Stories, poetry, writings

Mimi’s Pangkor Island letter 07-1970

At the Group 28 Reunion in Chicago (Sept. 4-7, 2009), I read aloud the following letter, the first one I had written to my parents back home in July 1970. It’s now somewhat amusing. Back then, my mother typed it up and distributed it to family and friends at my request. In 2009 I found one of these typed copies, which I had forgotten all about, when I searched my basement for Malaysia stuff to take to the reunion. The airplane details were for my father, who had asked me to report on “what planes they are flying over there”. And the PS at the end was to reassure my parents that I was not in some totally heathen place.

“Letter from Mimi written 7-31-70 from Pangkor Island, Malaysia

On Wednesday afternoon we finally got here. I’ve been taking it easy – I was really beat and sick of flying by the time we got to Kuala Lumpur Monday nite. The trip from San Francisco to Tokyo on 747 was interesting. The seats and aisles are wider than other planes, but the plane itself is junky (economy class). Our whole section’s earphones didn’t work for the stereo music, and we missed the movie because the projector was broken. The girl next to me lifted her headrest, and it fell loose and into the dinner of the guy behind her. We were all sleeping from Anchorage to Tokyo, but the touchdown at Tokyo was so rough that part of the ceiling light/speaker unit fell down and konked a guy on the head, waking us all abruptly. The flight from SF to Tokyo was 12 or 15 hrs., no one is quite sure. Flew Pan-Am 707 Tokyo to Hong Kong—4 hrs. Confined to Hong Kong airport for 3 hrs. Flew Thai Inter’l DC-8 to Bangkok. Their airport is an old dump. There were small lizards climbing on the walls. Took Thai DC-9 to Kuala Lumpur, arriving Monday night, July 27. After Bangkok we were all amazed at the KL airport—a really beautiful new building designed by the same architect who designed Dulles at Wash., D.C. I’m trying to find a picture post card to send you, because it’s one of the most architecturally beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen.

The Peace Corps Training Staff met us at the airport with vans and a bus. We went to two dumpy hotels and collapsed from flight fatigue and travel shock. They let us rest up and look around KL Tuesday. The city is like D.C., some beautiful gov’t buildings surrounded by a business district and residential slums. Not all of it was slummy, though. Most of the people live in 3-4 story buildings a block long. Shops are on the first and second floors and apartments above. They hang the wash out the windows, giving it a rum-dum appearance. The streets are lined with shops and restaurants. Food is inexpensive. We wandered around buying Colgate toothpaste, bargaining for sarongs ($3.50 Malay), being stared at, and drinking A&W root beer. The omni-presence of American commercialism was surprising. We got along fairly well with English because many of the Chinese shopkeepers speak a little English.

The country is composed of three distinct ethnic groups. The Malays migrated here around 700-900 AD; the Chinese came 1200-1400. I’m not sure when the Indians came. The Chinese took over the economy and today have a tight grasp on all business. The Malays resent this, and in the recent rise of nationalism have decreed that only Malays can hold govt. jobs. However, the Chinese have long been the highly educated and resent the less competent Malays having authority over them. This old resentment resulted in riots of epic proportions in KL a year ago in May. The city is still very tense. Over 200 people were killed last May. Rather than being a melting pot, as in the U.S., Malaysian ethnic groups have maintained their old loyalties and separateness for centuries. The Indians are also a distinct group, altho relatively free of prejudice.

It’s very strange to see most ads and signs in KL written in Chinese, Malay, English, and occasionally Arabic. The Coke bottles say “Coke” on 1 side and have Chinese script on the other side. Same with Breeze, Fab, etc. One striking thing about Malaysia is the presence of poverty and plenty side by side. There is no more malnutrition here than in the U.S., but housing is very flimsy. They can get away with this because of the hot climate. Most taxis (teksi) are Mercedes-Benzes. Beside them in the streets are men pumping bicycles attached to push-carts filled with fruits and vegetables.

(I just took an hour out of writing this letter to get three shots—polio, typhoid, and hepatitis).

