Rabat – An enormous shudder, a loud clanking jolt and into Asia, Malaysia, Sarawak State Kuching city we flew.
I peered out of my window as the sight of a glorious river sculpting the city into a maze stood out. The awe striking spectacle slid into my memory as the plane slid above the clouds.
There, I was welcomed by the sound of thunder that promised intensity and a darkness that spoke of the new horizons that beckon. I knew, the 24-hour flight and the 12,449 km crossed are going to be worth it.
The first thing that strikes about Kuching is its greenery. The vegetation covers the landscape in an imposing demeanor, pledging that in this place, it is nature that rules.
The grandeur of the wilderness revealed more of itself at the view from the USCI hotel I stayed in. In the day, the sun sent an army of light emphasizing the beauty of the landscape and bringing into sight the Sarawak river. stretching 120 km long, the river flows swift and tranquil mimicking the lifestyle in Kuching.
Breathing in the heat of the changing season and soaking my eyes into the dark mud of the river, I presumed I was alone. Snapping out of my meditative state, the aroma of local cigarettes crept into my nostrils and a voice broke the silence and said “it’s quite a sight here.”
I turned to face a smiley, chubby man in his thirties, holding his cigarette and looking at ease. He later introduced himself to me as Eka.
Eka told me that the river is an important source of water and transportation in the state of Srawak, which makes up about 37.5 percent of the total area of Malaysia and whose capital is Kuching.
He then prided himself for being a native of the state. “my ancestors are among the early settlers of Sarawak, before it was taken over by the British white Rajahs and our family continue to exist after they left.”
The state of Sarawak has more than 40 ethnic groups, each with its own distinct language, culture and lifestyle. They consist of Malays at 21 percent, Melanaus, Chinese at 29 percent, Ibans at 30 percent and residents from Singapore, Vietnam, India and Indonesia.
I asked my new Srawakian friend about the must-see destinations in Kuching. He advised I visit the city’s Living Museum.
Situated at the foothills of the legendary Mount Santubong, the living museum showcases Sarawak’s rich cultural heritage. About 150 people live in the village, displaying the traditional daily activities of Sarawak’s diverse ethnic groups and replicas of their traditional buildings.
Kuching is a teaser. The city wasn’t in a rush to reveal itself to me instantly nor to the other visitors in town. Along a dozen entranced voyageurs from the four corners of the world, we took a shuttle at night to a Gala dinner hosted by the previous prime minister of Sarawak and his Syrian wife.
On the ride, we were accompanied by the rise and fall of nature’s sounds and the voice of the driver who wished us, several times, an enjoyable evening, onto the streets of a city that throbs to the heartbeat of 325,132 people who call it home.
The dinner was hosted at the State Legislative Assembly Building that looked more like an otherworldly palace than a place where politicians gather. Looming high and tall across the river, and designed like an umbrella, it is by all means a sight to behold.
Food and Dance
Ushered into an intimate lobby that’s decked out in exquisite décor and kaleidoscope of colors, we were greeted by dozens of young waiters, who ceaselessly served us glasses of Coca-Cola and genuine smiles while we awaited for the big meal.
Malay, Chinese, Indian and Thai, there are so many culinary traditions colliding in Malaysia that it’s almost impossible to give a neat account on every dish. However, what I could say about the food, varying from Hainanese chicken rice to rainbow cakes, is that it was different and special.
Two Malaysian ladies, one dressed in a blazing turquoise and green batik print dress and a matching head scarf , the other in a neat modern attire and unveiled hair, were seated in my table. They stared at me amusingly and spoke to each other in Malay. I knew that they were talking about the quirky expressions on my face as I tasted the traditional cuisine.
I looked at them and gave a friendly smile, they reciprocated and we embarked on a parley of them telling me to have more and I telling them that I was full.
The strong presence of women in the Malaysian political and economic scene is quite advanced. The country has made remarkable progress in the past six years to reinforce the participation of women. Malaysia’s female labor participation rate rose to 54.1 percent in 2015 compared to 46.8 percent in 2010.
With more than 800 guests present, the evening had many surprises to offer. Our hosts entertained us with several singing and dancing performances, which once began I embarked on yet another meditative state.
