I have been fortunate to be sent by my school to present a creative writing workshop at the four-day East Asian Regional Council of Schools conference in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo, Malaysia. After listening to four days of presentations on everything from the limitations of the frontal lobe of the adolescent brain to how racial and cultural identity is formed in children, to what was considered a “wild night” for us teachers dancing to a “teacher band” from Singapore who played a medley of eighties and nineties hits, and whose lead singer would periodically shout into the microphone, “And how’s that for a common core,” my friend and colleague Florence and I were up early on our one free day and ready to venture into the depths of the rain forest. We'd signed up for a nature walk in the Mount Kinabalu Park World Heritage Site.
We wait for our guide in the breezy hotel lobby, open on one side to the South China Sea, and on the other to a tropical garden. Staying at the Sutera Harbor Resort (courtesy of my school) has been a magical experience. Between gorging ourselves on banquet-style breakfasts and basking in the sun beside the pool during lecture breaks, it has been a wonderfully relaxing experience. Florence and I feel absolutely pampered.
Our guide appears and strides across the lobby towards us. He is an attractive young man in his twenties with perfectly aligned features, large round brown eyes, and a shock of thick black hair. He is wearing a khaki collar shirt with a company badge, khaki pants, a cap, and sturdy hiking boots. All in all, he looks very smart in the British sense of the word. “Salemat bagi cikgu,” our guide greets us, placing his right hand over his heart. “That means, ‘Good morning, Teacher,” he explains. “The gesture of putting one’s right hand over one’s heart is a sign of respect.”
“How do you say, ‘Thank you,’ in Malay?” I ask. I like to learn the basic phrases of the local language when I travel. “Terima Kasih,” he says, “to which one replies, ‘Sama, sama,’ meaning ‘same, same.”
We all formally shake hands.
“My name is Ansari B. Angakangon, but you may call me Hans,” our guide says.
“As in the German name, Hans?” I ask.
“No,” Hans says. “The short version of my name is ‘Ans’ but that sounded too much like Ann, so I added an ‘h’ to the front. I am not German. I am a tribal member of the Dusun people. The Dusun were the head hunters of Borneo.”
“Should I be afraid to be taking a tour with a head hunter?” I ask.
Hans bursts out laughing. “Head hunting has been outlawed since the British colonized Borneo in the eighteenth century,” he explains. “The British brought Sikh policemen from India to enforce their laws. That ended the traditions of head hunting.”
“Were there any head hunters in your family?” I ask.
“My great-grandfather has a human head in his hut, which was passed down to him from his father,” Hans says thoughtfully.
I’m not quite sure what to say about that.
Hans fills in my stunned silence. “In Dusun tribal culture the more heads a man possessed, the more likely he was to get a beautiful and good woman as his bride. The more heads, the stronger the tribe. If a man possessed many heads, he proved to a girl’s father that he could protect her. A daughter was precious. A daughter could be exchanged for a water buffalo as dowry.”
So, I think, as Hans leads me and Florence to the tour minivan waiting outside the lobby, our guide through the rain forests of Borneo is a head hunter, and not the corporate kind.
The Dusun people practiced head hunting for thousands of years before contact with Europeans. The region of Mount Kinabalu Park and the interior of northern Borneo is their indigenous land. Mount Kinabalu is the Dusun peoples’ sacred mountain. That was where we were headed today—to the rainforests surrounding Mount Kinabalu.
We climb inside the minivan and Hans introduces our driver, an older man who speaks little English. His name is Kamil. He is a member of the Bajan tribe, and is a practicing Muslim. Hans tells us that he is a practicing Catholic.
“You are a Muslim and a Catholic and yet you are friends?” Florence asks.
“In Sabah we treat all races and religions as family,” Hans says. “Although our people come from many local tribes, as well as Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern backgrounds, we are friendly towards one another and live and work together. That’s what makes Malaysia unique.” Florence and I are impressed.
“Let me give you an example,” Hans says. “The Dusun eat with chopsticks and the Malay eat with their fingers.”
