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Sarawak and the Secret to Self-Preservation

As a beast crashed toward my husband and I in the dense Bornean rainforest on the Santubong Peninsula of Malaysia, I remembered a sign at the spa near our eco-resort on Damai Beach that touted “The Ancient Secret to Self Preservation”. That would have come in handy before heading off into the jungle, I thought. In fact, maybe they would have told me that the ancient Malay secret is to not enter into the rainforest at all, but instead to get the three-hour Royal Ledang spa treatment. But we came to Malaysia to see things we couldn’t see anywhere else and which may not be around for much longer depending on the balance the country can create between producing its natural resources for the world market and preserving them for a sustainable future. So even though the urge to flee kicked in, my curiosity won out over self-preservation.
A tall thin tree bent nearly in half as a giant red-brown body rode it to its limit then released it, snapping it back into position as the creature grabbed the next tree. It was a huge male orangutan, with large dark hoods to the sides of its beady eyes, and shaggy matted red fur on its enormous body. For something so cumbersome, it moved quickly toward us, sling-shotting from trunk to trunk and tight-roping on vines that unbelievably supported its immense weight.
Fortunately it stopped at the platform full of fruit between us, then plopped down and posed as it ate, like a furry Fabio hamming it up for the photo ops. I had no need to fear said the guide of the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, “Ritchie and the other orangutans only rarely harm visitors”. Our little tour group stared in awe as more orangutans appeared. A mother came with her baby clinging to her belly. She deftly scooped up some fruit than scooted back to safety to eat in the canopy high above us, propping herself up precariously in branches and vines to help her fuzzy-headed offspring eat. The youngster’s grandmother even showed up. Here were three generations born in the 1600 acres dedicated to the rehabilitation, conservation and study of these endangered animals. Because so much of their habitat has been lost to logging and so many of their population decimated by poachers, they can no longer preserve themselves and space must be preserved for them in order to survive.
Bako National Park is another place that has been preserved for the unique wildlife and natural resources that thrive in the Sarawak region. It is only accessible by boat through the South China Sea, then by slogging through the mud the last 100 yards or so until dry land. Bako is home to proboscis monkeys, wild boar, blue crabs, and all manner of snakes and creepy crawlies. Our guide, Freddy, was a perfect example of the crossroads of preservation and progress in Malay culture today. As Freddy led us through the dense trails of Bako, he pointed out the flora and fauna telling stories like, “My grandma used this rattan to make baskets.” Freddy himself couldn’t weave a basket if his life depended on it, as many of his generation now depend on tourism, showing visitors the ways of life that are swiftly disappearing.
On our return boat ride up the Salak River, we saw mangrove trees that shone like starlight with fireflies, crocodiles lurking beneath them. We sped by a small village, basically a shantytown on stilts completely surrounded and isolated by the mangrove swamp except for access from the river, the inhabitants living by the fish they caught daily. Our boat driver “Man” told us they just got electricity by generator only very recently. Man himself lived an interesting blend of driving tourists around in boats, practicing the Muslim religion (Malaysia is predominantly Muslim, but is very tolerant of religious plurality), and being known as “Snake Man” by his peers due to the fact that he’d caught several large snakes in the forest and kept them as pets. “Jake the Snake is my hero,” he told us, speaking of the American pro-wrestler with a similar affinity for serpents. Here was a man celebrating Ramadan in the far reaches of Southeast Asia, whose eyes lit up to be speaking to Americans about his slithery passion.
An excellent place to get a further glimpse of the fascinating melting pot culture that is Malaysia is the Sarawak Cultural Village. After a terrific show of traditional tribal dances and blowpipe demonstrations, one is free to wander the seventeen acres of gorgeous land on a self-tour of the different styles of longhouses built by the various indigenous ethnic groups to suit their ways of life. The most interesting to me were the Penan people, nomadic hunter-gatherers who built nothing to last, and lived by the practice of never taking more than necessary. Only about 300 still live this way today in the depths of Borneo, constantly threatened by the loss of the forest they call home by businessmen who don’t live by that motto.
The ancient secret to self-preservation seems to have been forgotten by many in Sarawak, showcased as nostalgia by some, and held on to vigorously by a few, as the outside world creeps in and changes the culture. It remains to be seen what will happen to the amazing biodiversity and rich tradition in this region as it adapts to modernity, but hopefully it will draw on its own secrets, the ones not learned in the spa but in the people and the place itself.

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