The weather averaged an unbearable 38 degrees for the five full days I was there. What made it bearable however was; besides my husband, the 14 middle-aged men and women that make up the entire tour group I travelled with. It had been a great joy, being a part of this bigger family of generous and fun-loving aunties and uncles. There was never an awkward moment watching them. Away from the usual humdrum of family life and children, they were like kids on vacation. I saw them goofing around, laughing out loud without a care in the world, jesting and teasing each other as kids on a school excursion do. In fact, I so enjoyed my time with them I dreaded the last day as we departed from Kuching for Singapore. Onboard the plane, watching them steadily falling asleep one after another, I felt a pang of sadness, akin to those moments leading up to a farewell fanfare between tearful family members at airports.
In every place that I visit, my happiest moments are brought about by cultural exchanges with its natives. I observed that women open wider doors to cultural experiences than men. Natives of a place are friendlier and more willing to share of their lives and experiences to a woman visitor. Kuching is a land of warm people and wide smiles. I spoke to many local men on various occasions, engaging them in their native tongue (Malay) and was warmly received because I spoke and sounded like them. I even look like them, given my tan complexion. I found out about their families, struggles, grips with their vocations, the city, the country.
A man I engaged in a conversation with at Sarawak Cultural Village left a deep impression in me. A good-looking middle-aged Orang Ulu (a native tribe of Sarawak), he carried a sorry tale behind his friendly demeanour. He allowed me to photograph only the top of his head, without revealing his face, and in between our conversation, I found that his wife died at child birth. He never remarried, but raised a daughter now 26 years old. I admire his strength, for I cannot imagine raising a child all by myself without a soul mate.
In many places, rivers are an important source of life to its residents and a source of fascination to tourists. The Kuching River is no different. For just RM30, Jason and I relished a slow cruise along the river onboard a small, dingy, wooden boat half-rowed and half-run on motor by an elderly Malay man well into his 60s. The trip up and down the murky river, observing many a local and simple life of its Malay natives evokes a sense of tranquility unlike that found in a bustling city life. We chanced upon a welcoming sight of 4 boys playing at the shallow end of the river, stark naked.
We captured many a splendid scenes of and around the river and breathed in the simplicity of a people so humble it beckons a reflection on my part as to what I value as important. To me, constant progress is essential - thus my love for a city life. To these river folks, a day's wage and a close-knit family are sufficient. As a visitor to this beautiful land, I'm glad they retained this laid-back pace because every once in a while, we need a secluded place of refuge. For me, I found it this time round in the sleepy town of Kuching, though many a times I think I make a lousy tourist because I bring my city experiences to a quiet town and wonder what its natives do to occupy and humour themselves; and, silently, pity them. Maybe, similarly, unbeknown to me, they pity me, for my surrealism.
One of the best ways to explore a city is to run through it - navigating its nooks n corners, eating places, retail stores, mechanical repair shops, dogs guarding many an industrial area. Running in Kuching must be a rare affair. I ran and attracted many a surprised and often second look by the locals, especially men, who nudge their fellow counterparts to look upon a stranger striding down the not-so-well paved streets, under a scorching sun and trapped humid heat, perspiring profusely, hair a wild mess and eyes scanning the vicinity and observing the everyday life of its inhabitants.
The beauty of a place lies not just in its landscape, but in its people. Kuching may not offer the glitz and glamour of a modern city life, but it has certainly charmed me (and I believe many others) with its simplicity, hospitality and alluring Sarawak laksa.