We chat as we drive on the highway out of Kota Kinabalu. Hans turns to Florence and says, “Chinese traders have traveled to Borneo and settled here since 580 AD. When a man from the Dusun tribe wanted to marry, first he had to walk two days journey to the coast, where he would barter with the Chinese traders for a Chinese ceramic vase with dragon paintings on it. Then he would carry the vase two days journey back to the village to offer it as part of his gift to a bride’s family.”
Florence is impressed with this detail about the integrations of the Chinese into the culture of Borneo.
Hans tells her more about the history of the Chinese in Borneo. He speaks with a fluent educated British English accent blended with the melodic tones of Malay, replete with a wide array of colonial-era vocabulary. His English is remarkable, considering, as we are shocked to learn, that Hans has never visited an English-speaking country. He has never traveled outside of Malaysia.
We find out that day that Hans loves to talk. In fact, I don’t believe he stopped talking once in the twelve hours we spent together. Periodically, throughout the long drive to Mount Kinabalu, Florence would lie down on the back seat and doze off for a while, only to pop up like a gopher out of her burrow to jump back in the conversation. When she grew bored of our talk, she’d lie back down again and doze off.
“You see this mouth,” Hans points to his mouth. “It never stops moving. When I worked in an office the girls would tease me and say, ‘Hans, you a girl? Why do you talk so much?’ But really, in tourism it’s my job to talk and tell stories. Sometimes I get these tourists who get in the van and say to me, ‘Don’t bother telling me anything, I’ll just google it,’ and they promptly go to sleep. But you cannot google everything I have to say because my stories are unique and they come from my experience of Borneo.” Hans pauses to consider for a moment, then says, “Well, leading a diving group can be hard. Then I can’t talk; I can only gesture.”
We all laugh. The mood in our van is companionable, friendly, familiar. I ask Hans to tell me about his experience of tribal life. He tells us he has lived a life that is both traditional and modern. He grew up in a small isolated village deep inside the rain forest in a traditional house built of bamboo and palm tree fronds, similar to the one my students and I built in Cambodia. At the age of eighteen he left his village to live and study multimedia in one of Asia’s great modern megacities, Kuala Lampur.
Hans was the youngest son of a family of 11 children. He spent his early childhood in the same house with two mothers, one his biological mother, the other his father’s first wife. His mother was 20 years younger than his father. She was only 19 when she married Hans's father and gave birth to him a few years later.
“My mother loved my father. That’s why as a modern woman my mother had a hard time living within a dual marriage,” Hans explains. “There was too much competition. Too much jealousy. My mother asked my father for a divorce and he granted it.”
However, the Malaysian court decided that Hans was to remain with his father and first wife, and Hans’s mother had to leave. She did not have an education and could not support him. Hans’s mother could not return to her father’s house because he was angry at her for initiating a divorce. She had to go out into the world alone and find work. She was one of the first generation of Dusun women to dare to take such an independent step. This story played out in the eighties, before mobile phones and the Internet, when keeping in touch in a place as remote as Borneo was difficult. Hans and his mother were separated for nine years.
“She returned once when I was living with my grandparents and brought me toys. But I did not want toys, I wanted love,” Hans says.
After that visit Hans’s mother left abruptly and he was angry at her for years. Only as an adult did he understand that his grandfather, his mother’s father, told his mother she could not stay. At that time divorce in the Dusun tribe was a major breech of tradition.
During the course of our tour, Hans’s mother calls several times on his mobile to chat with him. “She is my best friend now,” Hans says after finishing each call.
Shortly after Hans’s mother left, when Hans was eight, his father died suddenly of a stroke. He was sent to live with his grandmother, a traditional woman who subsisted from growing rice in a small remote village, deep in the interior of Borneo.
“My grandmother knew how to talk to the sun and to the sky,” Hans tells me. “She was a Baba Hazan.”
“What is a Baba Hazan?” I ask.
“A Baba Hazan is a high priestess and a medicine woman. She has the power to speak with the spirits of the trees, with the animals, with the sun and the sky. She performs rituals to bring a good rice harvest. She blesses the harvest during the time of the harvest festival.”
“Can she influence the weather?” I ask.
