One reason I wanted to go to Borneo was because it just sounds good - it evokes images for me of wild jungle and tribes people, etc. However, I knew from the guidebook not to expect that from Kuching. It's actually a pretty big city with normal city stuff like big buildings and traffic. It's also pretty though, too, with a nice riverfront and lush vegitation that reminded me of Hawaii. Like the rest of Malaysia, there's a big Chinese population here, in addition to Indians and some Muslims (a lot less than on the mainland). We stayed at a Chinese run hotel near lots of Chinese restaurants, including the one across the street which had a big tank full of really big, live frogs. sniff.
Kuching means "cat" in Malay and the city has all sorts of memorials to the cat - statues everywhere and even the cat museum. It was one of our first stops (although we also got an hour long tour of the area surrounding Kuching since the bus driver forgot to tell us where to get off and we ended up doing his whole route...The cat museum was giant for its subject matter and had all sorts of cat figurines, cat facts, cat stories, cat posters - anything involving cats was there. It also was on the top of a hill overlooking the city so you get a nice view of the city and the area from there. We walked down the hill to catch a bus back to town and on our way to find a bus stop a shiny white land rover pulled over next to us and the driver (an older guy) asked if we were going back to town. We said yes and he offered us a ride since apparently buses are fairly infrequent on that road. By the look of his car he clearly wasn't going to ask us for money and he seemed like a good samaritan, so we accepted and he drove us all the way to the next museum we had planned on visiting. He told us a little about himself and his immigration from India and his three grown children who had all been educated in the UK and now 2 doctors and an architect. It's been our experience that island people are just about the friendliest (what happened in Hawaii?) Anyway, the Sarawak museum was billed as one of the best museums in Southeast Asia. I thought it was ok. There was a kind of funny display about oil drilling that was sponsored by Shell. (Michelle skipped that one, but I live for this kind of good stuff)
Borneo is one of the few places in the world where Orangutans exist in the wild and there a couple of places you can see them on the island pretty easily. One of these places is the "rehabilitation center" near Kuching where they retrain orangutans that were illegally kept as pets, etc., to go back to the wild. They live in the forest around the center and the center puts out food twice a day that they may or may not come to eat depending on the season. It was luckily not the fruit season in the forest so the orangutans did indeed show up in force when the food was put out at 9:00 am. There was a mother with a baby clinging to her stomach, some medium sized ones, and then the gigantic male, who chased the rest of them away from the food just by showing up (let me protest in the name of males everywhere- he did not chase away anyone. They ran away all on their own. The one brave one that came back for a minute did not get as much as a look. Charlie). You could see them coming from a distance as they swung from tree to tree that seemed to bend impossibly under their weight. The mother with baby was the hungriest, showing up first and stuffing as much food into her mouth, two hands and one foot before retreating when "Ritchie" showed up. She came back for seconds after he left, too. It was really cool to see these giants, although a little sad too since it had to be shared with the 30 other people there for the feeding and also because it's a reminder of how many cool things are disappearing from the planet. The center's info says that if deforestation and poaching continues at current rates, in 10 years there will be no wild orangutans in the world. On an unrelated note, while we were there we met a Canadian girl and Scottish girl travelling in Malaysia for a couple of weeks. We were talking about past and future travelling plans and the Scottish girl had some surprising stories about Uganda. She was there a couple of years ago and their group had been adivsed to hire guards for their group. The guards were apparently very serious about their job. One shot a guy right in front of them. When asked what had happened, it turned out that after they had left a bank in a neighboring town, there were some rumors they were being followed. After traveling to a few villages away the guard spotted the guy who lived in the town with the bank, so he shot him because clearly that meant he was going to rob them. On the same trip she saw a guy stoned to death by the rest of the village for stealing a mango. The Canadian girl had much less grim stories. She has been teaching English in Korea for a year. When she first got to the school they asked if she would run a special lecture they hold once a month at a school in a neighboring town. Trying to be agreeable she said "yes" no questions asked. The day before the lecture they gave her the topic she was supposed to teach along with a "script." She had been assuming it would be some kind of grammar topic. In fact, the topic turned out to be "Teaching Tolerance of Homosexuality through the Music of Sir Elton John." Umm, ok. So she went to the school where as required she played "Can you Feel the Love Tonight" and read the required script and then opened things up for questions, the first one being "why are we talking about this?" Her assumption had been this was the kind of topic they had for these monthly meetings, but actually as it turned out they were usually grammar lessons. It was hilarious.
Another thing we wanted to do in Borneo was visit a longhouse. This is the traditional housing of the tribes there - a long hut where the entire village lives, each family in its own room separated by a wall from the next family. Now that I'm describing it, it sounds just like studio apartments in Boston row houses (except for the whole family part, I guess) but it sounded interesting at the time. Months ago before travel burn out set in I was picturing a canoe ride down a muddy river through the jungle and staying overnight with a family. By now I've lost interest in that much work and settled for the paid tour of the long house closest to Kuching. We were the only two on our "tour" which consisted of a quick walk up and down the long house. It has over 100 families living in it and is really just a village connected by a common elevated platform area. We got a tour of the "head" house which I thought was where the tribal leaders met, but actually is where they keep a head (a skull at this point). Some other interesting things there was peppercorns drying in the sun (Sarawak pepper is apparently famous), old ladies making baskets, cats and more cats, tiny fish drying in the sun for catfood (although our guide said they prefer whiskers), satelite dishes attached to the outside of some of the doors. I bought some homemade rice wine from a friendly guy there for 2 dollars. (Malaysia is a muslim country, but they allow widespread sale of alcohol. Only they make it very expensive; this one was the only exception. Charlie)
As luck would have it Kuching is also a great place to buy handicrafts, especially tribal wood carvings. As one of our last stops we could actually buy something here since we only had to carry it for two more weeks. We visited a few of the many stores on the main street and finally settled on one, although the price tag was about twice we wanted to pay. After a year of travelling our bargaining skills are so sharp we didn't even have to ask for a discount. We just visited the store again right before closing on Friday night (this wasn't any grand plan or anything, just happened to be our last opportunity) and I think the guy wanted to get out of there so when we started to pick it up and look at the price tag and hem and haw he cut the price in half. They even wrapped it in bubble wrap, too! What a bargain.