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Natural History

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YOUR GATEWAY TO ADVENTURES IN MALAYSIA

Exploring Tasek bera

A short-story by an American abroad

By Matt Salleh

Every night when I lay my head down in the constructed comfort of my apartment mysterious things happen outside. Tigers, tapirs, mouse deer and cobras conduct their nightly rituals, invisible in the dense vegetation known as the Malaysian rainforest. Birds and bats flit about catching moths en route to chase the moon. Bird, bat and moth alike spread the germ of life from flower to flower. And so it occurs, witnessed by few human eyes and largely unheeded in human thought, an endless cycle, night after night.

The events of the natural world occur without our permission and most often without our knowledge. We have to make special efforts to get out of our cities and into the forest to witness these things. Malaysia offers an abundance of opportunities to get into wild places and see the things that so few have seen. That is one of the reasons I came to live here, to witness the miracles firsthand, to see local flora and fauna act out their daily dramas.

Tropical rainforests, coral reefs, mountains, wetlands, rivers, lakes and caves comprise the physical geography of Malaysia, one of the 10 most biologically diverse areas in the world. Each ecosystem is important and unique in its life sustaining capabilities. Each one should be intimately experienced in the deepest sense by each and every one of us in order to truly appreciate the profound importance and mesmerizing beauty they effortlessly possess.

My passport tells me that I am a foreigner in this country called Malaysia. My heart tells me otherwise. Deep inside I know I am a citizen of the world. Every continent and landscape on earth has the potential to be my place of residence. Consequently, it's important to me to feel as at home in the rainforests of South East Asia as I do in the piedmont plateau of Georgia. Wherever I go, I consider home. I belong here as much as I belong in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains or the backwoods of the Okeefenokee Swamp. As my home, the places of natural beauty in Malaysia are in my care. So I go out seeking, reconnoitring for adventures of experience and learning to reinforce the desire to belong and nurture the sense of stewardship. Today I will trek to a wetland a few hours drive outside Kuala Lumpur with my friend Badrul.

I met Badrul a few months previous during a snorkelling trip on the island of Pulau Lalang. The trip was sponsored by the Malaysian Nature Society, which I had recently joined. While relaxing and eating, in between the rise and fall of the tides, we chatted a bit about our mutual interests. It was then that he invited me to accompany him to a remote place in Malaysia where he was about to begin working on an eco-tourism project. He spoke of native people living in traditional houses, mysterious wetlands and exotic wildlife. I was intrigued. I jumped at the chance to go with him.

Badrul and I met around 8 a.m. at a Petronas station in Sri Hartamas, a suburb about 15 minutes outside of Kuala Lumpur. We made a short visit to his office to get a few things before we hit the road. Badrul works for Wetlands International, a team of people working to preserve wetlands in various countries around the world. His office was typical of an office dedicated to the preservation of outdoor things. Decorated with posters of fish and plants on the walls, it exuded a more casual feel than an office dedicated to other types of business. I've been in many such offices including entire buildings dedicated to ecological research but I still haven't gotten over the irony of that: buildings with air conditioned offices full of computers and other fantastic technologies dedicated to conserving things outside.

After a quick visit to his office we were on the road headed to Tasek Bera, Malaysia's only protected wetlands and home to the Orang Asli Semelai, an indigenous people who have lived in and around the swamp for nearly 600 years. The trip held promises of adventure, exotic plants and animals as well as conversations with Semelai people.

Tasek Bera is a slow moving alluvial blackwater swamp in the state of Pahang, a few hours southeast of Kuala Lumpur (KL). Flowing northward through a wide channel at an almost imperceptible rate it eventually joins the River Pahang and empties into the South China Sea. The system itself is huge encompassing an area of 25km x 35 km. The sheer size of the wetlands alone makes it an important asset to Malaysia. The people that live there and their way of life are disappearing as modern society encroaches upon their world.

