A PERSONAL NARRATIVE: THE PEACE CORPS' FIRST TWO YEARS IN SARAWAK, 1962-1964.
Those selected for the post trained in Hilo, Hawaii in the spring of 1962.
I'd completed two years of university, already committed to cultural anthropology and enthralled by the brilliance of my professor Erika Bourguignon at Ohio State. Bourguignon was on the cusp of directing a long-term project called "Cross-Cultural Study of Dissociational States." As much as I liked my studies, I wanted to leave the United States and Ohio and have an experience of living in a culture vastly different from my own quasi-suburban, deeply white American one. How could I imagine embarking on a career in anthropology without that? Jack Kennedy was president. I was among the many young people who answered his challenge to serve, certainly, in part, for self-serving reasons. Thus, I joined the Peace Corps. The invitational telegram I received stated that I would be going to Sarawak. I'd never heard of it. I was 19 years old.
The Peace Corps was to send a gaggle of young rural Americans to organize 4-H Clubs in the then British Crown Colony. I had been a 4-H member for ten years, though not from a farm family. I had earned my stripes as a square dance caller and had won awards at Ohio State Fair competitions. I had also been honored as Ohio State 4-H Recreational Leader, a prize that sent me to Chicago for the National 4-H Club Congress where I had my photograph taken standing before a giant ice carving of the emblematic 4-H clover, shaking hands with the president of John Deere tractor company.
We assembled, most of us, in San Francisco for the flight to our training site in Hilo, Hawaii. My great uncle had flown the Pacific in a Pan Am China Clipper in February 1940. I have his original certificate of flight attesting to the fact that he had crossed the equator. This was a big thing in his day. Sailors were still paddled and dunked by King Neptune when their ships crossed that imaginary line. And my uncle was proud enough of this accomplishment to keep the proof. Uncle Lawrence' tales of the flight and work in the Philippines, my father's encounters with snakes while in the army in New Guinea in WW II, a Chinese restaurant in Dayton, Ohio, and a few forties Hollywood films were all I knew about Asia and the Pacific.
I boarded the flight wearing a pleated white skirt, a light-weight blue box jacket, and white pumps, all very appropriate for a middle-aged woman diplomat. I also wore Dior sunglasses. I had found them somewhere. Narrow lenses, black frames. The type a French airline hostess might be seen in. I had a nice haircut. In short, I was going for glamour. I wore the same outfit for the flight to Sarawak. The boys, many farmers, wore short-sleeved white shirts, slacks and dark, narrow, neckties. I carried a large jar of pills in my suitcase. I was to take a couple daily for one year. These were somehow connected to my alarmingly positive TB skin test.
Training in Hilo was more fun than difficult. In between frolicking among lava rocks and sea urchins at 4-Mile beach, a 30 mile hike, loving the steady diet of Asian food, studying Bahasa Melayu, and trying to learn to swim, I met anthropologist Thomas Rhys Williams (who demonstrated the use of a Dusun blowgun) and pioneer Southeast Asian archeologist William G. Solheim. Williams' antics, or rumored antics, among the Dusun in Sabah were the topic of many Peace Corps volunteer reports over the two years we were on the island. Was it true that he complained to the United States Embassy in Singapore after someone left a dead lizard on his doorstep? I never knew. I often chatted with him at American Anthropological Society meetings in subsequent years and he joined the faculty at Ohio State a year or two after I graduated. Solheim had worked on the Niah Cave archaeological site and I, happily, had a brush with that project later while working as a part-time volunteer at the Sarawak Museum where I was mentored by the already legendary Tom Harrisson.
Among the most memorable of the training staff was Y. Baron Goto who was director of the cooperative extension service in Hawaii, though, shortly thereafter, became vice chancellor of the East-West Center. Dr. Goto was a key trainer for our cohort of 4-Hers. He taught us to graft, how to pick the best species of mango, and how to grow papaya and root crops. With him, we studied composting and principles of vegetable production in the tropics. All very practical.
He was concerned that I had trouble floating in water and even swimming. I clung anxiously to the sides of the practice pool. We were required, however, to pass swimming tests in order to go to Sarawak. We would, we were told, be using boats as primary means of transport and there would be no life jackets. I was counseled by the staff psychiatrist who insinuated that my mother was responsible for my fear of drowning. No amount of instruction seemed to help. Dr. Goto had devised a plan: he would fly an inflatable bra to Hilo from Honolulu. I would have worn it and cheated, but, a still unsolved mystery: I was never asked to do the final test. I do believe it was because, as the psychiatrist told me, in one of our sessions, I was considered by staff to be a "solid citizen" and would be a great representative of the United States. Some trainees were "deselected" for a variety of reasons. I was not. Surprisingly, some of our cohort whom we thought would excel in the field asked to be sent home within a few weeks of arriving at their Sarawak placements. I stuck it out. Solid citizen.
