A blessing in disguise?

I think the extent to which I have any balance at all, any mental balance, is because of being a farm kid and being raised in those isolated rural areas.  

– James Earl, American actor Jones

It’s Labour Day and there is nothing to celebrate because many Malaysians are in dire straits financially — no thanks to the coronavirus pandemic!

It’s also a bad season for Sarawak which holds the record of 17 deaths out of the national total of 102 Covid-19 fatalities.

But the good news is that while the virus has ravaged the state’s administrative centre, Kuching and its ‘university town ‘of Kota Samarahan which are “Red Zones”, much of rural Sarawak continues to be relatively untouched.

In fact last week only Kuching and Samarahan were considered the epicentres of the virus. 

We had 47 Yellow Zones and 30 Green Zones which include the massive rural enclaves of Lawas, Limbang, Ulu Baram, Belaga, Kanowit, Ulu Kapit, Sarikei, Lubuk Antu and Lundu which comprise almost 90 percent of Sarawak’s land mass of 125,000 sq km.

An old Kelabit friend of mine who spent his early years in the Medical Department serving the rural community told me tongue-in-cheek: “Sarawak is lucky in some ways because of the lack of accessibility and the backwardness of the rural hinterland so much so that they are coronavirus-free for now.”

I couldn’t agree with him more because over the last 40 years as a journalist in Malaysia’s largest state, I have visited 90 percent of our rural hinterland where road networks could be improved.

Our closest friends are our Indonesian neighbours who share the rural hinterland with Sarawak where numerous jalan tikus (illegal entry points) enable the people of both countries to trade.

It’s a “win-win” situation because our neighbours living in remote enclaves such as Long Bawan in Kerayan district are totally cut off from the provincial capitals.

So the Lun Dayek from Kerayan sells their produce such as “Adan Rice” which is the equivalent of Bario Rice to their Lun Bawang counterparts in Lawas or Kelabit of Bario in exchange for gas tanks and other amenities.

And it’s a blessing in disguise because the land journey from the coast to Ba Kelalan — 1,000km from Kuching — is a back-breaking six to eight hours drive from Lawas town.

So not many tourists dare to venture that far along the 160-km part-timber and pot-holed road!

I have also travelled the timber roads of Baram, past Long Lama to Long San to Lio Matu where I ventured into the Penan enclaves and services centres at Long Jekitan and Kevok to Long Kerong and Lamai and the community seem to be untouched by the virus!

To date Sarawak has 507 confirmed cases and 17 deaths while North Kalimantan where the Kerayan is located has only 89 confirmed cases in the provincial capital of Tanjung Selor and only one death.

I would consider myself fortunate, not because the virus has avoided me, but because I’ve probably visited all the remote Sarawak-Kalimatan villages since the 1980s and can vouch for its remoteness!

I first used the illegal exit point from Ba Kelalan to Long Bawan, long before it established a CIQ (customs, immigration and quarantine) checkpoint five years ago.

I have also visited numerous jalan tikus locations at the border villages of Pa Lungan, Pa Main, Long Peluan and Long Banga in the Baram as well as Long Singut in Ulu Kapit.

Long Singut is not far from Long Nawang in the Apo Kayan mountain complex bordering Belaga district.

In the early 1990s I crossed over from Nanga Badau in Lubuk Antu — a new CIQ outpost — to explore the West Kalimantan Putussibau district.

Together with former Majlis Adat Istiadat deputy chairman Nicholas Bawin, we took an Indonesian “Ojek” (motorcycle taxi) which gave both of us a ride of our lives — three persons on a machine with no brakes, not leg stand and motorcycle built for two.

I was fortunate to be invited to the grand opening of the CIQ which was officiated by Governor Drs Cornelis in conjunction with the “Naik Dangau” harvest.

In 2017 I visited Long Nawang — a 2,500-km journey of two days around the island of Borneo.

When the CIQ opens it will take less than three hours to travel by road to Kapit.

I’m looking forward to the opening of the Teluk Melano-Temajuk which will most probably be the last jalan tikus to be opened before 2030.

Temajuk is within the historical Sambas Regency of the pro-Dutch Sambas sultanate, the Montrado Gold mines and Singkawang — better-known as “Kota Amoi” or City of the Dainty Damsels.

I’ve been to Singawang at least six times and this Chinese township still enthrals me because it is a clean and touristic town with relatively cheap accommodation.

And a far greater attraction than the fairer sex lies another temptation — the culinary joys of seafood with a glass of cold “Bintang” beer.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.