|In order to reach Bario, a small valley settlement in the heart of the Kelabit Highlands, we boarded a Twin Otter along with 10 other folks (some returning home for a visit). The flight was relatively smooth and gave us a hazy view of the beautiful geography below. Massive rivers snaked their way through the terrain. The areas lying close to Miri appeared as patchworks of massive palm oil plantations, with palm trees in hundreds of neat little rows. As we reached further into the interior, we passed more forests, criss-crossed by arteries of logging roads, savagely hacked out of the jungle, many following ridgelines. At one point the geography became more mountainous, and although you could see green as far as the horizon it was zigzagged by a massive network of more unsightly logging roads - an ominous sign of what's to come.
To our left Gunung Mulu National Park, with the mouths of some of the world's largest caves pointing towards us. As we continued on towards Bario the terrain became even more spectacular, the closer we got to it. And finally we could see the settlement, with a couple of dirt roads and a few longhouses, surrounded by many rice padi fields (where the famous Bario rice grows). The runway was surprisingly short, but the landing was gentle. The air outside the tiny airport terminal felt cooler than what we experienced so far at this time of day. We were standing in a valley, surrounded by blue and green layers of magnificent ridgelines in the distance (3000 feet above sea level).
We were picked up by the owner of the Barview Lodge where we were staying, along with boxes of food stuffs, and other provisions not found in Bario. We drove down a dirt road marked by potholes and mud holes. Central Bario is a couple of long buildings with spaces for shops (all closed at the moment), as well as a couple of phone booths (the only ones in the area). Whoever is around picks up the phone and delivers the message to the right person. Bario, therefore, has only a couple of phone numbers, and zero cell phone signals reaching it.
Later in the evening, we headed towards the centre. The air was pleasantly cool. The sound of private generators was becoming increasingly more difficult to ignore as the heavy darkness fell. Absolutely no street lights, made walking on the road guesswork, while there was nothing to obscure the view of the stars above. A couple of years ago, Bario was hooked up to a hydroelectric dam, but due to the unexpectedly low volume of water in the river, it could generate only about 1/2hour - worth of electricity, at a time. The power lines remained. Most locals resort to gas powered generators, which they turn on for just a couple of hours each night (the fuel is outrageously expensive, and has to be shipped in).
Walking through Bario, it is easy to meet locals. They all want to shake your hand, and ask the two most common questions: "when did you come to Bario?" and "When do you leave?" - only to say that that is not long enough. Many local people born prior to WWII, or shortly thereafter speak English, owing to the strong British influence at the time.
Bario is a place of the old and the very young. Many people have left the area in pursuit of education or jobs in the city. We were invited to have dinner with a Kelabit family, currently residing in KL, but who returned to Bario to visit their grandparents/parents. Later we hung out at a local supermarket/café/bar, and chatted with some very friendly locals. The topic of conversation often turned towards logging.
The next morning, in hopes of meeting members of the nomadic Penan tribe we headed towards town centre. We chatted with locals over coffee, enjoying the slow and quiet pace of Bario. No Penan people showed up, they only come when they have something to sell/trade with the locals. Later we enjoyed a breakfast of bee hoon goreng at a local café/private home, which claims to serve many items including a variety of western foods - just not at the moment. Since the airline flying into Bario became FAX, as of August 1st, the prices of shipping anything shot through the roof, and more people chose to stick to the local staples, or rather do so out of necessity.
In the afternoon, we hired a truck along with 7 other folks to take us to Pa Ukat and Pa Umor villages, NE of Bario (Pa refers to settlements on or near rivers). At Pa Ukat we visited a man who is an extremely talented carpenter and craftsman. He build his entire home out of local wood, and has some ingenious furniture pieces kicking around. He is forced to hire itinerant Indonesian workers (Bario is close to the Indonesian border, Kalimantan) to help with rice planting as there is a shortage of able labour in the Highlands.
Afterwards we headed to Pa Umor, where we found the entire longhouse empty (all occupants out planting rice). It was left open for us to enter. The common area of the longhouse, called tawa', is a very prominent symbol of the local community. Traditionally it was the focal point of the longhouse used for relaxation, recreation, games, as a playground, a council chamber, a courthouse and even to hold church services on occasion. Most of the time, it is a common space where families socialize in the evening next to a row of dying hearth fires following dinner.
The Kelabits were a tribe of fierce warriors and headhunters, and saw off anyone entering their territory. They are culturally and linguistically distinct from the other 30 tribes of Sarawak. The strong British influence in the area began in 1945 when members of the special Z force made a parachute drop into the plains, known back then as Lemba'a. Since Bario had the largest area of flat land on which to build an airstrip, it became the operational centre for British forces. Shortly after the war, groups of missionaries arrived, and converted the locals to Christianity almost en masse, while chastising the Kelabits for their pagan ways, and destroying many cultural artifacts. The tradition of the Kelabit culture still remains. Older Kelabit men and women are physically recognizable. Men have two holes in each ear, pierced during infancy. Bottom hole is adorned with a heavy brass earring, which gradually elongates the earlobes (same as women). The upper earlobes are generally left empty nowadays, although warriors used to place leopard fangs in them. Older women still adorn traditional tattoos, a fine lacework of dots and lines on almost the entire lower limb, from the foot to well up the thigh - from a distance they looked like they were wearing blue/black stockings. The process traditionally took 3 painful years to complete.
The Kelabits are good hunters, and many local men wear at their waists a traditional sword-parang with a wooden scabbard. They do tend to hunt at nighttime with a strong torch and a gun, nowadays, as the main purpose of hunting is still to put food on the table.
Many Kelabits in the highlands still use traditional rattan and bamboo baskets to carry out a variety of their daily chores. There are many words in Kelabit, all meaning 'basket', but each with a specific purpose, such as:
Belalung - a basket for keeping chickens
Bu'an - a large basket used for harvesting
Anet - a basket for keeping wrapped rice
Ra'ing - a small basket tied to waist, for collecting padi
Rinuh - a winnowing basket
Women do the weaving of mats and baskets. Their fingers move confidently and quickly - with a lifetime of experience.
The Kelabits are one of the smallest tribes in Sarawak, now, making up just 0.4% of the population (~6000 people). Less than a third of them still reside in the highlands.
Lakuh are Kelabit traditional songs composed by singers, usually women, to "describe completely a person's state of being at a particular time of crisis". They are usually intensely personal. The following Lakuh was created by Ngelinuh Karuh to complain of the personal loneliness and solitude she feels as a result of her children leaving the highlands to live in the city.
The thunder clangs
Silently nicely I sit in the kitchen
Putting on my lap my child, a good child
A child given by god to be happy with
Slowly I stand up without a sound
Opening the door for the sun to appear
I look downriver over the flat lands
In the fertile land where wild ginger grows well
Where rice grows evenly at the same height
A place trodden by the people of times past
A place visited by visitors from all over the place
Suddenly in my soul I search
Tears from the eyes drop with a drip
Tears drop onto the sarong
Onto the sarong tajung pelikat (type of sarong with intricate designs on it)
We both fell in love with the area. The encroaching logging roads made us feel sad. When we return here in the future, it will be different. There may be no one, and nothing to return to.