February 11th 1984

posted in: The way back | 0
Seria, the oil town

We were up early to catch the express boat out to the coast – nobody was really sure whether it left at 7, 7.15, or 7.30.  We went to the café we’d been to last night, tho’ I wasn’t really bothered whether Matthew appeared or not.  Naturally, in these circumstances he was there, + demanded the photo of ourselves we had promised him.  He also asked us to send him a good quality T-shirt when we got back – not really pushy, huh?  On the plus side, he was as good as his word, + obtained for us B$38 for M$40 – I don’t know the exchange rate, but I think that was pretty good.  It’s also nice to have the right money when entering a country, especially, as today, on a weekend.

The disappointing thing about the morning was that there was no sign of Lihan.  Val waited out on deck until we left, + we didn’t leave till nearly 8, but there was no sign of him.  It was odd – he’s not the sort of man to break a promise.

A touch of irony – I felt some familiar rumblings in my stomach, + discovered, on heading rapidly for the bathroom, that my diarrea had returned.  Ah well – I’d been ill when we arrived in Marudi, + I was ill when we left.

The boat journey was just about bearable this time around.  First of all the kung fu movie was at least watchable + followable, even without words, + that took up half the time.  For the rest of the trip, I sat on the small bench out in the open at the stern.  I still had the roar of the engine in my ears, but at least had some fresh air in my face.

As soon as we arrived at Kuala Baram, we disembarked + transferred direct to the ferry waiting there to cross the river.  It was a Shell Oil ferry, + was either free to pedestrians or inefficiently run – we, at any rate, were not asked for any money.  On the other side we at first tried to hitch, but as, once the 4 or 5 from the ferry had gone, there was no traffic, we gave up in the end, + got on the waiting bus.  We didn’t plan things very well there, for the thing had been standing empty all the time we’d been waiting.  But by the time we’d decided we’d better climb on it, in case there wasn’t another one all day, the next ferry had arrived, bringing with it a whole flood of passengers.  So we scrambled aboard an already overcrowded bus – we were lucky to be on it at all, let alone have a seat.  This bus took us to the border, but before we leave Sarawak I should explain about Matthew.  He was no longer with us, having unexpectedly got off the express at a longhouse along the river.  Val tells me he had been pestering a girl sitting behind us, + she had rebuffed his advances, so perhaps he had got off in a huff.

The border crossing was simple enough – leaving a country usually is – but because our names had to be added to the passenger list, everybody else having come all the way from Miri, we managed to be end of the queue.  The only advantage to this was that we got a ride in the almost empty bus from Sarawak exit to Brunei entry, 2 or 3 hundred yards.  Tho’ we almost regretted it when, swinging round the corner into the Immigration office, our big pack toppled + fell… straight out the open side door.  Fortunately, this caused more damage to our nerves than to the pack.

Brunei immigration was easy enough.  Our bags were given the usual cursory inspection, + we were given 2 weeks in the country, what we had asked for.  We didn’t anticipate staying more than a few days, but one never knew.  From there it was another bus ride to Kuala Belait, interrupted by a ferry ride.  For some reason, people are not allowed to ride in their vehicles on the ferries, so we would get off the bus, walk onto the ferry, and the bus would drive on.  At the other side we would walk off, and wait in a mass for the bus to follow them.  I suppose it gave an opportunity for those without a seat to grab one in the changeover… we were lucky.  Or forceful.  Or both.

At Kuala Belait the accepted mode of travel was to switch to another bus to Seria, the oil town, and then another to Bari Sari Begawan, or BSB, Brunei’s capital.  We decided, however, to hitch.  This was more Val’s idea than mine.  I have fads about hitching, and right now I felt very anti, partly because one sacrifices one’s independence by asking someone else to do you a favour, but mostly, I’ll confess, because hitching is so much more difficult.  The easy thing to do was to climb on the next bus.  Instead we had to somehow ascertain the right road from an uncomprehending public, + get out there.  This we did, + in not too long a time (just as well with me whingeing + complaining) we got a ride.  From an expat Brit, working for one of the oil support companies.  He took us to Seria, + indicated his opinion of our chances of hitching to BSB by dropping us at the bus station.  We persisted nonetheless, + once we’d said goodbye + he’d disappeared, we got back out on the main road, thumbs at the ready.  3 vehicles stopped in rapid succession – we ran to each one, each taking us another 30 yds away from the bus station, + each one told us they weren’t going to BSB, or anywhere on the way.  Strange.

