For my second to last stop on the Southeast Asia Reunion Tour I ventured from mainland Malaysia to East Malaysia, or Borneo. There, Malaysia has two states, Sabah and Sarawak. Caroline was placed in Miri which is in northeast Sarawak, and close to the Brunei border. Sarawak was the final Malaysian state that I had never visited and I was anxious to cross it off of the list. We planned to spend 16 days together, which drew a lot of raised eyebrows. Originally, I was supposed to spend a week at her school, shadowing her in class and meeting her students. Madam Tang, the new autocratic principal quickly shot that idea down. So in the end we had to improvise but I couldn’t have enjoyed my time anymore. As I told Caroline, more than anything I was just excited to spend time with my sister and share more Malaysian Fulbright experiences together.
As one can predict, word spread about the arrival of Miss Caroline’s brother, Matt. Upon reaching her home I was welcome by a table full of cards from her students, and a ‘Congrats on Georgetown’ display on the wall. Throughout the evening Caroline was bombarded with ‘send my regards to your brother’ texts. I chuckled reading through the cards as they inquired about everything from my favorite K-Pop groups to my love life. In addition to the students, I was also very excited to meet the other teachers at Caroline’s school. The first one we met was Maimunah, who is Caroline’s mentor. We joined her, her daughter, and her two sons for some Korean food. Somehow she talked Caroline and I out of our original orders and we ended up suffering through some spicy bimbop. I remarked at how quiet the daughter was until Caroline informed me that she was taking and sending my picture. Maimunah, who is elegant and unreadable, apparently had a nice time and invited us to break fast (two words- evening meal during Ramadan) at her house with some of the other ETAs Jeremy and Courtney. Caroline and I arrived early and were assigned the task of picking mangos from the tree in her front yard. ‘Picking’ might not be the ideal word to describe me up on a ladder wildly swinging a long bamboo stick with a hook on the end attempting to dislodge the mangos. We had a superb feast that evening, the highlight being Maimunah’s youngest son, Shah, who has great English and constantly makes unintentionally hilarious comments under his breath. Another teacher that I had the opportunity to meet was Chin. We met her at a Chinese restaurant and then took a walk in a nearby nature reserve. She is in her early thirties with a shy smile and a knack for responding to most things with a smooth “ahhhh” of acknowledgement. She also has a tendency to Malay-splain (a new term I’ve coined) where a topic gets brought up and she exhausts every ounce of her knowledge on the subject. The intention is incredibly sweet, and she made sure that I knew all about things to do in Kuching before I left and even brought us late night snacks one evening. The final teachers I met were Juliana and Jamie. We ate a delicious meal of pork and duck together at a local hotspot. There English was fantastic and they both had adorable laughs that occurred after almost everything they said.
One of the most well-known things about Sarawak is its natural beauty. It is home to eighteen national parks (Wikipedia) and most of its jungle has yet to be touched by the palm oil empire that has destroyed most of the mainland. One of the unanticipated blessings of Madam Tang’s tyranny is that we had ample time to explore three of the national parks. The first one we went to was Lambir Hills, located only about thirty minutes from Caroline’s town. We embarked on a multi-hour hike that lead us to a viewpoint and culminated with a serene jungle water fall with a pool at its base. I had heard talk of Caroline’s new found fondness for trekking and was eager to put it to the test. I must say I was impressed by her endurance, agility and most of all the fact that she did not fall once during my entire visit (For the record: I fell down a set of stairs at Niah National Park). A few days later we made the two hour drive to the Niah Caves which were our warmup for the Mulu Caves a few days later. Niah being the smaller of the two parks, as well as the one without UNESCO status, was poorly maintained and slightly deserted. I for one prefer when sites are uncrowded because you feel like you have the place to yourself. The path took us to the main cave and then we had to walk another kilometer into the darkness to reach the painted caves, where there are two thousand year old cave illustrations. The coolest part was the ‘dark area’ where there was no artificial light and Caroline and I did our best Bear Grylls impressions with head lamps and flashlights. Last but not least, we visited Mulu National Park which is arguably the most famous in all of Malaysia. We had to take a short thirty minute flight on one of those puddle jumper planes that are only 4 seats across instead of 6. We stayed inside the park at their hostel and ventured out on various excursions during the day. The deer cave, which is the main attraction, was over a hundred meters wide and tall. Afterward exploring inside, we sat and watched as around three million bats exited the caves for their nightly feeding. Another day we booked a tour that ended up being private when no one else joined and the discoverer of the cave’s grandson was our tour guide. The last evening we also went on a night walk where our hawk-eyed guide pointed our two green pit viper snakes perched on leaves waiting to strike at unsuspected birds.