“Oh yes,” Hans nods his head. “Let’s say it’s a very hot day, but you need a breeze because the village is harvesting the rice and needs to sift the rice, but they cannot because when you sift the rice the wet kernels fall into the basket, and the husk must be carried away on the breeze. This is what I’ve seen my grandmother do. She gazes at the sun, and then she begins to chant, like this…”
Thick atonal sounds pour out from deep within Hans’s throat; there is no melody to the charm he half speaks, half sings. He is lost in the magic of the charm, almost forgetting our presence in the van. Hans suddenly stops and explains, “The words are very ancient. No one knows what they mean anymore. They are the words of a very old form of Dusun that is no longer spoken. My grandmother would sing the charm while gazing up at the sky, and then slowly, slowly, a cloud would emerge in the sky and pass over the sun, and then there would be a breeze.”
In my mind’s eye I see a withered ancient lady, much like the elders I’ve seen in the markets in Kota Kinabalu. I see her wearing a brightly colored sarong, with her arms stretched up to the sky, chanting. I'd like to paint this scene.
“My grandmother was also a midwife,” Hans continues. “That is one of the tribal obligations of the Baba Hazan. If a woman was giving birth in the village, she would ride out in the night on a water buffalo to attend to the birth. It was always a dangerous time for the new mother. You see, when a woman gives birth there is a lot of blood and there is the placenta. An evil spirit who feeds on blood and placentas lurks in the rain forest. To come across this evil spirit is a terrifying encounter. It is called the Balam Balam. It consists of a human head attached to lungs and nothing more. It spins around at a terrible speed like a tremendous cyclone. The Baba Hazan must do battle with the Balam Balam to protect the new mother.”
Hans pauses and reflects a moment. Then he says, “My grandmother always grew lime plants on our windowsills to keep the evil spirits out of our house. She also grew the plants she needed to heal the village. And she knew all the sacred words to heal.”
“Did your grandmother pass on the gifts of the Baba Hazan to your mother?” I ask.
“She tried, but my mother is very modern thinking and she refused to accept the role. She did not want to become a Baba Hazan. My sisters did not want it either.”
“And so, will the tradition die with your grandmother?” I ask.
“But what about you? Did you inherit the gift of seeing the spirits?”
“I did, but I am male and I cannot use those gifts. The Baba Hazan must be a woman.”
“What was it like to grow up in the rain forest?” I ask.
“For me, growing up the rain forest was my playground. If I disappeared for the day, my grandmother knew I was in the forest, and not down in the village playing with my friends like the other boys. I speak to the spirits of the trees; I can see them. You see, in Dusun culture, if you harm a tree, you must come back and tie a red ribbon around the tree’s trunk and tell the tree you are sorry.”
“Have you seen the spirits of humans?”
“Yes, I saw my father’s spirit after he passed away. In the Dusun tribe when a family member passes away, the family keeps the body in the house for three days. Then the body is buried. However, the spirit will remain around the house for seven days before it departs to the spirit world. The spirit will come back to the house looking for food or cigarettes in those seven days. That is why the family will bring food and cigarettes to the graveyard where a person is buried, to feed them, so that they would not return to the house. However, on the seventh day the entire family gathers to say a final goodbye in a ritual called Monombali. At midnight the family gathers in the house and shuts off all the lights. Everyone sits in darkness. They sprinkle flour on the threshold, so that they may see the spirit’s footprints if it comes. Nobody talks. Everyone waits.
“I was eight when we gathered to wait for my father’s spirit to return to say good-bye for the last time. I saw my father’s white sarong enter over the threshold—my father always favored the sarong, preferring it over western clothes. But I could not see my father’s face, just a blur where his face would be. Later, I talked with two of my brothers, and they told me that they saw the sarong too.”
“What did you do when you saw him?”
“I cried,” Hans says. “I was eight and I missed my father. I loved him.”
We are so deep in conversation that I hardly notice that we have long ago left the four lane highway behind and have been climbing up twisting mountain roads to an overlook where Mount Kinabalu reveals itself to us in all its majestic glory. We step out of the van and Hans tells us the story of how the mountain was named.