Had we but known the history of Batu Lintang, we might have asked to be moved elsewhere. Batu Lintang had been a prisoner of war camp during the war until liberation in 1945. The appalling conditions and the terror that reigned in that camp is well documented in the book Three Came Home, a memoir by Agnes Newton Keith. We were mercifully ignorant of the history of our first home. By 1962, it was a teacher training college. We experienced barracks living at close quarters while we received orientation lectures and strolled around Kuching in the evenings. I struggled to match the extreme level of modesty my several barrack-mates, mostly ethnic Malay and Chinese young women, required. I learned very quickly how to wear a sarong, grip a corner in my teeth, and tent myself while dressing and undressing inside its folds.
Post-orientation, I was sent to Tarat Agricultural Station where students from regional kampongs were being trained to cultivate raised bed gardens and construct and stock fish ponds.
This might have been an ideal posting for me but the director and his spouse were colonial service people recently out of Kenya and the Mau Mau rebellion. That I did know something about for I was from Greene County, Ohio, home of Antioch College and two historically Black universities, Central State and Wilberforce. During my high school years, my "progressive" chums and I met and befriended Thomas Mboya's brother and other African students attending those colleges and spent a year studying African anti-colonial movements on our own.
The director at Tarat embodied every stereotype of colonial officers I'd heard or read about. He was tall, officious, wore flappy white knee-length shorts and long white socks pulled up to his skinny knee bones. He had the presence and bulk I later heard Bidayuh (indigenous people with whom I worked) laugh about. Such massive fellows, it seems, had occasionally crashed through bamboo flooring of their longhouses. What lay below was something you didn't want to fall into.
The director's spouse seemed to look down her nose at me and the students. Worse yet, I was given nothing to do. Nothing at all. The couple's bushbaby received much more attention than I. The one time I was invited to dinner at their bungalow, the bush baby jumped about the table and nibbled on most of the sandwiches. Granted, I was cranky that evening because I was on my way to being quite ill.
I didn't know what caused my ailment except that though it was malaria-like it wasn't malaria. (I did take anti-malaria tablets every day.) I didn't see a doctor or even a local dresser. I don't believe it occurred to me to ask to be taken to Kuching for diagnosis and treatment. I remained in bed, in my little house on the compound, for a couple of weeks. I had a high temperature and had never felt sicker, sometimes hallucinating as I drifted in and out of a feverish sleep. I developed large craters around my ankles from bites, bites that may have caused the fever. I still have the scars. The Australian wife of the nearby Dragon School's headmaster melted a waxy stick and let the melt drip into the craters, that after I was able to get around. It was from her that I learned to swallow charcoal tablets for stomach upsets and to eat mixed grill. But though the couple were kind towards me, I was shocked by some of the school's policies. For example, staff washed mouths of students with soap when they were heard to speak with each other in their home languages. I knew about Native American boarding schools in the United States and had never imagined I'd see these reprehensible colonizing practices with my own eyes.
During my illness, the wife of the agriculture officer at Tarat visited me once a day (me alone in my quarters, immobilized) carrying with her a liquid jello or some such stuff. Her cheery message as she sat by my bedside and spooned nourishment: "Go home. The tropics will take five years off your life." Her words and presence were demoralizing, but I was defiant.
When I could finally make it to the dining room, a Chinese cook in a colorful kebab and sarong made me her personal project. Fed me congee with a lightly cooked egg on top and sprinkled with ikan pusu goreng. The kids in the course got only kaya toast and tea. She said to me, often, "I eat more salt than you eat rice." That is, her life had brought many tears and experience. I adored her. She was the only adult who seemed to me to like me.
At last, and it was only after a few weeks of hell, I was reposted to Bau District and given a Peace Corps house in Bau proper. I was the only Peace Corps Volunteer in the district, though a friend had been posted there briefly.
The house, as I recall it, was relatively new. Perhaps it was built as a Peace Corps house. It had an attap roof made of sections of palm leaves. The exterior siding was made of split, flattened bamboo sewn together with rattan to make slabs. The house was raised about four feet above ground level.