Instead of writing this blog chronologically, I’m grouping together various events that fall under similar categories in an attempt to limit the length of this post. I imagine you’ve all been waiting to hear about the students! I saw them on two separate occasions. One was a pancake breakfast where three form 2 students came over to Caroline’s house and we taught them how to make pancakes. They had never had them before and were enamored by yet another sweet to add to their palate, syrup. The other instance was when we had a barbecue with the form 4 students. In the video I sent them I mentioned that my favorite food was barbecue chicken and this is what gave them the idea. Barbecue chicken was replaced with hot dogs and s’mores for financial reasons but about fifteen students showed up. Their English and knowledge of American culture was spectacular, but what impressed me most was their comfortability with Caroline. A few of the boys attempted to build a fire in the backyard to cook the hotdogs but to no avail. Hardly surprising if you saw that they brought only charcoal and a lighter but no lighter fluid, kindling or newspaper. My students back in Terengganu once tried to burn a styrofoam plate in order to light a fire. As the night was winding time I knew the photo shoot had to occur at some point. We gathered everyone on one side of the room and I set up my camera on a tripod on the other. We took a few shots and then they wanted to try a video. I put on Drake’s God’s Plan and they danced and rapped the words. Then there were others songs, and eventually provocative female dance moves (performed by male students) that signaled the night had truly peaked. I will probably watch the videos monthly for the remainder of my time on this planet. The students were incredibly sweet and I can see why Caroline has enjoyed working with them so much.
There are a myriad of other events that could be included in this blog but will have to be glossed in the essence of brevity. We watched the royal wedding with Jeremy. I met Carolines roommate Denali and we all had dinner together. Courtney invited us to a cooking class with some of his PPKI (special needs) students that was a blast. Large amounts of Indian food were consumed. We saw Avengers: Infinity War. Caroline surprised me with a room at one of the nicest hotels in Miri for a night so I could realign my spine from sleeping on the foldout couch. Lastly, we celebrated Gawai with two other woman from her school. Gawai is basically Thanksgiving, where the people used to celebrate a good rice harvest but now just drown themselves in rice wine. We went to a traditional Sarawakian long-house where there is a long hallway and anywhere from 20-60 doors side to side. Families return to their long houses and it is a giant celebration. There are traditional foods to be eaten, and one goes from door to door visiting, drinking and eating. It is custom for the visitor to have a drink of Tuak (rice wine) at each door they visit. The first night at Cikgu Sipa’s longhouse the effort to get us drunk was commendable. One elderly couple would offer me a shot every three minutes (I think because they would forget) and soon I had a collection of full shots on the table in front me. We played the traditional instrument, which was similar to the Gamelan that I’ve mentioned before, and I even tried some of the dance moves. The next day we went to Madam Anita’s longhouse in a different area. We visited with her family, who had four rooms in the longhouse. Her grandmother showed us her collection of traditional woven tapestries, antiques, and a samurai sword from the Japanese occupation. At that point Madam Anita had her bring out some traditional Iban clothing and Caroline and I tried it on. Technically, it was wedding attire but I’ll probably leave that part out when people see the pictures in the future. To cap off the evening there was a wedding so the entire longhouse gathered together to eat and welcome the new bride and groom. Caroline and I partook in karaoke at their insistence and sang Wonderful Tonight by Eric Clapton because that was the only English song we recognized.
I’m sitting here in Kuching, Malaysia, which is the capitol of the state of Sarawak. This is my last stop before heading home. It has been a surreal five and a half weeks that have flown by. I’ve seen new places and visited old, familiar ones. There was something truly special about spending that time with Caroline. We will always be linked by both having been Fulbrighters in Malaysia and I’m elated that we visited each other during our grants. Witnessing her growth as this ten month journey unfolds reminds me of my own transformation, and I know that it will serve her well in future endeavors. I’ve missed her wit, intelligence and unique charisma these past few months. For now, the countdown begins until Thanksgiving when the Tibbitts clan is finally back together again. To all the readers, thanks for following along and see you stateside.