The drive took about three hours. We passed through a couple of small towns and drove up a few small mountains. The sights and sounds typical of small Malaysian towns tantalized my senses. The pungent odor of fish-head curry simmering in a street stall and chili padi frying in someone's blackened wok blanketed the streets and flooded our vehicle. The diversity of people hobbling around chaotically buying the wide array of colorful products displayed on the streets is normally enough to capture my attention for ages, but not this time. This time I had a mission. I was on my way to wallow in the mud of one of my favorite ecosystems, a swamp.

We raced down the highways and through the toll roads in a squeaky old Mitsubishi Pajero. The vehicle had certainly seen better days. But it was perfect for our journey.

Badrul and I chatted about world affairs and how people could become "citizens of the world" ignoring race, nationality, politics, and religion in terms of relating to each other and focus on the fact that we are all human with human needs. In that respect, we concluded, humans have more in common than different. Badrul is Muslim and he quizzed me about the US. I quizzed him about Islam. But more than the designations of Muslim and American, we are both humans interested in feeling at home in the world and we both have an interest in outdoor adventure and the preservation of endemic cultures.

Around noon we stopped at a roadside stall for some lunch. We ordered nasi goreng pattaya and limau ais, a sweetened lime drink, to take away. We didn't linger to eat our meal. Tasek Bera was only another 30 minutes away and the swamp was calling us.

We stopped in Pos Iskandar, a small settlement sitting in a sea of palm oil and rubber plantations within spitting distance of the riparian flora and fauna of Tasek Bera. When we arrived, Badrul introduced me to our guides Yohanif and Rashim. They were short and thin, kind of lanky in stature with deep brown skin. They bore the look of experience. My first impression was that they knew what they were doing and I could trust them to lead me into the swamp that was unfamiliar to me. They held large smiles on their faces and they were eager to show us around and share their knowledge. They'd lived on the banks of Tasek Bera most of their lives. They knew this place, the swamp where I was only a visitor. To them it was not some exotic locale; it was home.

Pos Iskandar is the site of the indigenous Orang Asli "office" for eco-tourism and the place Badrul had pre-arranged to meet the guides. The office itself is a fusion of traditional construction methods and modern materials. The roof is tin and the walls are plywood. On the floor is a traditional woven mat laid across wooden slats. There are only 4 rooms: the kitchen, the bedroom, the toilet and a main living room. The place is small, no bigger than 500 square feet. It's a perfectly efficient design suitable for housing two people. It reminded me of a few cabins I had seen in the mountains of north Georgia. It isn't really an "office" by modern standards with only a crude desk marred with candle wax and marker stains, a half painted chair, and a computer screen for which Badrul brought the rest of the hardware from his office when he visited. The place is cozy, not like an office at all, and could be more correctly described as a cradle for the Orang Asli's newborn eco-tourism project. I felt at ease and at home.

Badrul and I stole away to the kitchen to swallow down our food. By this time we were pretty eager to eat. I didn't know what to expect. I had ordered nasi goreng pattaya upon Badrul's recommendation. When it comes to food here I almost always don't know what to expect. I opened up the Styrofoam packet and discovered what appeared to be an omelette. When I cut into it I uncovered a nice portion of fried rice. I have to admit it was delicious. It turns out that the dish was basically a few eggs fried and folded over a semi-spicy assortment of rice, veggies, chilli's and chicken. I was pleasantly surprised to discover such a savory dish in my little packet. I was happy. On my taste buds, the adventure had already started.

After lunch, Badrul and I were itching to get into the swamp. Yohanif handed us our paddles and we carried them down to the swamp to meet the canoe. We headed to the water by following a freshly cut dirt trail from our vehicle down to the waters edge. There was a little girl sitting on a canoe near the shore. I guessed her to be about eight years of age. She was working on something that was of utmost importance to her. A large parang dangled from her side, it was at least half as long as she was. I figured huge knives like that must come in handy in the jungle. I thought that it must be necessary to learn how to use such a tool at an early age if you live near the swamp. I wondered what else she might know that I had yet to learn in my 32 years of existence. She was focused on her project to the extent that we walked by unnoticed.

