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Leaving Borneo

by John Mendelssohn

When the immigration officer at Gatwick asked me how long we'd been gone, I'd told him, without trying to be funny, 10 years. It felt as though we'd spent around nine years on planes, as coming home from Borneo involved nothing more than a 90-minute flight from Kuching to Kuala Lumpur, a six-hour stay at KL's airport, a six-hour flight to Dubai, a two-hour layover at Dubai's airport, and a seven-hour flight from Dubai to London Gatwick. We intend to be recovered from our jet lag some time before the New Year.

We observed orangutans — mobs of 'em — in their native habitat. We rode up a very Apocalype Now river to longhouses inhabited by the indigenous Iban people, gave them gifts of festively packaged junk food (our guide's idea!), and danced with them — a fact that, thanks to the miracle of digital video, I am able to prove. We nearly swooned from the heat and humidity, and spent lots of time in air-conditioned rooms in the Kuching Hilton and Hilton Batang Ai Resort. At the former, I ate around £35 worth of smoked salmon every morning. Buffet, you see. I'd also get a couple of platefuls of tropical fruit, scrambled eggs, hash brown potatoes, teriyaki fish, fried noodles, and vegetable sushi, and washed down with freshly squeezed melon, watermelon, and carrot juice. I left with a 32-inch waist, and came home barely able to get through our front door.

Everywhere you turned, there was unbelievable food at extremely low prices, the problem being that, until it rained late every afternoon, it was too beastly out for turning; we became unhappily accustomed to the unnerving sensation of sweat dribbling between the cheeks of our bums. In the basement of a shopping mall, I found a sushi place where little dishes of my favorite food paraded past on a conveyor belt. For the equivalent of £3, I gorged myself. And we're talking very fresh, very delicious, and very unusual. Naturally, the missus, a vegetarian whose idea of exotic is Italian, was miserable. Indeed, when she saw what was on offer at the buttet the first night at Batang Ai, she snarled, "We might as well be in Poland," where she is famous for having subsisted on cabbage and potatoes for four days when she visited in the early 90s to view Europe's last surviving buffalo herd. I am not making any of this up.


Coming back by (inadequately air-conditioned) motor coach from Batang Ai, we stopped in an extremely Third World little backwater to put air in the tyres and use the toilets (virtually none of which was anything other than appalling, the ladies' reportedly being two inches deep in urine), and I espied a local in a bin Laden T-shirt. I asked our Malaysian Muslim tour guide Masri if the locals think highly of old Osama, and learned he's generally perceived as a friend of Islam, and highly preferable to George Bush. I bought myself a vile canned soft drink in which little bits of jelly seemed to be floating. An unnerving experience!


Masri was relentlessly informative. We learned, for example, that Malaysian motorists are taxed according to the size of their engines, that littering is a capital crime, and that the Chinese are not allowed to buy homes in the Malay sector. I was joking about littering, though, in the afternoon, grizzled persons with nets on poles collected debris and rubbish from the muddy, crocodile-laden Sarawak River. I wish the Richmond Council would institute a similar policy for the stretch of the Thames near which we live, as the locals seem to regard it as a good place into which to hurl empty plastic beverage bottles and the like.

I was disheartened to see Bon Jovi graffiti on the side of a hut near where we boarded the (motorised) canoes that took us to the Ibans, and horrified and incredulous to see a great many locals bypassing the glorious local food in favour of KFC and McDonald's. I kind of wished American basketball and British football hadn't been on TV. I much preferred music videos featuring what appeared to be Muslim boy bands in songkoks.

Our first Saturday night in Kuching, we went to an otherwise deserted (drag!) club called Cat City, where a group comprising six little Filipina foxes in inconceivably short leatherette skirts and platform boots, led by a boy who later told me that his idols are Tom Jones and Engelbert and that he himself was 35, were scheduled to perform. They were so delighted to have an audience that they all came over and shook our hands. They sang (phonetically!) such favourites as Tina Turner's Simply the Best and that horrid Ciccone woman's La Isla Bonita, all to the accompaniment of a Casio keyboard. Their choreography was ragged, and three of the little foxes couldn't get anywhere near their high notes. As you might expect, we adored them, to the tune of planning to go back the night we realised at the last possible second that we were actually expected on the bus back to Kuching Airport. Claire had hoped to promote their first British tour.

After having been out to the Ibans', there wasn't much to do at Batang Ai. One morning we went on a nature hike that involved traversing a flimsy suspension bridge high above the jungle. I found doing so considerably less terrifying than Malaysia Airlines' Flight 2526 from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching. Once back in our habitably cool room, I annotated the first draft of my novel-in-progress The Mona Lisa's Brother while Dame Zelda, who'd ingested something that disagreed with her, devoured Bill Bryson's A Brief History of Nearly Everything. Later, I enjoyed playing one-on-one water polo in the swimming pool with a stiff upper lip British colonel type. It was the first time I've been able to throw right-handed repeatedly since I had my right shoulder surgically replaced ten years ago. He was remarkably spry for his age, and trounced me, though I bellowed a lot more exultantly at my few goals, this to the considerable displeasure of the corpulent Prussians arrayed around the pool.

We were surrounded by middleaged British couples, including a gay one that didn't seem to like me. As usual, I felt much younger than nearly everyone there, a rock fan among crooner fans. (While waiting in a restaurant (luscious black pepper squid, RM8, a Malaysian ringgit being worth about 16p/25¢) for one afternoon deluge to end, we heard Mr. Sinatra's really swinging version of Jim Croce's Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, which I believe to be one of the three worst pop songs ever composed) For the first time, I realised that I was probably actually older than about half of them. 

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