“’Kina,’” means Chinese, like you,” Hans says, looking at Florence, “and ‘balu’ means widow. In ancient times a Chinese trader came from the coast to the interior of Borneo where he chose for himself a Dusun girl as his bride. They loved each other very much. Then the day came when the Chinese trader had to sail back to China. He promised his Dusun bride that he would return to her. But years passed and he never returned. Her heart was broken. She climbed the mountain so that she could see the South China Sea and watch for his ship’s return. The people say that she turned to stone up there, waiting. That is why the mountain is called Kinabalu, the Chinese widow.”
We climb back into the van and head for the Mount Kinabalu Park, recently named a World Heritage Park based on scientific findings that indicate that the undisturbed rain forest of the region is 130 million years old. It is from here that hikers set out on the two-day trek that leads to the peak of Mount Kinabalu.
We climb out of the van and enter the rain forest. The environment is alive with sound, with humming, chirping, buzzing, with the songs of cicadas, a few of whom have left their exoskeletons behind on the barks of trees. There is a constant hum in the rain forest, a comforting hum; the white noise of the natural world, or, as Hans would explain it, the spirit world of the rain forest.
Hans leads us along a nature trail, stopping often to point out local trees and plants, explaining their uses: this leaf was used by women to clean the lower body; that bitter seed from the fruit of this tree prevents cancer; rub this leaf on your hands to help with a skin rash. He stops to show us blooming white orchids and his forehead brushes against the fronds of a fern tree. “Sorry,” he addresses the tree formally, as though he’d stepped on someone’s foot on the commuter train, and then he continues his talk on orchids.
We stop to admire a particularly long growth of rattan, the vine used to make rattan furniture. I tell the story of carrying home my newly acquired rattan rocking chair bought for $7 across the beach on Peaks Island. Hans is surprised by the cheap price I paid for the rattan chair.
“It takes 20 to 50 years to grow a rattan vine thick enough to build a chair or sofa,” he explains, shaking his head at the waste of someone throwing away such a valuable chair. We walk along the rain forest trail, enveloped in a cocoon of green. Overhead a canopy of leaves shields us from the sun. The temperature is surprisingly pleasant. Hans points up at the roof of green above us created by the wide leaves that provide natural protection from the heat of the tropical sun.
“Dusun women are very beautiful,” Hans muses as he walks the trail. “If they grow up in the rain forests, they have very white skin because the sun never touches them directly because of the natural shade of the canopy of leaves.” Hans stretches out his arm to show us and says, “I’ve become very brown since I left the village. It’s all the diving work.” He shakes his head, displeased with the color of his arm.
When we leave Kinabalu Park we drive 40 kilometers (25 miles) to the Poring hot springs, which are located 457 meters (1,500 feet) above sea level. Along the way we pass a fruit market with rows of stands selling local fruits wrapped neatly in shrink-wrapped packaging. At Florence’s insistence, we stop and buy some local fruit to share in the van. Hans buys a bag of a sweet local fruit and shows us how to split it open by squeezing it gently. As we continue onwards the mood in the van is companionable, and we all agree that shared food tastes much better than food eaten alone.
Approaching the Poring hot springs, we pass through the place where the Japanese death march of World War II POWs began. The Japanese had occupied Malaysia from 1941 – 1945. The Malaysian people still remember.
We reach the Poring hot springs, also the area of the treetop canopy bridges—long net bridges suspended across the rooftop of the rain forest. We stop to eat lunch at a small restaurant inside the hot springs territory. Once we are alone, Florence and I discuss how much we should tip Hans and Kamil, the driver.
“I don’t have enough experience with the local prices to be a good judge,” I say.
Florence calculates a minute. “Based on the prices in the market, I think we should give them each 50 ringgit ($13),” Florence says.
“Is that enough?” I ask.
“Let’s start a conversation in the van about local wages and we will find out,” Florence suggests.
