Sunday, February 06, 2011

Apres le deluge

Lovely clear waters of the Klias Wetland

Yesterday we signed up for a trip to the Klias Wetlands to see some monkeys. I hadn't realised that this would require an interminable trip in a coach all the way there, surrounded by Chinese tourists who needed to be prodded into giving up any space on the coach for us to sit down. The scenery, to begin with quite interesting and a change from Hong Kong, gradually turned into just a whole lot of palm trees and rice paddies, until I passed out asleep from boredom, and awoke half an hour later to find we were still travelling through the endless greenness, only occasionally punctuated by a brown river.

Still, at last we arrived at the Wetlands, just as the heavens opened up on us. I put back on the disgusting, body-odour-scented plastic poncho from Gaya Island, and clumped through a muddy garden to the restaurant, where we ate miniature doughnuts and stood next to chain-smoking Chinese guys. I was reading in A Corkscrew Is Most Useful about the controversy of Westerners' orientalism, where the East is treated as this strange and opaque society, where norms of behaviour haven't been understood yet, which needs to be educated by the all-knowing Wise White Man. That's the sort of thing that leads to Chinese people getting cross and pointing out they have three thousand years of culture and civilisation and shouldn't be patronised by Westerners, and that's not an argument to get into here. But I don't think you should wear skin-tight plastic snakeskin-effect leggings and a glittering gold blouse to a boat trip down a monkey-infested river, and it wouldn't kill to eat with your mouth closed from time to time.

To be fair, that's not something to be said about all Chinese people, all of the time; just the ones that go on coachtrips to resorts like Kota Kinabalu. If you went and looked at all the English tourists descending on parts of Spain, you'd probably get just as annoyed and start making snide comments about table manners and standards of dress. As F Scott Fitzgerald might have said, the crude are not like us.

After engaging in this snobbery and judgment of my fellow man, and eating all the doughnuts, we got into a boat which sped off, leaving a cloud of diesel fumes in its wake, and parked a few hundred yards down the river, next to a tree full of probiscis monkeys and another boat, which was much bigger, with two whole decks of sightseers and a man smoking a cigarette as he tried to light the barbecue grill at the back of the boat. Oh, and a honking big diesel engine that continued to run as the larger boat bobbed up and down near the monkeys, giving us a delicious taste of half-burned hydrocarbons until it, apparently randomly, decided to depart. Now, you might conclude from this that I don't have much affection for monkeys, or for human beings, but it's not like that. I'm unconvinced that monkeys enjoy having a constant stream of humans in noisy boats appear and then vanish again, or that it's healthy to have all these diesel fumes spewed everywhere. But then I keep seeing signs that Sabah isn't the richest place on Earth, and that gives you the feeling that the people who live here have to have some way to make ends meet, and if that involves driving tourists up and down the river, at least it's better than chopping down all the trees so they can be made into chopsticks/'authentic' furniture/guidebooks for future backpacking tourists. It's complicated, and I'm not going to help matters by simplifying things here.

Anyway, we spent an hour aimlessly going up and down the river. Every time a monkey was sighted, the boat would pull up, everyone would yell at the monkey to turn round and have its photo taken, the monkey would avoid eye contact, and then we'd pootle off to the next set of primates, before heading back to the dock. When we returned, they'd laid on dinner for us, which was great for everyone else, but because I was the token vegetarian I got a bowl of hot water with something green floating in it, some cucumber (which wasn't bad) and a tray of bitter melon. Yum yum yum.

Multicoloured ponchos by night

The rain came down again, so everyone donned their plastic ponchos once more and went out to the boats, which fairly pointlessly took us down the river looking for fireflies, which avoid going out in the rain, and then we went back to the dock, and to the coach, and then had another two hour journey (this time through the dark) back to Kota Kinabalu.

Now freezing cold (which is ridiculous in the tropics) we took a shower to warm up, then went back to Little Italy for a pizza, as appropriately for Malaysia as we could cope with.


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