Already, I could tell that I was going to learn heaps from these fellas. My thoughts were confirmed when I saw the canoe. It was a 12-foot long tree that had been dug out using fire and adze. The tree had been carved to a point on both ends and narrowed to a width a little wider that my hips. It reminded me of a blade of grass with its slender, narrow design.

Perhaps at some point in Semelai history some enterprising person watched a blade of grass float down the swamp with a crew of ants on board. Maybe they thought, "hey, I can do that", and set about building the first canoe. Perhaps they had accidentally stumbled upon canoes by catching a ride on a floating log. Whatever the case, that first encounter with a floating vessel had evolved into this beautiful piece of functional art floating in the swamp in front of me.

The paddles were a treat just as sweet. They were short, about 2.5 to 3 feet in length, and narrow, about 2 hand widths wide, and pointed at the tips. They had been carved from a single piece of wood. Their detail exceeded that of the canoe with intricate designs engraved on the body. The handle fit neatly into the palm of a hand and had indentations where the fingers could rest. There it was. 600 years of ergonomic design evolved in the swamps of Malaysia. Who could ask for more?

I was about to ride in a traditional canoe that had been hand made here, by these people, from a tree that had grown in this rainforest. I was awestruck. The workmanship was incredible. I had no idea what it would take to make such a craft, but I imagined it to be a tedious process.

The floor of the canoe was inlaid with bamboo and offered a place to sit about 4 inches above the floor. This was definitely an exquisite piece of equipment and I was about to use it to paddle around a tropical swamp with a native guide! I wondered to myself if life could get any better.

We pushed off and floated out. Yohanif was to guide us on the canoe trip. Rashim departed and returned up the bank of the swamp from where we had just come.

As we paddled away I noticed a few basket-like fish traps near the bank and a few lines dangling in the water. Obviously, the Semelai use the swamp for food and fishing is one of the main sources.

I had come here to explore. I had come here to learn. So far, I wasn't disappointed. This journey would be upstream.

Back home in the States I had been a canoe instructor for several summers. I taught teens how to paddle flat water on Lake Chapman in Athens, Georgia and once in a while we even ventured into the realm of kayaking. I was familiar with American watercraft, but this canoe was a different animal.

The canoe itself sat less than an inch above the water when loaded. This was at least partially due to the fact that these canoes were not built for the likes of me. In general, Orang Asli are much smaller in stature than I. Most of them only come to my shoulders when we stand side by side. I am not large by US standards at 5 foot 10 inches. We won't mention the weight difference. The paddle was also less than half the length I'm used to. I hoped I could be competent and not appear to be a total dummy to Yohanif.

About ten minutes into the trip Badrul asked me if I could bail some water. Again, we shouldn't dwell on the extra weight the canoe was currently burdened with. Yohanif told him there was a coconut shell under my seat and Badrul translated this for me. I took the shell and shovelled water over the side. I had to do this several more times during the trip. I suppose the extra weight of a mat salleh influenced the rate at which water flowed into the canoe. It was then that I decided to lay off the pisang goreng, deep fried bananas, and run a few extra times a week.

We paddled for about 2 hours upstream as we headed towards a kampung, or village, that Badrul wanted to show me. Tasek Bera has a very mild current that flows ever so slowly and gives a minimal resistance to our paddles. Even so, it had been months since I had paddled and I could still feel the slight demands on my shoulders and back. It felt good to be doing some physical work.

The canoe trail was severely overgrown. In some parts we even had to lie down in the canoe so we could pass under fallen logs. Yohanif told me he would alert me of any snakes. I requested he tell me about anything fun or interesting that we might see, especially snakes. My affinity for snakes has grown over the years. When I worked as a naturalist at Sandy Creek Nature Center in Athens I was expected to use snakes to teach my lessons. There I handled them on a weekly basis and my fear gradually turned into respect and admiration for those scaly creatures. I wanted badly to catch a glimpse of a snake. I was hoping to spot a yellow-ringed cat snake or a black cobra before I left.

