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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Batek Tribe, Taman Negara, Malaysia

These are some of my greatest photo treasures to date. They are all from the aboriginal Batek settlement in  the Taman Negara jungle.
What a day. Adventure at every turn. We caught a ride to the river at 9 am and took a boat down stream to the entrance of some jungle trails and the jungle canopy hike. Hiked straight up a jungle mountain in the humidity and heat (thankful I was practiced at Bikram yoga and hiking up Paul’s Tomb in the heat-- they trained me for it). Very steep and the roots provided natural steps. We arrived at two different viewing platforms for panoramic views of the jungle. The canopy is so dense, one thinks they can step off the edge into brush but the brush is actually treetops and the jungle floor is about 100 m below. The guide cut me off a piece of “mountain spice” tree or sassafras tree from high in the jungle. The wood smells strongly of root beer—I treasure that piece of wood! Unfortunately hiked far too close to a family with about 5 little French boys who were so loud, we saw no animals!  The majority of tourists here are: French, German, and Dutch. We’ve met no other N. Americans! I suppose the European like more eco/adventure vacations and the N. Americans comfort vacations perhaps.
After the mountain hike we hiked to the giant jungle canopy bridge—actually 5 rope bridges suspended high above the jungle—one after the other with small platforms built around exceptionally tall trees separating them. The bridge itself was made up of flat planks of wood about 10 inches wide placed on ropes with rope rails. There is no turning around, no changing your mind—each walker must follow no closer than 10 m behind the next to keep it from swaying wildly. The first bridge was rough—terrifying once I was on it and realized how unbelievably high above the jungle I was and how narrow it was and how the bridge swayed—only one foot placed in from the other would fit.  I finally reached the first platform to discover there wasn’t one but many more bridges ahead of me. The second bride was terrifying it was really long and higher than all the others. By the end I started to panic a bit and had to chant to myself to get across it. Then there were 3 more! I felt weak from fear. But there was no way out. I had to keep walking onto the next bridge. The fourth was frightening because there were ladder like stairs leading down a steep portion of the bridge to the lower platform. The stairs swayed wildly. I gripped the ropes so tightly with each step. But I made it! I faced a huge fear that I didn’t even know was upon me until ½ way across the first bridge—when the whole situation dawned on me.
Next, we took the boat back to another resort right inside the park. We met up with the Irish couple and had drinks and pizza outside and awaited another boat to the aboriginal Orang Alsi settlement down stream. They are called Batek peoples. We caught a smaller canoe with no top. It was great as only our Irish friends and us went with the guide. The catch was that we had to shoot through 5 sets of rapids before reaching the settlement. I got completely drenched, not to mention rather terrified. But we arrived at the village: a very small settlement of aboriginals—they have been living as hunter/gatherer in the jungle for centuries. They are a small boned tribe with chocolate coloured skin and afros. Their ancestors originally came from Africa. They have an oral language, live by hunting game such as squirrel and monkeys with blow darts. The children do not go to school and the tribe receives no medical interventions—the women birth behind trees in the jungle. They move when the food runs out or a tribe member dies. The do not bury the dead. They wrap the body in palm leaves and carry them to the top of the tallest tree and build a platform for it. It is closer to heaven. The women and children were shy and hid in their huts but the men were open to demonstrate how they make fire with their bare hands and make blow darts and arrows. It was all so fascinating I cannot believe it. The poisonous arrows are made from the bark of a particular tree--sliced super narrow. The poison on the tip of the dart is from the boiled sap of yet another tree. They use a leaf that feels like sand paper to finish the dart by rubbing it in the leaf on their leg—thus no hair on the men’s right thighs. Strong enough to kill a human—stops the heart. The blow tube is made from special narrow bamboo wood found high in the jungle mountains, a several days walk from the settlement.
 I took some wonderful pics of the settlement but felt horrible about it at the same time-- I tried to be friendly to the people (as suggested by our guide)and show them the photos I took of them—the children loved it but the women ran from me and hid. I felt like an idiot tromping through an exhibit, treating my fellow humans like fascinating museum pieces--taking pictures of them in their homes. It was a horrible feeling and I regret taking the photos of the women and children. The guide suggested we do it, so I did. Yet in my gut I felt it was a violation of their humanness and privacy, despite the fact they had a deal with the guides and got paid for putting their entire village on display. I purchased some of their handcrafted items to relieve myself of some of the awkwardness of the entire situation and also because I thought they were some of the most beautiful material treasures on earth today. I learned that although it was an amazing photo opt, and our guide encouraged us to take the photos, and instructed us that the children and women are shy but just show them the pictures and they’ll be happy, I was acting no better than the dreadful paparazzi.
A part of me wonders though, if the settlement where they meet the tourist isn’t a just a small, vacation style settlement for the hunters and where the tribe brings village members to say for the day to meet with tourists for the summer, but the tribe actually lives at a better and more private settlements close by during the rain season. However, the Batek people are nomadic so their main settlements will shift at least every few years.
There seemed to no old tribe members. I asked where the elders were and the guide said that they were living at other settlements, away from the tourists. It was hard to figure out. I’m guessing though, that it is a temporary small settlement and that the tribe has a better settlement down stream. How else could they survive all of the prying tourists?
The way home included shooting 5 rapids again and getting soaked. We just finished supper in the main house with all the other tourists. It is such a different experience meeting travelers and chatting with them. The Irish couple is a lot of fun.
--E-gads, a giant coach roach just scurried across the floor of our cottage. I hope they don’t crawl up onto beds. The thing has 2-inch antennas!

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4 Comments:

Blogger Miranda said...

very interesting....
I wonder though, that you are so sanguine about the cockroaches. God help me I run for the hills if the big ones get too close; I cant help it!

July 7, 2010 at 1:00 PM  
Blogger Melissa Mix Hart said...

Bugs don't frighten me but when the bats fly under my veranda chair, that's it! I must go inside the chalet!

July 7, 2010 at 5:32 PM  
Blogger Sandra said...

Amazing pictures! The members of the tribe look very healthy in spite of having no medical care or modern intervention.

August 14, 2010 at 1:56 PM  
Blogger Melissa Mix Hart said...

Many of the children had cold type illnesses and one little girl's eyes showed signs of some nasty illness. Although, most seemed healthy and fit but I worried about the children and their exposure to all the tourists as they were not vaccinated.

August 15, 2010 at 8:45 AM  

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