After lunch we hike the trail up to the rope bridges. Florence is terrified of the rope bridges, but she has no choice but to go forwards—there is no other way down. Carefully placing one foot in front of the other, and with our shouts of encouragement, she moves across three high bridges, slowly and steadily, like a turtle. And that is Florence: responsible, careful, steady, dedicated to her family and to her students. She is a loyal friend.
I step onto the rope bridge once Florence has reached the other side. I welcome the challenge. For me crossing the rope bridge is a balancing act, just like my entire life thus far has been a balancing act, full of challenges and provocations, but at the same time blessed with life’s gifts, such as today, experiencing the rain forest today and learning about the Dusun beliefs from Hans. As long as I keep my footing, I can move, suspended over the deep green crevices of the rain forest. My body sways with the buoyancy of the bridge, inviting movement, provoking it. At one point the bridge begins to sway gently, like a hammock, or a baby’s cradle, and I wonder if I will be tossed off, like a spit ball in a sling shot, but I pause, holding my balance, and the bridge ceases its rocking. I continue moving through a world of deep green. I feel as though this is what it must be like to pass into eternity. I feel an infinite sense of loss when I reach the end of the three rope bridges and must leave this twittering, chattering, world of green behind.
As we head back to Kota Kinabalu, Hans asks us if we would like to stop at a family rubber tree plantation where the rafflesia plant is blooming. The rafflesia blooms very rarely, most of the time only once a year, he explains. We agree. Kamil is very excited to stop and see the rafflesia. He says the last time he had the privilege was five years ago. He also likes the girl who sells tickets in the ticket booth, Hans tells us.
We pull off the road beside a large vinyl banner that reads: Welcome to Adenna Rafflesia Orchard. Refflesia Blooming 3 munites walk. Tacked onto the sign was a paper that said: First Day. Nobody else but me, the English teacher, notices the spelling mistakes.
“The rafflesia blooms for only five days,” Hans explains, pointing at the paper fluttering in the breeze. “It shrivels up and dies very quickly.”
I read a laminated brochure stapled to a palm tree: The rafflesia are parasitic, rootless, without chlorophyll, and monoecious (with both sexes in the same individual). A young woman with a pink and blue headscarf knotted neatly under her chin sits inside a make-shift booth collecting money to enter the garden. The fee is 30 ringgit ($8) per person.
“What, to see a plant?” Florence demands, “Why so much?”
Hans explains: The rafflesia grows on private land. Because it is an endangered species, Malaysian law stipulates that the government has the right to seize the land and monitor the rafflesia. However, in this case, the government struck a deal with the family. As long as they look after the rafflesia, they may keep their land. They raise money to pay for infrastructure costs through the admission fees. The large fee is justified by the fact that the rafflesia may bloom only once a year and then only for five days.”
Florence is not entirely convinced, but I don’t mind paying the money. How many times does one travel to the rain forest of Borneo at precisely that time when this rare exotic plant is blooming?
We hike down a bamboo path to the area where the rafflesia can be viewed from a make shift platform. It is an odd looking plant. It looks like a clay plot plunked down on the ground. Five large rubbery petals, like elephant’s ears, make up the flower’s outer structure. The petals are red with white dots. The inside of the plant can only be described as resembling a large wax candle. The flower emits a meat-like smell that attracts flies, which the flower uses for cross pollination between the two genders.
“The rafflesia is very sensitive,” Hans explains. “If you touch one of the petals, the flower will acquire a black spot, which will spread, and the entire flower will die. The family has to hire security at night to protect the flower because the neighbors are very jealous and come over and try to destroy it.”
Three large black cabbage shaped buds lie not too far from the rafflesia. These, Hans explains, are the bulbs of new plants that may or may not bloom.
“You see,” Florence blurts out, “they don’t collect entrance fees just once a year!”
“No one knows if the bulbs will open,” Hans explains.
I remember something and pull out my wallet. Yes, on the red colored ten ringgit bill there is a picture of the rafflesia. Now I knew what that odd flower I’d been gazing at all week was.
As we walk back to the van we come across a rubber tree with a small bamboo cup affixed to it. The cup was halfway filled with a glue-like white substance—this is what rubber products are made of. I gaze in awe at the small cup. Just how many rubber trees did it take to fulfill our need for tires and other products? I could not imagine the scale. Nor could I imagine the impact of the palm tree oil trade on Borneo’s rain forests.