As we paddled we passed impressive stands of pandanu whose sturdy leaves reminded me somewhat of yucca. They were pointed and thorny on the leaf edge. More than once I was jabbed by a pandanu leaf in the shoulder or leg as we drifted near shore or crossed under the overgrown canoe trail. I found out later that the pandanu's are an important plant for the Orang Asli. They use their leaves to weave mats to put on the floor of their huts or sometimes they hang them up as walls. I recalled that the floor back at the eco-tourism office had a pandanu mat.

For the swamp itself, pandanu is an ecologically important species. It co-dominates the landscape with a sedge known as Lepironia. Turtles and fish breed within the maze of pandanu and Lepironia stems and roots safely hidden away from most predators, except maybe the Semelai. Birds and insects also build nests in the upper branches of the pandanu. Both species of plant provide camouflage for predators and prey such as water monitors and mouse deer. A complex web of life has developed in the swamp based on the plants and animals that live there. The Semelai are part of the web as they depend on the swamp for some of their food and materials for their homes.

While we were floating, my mind was drifting around thoughts of the complexity of ecosystems, the delicate balance of life in the world and the subtle beauty I was surrounded by.

Badrul told me the kampung, a Semelai village, was nearby.

As we rounded a corner to approach the village there was an unforeseen obstacle in our path. A tree had fallen across the stream and was too low for us to go under. The water was too deep and the banks too overgrown to portage the canoe. There was, however, enough room for the canoe to slide under if we got out. So we approached the tree and one at a time got out and climbed onto the mess. The others pushed the canoe under the prostrate tree to meet the arboreal person as they lowered themselves back down into the canoe on the other side. It was definitely a feat I had never performed before. The gymnastics were complicated by the fact that the canoe sat so low in the water and was so narrow. In succession we each perched precariously on the tree and waited to slide delicately back down into the canoe. Any slight movement in the wrong direction would mean a flipped vessel. A wet mat salleh ain't a pretty picture in these parts. Actually a drenched white guy isn't really a pretty picture in most parts that I know of.

Badrul went first with no complications. I was next. I wasn't as deft as Badrul but I didn't fall in so we accomplished our intended goal. Yohanif, of course, just hopped over like a civet leaping after prey. Success! We smiled as we paddled away and continued upstream another 50 meters or so. By this time, I think I had proven my worth to Yohanif. He never asked me to prove my abilities and probably never even thought about it, but it was something that was important to my male ego.

You can imagine our dismay when we saw another log in the same position but this time squatting slightly lower in the water and a little more overgrown with less places to step over! So we did it again, this time with more confidence, with one such obstacle already conquered. Did I mention adventure?

We walked up a dirt road towards the kampung. As we approached I could see a few traditional houses with a few motorcycle parts strewn about the yard. Having grown up in semi-rural Georgia, I was used to seeing car parts in the yard. I felt at home immediately.

A wiry older man greeted us. His skin was a beautiful black/bronze color, a color I have rarely seen before, especially on a human. Badrul said some things in Bahasa Melayu and the man smiled at me, baring his teeth. Most were missing and the few dangling in his mouth were badly stained.

He welcomed us into his home. A young woman began preparing some coffee in the house while the men walked around and looked at things in the yard.

There was a homemade musical instrument called a gambang stuck in the ground. It looked somewhat like a xylophone except that it was permanently held in place by the soil. A few wooden stobs were poking up out of the ground and taught string was hanging between them. In between each stob, were pieces of wood of varying lengths arranged from shortest to longest from left to right. The man picked up what looked like a xylophone mallet and lightly tapped the suspended pieces of wood. A beautiful sound resonated from the gambang. He was proud of his demonstration and quickly played a little tune. He then proceeded to pick up 2 hollow pieces of bamboo, known as a ginggong, and tap them on a stump. They too resonated with a warm hollow percussive sound. He gave a brief speech about Semelai music, none of which I understood but listened intently just the same.