With the 4th one, however, we were lucky.  It was a station wagon, with the back seat down, + the back full of plants – there was just room to fit the packs in there, + then we squeezed into the front, Val sitting on my lap.  This was just as well, since it gave me the opportunity to sleep more or less unobserved – our driver spoke very limited English, so the conversation was not exactly sparkling.  He drove us first to his house, 10 miles before BSB, where he dropped off the plants, + then very kindly took us to the city, pointing out the new buildings along the way.  This was some task, as they are sprouting fast, fed by the Sultan’s mania to impress, watered by oil.  There was the Isfana, the Sultan’s new palace, $500 million worth, gold roof + all; the High Court; the new hospital.  And these were just the brand new ones.  Individually, they were attractive modern buildings, but collectively the town was a mess, since there didn’t appear to be any overall plan.  More, the spaces between the buildings were bulldozed lots, just a wasteland.

We were dropped off at the Pusat Belia, the Sports Centre + Youth Hostel, + here girded our loins to do battle.  The story was, according to the guide books, that altho’ the hostel is remarkably well-equipped, it is almost impossible to get in, with a different excuse being offered – a holiday, already booked, full… anything that comes into their head really.  Sure enough, for us the story was that the whole place was closed because it was being re-decorated.  A bit of an unanswerable one that since quite clearly the place was being renovated.  The question was why should it have to be entirely closed down for such a purpose.  But the guy wouldn’t budge, + this left us in a difficult situation, since the next place up from the hostel, in terms of cost, was at least $50 a night.  We asked the man there what he suggested we should do, + he told us to try at the Anglican Church.

So that is what we did, tho’ we felt very angry + upset about the whole affair.  Fortunately, the vicar at the church was understanding + sympathetic, but then he has had a good deal of practice, having had many travellers shunted on to him before.  It put him in a difficult situation, since he would not wish to be uncharitable, but he didn’t have the facilities to help out wandering travellers.  He told us, however, that we could put our bags in the vestry, + if we weren’t able to persuade the Hostel officials to change their minds, we could sleep in the church hall, an open-sided building.  A very pleasant man, an Iban.

We spent what was left of the afternoon wandering around BSB – not that we felt very well-disposed towards it.  But we were able to put a film in for developing (the most recent one, to check the camera), + bought some food to make a snack dinner – bread + ham – before wandering back – after the day’s travel, we were tired.  When we returned, the vicar told us first that we could use the vestry to read or write, as that had an electric light, + then later he knocked on the door again to tell us we could sleep in there if we wished.  We did wish, indeed – + after eating our meal we bedded down on our mats for an early night.

Particularly disappointing that our time with Lihan should end so disappointingly. And despite our brest intentions at the time, we failed to keep in contact, a thing which saddens me, even now, forty years on.

But we were on the move again, A quick geography lesson. Borneo is (and was then) divided into four states. By far the largest, taking up most of the island is Kalimantan, belonging to Indonesia. There are two Malaysian states on the north-western side of the island, Sarawak to the west, and Sabah to the north-east. And between them the anomaly, the only independent state, Brunei, a sultanate, filthy rich because of oil. We had spend the entire time in Sarawak, gradually makong our way north-east, but making forays inland; now, we were travelling to Brunei, in particular its capital, Bandar Seri Bagwan, or BSB. And rather surprisingly, cpmsidering it is not an easy journey, all of that went well, comboining boats, buses, and cars.

It was only in BSB that we had problems. There was no accommodation (in both senses) for budget travellers, scarcely any for any travellers at all, throwing us upon the hospitality of the local Anglican church, and its much put-upon vicar.

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