On Tues. morning (July 28) we took a 6 hr. bus ride to Lumut, a town on the West Coast on the Straits of Malacca. From there we took a 45-minute ferry ride to Pangkor Island, “Paradise Regained”. We are here for 4 wks. of intensive language study. We landed at a tiny village of 2-3 room thatched houses on stilts. The people of the kompong live off the land—they fish and eat coconuts mostly. This is a real South Seas Island of miles of white sandy beaches, palm trees, monkeys and two motor vehicles (owned by the hotel). The hotel is 3 yrs. old, owned by Chinese, and about ¾ mi from the nearest kompong. For paying guests it’s a fairly nice place, but we are staying in large dormitories like barracks. We have cold water showers, two sinks for 37 people, and toilets that are holes in the ground, but flush. It’s like a month at camp. We are eating mostly Chinese and Malaysian food, which nobody is crazy about yet. It’s two huge piles of rice daily with assorted, highly spiced fish and vegetables on top. The ocean is beautiful. It’s right in front of the hotel. It’s very warm and very salty. We were body surfing the other day. When the waves are high enough and I got them right, I was carried about 20 ft. on top of the wave and gently put down, never getting my face wet. We are in a large cove which is shallow. This means that fishermen stay out, as do large fish, algae, etc.

The island is quite large. Yesterday we took a boat ride around it. It was a 3-hr ride, and I got a bad sunburn. We stopped at the fishing village of Pangkor, where I bought material for 2 more sarongs. They are great for here to wear to class, to the beach, to the shower, etc. They are made of 2 yds of 44” material in colorful prints. The two cut ends are sewn together and the sarong is tied around you in different ways for different occasions. Men wear them too, but mostly for loungewear.

We have 4-5 hr. of class a day starting at 7am. Breakfast (tea and toast) is at 8. Then 2 more hr. of class. Lunch is at 1, then another class. Dinner at 7. Tonight we are having an authentic American-Malaysian beach party. Several hours that I should have been writing letters I have spent singing. Several kids brought guitars. The Chinese waiters know all the words to American pop songs and are very good on the guitar also.

Needless to say, we’re having a great time, barring diarrhea, shots, malaria pills weekly, and vitamin pills daily. Really I’m in excellent health, but everyone else has aches and pains, and I guess I’ll get it eventually.

I’ll hate to leave the ocean for the city. The temperatures average from a low of 70 to a high of 88. The local women do our wash—beat on the rocks with a little Fab! But they iron them somehow, and they come back nicer than they go. This juxtaposition of modern western culture and the primitive is always present. In KL many women wear saris, sarongs, etc., as well as mini-skirts. There is much more to say, but I can’t remember it all now.

I haven’t found time to write to anyone else, so please pass around my greetings and news.