What a sacred thing, music. How sounds of different pitch and volume can entrance us is a mystery I do not claim to understand. I am only a lucky witness to the miracle. It was a treat to hear this melody coming from these instruments of the Earth. I could imagine a whole chorus of such things singing and twanging throughout the rainforest during a ceremony or celebration. That would be the feast of which I had only just been afforded a taste.

Yohanif was standing off to the side. He picked up a stick about 10 feet in length. On it's tip was secured a trident of metal. Badrul told me it was a spear for fishing. I had imagined such. It basically looked like a frog gig, a hunting tool I had seen and possessed as a child. I had bought mine at K-Mart in the fishing section and dreamed of spearing a fish with it. I never really learned how to use it properly but had only imagined its use. Like so many things from childhood my frog gig disappeared into a void during a move from house to house or lost out in the yard buried in the soil by now, an artefact to be discovered by a future archaeologist. But the fact that I had owned one of those things connected to me to the Orang Asli kampung even further. I was at home and I could feel it.

He used the trident to knock down a few round green things from a tree that was leaning severely over onto another sturdier tree. About 10 or 12 of those things fell onto the ground and rolled around like weebles wobbling. He quickly gathered them up. They looked like walnuts tucked away in their green protective layer, about the same size and color. They were harvested from a palm tree so I knew there was no relation of family for the trees.

After our musical interlude and nut gathering session we sat cross-legged on the porch of the man's house. A light rain that was quickly darkening its attitude pushed us to shelter. As the weather turned violent, the younger girl, whom I presumed to be the daughter, served coffee. She placed a jug of white coffee and a platter of crackers in the center of our circle. She sat off to the side with the older lady, whom I presumed to be the mother. Neither mother nor daughter said a total of three words during my whole stay there. I could only catch casual glimpses of their smiles and heads nodding, as I would quickly glance at them, not wanting to stare out of fear of appearing rude.

The men were talking about things of which I had no idea since it was spoken in Bahasa Melayu. Once in a while the older man would roll up a cigarette on a dried leaf. He had two types of tobacco, a green type, which I was informed, was more traditional, and a dried brown type, more like the tobacco I'd seen before. He rolled a cigarette with the green tobacco and offered it to me. I accepted. I'm not a smoker but I figured I would give it a shot. I pulled a Clinton and didn't inhale the smoke. The flavor was surprisingly mellow and not offensive at all, even to a non-smoker.

Once in a while, one of the other men would take a pair of wire-cutter-like pliers and cut a section of the nuts that had just been harvested. He would take the nut and wrap it in a leaf and chew on it. I finally recognized the nut as betelnut, which I had been fortunate enough to try at a Malay wedding not too long ago. I had told Badrul about that experience on our drive to Pos Iskandar so he informed the guys that I would like a taste. They all smiled as the older man cut off a bit of the betelnut and wrapped it in leaf. Everyone, including the women, watched as I popped it into my mouth and chewed for a while.

I've discovered that many of the locals absolutely love it when I give these kinds of things a try. I'm not sure about other foreigners, but I know Americans have the reputation of wanting to stay within a certain realm of "safety" and comfort when they travel abroad. In other words, many Americans are afraid to give new things a try. Often, I've witnessed American travellers go to foreign countries only to eat at American food chains and stay in American hotel chains, sometimes even going as far as getting angry when things are different in a foreign place. Those folks never leave the safety net of familiarity.

When locals ask me to try something new they are usually delighted and surprised when I accept. It's fun, and it usually works out to my advantage meaning that I am readily and quickly accepted. Chewing the betelnut was one of those experiences.