I was supplied with government issue furniture with uncovered cushions, a battery operated radio (I could hear Radio Sarawak and Indonesian Radio easily. Radio Sarawak carried BBC news), a Phillips battery operated turntable, a kerosene fridge and cooker, a hand crank table sewing machine (upon which I made cushion covers), and a bed. The cooker was used to boil water. All water was to be boiled. I had a toaster that worked when power was available. But I often found crispy chit-chat lizards in between the coils. Did not make much toast. I seldom cooked. I ate a lot of Cadbury chocolate and tin after tin of biscuits. And many pisang mas, tiny bananas. I ate most meals in the bazaar in a kedai just a short walk from my house, or with host families in out-lying kampongs. I always carried packets of tomato soup (Knorr) and tins of sardines in my knapsack to add to the evening meals with families in the kampongs. There we ate heaped plates of hill rice, long beans cooked with shoyu and chilis, and, maybe, some dried fish. On special occasions we had rice and pork cooked in green bamboo tubes or perhaps a village chicken. Some families served chopped, very hot bird's eye chilis on the side, often in a small dish of shoyu. In the kampongs, we ate on beautifully woven mats on the floor and, of course, used right hands for eating. I became accustomed to using only my right hand for all transactions and I understood, for this was customary even among non-Muslims.
The main room of my house had an overhead fan and we did, occasionally or for some hours, have power and could move the wet, hot air about. In the evenings, I used kerosene lamps for light. I acquired new habits. Learning to leave shoes at the door. Life with lizards. Mosquito nets. The most unsettling thing about the house was that because there was a ceiling made of some kind of hardboard between the attap and the room below, I could hear the rats scampering to and fro. All night, most nights. It sounded much like a bowling alley. The rodents ran one end of the roof line to the other and crashed into the walls at either end. Strike.
The house was on a hill overlooking the District Office and Police Station. Next door in another house was a Scots road engineer, Tom Oliver. At the base of the hill and a little removed was the Public Works Department barracks where Tom's road laborers were domiciled. My house and Tom's were placed ideally for Indonesian invaders should they come it rose closer to the border than the rest of Bau and provided a perfect perch from which to command the District Office and Constabulary.
Tom's spouse and children were there for the first weeks of my residency. After that, it was just Tom, his amah, and occasional visitors. Often other Scotsmen.
I was also given a black Raleigh bicycle. The "boys" in my 4-H cohort were given motorcycles. This bit of discrimination was duly noted and complained about. During the last two or three months of service, I was issued a three-wheel, balloon tire vehicle that ran, I believe, on a lawnmower engine. I don't remember much more about it but that it garnered laughs wherever I took it. I think it was supposed to be good on the muddy tracks sometimes five or miles long, I followed to reach the Bidayu kampongs I frequented.
Bau was a village with a two or three long block bazaar. Bau was founded by Chinese entrepreneurs. Hakka miners moved into the area from Kalimantan where they had migrated from Guangdong province of China. Three thousand or so of these Hakka miners left for Sarawak in about 1850 after attacks by the Dutch. The Shum Too Kau Kongsi became the dominant partner in gold mining operations in what became Bau. Many lost their lives in a disastrous Bau Chinese rebellion just a few years later. The rebellion was precipitated by a disagreement: whether Rajah James Brooke or the Hakka would rule Bau area. After the rebellion was quashed, the Chinese gold town of Bau was burned to the ground in 1857. It was slowly rebuilt.
The Bau merchants in the bazaar I knew were primarily Hakka Chinese. There was a Malay kampong area on one end of the town and to the west and toward the Indonesian border was a District Office, Police Station, and a few other government buildings including the residence of the District Officer.
In the bazaar were Chinese kedai (shops) including kedai makan (eateries), all at street level, all with living quarters above. The buildings were made of wood with concrete floors, and concrete drains along the road, and wooden shutters on upstairs windows. The shops were closed at night by long folding doors. These were opened during the day to show off displays of goods. At the front of the cafes, men, shirtless men fanned charcoal fires and cooked in huge woks: char kueh tow, nasi goring. These are foods I still crave.
I became friendly with some shop owners. Though at first, some habits were, I thought, peculiar. Babies in their bottomless bibs were held over the open drains that fronted the shops when they were ready to urinate. Then, of course, I had never seen mucus expelled from the nose with such energy and without a handkerchief. Emaciated dogs wandered to and fro. My Malay friends told me never to eat in town if a dog had been run over. I took their meaning. Malays, of course, did not eat in the Chinese shops publicly, though there were times when I saw Malay acquaintances eating at the back of the shop, hidden from view. I do believe that there was Hennessy on the table.
The town had a movie theatre. The auditorium had rows of backless wooden benches, much like the benches school children used in some of the village schools. They were set on a hard packed dirt floor. During a screening, the Chinese theatre owner occupied an imposing overstuffed chair placed somewhere near the middle of the interior, arranged for optimum viewing. I don't remember the cost of entry, but it was pennies. We stood and sang "God Save the Queen" before every screening. And we smoked. We had no television, of course, and to see a film out in the Bidayuh kampongs required walking in with a projector and a battery to power it. This did happen on occasion. But town folk could see a new movie every week even during monsoon. I believe the Chinese owner was thought of as a rich man.