Awe-stricken by the lively dance and the graceful tempo, I watched the elegant performers sway to the folklore music, performing marriage, harvest, hunting and war dances.
The most fascinating of all is the Rajang Be’uh, or the Eagle Dance, which consists of female and male dancers outstretching their hands and imitating the movements of the eagles as they flap their wings in flight.
The dance originated when a Sarawakian legendary hero was ordered by the King of the Pleiades to fight the legendary bird of the sky known as The Eagle Spirit in order to take the King’s daughter for a wife.
The performances were intense, and I needed to catch a breath in the fresh air. The breeze had sprung up, dissipating the afternoon’s humidity.
I walked up to one of the guests, determined to go back home with m ore friends. I initiate the conversation telling him how the raw culture of Kuching is striking. “Oh yes, yes, our heritage is rich and diverse. But there is more to Sarawak than just its history,” Ahmed, a senior digital technology expert in Kuching told me, swiftly transferring me from the world of the past to that of the future.
“In the past 20 years, Sarawak has fiercely and passionately boarded on a journey to develop its digital economy, opting to enhance its income. We now expect digital economy to make up 17.4 percent of the state’s GDP by 2025.” Ahmed said.
Many state and national and international commercial banks, as well as some insurance companies establish their headquarters and branches in Kuching, making the city one of the main industrial and commercial centers of Sarawak.
The state of Sarawak itself was able to maintain a positive economic growth at 3.2 percent last year despite global uncertainties and low crude oil prices, which represents its main economic generator.
Ahmed continued to tell me that he felt “like a bad wolf” because he was so involved in the sector. “People weren’t very enthusiastic about technology and fin-tech at first. But it is a matter of do or die now. Technology is the future and Malaysia is determined to be the future. Now, the people understand and I feel like a good wolf,” he said and followed his confessions with a pleasant laugh, I joined him in laughter.
After a pause, he told me more of the Sarawakian way of life. “Whether Muslims, Christian, Buddhist or pagan, we live in harmony and coexistence. It is the love of the country that brings us together,” he said, as the national anthem simultaneously played. Guests, hosts and waiters alike froze in their positions in respect for their country.
“We are very friendly towards each other and towards foreigners,” Ahmed continued after the national anthem finished playing.
I nodded my head in agreement. His words astound me like an unanticipated epiphany. I thought of the gay men walking proudly in the streets, their nails painted and eyebrows well trimmed.
I also recalled the myriad faces that smiled to me everywhere I walked and the sight of veiled women who smoked without being criticized for their choices. I couldn’t help but think that though 61.3 percent of Malaysians are Muslim, they have bypassed religious conflicts, leaving room “to fiercely conquer the future,” as Ahmed put it.
The Old Magnificent Carpenter Street
At 10:30 p.m., the night was still young and I eagerly wanted to see more of the city. Ahmed offered me a ride to the city center and I genially accepted. On the way, he showed me Muslim villages, shyly hiding behind the lush vegetation of the city. “All of these villages are inhabited by Muslims. I grew up there,” he pointed to one of the villages, as a smile delicately carved its way on his face.
Ahmed pulled over near Carpenter street and told me that in it I would travel back to Old Kuching. “Carpenter street has defied the test of time since the late 1800’s. You will have a glimpse into the past.”
“Trema-Kesi (thank you),” I told him and stepped out of the car. “Sama Sama (you’re welcome),” he answered and drove past me, though encountering him remained still in my memory.
My clothes had transformed into a washcloth and my glasses into foggy circles. If I had any sense, I would have retreated to my haven at UCSI hotel, but I’m a junkie to the sights and sounds of history —and it is safe to say that Carpenter street stole away my breath.
Small food stalls, bars, shops selling traditional souvenirs, the Malay Chinatown of Kuching gives much to remember. The narrow street is home to fascinating Chinese shop house architecture, many of which have been occupied by the same family for generations.
Far too soon the plane again roared and departed. I left Kuching out of sight, its magic and charm faded. Reluctantly I turn away from the quiet waters of Sarawak river. I take a moment to engrave its image into my memory along with the promise that I would visit again.