Noel joy in the mountains


Sunday December 24, 2006

Noel joy in the mountains

In the remote highlands of north-eastern Sarawak at an altitude of some 1,000m is a world of heartfelt community ties, vibrant Christian faith and miraculous signs, discovers ANDREW SIA.

LIKE many Malaysian Christians, Martha Tagal decided to go home for Christmas this year. Unlike most, however, hers was a journey of more than 24 hours of travelling to reach her remote hometown in the Ba Kelalan highlands in Sarawak.

Martha, a secretary-turned-housewife who lives in Kuala Lumpur, flew to Kota Kinabalu, then drove with her sister, Rangai, a Sarawak Education Department officer, to Lawas before catching another flight to Ba Kelalan.

Even then, Martha and Rangai, two of seven siblings to come home to celebrate Christmas with their retired missionary father, took the easy route.

The Tagal sisters are among the many well-educated Kelabit and Lunbawang adults partly thanks to the staunch Christianity practised in their communities who have left the highlands to work in Miri, Kuching and Kuala Lumpur. And like the women, many have made the long trek home this time of year.

Christmas for the Lunbawang who live in the mountainous Ba Kelalan area and the Kelabit in the Bario plateau is worlds apart from the way urban Malaysians celebrate the festival.

In this land, there are no large churches, shopping malls or traffic jams. Instead, water buffaloes still carry goods along forest trails to far-flung villages and deer refers not to Rudolf but to the main dish at the longhouse Yuletide dinner.

Long, long road

Whereas people in the Peninsula have highways, railway tracks and jetliners to balik kampung, the homeward journeys here are far more difficult.

There are regular flights on Twin Otter propeller-driven planes but with only 19 places onboard, getting a seat is far from guaranteed. Everything, including passengers, has to be weighed and if passengers or luggage are overweight - the number of seats may be reduced.

A senior pilot who has been flying to the area for the past 15 years explains that if there are strong winds, heavy rains or mist in the mountains, the flights are usually cancelled. Experienced pilots have to negotiate between mountains and land by eyesight on very short airstrips.

Its almost like landing on an aircraft carrier but with zero electronic guidance. And in the days when the Ba Kelalan airstrip was grassland (it has since been tarred over), upon a flights arrival, the grazing cows had to be chased off!

My trip to Ba Kelalan involved flying from KL to Miri, where I switched to a Twin Otter for Lawas. Then, it was a six-hour ride on a logging road which involved 10 of us packing into the standard highland workhorse a Toyota Hilux 4WD pick-up at RM60 per pax.

The Hilux roared through shin-deep mud and slipped dangerously sideways at times. Yes, this is what happens to road maintenance when the logging is finished.

Sang Sigar, an art teacher in his mid-40s serving at at the local school, said his balik kampung record was three days, set a few years ago!

The truck became bogged down. We tried everything to get it out of the mud until we were exhausted. Then, we just slept in the truck with mud all over our bodies. Next day, we resumed the battle.

To reach Bario, most Kelabit return by flight (now twice daily). Even then, folks like Maran Radu, 78, of outlying Pa Lungan village, still have to walk another four hours through narrow, muddy hill forest trails to get home. Ditto for his seven children who are working in KL, Miri, Bintulu and Brunei. And if they have lots of luggage, they will have to hire a four-leg-drive lorry a water buffalo!

Those who cant get a flight to Bario can opt for the 15-hour muddy 4WD experience from Miri. Just last October, logging (and its attendant road) reached Pa Berang and Ramudu, on the fringes of Bario. From there, its a short boat ride and another 4WD trip to central Bario.

Not so long ago, the land route to Bario involved a three-day boat ride from Marudi to the uppermost reaches of the Baram River and another few days of jungle trekking making the Twin Otters the only practical (and crucial) link to the outside world.

Teething problems during FAX Airways’ takeover from the MAS Rural Air Service caused a severe shortage of diesel and food supplies in Bario in August. It was alleviated only by emergency airlifts of rice, sugar, biscuits, cooking oil, flour and milk a week before Merdeka.