P.S. There are 5 Protestant and 3 Catholic churches in KL

A Journey of 90 Days
Gail Held

Malaysia Peace Corps Group 28






July 11, 2009

Wild journey into the Kelabit Highlands of Borneo

By John Henderson
Reporting from Bario, Malaysia
January 08, 2009
“At one time or another, I imagine that we have all dreamed about how wonderful it would be to live in a Shangri-La where the climate is ideal, food is plentiful and the girls are
beautiful.” — W.M. Toynbee, Canadian schoolteacher and author, on Borneo’s Kelabit Highlands
Toynbee’s words became a neon news crawl through my brain as my puddle jumper arched over the mountain into the heart of Borneo. The Baram River wound its way through the
countryside like a giant anaconda.
Inside the plane I could feel a temperature change. Gone was the suffocating humidity of the Borneo coast, where I could barely find respite lounging at a luxury resort. In came
cooler, clean air as the plane climbed to a lush land 5,500 feet above sea level.
I was flying to what Australian anthropologist and World War II hero Tom Harrison called “the last frontier of the tropical world.” The Kelabit Highlands are home to descendants of
headhunters, and they’re among the most isolated places on Earth, reachable only by plane.
As I gazed down from seemingly just above the towering treetops, I spotted one mole on the Mona Lisa that Toynbee tried to paint. Crude dirt roads cut through the forest, but I
noticed the roads didn’t connect. They were built merely to roll into the jungle and roll lumber out.
After five days in the Kelabit (pronounced Kel-AW-bit) Highlands, I can confirm that Toynbee’s observations ring true 40 years later. I trekked through mysterious jungles, slept in the
Kelabits’ 200-foot long houses in a village surrounded by majestic peaks and ate some of the best food in Southeast Asia. And, yes, the girls are beautiful.
But there is trouble in Shangri-La. The massive logging industry is encroaching, waiting to pounce like some of the ghost leopards that used to roam these jungles. The modern
Kelabits, a people so gentle they rarely talk above a whisper, feel like shouting.
“The Bario Loop is one of the most famous treks in Borneo,” said Ridi Lio, my jungle guide. “Since logging came in, half the Bario Loop has been destroyed.”
The other half is alive and well. So are the Kelabit Highlands. For now.
If the planet could have a prototype village for escaping the real world, Bario would be it. About 120 Kelabits live along a few roads that lead into the surrounding jungle and
highlands. On daily walks I’d pass rice paddies, climb grassy knolls and smell fields of the sweetest pineapple I’ve ever tasted.
Don’t even think about e-mailing. Bario’s lone Internet shop is solar powered and not nearly as dependable as the mercifully mild temperature, which, during my May visit, rarely rose
above 80 degrees.
The Kelabit people, however, are what make the highlands glow. About 70 years ago, the Kelabits were headhunters, collecting in caves the heads of any people brave or foolish
enough to enter their land. During World War II, this area was a stronghold against Japanese resistance. Harrison parachuted in here and led a successful British commando unit
against the Japanese. In the 1960s, the Kelabit fought against the Indonesians who live just across the nearby border in Kalimantan.
Today, you can still see elderly Kelabits sporting the elongated earlobes that stretch to their shoulders, stylish back in the day when they were collecting heads and decorating their
own. The Kelabit are now considered among the friendliest people in the world. As I left my comfortable guesthouse and walked along the dirt road, workers plying the rice paddies
turned and waved. Giovanni, the young son of my guesthouse’s owner, tagged along and smiled for every picture.
The Kelabit number only about 5,000, the second smallest ethnic group in Malaysia, but they are no longer isolated. Converted by Christian missionaries in the ’40s, many Kelabits
leave to get educated in the cities and work overseas. Some of those beautiful women marry Westerners stationed in Malaysia and live abroad. Most speak some English.
Pung Iu, 54, worked for Saipem oil for 13 years in Europe and retired to his village long house two years ago.
Sporting what looked like a $100 haircut and stylish shorts and polo shirt, Iu, who had lived in Scotland, the Netherlands, Italy and Canada, told me over tea one day: “It is the best
place to live for me in the world today. You have freedom. You are not aware of war here.”
A five-minute walk into the surrounding jungle and you aren’t aware of civilization, either. I quickly discovered that the three-day jungle trek I organized would be no stroll along Pebble
Beach. I sat down for lunch my first day, and a sign on the guesthouse wall read, “The Bario Loop: Mud. Blood. Wet. Sweat.”
The message took longer to ingest than the wonderful Bario pineapple mixed with rice. Few advertisements were more accurate than that sign. I’ve hiked in jungles in Sumatra,
Thailand and twice in the Amazon, and nothing quite matches the hardship and isolation of the Kelabit Highlands.
Lio saved me. The short, muscular 45-year-old with a scruffy Fu Manchu is a Bario native with a deep love for the jungle. He told me the two most important pieces of equipment in a
Kelabit jungle trek are a good pair of shoes and leech-proof socks. I brought neither.
