Last we knew, I was having my blood sucked out by leeches in the jungles of Mulu. But the adventure has continued. As fast as I could, I headed from Mulu back to the big city of Kuching. Which wasn't too fast, since everyone was going to Kuching for Chinese New Year and the planes were all full. Instead I flew to Sibu, spent the night and took the express boat to Kuching. Whee! Fun! Sailing the ocean blue! Well, at first it was sailing the river brown. But smooth and fast in the airline-styled boat as we passed the really boring and nearly featureless river-bank vegetation. At first the monotony of the river-bank was broken frequently -- way too frequently it seemed like -- by sawmills and piles and piles of former jungle trees that had been barged down river from the interior.
When the boat reached the mighty South China Sea, that water didn't really get any more blue, but the ride got way more fun. Big swells were rolling in and we pitched and rolled. The children on board all shrieked with delight for the first two or three waves, then mostly settled down to be sick in plastic bags thoughtfully provided by the same man who had come around earlier selling us all snacks. Hmm.
In Kuching, Chinese New Year was in full swing. Or so I imagined. I was in my hotel hiding from the rain. It rained for two days. And not the kind of rain that puts the "damp" in "dampened enthusiasm." This was the kind of rain that puts the "drowned" in "the sound of the rain drowned out the sound of the voices in his head."
I stayed in Kuching for long enough to do some mountain biking with some cool people on fun trails. Then I left. Back in the same direction as I had been at Mulu, but this time by bus with all the fun stops along the way. Even just riding the bus and looking out the window was pretty cool. There were rice fields filled with workers in those wide conical hats. And as the road degenerated into construction areas, there were road workers carrying buckets on each end of a stick over their shoulders. Wow. Just like in the pictures.
The first cool stop was Niah Caves National Park. I'd had a good time in the caves of Mulu. But Niah's Great Cave was a whole different experience. It says right in the guidebooks that Niah is the oldest continually inhabited place in Asia. Excavations have found evidence that the caves have been inhabited for 40,000 years. Which implies, I realize now, that people still live in the caves. And so it is. Instead of wandering the lonely depths of a dark cave, I found myself inside chambers echoing with the voices and music of the cave men. Yellow-orange candleglow lit strange corners of the cave far from the boardwalk.
Now why, in the technology-coddled 21st century, would someone want to live in a cave? One reason only: money. There may not be gold in them thar hills, but apparently you can scrape out a descent living in the cave. And I mean that literally. Scrape. There are basically two ways. Either you scrape the guano off the cave floor and carry a huge bag of it strapped to your head down the three kilometer boardwalk to the river and onto a boat to the market where you can sell it. Or you can, without benefit of a comprehensive healthcare plan, climb to dizzying heights up a narrow stick hanging precariously from the cave ceiling, and scrape birdnests off the rock which you can gather up and sell for ridiculously high prices to dealers who sell them to Chinese people who make a health-and-vitality-promoting soup from the nest's dried bird-spit material. Mmmm. (And you can tell that the soup works, since so many Chinese people live to be 200 years old or older.)
It's not supposed to be a good idea for women to wander the Great Cave's trails alone. And I figured that with so many men living for so long in the dark together, that it wouldn't be a real bad idea for me to stay with a group, either. So I wandered with an Australian couple, Paul and Melissa.
We left the Great Cave by a back door and headed for the next cave: the historically significant (and uninhabited) Painted Cave. Inside was a beautiful painted pictograph panel. The rich red pigment showed spread-eagled figures and multi-oared death ships. I knew this because I had seen the pictures in the visitor center. What we actually saw was a whitish cave wall with a few nearly discernible red smudges, all fiercely guarded by a tall steel cage topped with barbed wire. I couldn't help but wonder if the protective barrier had been installed just a little too late.
But at the other end of the wide-open cave, there were some carved wooden death canoes. These canoes had once held human remains for the journey to the next life. Cool.
Also at that end of the wide-open cave was a small dark hole that promised to not be so wide open. Melissa thought she'd just wait, but Paul and I had flashlights and just had to see where it went. It was a little bit slippery and muddy, but we headed down the hole into the darkness. We skirted some deep drop-offs and scrambled down and down. "Do you think we've gone far enough?" I'd ask. And he'd go down a little further. "We can get back up this, right?" he's ask. And I'd slide down to the next ledge. Men at play.
We got to the bottom where there was a muddy river slowly flowing down the passage. I suggested that maybe we could go back up and get one of the death canoes and then float off into the darkness deep underground in a cave on the exotic island of Borneo. I mean if we wanted to have a REAL adventure. But Paul didn't think it would be that great of an idea.
Since then I've wandered the moonlit jungle in Lambir Hills. Except that the moon wasn't out and it was cloudy and raining. The moonlight was from phosphorescent fungus growing on the dead leaves on the forest floor.
And I've had a cool adventure involving my having overstayed my visa and not being able to leave the country and having to spend the weekend in a really boring town until the immigration office opened on Monday and then having to pay a stiff fine and sit on a hard bench for three-and-a-half hours. (Better than jail, I'm pretty sure. But the town was REALLY boring.)
And I've visited Brunei, the tiny oil-rich and strongly Moslem country run by a Sultan with two wives who likes really big golden buildings.
And now I'm in Sabah, the other half of Malaysian Borneo. Looking for the next piece of the adventure. And another internet hook-up.