Smoking. Bidayuih rolled a bit of Indonesian tobacco in a dried palm leaf. These cigarettes self-extinguished regularly so one could judge the distance to a village by how many cigarettes one had to smoke during the trek. Berapa rokok he Kampong Sudohl "How many cigarettes to Kampong Sudoh?" one might ask someone coming from the opposite direction on the path. And one could judge how far ahead someone was by how bright red the spit was on the path. Fresh betel spit was a blood red. But it gradually dried brown. A greeting in town with Malay speakers was often Pergi mana orpergi ke mana? It meant where are you going. No one really cared for an answer. It was similar to the American, "how are you." Tiresome when a friend begins a litany of woes. And in Bau or on a trail it was usually obvious how you were and where you are going.
I did smoke. Too much. One could buy Players singly from an open tin in the shops. I did.
Though only about two blocks long, the only street of Bau was often the site of loud and fascinating parades and promenades. I ran down my hill at the first hint or rumor of a ritual performance. The Da Bo Gong Miao temple in the middle of Bau, I learned much later, was built to honor the leader of the 1850s rebellion. I did not know anything of the protocol associated with this temple. It had dragon gate posts and leaping carp on the peak of the roof. Occasionally men sat upon highly decorated chairs in brocade gowns and large hats and were thus carried through the streets on the palanquins, apparently in a deep trance, as drums and cymbals and gongs crashed. A makeshift stage was erected in front of the temple when the opera came to town. Incense wafted into the streets from inside the temple. Who were these people and what was this about? I didn't understand until years later.
Other than eating and marveling at everything, I was just living my fairly lonely life with my Phillips radio, my Peace Corps issue foot locker full of books (including Somerset Maugham's Borneo Stories and The Caine Mutiny), and a very large first aid kit and manual. I consulted the manual each time I had a symptom. The conclusion was always the same: I had a deadly disease. Gratefully, the dresser came, maybe once a week to examine any comers. I waited in line with everyone else for my exam and medicine. We took our own empty pop or beer bottles to receive a new supply of gentian violet, and were sent home with a packet of Panadol. My fellow patients were worse off than I. Some seemed to have lost their noses. Others had what looked like Elephantiasis. I knew a man who died of a simple parang knick around his ankle.
To supplement the books in the trunk, I ordered library books from Kuching. These were sent and returned via the post with written requests for new selections enclosed in strapped/buckled cartons.
After only a few months living in Bau, we heard of the Brunei Revolt. That was December 1962. Somehow I knew that one of my Peace Corps cohorts, Fritz Klattenhoff, from Moses Lake, Washington, just out of high school when he volunteered, had been captured by the North Kalimantan National Army (TNKU) and was held with the District Officer and his wife in Limbang District jail. Fritz and fellow captives were rescued by the British Royal Marine Commandos. They were to have been hung.
The big flood, the largest in the history of Sarawak at the time, enveloped us at the end of January of 1963. My house was on a hill. Fortunate. But because of my location, all night long, for many nights, I could hear the water below me and people crying out. Those whose outlying houses were inundated came into the Bau bazaar in dugouts. Some swam and it was rumored that people died of bites from agitated snakes. The bazaar at Bau was flooded, but people moved to their upstairs, above the 10-foot flood line. The Public Works barracks and even the police station were under several feet of water. Bau was isolated, surrounded by water and in water. Telephone service was interrupted. (I did not have a phone, but the District Office did when not under water.) I was recruited to help with aid efforts. Tom Oliver and others of us went to the unfinished roadbed, above the flood line, and laid out a large cross made, I believe, of bed sheets. This marked the target for the military helicopters to make drops of food. In Kuching, repurposed kerosene tins were filled with rice and shoyu, attached to parachutes, then sent out on military helicopters. The first few drops were useless because the shoyu bottles shattered. But soon, we were in business. Drops of clothing helped, too. All used, pretty shabby stuff. We set up a distribution point in one of the shops in the bazaar when the waters receded. I was one of those in charge, if not solely in charge, of distribution.
And then Timah and Gorot moved in. Timah was my amah. Embarrassed by having an employee, I nevertheless realized there were things I couldn't do myself. So Timah arrived once a week, collected my bundle of dirty clothing, and brought back another much tidier bundle, all washed and pressed. We chatted amiably as we poured salt on giant snails or greeted the border-crossing Indonesian woman who came peddling batik sarongs at our porch. That was pre-flood. After the flood swept away the Public Works barracks, she and her husband Gorot and his bachelor brothers, Bujang and Hamdan (all of whom were laborers on the road project directed by Tom Oliver) and two or three small children came to me, homeless. My house was small and simple. But it was divided by an open porch and walkway to the kitchen, and, just off the porch, a shower and toilet room. That moist chamber hosted spiders as big as dinner plates. However, the layout of the house was perfect for us. Timah and Gorot took the side of the house with the kitchen and dining area. I kept my bedroom and the big room with the chairs and table. We congregated in the big room in the evenings until I went to bed. Big is a relative term. Nothing about this was grand, but it worked for us.
