4 May

We arrive by boat, there aren’t any roads.  The small village of Bilit sits between dense Borneo jungle, home to orang-utans and elephants, and the swift, muddy, Kinabatangan River.  It’s a traditional Malaysian house on stilts, the front painted orange, steps up to the verandah.

Waiting for us are Navid and Zul.  Zul is the homestay coordinator, Navid his sister, in whose house we’re staying.  Bibi, six and Adi, two and a half, clutching a blankie, peep shyly round their mother’s legs as Zul shows us inside the house.

The front room is the public room in Malaysian houses, where guests are entertained, behind that are the private family areas.  Navid’s best room is very large and painted bright pink, with a spotless blue patterned lino floor covering and pretty lace curtains at the windows.  Along one wall is a row of black wooden sofas and chairs with lavender cushions.  On another wall are three sets of shelves, one with a TV and DVD player, two hosting a magnificent collection of trophies worthy of Coach Sue’s, that we’re told belong to the local football team.

Our bedrooms are off this main room, very plain with mattresses on the lino floor and a couple of hooks on the wall, we’re asked if this is OK and we nod enthusiastically.

The kitchen is huge and quite dark, the walls are unpainted wood and the light from the windows doesn’t penetrate far.  There’s little furniture, a large chest fridge, a table with a couple of chairs a portable gas cooker and a wood fire.  Kitchen implements hang from the ceiling and walls and washing dries on racks.

A number of small rooms lead off the kitchen.  Behind three curtains are tiny bedrooms, no more than large cupboards really with just enough space for a couple of mattresses on the floor.  There’s a traditional bathroom, a wooden cubicle with a hole in the floor and a huge bucket of water, and a tiny, sparkling, modern bathroom paid for by government grant as part of the homestay programme.  It looks the part all shiny tiles and spotless fittings, but I later discover that the pipes aren’t connected to anything, which explains the large barrel of water with scoop, squeezed between the loo and the sink.

To one side of the kitchen is another veranda with steps down to the garden.  This is where washing is done, food is prepared, fishing nets are dried, prawn traps are constructed and feet and legs are cleaned after wading in the muddy river.  Numerous buckets of brown river water are lined up, to let the silt sink to the bottom before it’s used for washing and cleaning.

Under the house there’s acres of storage space for fish traps and tools, which doubles as a wet weather playroom and chicken shelter. The garden runs between the house and the river, it’s mostly dirt, with herbs and vegetables planted along one edge, a few large trees and a chicken wire enclosure full of hardwood seedlings, which are being grown to re-populate areas of jungle that have been denuded by fire and logging.

The children settle in straight away and get out their toys to play with Bibi, who’s slowly overcoming her shyness.  Navid’s busy doing something in the kitchen and I sit on the veranda watching the chickens scratching in the garden and the fishermen on the river.  I feel out of place.  I really don’t mind cold bucket showers and mattresses on the floor, but I’m horribly aware of the gulf between our lives.  The village is relatively prosperous thanks to tourists like us coming to see the incredible wildlife, but it’s only had electricity for four years and a prawn fisherman earns about £6 for a full day’s work.

Later, as hot, tropical rain darkens the sky and splatters the mud in the front yard, Navid carries a tray of tea and fried, sweet dough balls into the front room, laying them on the large bamboo mat on the floor.  Tea break, she says and we tuck in while she sits on the chair watching us.  We smile and say delicious a lot, she looks pleased and gradually we start to talk.  About the recipe, our respective children’s names and ages, whether she’s heard of the Royal Wedding, which she hasn’t.

As the days go on, we learn more about their lives and they ours.  The gentle rhythms of the peaceful village wash over me and I start to enjoy myself.  It helps that the children are having the time of their lives in this small place with no roads, where they’re allowed to roam free.  They slide in the mud, buy sweets from the tiny shop, play wars with the local children.  It’s clear that they are almost entirely unaware of the disparity between our lives.  They are impressed by the size of the house, envious that Bibi eats giant river prawns almost every day, and don’t even notice the lack of running water.  Which possibly says more about their personal hygiene standards than anything else.

Navid is lovely and we’ve had a wonderful time eating delicious food, watching orang-utans and getting unbelievably muddy.  If it wasn’t for the cockerels crowing ALL night and the tarantula in the bedroom, I’d say it was pretty much perfect.  We’re lucky that we’ve had the opportunity to live another life for a few days and it’s an experience that I wouldn’t have missed.  But I can’t help feeling grateful that I can walk away.


6 Responses to “Bilit”

  1. TheMadHouse 04/05/2011 at 11:30 am #

    What an inspiring post, sometime I think we have too much and we expect too much. It is great to see your children join in and more than that fit in. What a wonderful and humbling experience

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 09/05/2011 at 2:58 pm #

      Thank you, a very thoughtful comment x


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