On the two-hour long drive back to Kota Kinabalu Florence opens up the topic on how much a guide earns.
“Kamil and I are paid 15 ringgit ($4) each for a tour,” Hans says.
“We paid 440 ringgit ($120) together for this tour,” Florence says, “so where does the money go?”
“It goes to the van rental and petrol,” Hans explains.
“How much is your rent?” Florence asks.
“I rent a house with two other men for 800 ringgit ($218) a month. We all pay a third of the rent. I send 100 ringgit ($27) a month to my mother and I am paying off my student loans. It cost me 100,000 ringgit ($27, 289) in student loans to get my degree in multimedia.”
“But your salary as a guide could not possibly cover all that,” Florence says.
“I do other work and I take on as many tours as possible, sometimes two a day,” Hans answers.
“Why aren’t you working in multimedia?” I ask.
“There aren’t enough jobs in my field and there are too many specialists. There are no quotas on how many people can study multimedia. Besides, in Malaysia the only way to get a good professional job is through family connections. After I graduated I did have a good job in Kuala Lampur. It was not in my field, but it was a corporate job and it paid well. I was able to send 500 ringgit ($136) a month to my mother.”
“Why did you leave?” I ask.
“I did not like life in the city and I did not like being cooped up indoors all day. I did not like being so far away from my family in Borneo. It is only a two-hour flight, but you can’t always make it here on time when someone is sick or needs you. So, I took a leap of faith and came back to Borneo seven years ago. I studied tourism courses and sat the exam. I earned my government license. I love my work. I love being in the forest and in the water all day. I love meeting people from all over the world. I have never left Malaysia in my life, but the entire world has come to me. I have learned something about every culture from the tourists.”
“Do you have a girlfriend?” Florence asks, leaning forward over the seat and beaming at Hans.
“No,” Hans shakes his head. “I did, but we broke up. I work so many days, often weeks and months without a break, and the schedule is unpredictable. That makes it difficult to maintain a relationship.”
“Don’t worry, the right girl will find you,” Florence says.
“Some of my friends already have a second wife and I don’t even have a first wife yet,” Hans says, shaking his head. “But I only want one wife. I don’t believe in having more than one wife. It causes too much stress.”
“But isn’t it illegal to have multiple wives?” I ask.
“It is, but the tradition is still strong. Muslims can have up to four wives, as long as the first wife agrees and the husband can provide all of them with an equal standard of living.”
“But how does that work?” I ask.
“The man will live with the first wife and children, but keep the second wife and her children in a separate location. He will split his time between the two households.”
It is around eight when we pull up at our opulent hotel. Florence and I feel embarrassed when we think of the expansive breakfasts the hotel serves compared with the small sums the local people must survive on. We give Hans and Kamil each a 50 ringgit ($13) note.
“This is three times my daily pay and more,” Hans says happily. “Thank you.”
“Blessed are those who give,” Florence says.
After such a long day there is nothing left for us to do but to rest in our hotel room, snacking on the dried fruits and mango we bought at the market. The rain forest has bewitched me and I dream all night of its lush green, enveloped in its steamy warm embrace. The next morning I depart with the rain forest tugging at my heart strings, like the long twisting lianas that wrap themselves around fern trees and palms, surviving tenaciously long after the tree itself dries up and dies. I'd like to go back one day to Borneo, possibly to climb Mount Kinabalu...
As the plane climbs to cruising altitude, in my mind I am suspended on the rope bridge again, weighing the balance that is the scale of life, the good and the bad. From the airplane window I gaze out at the shimmering expanses of the South China Sea with its emerald islands surrounded by coral reefs, like green emeralds set in fancy brooches with a filigree border. How could I have known that Borneo could be that impossibly beautiful? How could I have known that it would be this difficult to tear myself away?
This essay is a chapter from my book: DIGGING A HOLE TO CHINA: A MEMOIR ON TEACHING AND TRAVELING