Timah padded around the house at dusk each evening to close and secure the shutters at the windows. This was necessary because there was a Hindu cemetery behind the hill below my house in the direction of the border. If the shutters weren't closed, the ghosts from that cemetery would come in. Even if the shutters were closed, the ghosts could come to our doors and call our names. If you answered and followed, you would surely die. And they were clever ghosts. They could sound like someone you knew. So they could seduce you into following them. Because of the ghosts, all the people in the Public Works barracks had been leaving their own units at dusk (the most dangerous of times) and sleeping in one large room. They figured that with the others around, each had a chance of being prevented by someone still awake from following the ghosts.
Eventually, I heard the voices. I heard the knocking. It was as real as anything I'd ever heard. They called to me and convincingly imitated Timah and then Gorot. But I knew it was not them. They would not wake me in the night or call out to me like that. I remained silent and very afraid.
My life was richer, spicier, more dramatic after Timah and Gorot's arrival. They were, of course, Malay and therefore Muslims. Timah wrote in Jawi script in a large journal each evening after a long day of grinding chilis and other fresh ingredients, shopping, doing laundry, and preparing meals. Along with now having suppers at home, I had people with whom to pass the evenings and many new ways to understand what I really had to fear. In addition to the Hindu ghosts, there were stories of shape shifters, men and women who turn into tigers. Hantu harimau. Lycanthropy was not just a term in my anthropology books. There were stories of flying eggs. I was surrounded by these tales, day in and day out. I dreamt them alive under my mosquito net. I heard the rattling of a Japanese sword, crafted by a local blacksmith for an officer during the occupation. I had foolishly hung this acquisition on a wall of the big room. (It is said it was used for beheadings and given the bloody and cruel Japanese occupation of British Borneo, this is not a far-fetched story.) I heard other strange noises. It is that fellow from the Bidayu kampong, kaki kosong, Timah said. She called him "kaki kosong" because he wore no shoes. "He has put something in your food," I'm told. Or, it is that fellow from the Malay kampong. "He is in love with you. He brings love charms." They told this, my housemates, over games of poker and plates of roasted peanuts in the light of the oil lamps. Sometimes they were just having me on. They hung a charm around my neck and said it would make me Malay in the eyes of the Indonesians and even if the soldiers fired bullets, they would miss me. Bujang demonstrated his ability to eat glass. Hamdan cheated me at poker. He could see my cards reflected in the glass table top we played around. He screamed with laughter when I found him out. We had a lot of fun together. We built a chicken house for eggs and for the meat that Gorot butchered in Halal fashion. Of course, Timah cooked Halal food.
In time, Timah and Gorot adopted a Chinese baby girl and one day, when I returned from my rounds in the Bidayu kampongs, the baby was gone. She had died. By this time, I heard the news with little emotion. I still wonder what had happened to me to make me so apa boleh buat (what can you do?), so resigned to life and death, so quickly.
And then there was the fireball. Of course in those days there were no city lights or street lights to illuminate an automobile journey. There were few gas stations. We carried large metal containers of gasoline strapped to the back of the car. There were no motels or hotels. There were guesthouses for traveling British officers and families. But when I went on little trips with Timah and Gorot, we made whole journeys in a day or stayed with relatives or friends overnight. Of course, one could not phone ahead. You simply arrived knowing you'd be welcomed and fed. Each trip was beyond the pale; each mile took one further into uncertainty and danger, even if the danger sprang from your own beliefs.
One night, we pulled off on a side track along side a sticky, rutted road cut by Public Works Department through a patch of jungle, the beginning of the unfinished highway between Serian and Simmangang. No. Unfinished is not the right word. Neither is road. This was a muddy, hardly drivable scratch through brush. A poor effort at something we might call infrastructure today. It was impossible to drive it after a big rain. That meant it was impassable during the whole monsoon season. It would not be completed until lorries of rocks were delivered and Chinese and Malay laborers carried them, basket after basket, to the roadbed and place them one by one to make a cobble bed for the macadam surface. That surface would be rolled several years from then.