Instead, I wore a 10-year-old pair of sneakers and gaiters designed for cross-country skiing. The Kelabit Highlands may be a land of many pleasures, but snow is not one of them. At
a stop at his long house at the jungle’s edge, he brought out a pair of thin, brushed-cotton leggings that tied just above my knee.
“This should help with the leeches,” he said, pointing at my legs. “But you should never wear shorts.”
When we entered the jungle, it looked like the front door of a forested haunted house. The brilliant sunshine abruptly stopped as we entered the 50-foot-high canopy. For the next 6
1/2 hours, we walked in the shade. Within five minutes I was hopelessly lost. Time and place were suspended amid a maze of eucalyptus and gum trees, inundated terrain and
shallow streams.
We did, however, see life. We watched the majestic hornbill with the cartoon-like head take flight. A monkey we’d been hearing swung through trees. Lio pointed to a tree slashed to
near sawdust. The fresh foot-long slash marks left by a honey bear were frighteningly visible.
“This was not done by Winnie the Pooh,” Lio said.
At one point we came across a slight woman and a teenage boy. They were pounding a sago tree into pulp for a dish called ambulat. These were two members of the Penan people,
a nomadic jungle tribe so isolated they don’t speak the national language of Malay. Lio gave the son a cigarette and we were on our way.
Los Angeles Times: Wild journey into the Kelabit Highlands of Borneo…
1 of 2 2/20/2009 12:45 PM
In the Kelabit Highlands, it rains at dusk. With mud filling every indention of my battered Asics, my sneakers had all the traction of well-waxed skis. I mud-skied down half a dozen
small hills.
“If you want to walk in the flats,” Lio told me with a smile, “you go to Holland.”
I had my first leech at 10:03 a.m. They’re harmless, really. They’re small, elongated, reddish worms that latch onto any exposed skin and hold on until they fill with your blood. They
managed to crawl up my leech-proof socks until they reached my non-leech-proof upper thighs. A spray from my can of Jungle Juice, which I wielded like a ticked-off assassin, made
them ball up and fall like ladybugs.
But leeches leave a small trail of blood. By the time we reached our crude shelter, I looked like I had been attacked by knife-wielding elves.
After washing off the mess in a rainstorm that looked like a reservoir was dumped onto a small garden, I sat down with Lio over a terrific meal of chicken with potatoes and onions and
a side of canned mackerel. He grew somber.
Only three years ago, you could make a five-day loop around Bario. Since then, logging companies have destroyed the eastern part of the loop. Tourism is starting to drop.
“Most people love the jungle because of the trees,” he said. “You live in a long house made from trees in the jungle. All the food, the vegetables and meat are from the jungle. The
jungle is a giant supermarket.”
He told me stories from his childhood when he killed wild boar and deer with a blow gun. Today it’s different. In Malaysia, logging is a $4.5-billion business, and an estimated 60% of
Borneo has been logged. Malaysia’s National Forestry Policy has reduced deforestation by one-third to about 350 square miles a year, yet it still angers naturalists.
“The government gives licenses to timber companies, and the natives don’t like the power of the land under the government,” said Joseph Balan Saling, who served in the Sarawak
state parliament for 30 years. “They think it all belongs to them, even the timber.”
The Kelabit Highlands, however, are not dead. In a world crumbling in the wake of war and warming, this remarkable corner of the world still holds enchantment. Two nights later, I
was sitting with a Kelabit family in their narrow long house, 200 feet long and occupied by seven related families in their own individual quarters.
We saw the surrounding peaks peer out above the low-lying clouds. We ate water buffalo by candlelight. We heard locals singing Christian hymns at a church next door.
Yes, that Canadian school teacher would still approve.
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A Bit of Whimsy

From Gail Held:

We were a group of PCVs,

We wore sarongs and tie-dyed tees,

Idealism, our philosophies.

Helping folk in a far-away land,

Offering hope and giving a hand,

That was us, we made our stand.

Language, culture, food delights,

Sunshine, beaches, ocean sights,

Balmy breezes, caressing nights.

We were so young, so bright and caring,

Maybe even a little daring,

Definitely ones for sharing.

But now a chunk of years have passed,

Our sentiments have bubbled at last,

A reunion is coming with a charming cast.

Come one, come all, and tell your story,

Share pictures, tapes, of your PC glory,

I promise you will not be sorry.

Chicago, 4 September,

Our flaming youth to remember,

That’s it, no more, I hope it’s witty-

That’s the end of this little ditty.


Pangkor Island barracks common area, 2:30am on a Saturday night:

Moonlight strums of the pale light guitar

inaudible confession, kindled from the lips of a late night respite

Three alone bargain their time away

while canines sleep to the sounds of a day yet unknown


small talk bids a brief farewell……B. Morris

One response to “Stories, poetry, writings

  1. That’s lovely, Barry.

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