs, where steep steps lead up to the fine Baroque facade) as well as several monasteries and countless street-side shrines, which consist of a cup stuffed with pink incense sticks. This mishmash sums up Macau- the grand western influence, and the street-level Chinese life. Between ducking into churches, we were just walking along the streets with ordinary people and houses- it was all incredibly quiet, probably because it was China’s National Day so lots of the small shops were shut. I was surprised at how many had still opened, as all of them were completely empty. The the proprietor was invariably sitting quietly in front of a fan watching the world go by, or with feet propped up on the furniture, reclining in a chair with eyes closed and mouth open.
We had lunch in a bustling cafe, showing a terrible martial arts film on the tv above the window, which had an opaque view of a palm-fringed beach pasted onto the dirty glass. The food was typically Chinese, cheap and cheerful. The booth next to us was full of uniformed policemen, grabbing lunch and a cigarette on their break.
In the afternoon, we visited a few casinos- for the experience, rather than to gamble. We entered the Grand Lisboa, and I was instantly horrified. The decoration was utterly revolting: plastic ‘diamonds’ on strings hung from the ceilings, every surface was the colour of brassy, tarnished gold, the walls were encrusted with fake gem stones, and even the icons on the fruit machines were of diamond necklaces, high heels and sparkling gold nuggets which screamed THIS IS WHAT YOU CAN BUY IF YOU WIN. But no one was winning- in fact, the enormous hall was almost silent, and every face we passed was grim with concentration and preoccupation with money. We stopped for a while to watch a set of Russian gogo dancers on stage: they looked bored witless, and couldn’t even raise a smile as they waved and blew kisses to the audience while tottering off stage. When the show ended we watched a game of blackjack, and not a word was spoken on the table- the dealer just gestured with his hand at each player, and they gestured back. This wasn’t fun for anyone. In the MGM casino, where there were gaudy slot machines in row upon row, there wasn’t even the reassuring chink of coins falling into a machine, like in the penny arcades at the seaside in England. These machines only cost you 10 cents to play each time, but the minimum you can put into them is HK$20 (the casinos don’t accept the Macau Patacas- which probably means that the local inhabitants of Macau wouldn’t be caught dead in the casinos). HK$20 means 200 goes at winning back your money on the pull of a lever, pushing the buttons with the diamonds and jewels and beautiful women drawn on them, believing you’re more likely to win the jackpot if you just keep playing…
I hated it, and couldn’t wait to get out, back to the familiar old streets, cobbled plazas, Portuguese street names. Maybe I’m getting homesick; maybe I just hate the smell of money. We finally left, all feeling a bit deflated and disorientated. We ended up on the wrong road and walked until our feet ached, crashing out on benches in a park and almost dozing off to sleep in the late afternoon twilight. Eventually, we roused ourselves, found a Portuguese restaurant for dinner, and then caught taxis to the waterfront to see the fireworks.
We met up with some other friends, and sat on the concrete with half of Macau to watch the sky burst into flames and rain down glitter on our heads. There were two twenty minute displays which must have cost thousands; the first was the best firework display I’ve ever seen- the second quickly trumped it. It was an amazing end to our (ridiculously long) day in Macau.