The track, as it was that night, was very much like the paths I trekked on to get to the villages I visited. I was usually at least ankle deep in mud passing sometimes through rubber plantations, each tree with a little cup of milky latex that had dripped from the slash on the tree's trunk. Sometimes I walked alongside impossibly beautiful acres of high palmate trees hanging with ferns and orchids under their canopy. The undergrowth was so thick that no creatures could pass unless it were those that crawl on their bellies or have the strength to break through it all. Beasts and demons, perhaps. My paths took me to kampongs guarded by small wooden spirit houses, inhabited by spirits that could "tangle the neck" of anyone approaching with ill intentions. The kampongs were surrounded by pepper plants or pineapple or untidy fields of red rice interspersed with maize growing on slashed and burnt hillsides. The mud from the journey covered my green canvas boots and smeared around my ankles and calves. I would be tired and thirsty and wet clear through my clothing from sweat. Upon my arrival, someone would invariably use a parang to chop a whole at one end of a green coconut. I drank and was refreshed.
The night we pulled over onto the muddy track, we were on our way back to Bau. Someone in the car had spotted a light moving through the trees just below us. No one seemed afraid. But everyone wanted to get out and watch. I saw it too. It was a sphere of bright light and moved rapidly through the brush and cover. It was higher from the jungle floor than would be a torch carried by a person. And it was rounder than the flame of a torch would be; it was bigger than a lantern or flashlight beam. In fact, there was no beam or diffused light emanating from its core. It was simply a solid, bright ball. I didn't hear a sound. I didn't hear wind or the sound of breaking or crushed branches or undergrowth. We all seemed to stop breathing as we beheld this thing. Is it a hantu? I wonder. A ghost? Will it harm someone?
After the flood, when roads were opened again, I traveled to Kuching occasionally and spent some evenings in a Peace Corps hostel. It was usually an unpleasant stay because I could hear Peace Corps boys having sex with local women. The walls were that thin. I had other ways to entertain myself. I went to the Aurora Hotel and learned to drink Pimm's Cups and Singapore Slings. I loved the mushroom soup. And there was usually a live band. Later in 1963,1 met dozens of press covering the Malaysia-Indonesia Confrontation. They congregated at the hotel and chatted and joked with one another and with me. It was across a table of cocktails at the Aurora that I received a proposal of marriage from a Sarawakian man who was politically prominent and soon to be even more so as the new government came into power. He thought it would be good to have an English speaking wife for his tours around the world. His words.
In August of 1963, about a year after my arrival, we drew close to the date when Sarawak would no longer be a British Crown Colony but rather a state of Malaysia. Rumors ran amok. A good Malay word for what it felt like.
That August, a United Nations team arrived in Bau, one stop on their mission to assess the will of the people regarding Sarawak becoming part of Malaysia. The report of the United Nations Malaysian Mission was submitted to Secretary-General U Thant on September 14, 1963.
I happened to be in Kuching in the last days of the United Nations team visit. I was having an evening meal at the Aurora hotel in Kuching and the U.N. Team were seated at the next table. Someone in a nearby dinner party had ordered a flamb6 dish. A waitperson approached, torched the alcohol in the dish, and a large flame leaped to life. The U.N. Team members sprang to their feet and ran out of the hotel. Such was the tension around us in those days.
We knew when the team were to arrive in Bau. So we gathered to see them land. The delegation touched down in a helicopter on the soccer field of St. Stephens school. Everyone in the vicinity knew there could be trouble, most likely from the Chinese Clandestine Communist Organisation (CCO). I'm not at all sure what caused the ensuing panic. I found my way to the upper floor of a friend's shop in the bazaar as people scattered and Royal Marine Commandos trooped down the street dressed for combat. We were all to be off the street, someone with a bullhorn announced, and nobody challenged the order. I took a series of photographs from my window perch. Two nights before Malaysia Day, I was in Kuching eating with Peace Corps friends at the large Open Market in Kuching. Someone threw a hand grenade nearby. We didn't know right away what caused the explosion nor that people had been injured. People ran through the street, clearly frightened. The blame was placed on the CCO.
I was in Kuching with some friends on September 16, 1963 when Lord Alexander Waddell and Lady Waddell were paddled across the Kuching River from the Astana to the Pangkalan Batu. The last British Governor of Sarawak was taking his leave. Bands played, speeches were given, and a 17 gun saluted boomed a farewell. Lord Waddell was dressed in ceremonial uniform. The pomp was extraordinary, the excitement contagious. The Central Padang of Kuching featured a large decorative arch emblazoned with the words, Merdeka Malaysia. More bands, troops paraded, more speeches. It was, indeed, a wonderful day. Home again, friends and I had our own ceremony in front of my house. I remember having a tetherball pole and a Sarawak flag. We sang the national anthem.
As weeks passed and as the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation intensified, troops moved into Bau. The British Royal Marine Commandos, Ghurkas and the Malay Army: they were all there. They brought their tanks, and set up field tents and other equipment to create a sort of headquarters below us. There was much noise and bustling and not just from the soldiers. British jets flew low overhead where nothing much more frightening than omen hornbills had flown. They dropped flyers upon us urging us to either surrender (if we were enemy) or stop cooperating with CCO or whomever. These were printed in several languages including Jawi script.