The taste was very bitter and rich in tannins. A mild tingling effect hit my tongue and throat as I swallowed. Chewing the betelnut is something they do regularly here, especially with a tree 10 feet away. Which explains the missing and red stained teeth on many of the people. It wasn't the most pleasant taste I had ever had, but it also wasn't the worst. The physical effects were really mild and not especially intoxicating. But a different sort of euphoria was taking hold. I was sitting on the porch in an Orang Asli kampung, drinking coffee, smoking hand rolled cigarettes on a dried leaf, and chewing betelnut after having just paddled up from the swamp in a hand carved canoe. This is the stuff of National Geographic and Discovery Channel specials, and I was living it! I had a feeling of living a dream or a fantasy of my own design. I was exhilarated, excited, and thankful to be living this life that I had chosen.

One of the men brought out some hand carved replicas of the canoe I had just paddled. They told me it was part of their plan to offer handicrafts for sale as part of their eco-tourism venture. They were exquisite and just as detailed as the real thing. They were beautifully simple. I bought two of them, one for me, to place on my shrine at home in KL, and another to be mailed to a friend in D.C.

After the rain subsided, Badrul, Yohanif and I headed down to the canoe. On the way back they pointed out a few spots where they planned on putting campsites. They also informed me of plans to erect a few camouflage blinds and salt licks so that tourists might see mouse deer or even a tapir if they're lucky and patient enough.

We loaded the canoe and paddled back. By this time it was getting darker and the forest began to take on the mystical eerie feeling that comes with twilight. It's the time when magic happens and people see things that they don't normally see during broad daylight. I felt my body slow down and settle into the magic as night approached.

Yohanif informed us that two tigers had been spotted last week on the swamp bank in the area through which we were paddling. That sent an electric sensation through my spine and put me on a cautious alert. I hoped to spot a tiger. Being in a place where you are no longer top carnivore can either scare you out of your wits and send you running or put you in touch with a side of yourself that lies deep within your psyche, a place we modern folk rarely venture. It depends on your experiences and your state of mind whether you flee at such moments or settle down into the calm gentle waters of your mind and breathe deeply, thankful to be truly in touch with the experience of being alive.

We arrived back at the rustic "office" somewhat sad we hadn't seen a tiger, and collected a small pail and a bar of soap. Badrul and I went to a little staircase that was built down into the swamp and bathed. We took off our shirts and took the bar soap and lathered up. The pail was used to rinse ourselves off. My shorts were already dirty and so were my sandals. They got washed at the same time as the rest of me. Normally I might have taken off all my clothes and went skinny-dipping, but in a Muslim country, that sort of behavior is not acceptable.

For millennia people have bathed themselves in rivers and lakes. Nowadays we hardly do that anymore. We prefer running, heated water in a safe sterile environment. There's something to be said for cleansing out in the open in a natural body of water. Water is said to symbolize the unconscious and when you surround yourself in it you are giving in to your unconscious fears and thereby making peace with them. I don't know about all that, but I do know that I feel somehow cleaner and my spirit feels freer when I submerge myself in a river and come up gasping for air after a good soaking. That night was no different. It felt good. I was more in touch with myself than I had been in ages. Those were the healing powers of nature that Badrul and I had come to experience and ultimately protect.

After our bath we walked back up the hill to the office and changed into dry shorts. We hadn't eaten in quite a while, save a few crackers and coffee, and were hungry. We possessed the kind of hunger you have after a good days physical labor, the kind that penetrates your body and transcends your stomach. We jumped in the Pajero and blazed back down the dirt roads we had come in on. I was lost. I didn't know where we were going. About 20 minutes later we pulled up to a house with a sign and a few tables and chairs outside. I guessed it was a restaurant of sorts. They only served nasi goreng (fried rice), mee goreng (fried noodles), limau ais (sweetened lime juice) and milo ais (chocolate drink). That was it, the totality of the menu. I ordered the mee and limau ais. Badrul ordered the nasi and milo.

