Friday, July 11, 2008

Day 152. Preparing for a jungle adventure

Mangaris is an incredible village. It seems that 10 years ago, under the guidance of the WWF, the villagers got together and agreed to pool their resources to create their tourist enterprise. First of all they agreed on an important philosophical point: Tourists are good, nice people so they—the whole village—were going to receive them with open arms. It was delightful to wake up in the morning, have a delicious home-cooked breakfast with Dad, surrounded by the giggling faces of the three big daughters, the two young ones, and the baby, and then go for a morning walk with everyone in the village wishing me a smiling good morning (except for the geese, which as usual honked at me for stepping into their territory).

All the villagers are ready to receive one or two tourists, who are assigned on a strict rotation, into their spacey homes. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are included in the deal, and the food is excellent and abundant.

As I said, the houses are very spacey and airy. We are by the side of the river, and flooding is to be expected (last time in 2001), so the houses all have to stories or are built on stilts. The lower floor, if there is one, is used as kitchen and washing area, and the family lives in the second floor. A huge living room is used precisely for that. This is where Dad (his name is Kuling) likes to watch TV or read the newspaper, Mom (her name is Sindarah) spreads the fabric for cutting the dresses she sells in her little store in the first floor, where the guests are received (sitting on the spotlessly clean floor), and where the kids play or do their homework.

My guide and amigo is called Jeffrey, and today he took me to see an Eco-Camp the village is building. It is by an oxbow lake, and consists of paths, beautiful wooden walkways along the muddy banks, and eleven A-frame structures where four visitors can bunk to be close to nature. I asked if this would not take people away from the homestay program, but they believe that there will be enough tourist traffic (and diversity of interests) to support both programs.

The oxbow lake got invaded by some sort of floating plant from South America (damn migratory birds) about six years ago, and in a couple of years the whole of the lake was covered. They toyed with the idea of bringing in a South American weeble to eat the stuff, but thank God they didn’t (who knows what type of ecological disaster could have started by the hungry bug). Instead they have been mechanically removing the plant with a boat-mounted “backhoe”, with great success (and much elbow grease I am sure). As you can see they have won the battle, although now they are committed to annual maintenance for the rest of their lives. Incidentally, as I was inspecting the “backhoe” I saw another monitor lizard that jumped into the water and cool as a fish swam away. I didn’t know lizards could swim!

Another highlight of my delightful village is a little café, created by one of the neighbors by the simple expedient of putting a couple of tables in her spacious veranda. It is a great place to stare at the mighty river, while sipping on a cool Coke. It was while sitting at the café that I solved the mystery of the palms. These palms produce, once a year, a pod of fruits that are very oily (they look a little like dates, but when I inspected the ones that two boys were unloading from up river I cut one in two and oil started oozing from the cut). Each pod must have 200 fruits, the pod must be about 5 kg, and each tree produces two or three pods per year. The pods sell at the mill for about $250 per ton, according to my informants, so you can make a good amount of cash out of it. Palms require little maintenance after they have been planted, and they start producing when they are four years old, so it is no surprise that many farmers have shifted to this product. And what is palm oil used for? For cooking, for industrial baking of cookies, for cosmetics, and for production of synthetic fabrics. It could also be used to produce agrofuels, though I am not sure the economics are right given that Malaysia is a petroleum-producing country.

After another tasty lunch with my host family I joined a group of eco-tourists, who were going to do a boat ride to spot wildlife, followed by a camping night in the jungle (why, oh why, do I do these things to myself). Eco-tourists, as a lot, are rather trying, in that they can stare for ages at a stupid bird, and they keep making disparaging remarks about any development effort. Still, they have good eyes, so I got to see a tribe of proboscis monkeys (one male for 30 females—poor guy!), a pig so large that at first we thought it was a small rhinocerous, and any number of birds. Maybe I should give up and join the ranks of bird watchers. I could start my list with Borneo birds such as the Rhinocerous Hornbill or the Storm Stork. It is extremely difficult to have sightings of either bird, so my boat companions were in bird-watching extasis (eat your heart out Normita). The camping in the jungle was . . . an experience: The main thing was sleeping in hammocks that have been specially designed for the rain forest. They include the hammock itself, with an attached mosquito net made of parachute fabric, and a rain fly that is stretched with six long ties (the end result is a tangle of lines that is extremely difficult to navigate). It is a great design, but the fabric of the mosquito net is too tightly woven, so when you get into your cocoon you realize that there is null comma nichts of air circulation. Now I know what a tamal feels like when it slowly steams for hours on end! Another small problem with the hammock is that your butt forms a rather prominent bulge that mosquitoes find irresistible; so, instead of trying to go through the mosquito net, which is impregnable, they sting you through the bottom fabric, in the aforementioned prominent bulge. Funny to see how many people were scratching their butts the following day :)

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