Military helicopters flew onto the school soccer fields. At first, this was a novelty and we all rushed to watch the landings and have our scarves and hats blown about. Soon it was commonplace. I almost always had a camera with me. I made some photos of the helicopters, of troops shooting from a tank toward the border. (I was on a bus that time.) I took photos of the Malay army and Royal Marine encampment at the foot of my hill. I have pictures of officers smiling at me. I took photos of prisoners being loaded on military lorries.
The troops were very nice to me. I was invited to officer's mess. A Royal Marine colonel had me for tea a couple of times in his makeshift bungalow by the local lake, Tasik Beru. My companions and I often swam in this lake, me dog-paddling near a small dock. I now know that the lake was full of arsenic.
During tea, served by a young man assigned to the colonel, the colonel played recordings of Highlander bagpipe favorites. Scotland the Brave. He also used snuff, very daintily. This was the same colonel who came with a lieutenant to my house late one night and attempted to recruit me to spy for them. His reasoning was that I knew the trails and the language and could both spot unfamiliar Chinese and pick up rumors. He also advised that I should carry a firearm for the Indonesians or CCO would not ask my nationality before shooting. I reported this conversation to the Peace Corps the next morning via telephone at the District Office and, alas, my colonel was removed. One Peace Corps couple in Sabah apparently took up the request to assist military and they were sent home by the Peace Corps.
The colonel's visit came pursuant to a major faux pas on my part. One night at officer's mess, I had noticed aerial photographs of the district laid out on a table and began pointing to tracks and trails and kampongs that I recognized. I soon realized that my remarks were attracting attention. I moved away from the images and stopped talking, but my familiarity with the territory had already been noted.
The CCO were said to be hiding about here and there. In the jungle. In the shops. Growing vegetables. Selling rice. Meeting in secret and plotting to take over the country. So it was not only the Indonesians at the border who posed a threat to Bau.
As rumors (and maybe even actual intelligence) spread, our house was surrounded by rows of barbed wire and a few slit trenches. These trenches were occupied at night by men with 9mm submachine Sten guns.
A curfew was imposed and required that we be inside at dark. I had to pass a checkpoint at the bottom of the hill. It was all very daunting. I rehearsed my Malay responses to any challenge I might receive when going home at dusk.
All I had for transport was my British made bicycle and my legs. If an actual Indonesian invasion began (which the nearly hysterical Singapore Straits Times headlines predicted was imminent as did the angry broadcasts from Djakarta and Sukarno), Tom Oliver, and I were to hustle into a large lorry (standing by his house, preloaded with dynamite) and drive to the capital of the state, Kuching, blowing up bridges behind us. So much for Peace Corps neutrality. I kept an oversized woven rattan basket loaded with essentials near the door for most of 1963 and early 1964. I was ready. Meanwhile, the troops lined up nightly outside the door of Tom's amah's house, a beautiful Malay woman who was sister to Bujang and Gorot and Hamdan. I could hear them taking turns with her. I wonder if she became rich? Many schoolgirls were suddenly sporting new shoes and other trinkets as well.
Change was sudden. The shops on the only street of Bau were frequented by troops. I met them in the bazaar and drank Beck's beer (we called it konchi for the key logo) and I smoked too many Players cigarettes. Troops would get so drunk they'd forget their Sten guns sometimes. The fellows were sent to the border for a few days now and then and always came back missing one or two of their mates (though official stories don't report that) and with tales of having their heads licked by salt-hungry rats while they slept. Most troops were near my age: young Brits who were, I imagined, much like my high school pals who were soon to be drafted into a war I heard was developing in Vietnam. The cooks with the woks who made the best mei goreng in the world were suddenly producing plates of beans and bangers and fried eggs for the boys. One day a military marching band paraded the road in between the shops in the bazaar, bleating and drumming for all they were worth. I still cry when I hear bagpipes.
When I first arrived in Bau, I was meant to report to the District Agricultural Officer. I made only one trip with him. He had helped a kampong build and stock a fish pond. I accompanied him for the first harvest. People of the kampong stood in a huge circle around the pond. I don't remember if he threw an explosive into the water or, perhaps, poison. People used both methods, though traditionally and in the rivers, villagers used beautifully constructed fish traps. Fishponds were new. Though there had been much anticipation, not one fish appeared. The officer lost face and I was concerned that nobody would take me seriously if I were seen to be associated with this fellow. I was at a loss. How to proceed?
