Pineapple, paddy and salt
ONCE AGAIN THE CITY failed to provide respite. We were a group of friends looking for an escape. We took out the Sarawak map and rolled the dice. It rolled east away from the shore, across rivers, over hills and landed close enough to where we wanted to go. Without wasting time, the six of us set the dates, booked our flights and bought repellent.
At the airport we had to face certain truths. One was the possibility of a shortage of eggs where we were headed. We assumed this truth when we saw the lady in line before us check in trays of eggs. Without a ‘fragile’ sticker or bound by cling wrap, the eggs moved along the carousel and through the curtain into the back. How brave!
Next, the ground staff had the cheek to ask me to step on a weighing scale along with my cabin baggage for all in line to see. I found the protocol a little less awkward than admitting to a silent fart. However, when the third of us got on the scale and said ‘I have heavy bones’ we sniggered and teased to no end. That is until we saw the Twin Otter. Parked on the tarmac alongside other aircrafts, our ride was an ant amongst giants.
My eyes were peeled to the window as we flew up into the clouds and as we hovered over and skimmed the rain-fed slopes of the mountain range. From that vantage I could see right through the forest canopy which evidently was not as thick as I had imagined. After forty minutes of basking in the aerial view of limestone hedges, forests, rivers and the less attractive oil palm, our flight announced its descent. The otter danced and swayed its way into the valley and onto the airstrip.
At last, we had reached Bario! And the eggs were intact.
Bario is a village-city cradled by mountains and tucked into a valley of paddy fields, churches, longhouses and a school. Most if not all Kelabits (indigenous community in Bario) are Christian. The story goes that conversions began in 1939 when missionary Judson Southwell visited Bario. Along with Christianity came western education and a freedom from their fear of ngaie (spirits). Families started sending their children to missionary schools in nearby villages and then to cities to pursue higher studies. While they accepted a new religion as the way forward, they were also keen to retain their robust identity. For that reason, they borrowed and learned as they saw fit.
More recently, eco-tourism has been drawing in a new wave of outsiders. It holds promise of progress and sustainability for Bario. However, it comes with its own challenges. For most of the year, tourists trickle in but during peak season when they pile on, homestays sometimes find it challenging to accommodate their paying guests as they lack surplus resources, namely food and energy.
Bario plans to increase the local production of fruits and vegetables to sustain the growing demand and to spread the benefits of tourism from homestay, guides and transportation providers to farmers and gardeners through contracts.
The Heart of Borneo initiative and organisations such as FORMADAT monitor and work towards protecting the needs of the local communities while promoting ecotourism in the highlands. For example, FORMADAT which consists of cross-border communities such as Bario and Ba’kelanan in Malaysia and Long Bawan in Indonesia focus on conservation, agroforestry, organic farming and transboundary ecotourism.
When I was there I was oblivious to the politics and sentiment underlying the landscape. I simply soaked into its serenity without a thought of who, what and why. I sat on the patio for hours enjoying the view. In time, the patio started to resemble box seats in a football stadium walled in by mountains and instead of looking at the field (of paddy) below I peered into the skies to witness a tournament of clouds. Every day, it rained in the afternoon like clockwork. Even when it seemed the white had defeated the grey, when the clock struck one hot rain fell from sunny skies.
Besides respite, we were on a mission to souvenir the taste of Bario. At the homestay we had three home-cooked meals a day and all three were built on rice. They served rice porridge, rice cakes, fried rice and well, white rice which sensitised our palate to how fresh and light rice could taste (Paddy, check). Most ingredients except for the eggs but including the chicken were plucked within a 500m radius of the house.
Next on the list was Bario salt. So off we went on the yellow brick road in search of salt. On the way, a councillor sort of person stopped her car to say hello and enquired where we were from. Motorcyclists, pedestrians and locals sitting on their patio also greeted us when they passed us or we passed them. We felt welcome.
Everything normal and unusual that we saw on our way to the market was framed by mountains in the distance and green valley at the base. At one point, we noticed metal carcasses of planes covered in shrubs and grass. It was like walking through a gallery of paintings and then noticing an obscure installation piece that makes you think more than it should.
Brine collected from natural springs is boiled, dried, packed into bamboo stems and burnt and then sold at the market in the shape of batons wrapped in leaves and twine. There was enough to go around and so we salted up at RM 20 per baton. (Salt, check).
At the market, we were told that Bario had run out of pineapples. Much like how we had Miri eggs in Bario, we would have to return to Miri to taste a Bario pineapple. Globalisation gone wrong, I thought. We turned back onto the yellow brick road a little disappointed yet hopeful.
With about 1 kilometer left to reach the homestay, we wandered into a nameless café. We ordered cendol and trying our luck, we asked the lady running the place if she had the forbidden fruit. She had a quick look in the kitchen, had a quick chat with her staff and came back to say she could spare one. In that moment, nothing else mattered. We whispered a silent ‘hurrah’ as we waited for the best pineapple in the world. (Pineapple, check)