Off in the distance someone was wailing to the strumming of an acoustic guitar. The desire to make music is universal isn't it? In the rainforests of Malaysia and in the cities of Europe people make music. Every night of the week you can hear music of some sort in Athens, Georgia. It's astounding. You don't even have to understand what is being said. Bob Dylan proved that. It's the rhythm that counts. It's innate. We identify with it. There exists a human longing and craving for music. Just as we need food as nourishment for our bodies, we need music as sustenance for our souls. Perhaps there lies within us a deep connection to the Circadian rhythms of the Earth. Maybe the cycles of nature flow through our veins to remind us of our connection to the world in which we sometimes forget we are immersed and connected. The ebb and tide of those cycles constantly shifting, up and down, up and down, rising and falling are embedded within our collective unconscious. If we listen, if we remain silent long enough, we can hear the rhythm of those cycles rising and falling. We can become a part of the rhythm that is the pulse of the Earth. It is grand indeed! We are part of that music. We are part of the magical orchestra of creation. So few of us know it and even fewer of us have tuned in enough to truly listen.

A couple of minutes later the proprietor turned up the karaoke machine. Wait a minute!? The karaoke machine? We were sitting smack dab in the boon docks of Malaysia at a restaurant that only served two dishes and they had a karaoke machine? Not only that, but a damn fancy karaoke machine! It took a few minutes for that to register in my brain. I couldn't believe it, but it did prove my point about music being sustenance for the soul now didn't it? Badrul informed me that the music playing was Javanese and he disliked it greatly. It did sound a bit whiney to me. But what did I know? I was still amazed that I was looking at a karaoke machine in the middle of a palm oil plantation in hick-ville Malaysia. I would be less surprised to see an outdoor ice hockey rink in Barstow, California.

Soon the restaurant began to be flooded with locals from all around. Most of them just walked up. A few rode motorbikes. I was the only mat salleh for miles around and I was a novelty. I was being stared at, something I've gotten a little more used to since I moved to Malaysia. It's not that I wasn't stared at before because of my super model looks, it's just that these are different kinds of stares than those.

The cook brought out some fried tit-bits and I was anxious to give them a try. I didn't know what it was but I did know that pretty much anytime you deep-fry something it's gonna turn out edible, if not yummy. I wasn't wrong. There was also a dipping sauce on the side.

Tip for the day: another sure-fire way to make sure that something is yummy is to throw in a dipping sauce.

Turns out that those tit-bits were tapioca and the sauce was a chilli, garlic, soy sauce. Man-o-man was I in heaven or what? Deep fried tapioca with that sauce was my favorite! Not that I had ever had it before but that didn't mean it couldn't be my favorite. At least for now! I had 2 slices before the rest of our food arrived and I had already finished my limau ais. I decided to do the unthinkable and order the other half of the drink menu, so I got milo ais. They asked me if I wanted my mee spicy and the vigorous shake of my head up and down inspired them to see how much the white guy could take. Badrul's dinner was also spicy and we both broke a sweat while eating. Meanwhile, the stares were not subsiding.

After we finished we paid up and got into the Pajero, for yet another harrowing ride down a pothole-ridden road. Badrul drove at unthinkable speeds in the pitch-black darkness of the Malaysian night. As we pulled off I told Badrul that for the first time since I arrived in Malaysia I had felt a little uncomfortable. I had been stared at more than usual. Not that I noticed while scarfing down my food, but afterwards I began to feel the eyes upon me. He casually said "Oh, they're all Indonesians. They work here on the plantation."

What?! No wonder. I was an American surrounded by Indonesians! Since the events of September 11th and the recent protests by Indonesians and Muslims worldwide against America, I was a bit leery and cautious. Right about now, I figured, they're plotting on how to rip my eyes out! Not really, but for a brief moment it felt like it. They were all immigrants. They left Indonesia for a reason, mostly because they didn't like it there. Despite the current state of affairs none of the Indonesians I have met here harbor any ill feeling towards me or America. They're just like the rest of us, trying to get by, earn a living and put some food on the table. I actually never felt threatened at all. But at least I now knew why they were all staring at me so curiously. They were wondering why Brad Pitt was eating at this restaurant in the middle of nowhere.