My heroic savior was Mary Retan. She was a young (about my age) teacher at St. Stephen's school. She was from Kampong Sudoh located at the foot of Mt. Singhai, an impressive limestone prominence that rises nearly 2000 feet above the jungle floor. She approached me in Bau bazaar one day and said she knew I had been sent to do something useful for the people. She invited me to her home kampong and introduced me to her uncle, the Orang Kaya Pemancha of all of the kampongs that circled Mt. Singai. At that time, remains of the old longhouses and head houses with skulls still stood near the peak of Mt. Singai where they had been built for defensive purposes years before. They told me that they used to roll large logs down to stop enemy from coming up for them. The kampongs now at the foot of Singai had moved down, I believe, following WWII. In any case, I visited Sudoh often and met with young people all around the region. I stayed with Mary and her parents, joined in parties to slash jungle in preparation for rice planting, went along on harvest expeditions, bathed in the river and helped fill green bamboo tubes with water for household use. There were dances in evenings with gundongs keeping a steady beat. Gradually, I was known and welcomed in other kampongs. Kopid was one regular destination. Many kampong farmers grew pineapple, pepper, and rubber for cash crops. They processed rubber and pepper in the kampongs and carried these goods on their backs to market. Some kampongs were Catholic, others maintained old religions. Some kampongs were half and half, while others were in transition. I visited them all. But it was Mary who made my work possible. She was an exceptional leader who had the ear of her uncle and was eager that her friends and families grasped both the promise and threat of the world that was overwhelming their lives. My life was enhanced immeasurably by knowing her.
I managed to send observations on trance activities I witnessed to Erika Bourguignon at Ohio State and to work at the Sarawak Museum during breaks in my daily obligations in Bau and. In the museum, Tom Harrison put me to work assembling and drawing double-spouted pot shards from the Niah Caves. After Peace Corps, I returned to Ohio State and worked with Dr. Bourguignon on her NIMH grant and dissociative states. Because I was an honor student, I could spend time putting together a couple of articles for the Sarawak Museum Journal. One was on Bidayuh labor exchange and the other a note on a Bidayuh ceremony long discontinued. It was all a bit cheeky given my relative inexperience. I also took classes with Robert Dentan, newly returned from his fieldwork with Orang Asli. Later, after Tom Harrisson left Sarawak, he invited me to join him at Cornell for graduate school. Enticing. I kept the correspondence. He was a terrific mentor and supporter and I am forever grateful for having had the opportunity to work with him and in the museum. But I wanted to go west and so enrolled at the University of Washington. I worked with Peter J. Wilson. He had completed fieldwork in Madagascar. Eventually, I was sidetracked into more applied and activist work. It was the late 1960s and I was in the streets protesting the Vietnam war. I returned to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in the early 1980s as a tag along with my Fulbright friend, Sally J. Cloninger. I studied performance and healing in Kelantan, thus furthering my interest in dissociative states. My language skills were still relatively intact and I could make my way to friendly kampongs with the support of people like our friend, a former Minister of Culture, Ismail Zain, and Wairah Marzuki who was director of the National Art Gallery. I also assisted Sally Cloninger in the production of a film about the Tamil festival of Tai Pucam held in honor of the Tamil Hindi god Murugan.
I returned to Sarawak at the end of that year of work out of Kuala Lumpur and Kelantan and saw what one sees all over the world: youth had left the kampongs for work in oil or tourist industry. Elders were left behind and unable to tend rubber and pepper plantations or rice fields. As I predicted in my earlier publication, the labor exchange system had fallen apart with the departure of younger members and disintegration of residential extended families. I saw my old friend Mary Retan, now living in Kuching. I visited Kampong Sudoh and saw friends and the many ways a road and bus and battery operated televisions had changed life there. The Bau bazaar had burned (again). Business people were making do in makeshift temporary shelters behind their now destroyed shops. Over the ensuing years, Bau has been rebuilt and is now, apparently, a major tourist destination. I look at what was the old bazaar with the aid of Google and am incredulous.
In the early 1990s, though still on the faculty of The Evergreen State College, I was recruited to work for Puget Sound Native American Tribes. Treaty and other cases kept me busy professionally for many years, and the focus of my work since has been Pacific Northwest history and people.
Though my Peace Corps colleagues, Guy Priest and Gary McMurry, have made many trips to visit Sarawak and their friends there, I haven't. Sometimes Guy brings word of a roti man who remembers me and sends greetings. Gary calls regularly to talk about Serian and his visits and shares tearful stories of the passing of old friends. But it was not until December 11, 2017, that I had a joyful surprise. My dear friend Mary Retan found me through Facebook. As I write this, I am buoyed by this recent news and wonder what I'll learn as our lives connect again, so many years since those first days when she approached me and took me under her wing.
LLyn De Danaan aka Lynn Patterson Anthropologist/Author
Washington Humanities Speakers Bureau Evergreen State College Faculty Emerita
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|Author:||De Danaan, LLyn; Patterson, aka Lynn|
|Publication:||Borneo Research Bulletin|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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