Friday, May 7, 2010

Into the Jungle--and Out

Well, sometimes adventures just don't work out, and that's what happened with this last one.

It started out well. Jodi and I left for a 4 1/2 hour van ride southwest of Kuching--within 40 km of the Indonesian border. (No, I didn't stick my toe over the border, Fred and Doug, because it would mean climbing a huge mountain and maybe getting arrested.) Then we took a 30 minute ride in a longboat--very long and very narrow--along the Batang Ai river. The ride there in the boat was through beautiful country.

We arrived at the bottom of a huge hill that led to the longhouse where fourteen families of the Iban tribe live and began our climb up the steep hill, carrying our packs. We planned on staying two nights with them. When we got to the house, I was hotter and sweatier than I had ever been--yes, that means worse than New Orleans or Bangkok. I could barely breathe and water was running down my body in streams.

The place was a little more rustic than either of us expected. Okay, A LOT more rustic. Take a look:
You're looking at the front "porch" that runs the extent of the house. Inside there is another long sort of "hallway" that serves as the common or living room where the people gather, eat, talk, and spend time. Then there are 14 doors that lead to individual bedrooms and kitchens. Behind that is the "back yard" with stairs leading down to the storage areas and so on. This is what is looks like from the back:
Once I caught my breath out on the porch (I never cooled down, but just kept sweating), I went inside to the common area where the Iban people served us--inexplicably--hot tea. More sweating.

That night we ate dinner (always sitting on the floor) and we gave them gifts--coffee, tea, paper and pencils. Dinner consisted of lots of rice (they grow rice) which they ate with their hands but were kind enough to give us forks, vegetables, and some meat that we'd brought. More tea. But also palm wine--which the chief offered and I promptly downed in one gulp--which he cheered about. I gained status. Then we went to bed. We were guests of the chief in his house and slept in his personal rooms. That's him on the left:We slept on the floor on thin mattresses with a mosquito net overhead. But the doors and windows were closed and there wasn't so much as a fan, so it was hot hot hot. It was a long night and I didn't sleep much. I had to get up once to use the bathroom--and I use that word loosely. I had to go out of the chief's house, through the common room, out on the porch (putting on my flip flops there), walk down the rickety stairs and into an outhouse type of building--all with just my puny flashlight leading the way. When I got back to the porch, one of my flip flops dropped through the slats and disappeared under the house. (My guide found it and gave it back the next morning.)

I woke up at 5:00 when 50,000 roosters started screaming at once. Okay--there were probably only 50, but that's A LOT when they're right under the floor you're sleeping on. I was feeling a tightness in my chest that I haven't felt in awhile, but I tried to pretend it wasn't there as we ate breakfast--eggs and fried bananas and bread.

Then we started on the day's activities with our guide, who had planned (without my knowing) a 6-8 hour hike through the jungle, up and down and through rivers.

It was not to be.

After about an hour, my chest seized up and began to burn. I couldn't catch my breath in the heat and humidity, and I admitted defeat. I hate to quit anything, but my asthma was having none of this activity. I told the guide I was about to have an asthma attack--in the middle of the jungle with no help available. The only time I've ever felt this way was in Ireland--and that time I ended up in a clinic on a breathing machine. I admit it--I was scared.

We stopped. We walked slowly down to the river and the boat and rode back to the longhouse. I waited while Jodi and the guide walked back up the hill and gathered our stuff. And then we came home to Kuching.

It took me several hours to breathe normally again--mainly not until I got inside the van with filtered air-conditioning blowing on me--but I'm okay now. I really hate to admit defeat, but the heat and humidity and hiking finally took its toll and I had to acknowledge my limitation. One night in the longhouse was all I could manage.

But it was still a good experience and I'm glad I was able to do some of it. The people were so genuinely friendly, and the life they lead in the traditional way is fascinating--although very difficult.

Not to end on a bad note, I made friends with the longhouse dogs--all 15 of them, the same size but different colors. They made everything more bearable for me. As animals always do.


  1.'s amazing that NO animal, whether the lions on HARNAS, the cheetahs, the crocodiles, the boxing Giraffe, the wild lepards, snakes, mangooses or little Pickles there could stop you somehow ..... but heat, suffocating steamy heat .... again we are happy that you are still alive, please take care, at least until we got your book on 21st of September!!! Cornelia+Willi

  2. ... sad that it is not possible, to take all those doggies, little kittens (in a chinese kitchen???)Orangutans, baboon babies and left alone animals with you ... to install a sort of Harnas-branch in North Carolina - we would donate that!