street scene in kathmandu

street scene in kathmandu

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Cruises and Costa life

I've added a couple of photos from the two cruises I recently enjoyed, but if you want to see more visit my Facebook page, where you'll not only see more holiday pics but a few of what life's like at home here in sunny Spain! For more about life at home also check out the La Mata volunteers blog:

Sunday, 4 April 2010

House of Skulls

Human skulls hung from a beam, staring vacantly at mortals below. What do they know that we still have to discover? I wondered. Death should have been instant – the head being severed from life-giving blood in one stroke of the blade - but surely it must have taken at least a few cuts, plus no doubt a bit of sawing back and forth to release bone from sinew. And this after first hacking through skin and muscle. God only knows how that must have felt – anything but instantaneous I’d have thought.

We stood beneath them, lined up as they were, with grass 'hair' hanging limply over their crowns. I counted 42 in all. Did their families come and visit, to stare at their relative’s rotting flesh? It must have stunk in there in the heat, and how the flies must have feasted. It didn’t bear thinking about – what on earth could you say to a child gazing up at Daddy’s empty cranium?

‘He fought well, my son. Be proud. His head will hang there for 300 years and instead of flies, it will attract visitors from all over the globe.’ Better than an anonymous grave, I suppose.

We had driven for about 30 minutes from Kota Kinabalu in the Sabah peninsula of Borneo, Malaysia, to Monsopiad Cultural Village in the surrounding countryside. The village is named after a famous Kadazan native headhunter and warrior, and lies on the banks of the Penampung River. It is almost obscured from view by shady trees and is surrounded by paddy fields. It would be easy to drive past it and miss it altogether.The skulls have been collected by villagers for 300 years. Apparently no one could match Monsopiad’s prowess. His descendants have preserved the skulls and run the village in his honour. Also on display was the thigh bone of the giant Gantang. Perhaps he was the famous Wild Man of Borneo, whom one of our group was for some reason desperate to encounter?

After viewing the gruesome skulls we walked past traditional farmhouses to watch a cultural dance performance and sample the rice wine tapai, which tasted quite weak to my alcohol-friendly system but was, I’m told, quite strong.

We were ushered away from the skulls towards an open barn where local dancers were preparing for a performance – just for our benefit.

Weird clashing noises emanated from behind a screen, when suddenly out popped a semi-naked man wearing full warrior regalia, accompanied by pretty girls in colourful tunics, immaculately made up and groomed. I wondered when Madame Arden had taught them how to embellish their naturally beautiful complexions with cosmetics and creams. An inevitable extension of nature’s own potions I guess: humans have always liked to disguise themselves behind masks of some sort. And sure enough, within moments the warrior reappeared sporting a terrifying shield, and began leaping around the platform making threatening gestures, stopping every now and then to glare at one spectator, who looked around nervously to check that he was not doing anything unacceptably remiss. The warrior brandished his blowpipe ostentatiously for a few minutes, then withdrew a ‘poisoned’ dart from his quiver and set about waving it in front of the by now worried-looking gentleman. He needn’t have feared – the dancer gestured for the spectator to join him, handed him the bow and pointed to a rather incongruous yellow balloon hanging at the corner of the platform. Aha! The idea was to have a go at shooting the dart by blowing it into the balloon! Relieved, our hero had a go and managed to pierce said balloon, to thunderous applause from the six other members of the audience. Our warrior leapt around for a few more minutes, adopting scary postures every now and then, and skipped away behind the screen.

It was our turn now to provide the entertainment. As an accomplished fool I joined in the next act – after all I’d had experience at bamboo pole dancing during my tour leading days. The idea is to hop between long poles which are clapped together in time to an ever increasing beat without getting your ankles trapped. Looks easy, sounds easy, and is nigh on impossible, especially in heavy hiking boots. Fortunately this time I was wearing trainers, slightly easier to lift every second or two. Three of us visitors stepped gamely, if hesitantly, up the steps onto our stage. The music began; the screeching pipes and reed-like voices of the singers creating a nearly authentic ambience (a pity that most of the spectators had gone outside for a fag) and to a rapturous clap we stumbled down from the platform.

Outside, my friends were attempting to cross a rope bridge suspended a few metres over a muddy river, no doubt imagining themselves as Indiana Jones striding along a swaying cord hundreds of metres above swirling rapids.

From the village we made our way to the Rasa Ria luxury resort to walk through their beautifully appointed cabins towards the jungle, where we were among a privileged few allowed to see orphaned baby orangutans in the wild. These delightful creatures cling onto their handlers for dear life, insecure and lonely, until after a few months they are left on a platform in twos, to rehabilitate them for independent life in the surrounding rainforest. Cameras clicked, there was much ooh-ing and aah-ing, and after forty minutes or so we made our way down to a nearby beach for a swim in the gloriously warm South China Sea.

Unfortunately we shared this spot of paradise with hundreds of jellyfish who found us as irresistible as we had found the orangutans, and promptly headed full speed towards us. We must have looked comical hopping towards the shore, especially as one of our group was a six-foot-seven giant of a man whose tombstone teeth made him look rather like Jaws from James Bond movies, and whose arms hung from his shoulders at a 45 degree angle, his biceps being too large to lie flat against his ribs. A direct descendant of Gantang, perhaps? I bet he wouldn’t have run away from a few measly jellyfish…

So ended our day our in Borneo, one of the loveliest destinations in the Far East, and well worth a visit - if only to be able to return with a photograph of a real human skull.