The new land-river supply route has eased things. But the travails of transport still push up prices drastically. According to Sang, a bag of cement costs RM17 in Lawas, RM40 in Ba Kelalan and a whopping RM150 in Bario! Similarly, a kilo of sugar goes for RM3 in Ba Kelalan and RM5 in Bario.

Need a new pick-up truck for Christmas? Vehicles used to be flown into Bario on a boxy cargo plane, aptly called a Skyvan, at RM6,000 per pop! The service had been stopped since the 30-sen petrol price hike, said eco-tourism operator Douglas Munney.

And how does anyone from the outside world call home if their flight is cancelled? Bario and Ba Kelalan have five public telephones (radio-operated) between them.

We asked Telekom to reconfigure the phones so that people can call in, said Sang. When it rings, hopefully somebody is nearby and picks up. Then he has to walk to whoevers house to convey the message.

Dari mana?

Everywhere I went, people stopped to talk, starting with the question Dari mana? (Where are you from?)

Thats the way it is here. From Dari mana, next thing you know, there is an invitation for tea, and then to come over for Christmas, explained Neal Nirmal, our trip organiser from Taiping, Perak, who used to stay for weeks in Ba Kelalan in the early 1990s.

At Pa Ukat, housewife Rina Rahayu, mother of two young children, was weaving a mat from kabar pandan leaves which she had cut from the jungle and painstakingly removed the thorns stalk by stalk.

After interviewing her and taking many pictures, I thought it would be nice to contribute RM10 as a small Christmas ang pow to her family. Later, as my 4WD was about to leave, she suddenly presented me with the mat that she had been working on for the past two days.

Christmas present, she smiled, leaving me flabbergasted by her generosity.

Celebrating Natal

Christmas is very good here, attested Martha. The Holy Spirit ministers to people and the people are touched. I really feel the sense of joy here.

And it is very, very community oriented. Said Jaman Riboh, an eco-tour guide operator in Bario:

People always look forward to come home for the celebration. They will pack gifts and Christmas goodies for relatives in the villages.

In churches, candles are placed in a small bamboo knot on the Christmas tree. They are lit when the congregation sings Silent Night. Thats the highlight of the service. After church, people will visit friends and relatives until late in the night.

Bario Penghulu Henry Jala Temalai, 74, is expecting his son Idris Jala (Malaysia Airlines managing director) and other children from Australia and Kuching to make it home for Christmas.

But for Mubulun Selutan, 78, of Pa Ukat, none of his seven children in various towns are returning home this year. Instead, he will go to Miri, where four of his children are.

In Ba Kelalan, the gift-giving would have been in the form of a telematch yesterday. According to Rungu Aris, wife of the local village chief, the telematch would have offered gifts sponsored by those who are working in town, while old and young had fun gunnysack racing and running with eggs in spoons.

I had the opportunity to attend a pra-Natal or pre-Christmas service at Barios central church on Dec 17. Here, there was none of the traditional sape (a stringed instrument) and hornbill dances often shown to tourists but electric guitars and keyboards, lots of clapping and raised hands plus exuberant singing much like a modern, urban charismatic church.

And the sermon was titled Apa yang kamu akan buat selapas Natal? (What will you do after Christmas?) with a call to spread Amanat Agung, or the Great Message. Different choirs from the kaum ibu, bapa dan belia (mothers, fathers and youths) performed. Silent Night was sung in Kelabit, while prayers to bless the fellowship, the music and to bind the evil spirits were in Malay.

Above the stage, a huge banner declared: Roh Kudus Penolongku - The Holy Spirit, My Helper.

I could not understand the words of many of the songs but somehow there was a certain energy in the air and I could not stop crying. As a Theravadan Buddhist who is open to the goodness in all religions, I believe something sacred was working on me that day.

Here’s wishing Christians Do’ Aco Krismas and everybody Do’Umak Lak Meberuh, which is Lunbawang for Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!