The next morning I awoke at daybreak. Badrul was still asleep and I didn't want to wake him so I quietly sneaked out of the room. I managed to boil some water and scrape one last spoonful of Nescafe from the jar to make a cup of coffee. I was wide-awake with nowhere to go in the middle of a Malaysian wetland. It took me a few minutes to come to terms with the fact that I had nowhere to go and nothing to do.

It's really amazing that we are so geared toward constantly busying ourselves that we have to make a conscious effort to slow down and live life as it comes.

I remembered my binoculars. I pulled them out and sat on the front porch to watch some birds and sip my coffee in the cool Malaysian morning. I was elated when I managed to spot a Racket-Tailed Drongo scoot by, a bird I had wanted to see since my arrival.

Badrul awoke shortly after that and we breakfasted on crackers and peanut butter. Hashim showed up at the office and we followed him down to the staircase where we had bathed the night before. A motorboat was waiting for us and we loaded up.

Today we would be visiting another part of the swamp to see a campsite and some established huts for eco-tourists. Badrul was showing me all this because I was interested in bringing some high school students down for a visit as well as volunteering to help the Semelai jumpstart their eco-tourism business. I was already sold on the idea and couldn't wait to get started. On the way we discussed the possibilities of refurbishing a few old buildings at Pos Iskandar village and converting them into a nature center, or maybe hosting an adventure race in the swamp as well as building an obstacle course for team building activities. I was excited and honored to be a part of the plans for Tasek Bera.

Our tour lasted several hours and resulted in my legs getting cooked a nice pink color by the sun. Hashim noticed my legs and giggled. He looked at his own bronze thighs and commented that his weren't pink. Even though he said this in broken English-Bahasa Melayu I understood what he was saying. We both laughed out loud. I took this to mean he was teasing me. We rode through the swamp for hours looking at lotus, lily, pandanu, and sedge. We managed to spot a cobra swimming through one part of the swamp and my dream of seeing a snake had come true! A few minutes later a giant catfish rolled in front of the boat and prompted Hashim to spring forward, spear in hand with a futile jab at the water.

We toured the camps and talked about the endless possibilities Tasek Bera offered to students and tourists interested in the outdoors. The day was growing old and we still had a drive back to KL. We decided it was time to get back to Pos Iskandar and the squeaky Pajero. On our way back barn swallows raced and dipped in front of the boat. At one point an unidentifiable raptor circled high in the sky. It was good to be out of the city and outdoors where swallow, cobras, raptors and pandanu replaced taxis, sidewalks and skyscrapers.

When the tour of the swamp via motorboat concluded, we pulled up to the staircase from which we had embarked on our foray into the wetland. We were exhilarated and energized as well as exhausted, a contrasting state of affairs that can only be achieved if mind, body and spirit have all been engaged simultaneously and exercised to their fullest capacity.

Our adventure concluded with another lightning speed trip back to K.L. As Badrul and I parted we decided that we would do it again sometime, sometime real soon.

Glossary
  • Kampung= village
  • Limau ais (lim ow ice) - limejuice with ice (limau= lime, ais = ice)
  • Mat salleh- (Mot sall eh) "white person"- derived from the reference to British sailors as "mad sailors" thus mat salleh is a mispronunciation of the English- mad sailor- nowadays it refers to white people in general. It is an affectionate- non-offensive term.
  • Mee goreng= fried noodles (mee= noodles)
  • Milo ais= chocolate drink with ice (milo= nestle Quik, ais= ice)
  • Nasi goreng- fried rice (nasi= rice, goreng= fried)
  • Orang Asli Semelai- (O wrong Aslee Sim a lie) - indigenous people of Tasek Bera
  • Parang = (Pa rung) - machete or large knife
  • Petronas- Malaysian petroleum company - like Exxon
  • Pisang goreng= fried bananas (pisang= banana, goreng= fried)
  • White coffee = coffee with milk
For more information on Tasek Bera

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