Monday, August 23, 2010


The word 'kuching' means 'cat' and so it is that Kuching has become known as the city of cats. It is thrilling to be moving again, free of Bali - beautiful as it was - and knowing that I have a mere ten days here and much to see. Given that, I've decided to head to Bario to trek in the Kelabit Highlands. Mulu and its caves will have to wait for another time. Kuching itself reeks of colonial times, its beautifully maintained landmarks scattered along the river bank. There is none of the hustle of Java. Taxi drivers yawn as you pass, indifferent to whether you want a ride or not. I like it a lot. The locals are curious and unfailingly polite.
There's a huge Chinese influence here and in one of those vague moments I get when travelling, I momentarily wonder what country I'm in what with 75% of the signage in Chinese. Chinese people - as is their wont - own most of the businesses here and Chinatown is a small maze of stores and restaurants impossibly squeezed on top of one another.
On my first day here I pass an old man sitting quietly in a chair, his grey beard accentuating the character of his wizened face. I think of taking a photo but walk on. On my way past him later, the rain now teeming down, he gestures me to sit in the vacant seat beside him. He's quite comfortable in the silence but I make an effort to communicate by mouthing some inane sentence in Bahasa. He merely taps my arm with a smile as if to say 'Give it a rest son'.
He makes a gesture with his hand, disappears only to return a minute later with a can of beer in his hand. This one's for me. I gesture to return the favour but he reaches down beside his chair where he clinks his can into mine. When the beer's finished I offer again to buy him a can but he isn't having any of it and waves me off. He wanted nothing but someone to fill the chair beside him for 10 minutes - perfect.
On my second day I venture off to see the orangutan rehabilitation sanctuary at Semenggoh. As I sit waiting for the bus, one of the drivers approaches and sits beside me looking for nothing other than conversation. Within ten minutes it's time to board the bus and he's asked me to add him as a friend on Facebook. It's still difficult to shake off the feeling that when someone strikes up a conversation with you, they're looking for something. It's as unfortunate as it is inevitable having spent a month in Indonesia.
Semenggoh's home to some 25-30 semi-wild orangutans. The main attraction are not kept behind bars and are free to roam where they wish. I arrive there just before feeding time though it's hard to figure out where the wildlife ends and the humans begin what with people stepping off tour buses, shouting loudly and insisting on using flash in spite of having being specifically been asked not to as it'll startle the orangutans.
Our ginger friends don't disappoint either, approaching in ones and twos through the tangle of vines and trees. A mother and her child make their way to within touching distance of the throng, swinging freely just above us, her young clambering higher to escape from the chatter of the Russian women and their ice-hockey hairdos.
And yet in spite of the chattering masses it was impossible not to feel awed by standing beneath this bloody huge creature nonchalantly peeling bananas - that was news to me - and casually dropping the skins to the ground just below.

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