This essay was first published in spring 2018 in the Borneo Research Bulletin. It was written after an invitation from the editor of the Bulletin, Clifford Sather, for an edition of the Bulletin meant to focus on the early days of the Peace Corps in Sarawak. I thank him for the encouragement and opportunity to tell my story. Also thanks to David Phillips, with whom I had a lively correspondence when he was writing an article for the Bulletin about volunteers (including VSO) in Brunei and East Malaysia. I was in Baja California when I Clifford asked me to look over his final edits. I had no wi-fi reception to speak of, so fear there may be some glitches in the final printed version. Sorry.
A Personal Narrative: The Peace Corps’ First Two Years in Sarawak
LLyn De Danaan aka Lynn Patterson
“Like many other official decisions about Sarawak during British rule, the inception of the Peace Corps there was a result of bureaucratic decisions in London, not in Sarawak. Sergeant Shriver, the first head of the Peace Corps, negotiated the Borneo Peace Corps project at the British Colonial Office in London in 1961.” *
The first group trained in Hilo, Hawaii in spring of 1962.
I’d completed two years of university, already committed to cultural anthropology and enthralled by the brilliance of my professor Erika Bourguignon at Ohio State. Bourguignon was on the cusp of directing a long term project called “Cross-Cultural Study of Dissociational States.” As much as I liked my studies, I wanted to leave the United States and Ohio and have the experience of living in a culture vastly different from my own quasi-suburban, deeply white American one. Jack Kennedy was president. I was among the many young people who answered his challenge to serve. Thus, I joined the Peace Corps. The invitational telegram I received stated that I would be going to Sarawak. I’d never heard of it. I was 19 years old.
The Peace Corps would send a gaggle of young rural Americans to organize 4-H Clubs in the country. I had been a member for ten years, though not from a farm family. I had earned my stripes as a square dance caller and had won awards at Ohio State Fair competitions. I had also been honored as Ohio State 4-H Recreational Leader, a prize that sent me to Chicago for the National 4-H Club Congress where I had my photograph taken standing before a giant ice carving of the emblematic 4-H clover, shaking hands with the president of John Deere company.
We assembled, most of us, in San Francisco for the flight to our training site in Hilo, Hawaii. My great uncle flew the Pacific in a Pan Am China Clipper in February, 1940. I have his original certificate of flight attesting to the fact that he had crossed the equator. This was a big thing all in his day. Sailors were still paddled and dunked by King Neptune when their ships crossed that imaginary line. And my uncle was proud enough of this accomplishment to keep the proof. Uncle Lawrence’ tales of the flight and work in the Philippines, my father’s encounters with snakes while in the army in New Guinea in WW II, a Chinese restaurant in Dayton, Ohio, and a few forties Hollywood films were all I knew about what might lie ahead.
I boarded the flight wearing a pleated white skirt and blue pleated box jacket, and with white pumps, all very appropriate for a middle-aged woman diplomat. I was, however, 19. I had a pair of Dior sunglasses I had found somewhere. Narrow lenses, black frames. The kind a French airline hostess might wear. And a nice haircut. In short, I was going for glamour. I wore the same outfit for the flight to Sarawak. The boys wore short sleeved white shirts, slacks and dark, narrow, neckties.
Training in Hilo was more fun than difficult. In between frolicking among lava rocks and sea urchins at 4-Mile beach, a 30 mile hike, loving the steady diet of Asian food, studying Bahasa Melayu, and trying to learn to swim, I met anthropologist Thomas Rhys Williams (who demonstrated the use of a blow gun) and pioneer Southeast Asian archeologist William G. Solheim. Williams antics, or rumored antics, among the Dusun in Sabah were the topic of many Peace Corps volunteer reports over the two years we were on the island. Was it true that he complained to the United States Embassy in Singapore after someone left a dead lizard on his doorstep? I never knew. I often chatted with him at American Anthropological Society meetings in subsequent years and he joined the faculty at Ohio State a year or two after I graduated. Solheim had worked on the Niah Cave archaeological site and I, happily, had a brush with that project later while working as a part time volunteer at the Sarawak Museum and mentored by the already legendary Tom Harrison.
Among the most memorable of the training staff was Y. Baron Goto, who was director of the cooperative extension service in Hawaii, though shortly thereafter became vice chancellor of the East-West Center. Dr. Goto was a key trainer for our cohort of 4-Hers. He taught us to graft, how to pick the best species of mango, how to grow papaya and root crops. With him, we studied composting and principles of vegetable production in the tropics. It was all very practical.
He was concerned that I had trouble floating in water and even swimming. I clung anxiously to the sides of the practice pool. We were required, however, to pass swimming tests in order to go to Sarawak. We would, we were told, be using boats as primary means of transport and there would be no life jackets. I was counseled by the staff psychiatrist who insinuated that my mother was responsible for my fear of drowning. No amount of instruction seemed to help. Dr. Goto had devised a plan: he would fly an inflatable bra to Hilo from Honolulu. I would have worn it and cheated, but, a still unsolved mystery: I was never asked to do the final test. I do believe it was because, as the psychiatrist told me, in one of our sessions, I was considered by staff to be a “solid citizen” and would be a great representative of the United States. Some trainees were “deselected” for a variety of reasons. I was not. Surprisingly, some of our cohort whom we thought would excel in the field asked to be sent home within a few weeks of arriving at their placements. I stuck it out. Solid citizen.
Had we but known the history of Batu Lintang, we might have asked to be moved elsewhere. This, then, teacher training college became our first home. It was barracks living at close quarters while we received orientation lectures and strolled around Kuching in the evenings. Batu Lintang had been a prisoner of war camp during the war until liberation in 1945. The appalling conditions and the terror that reigned in that camp is well documented in the book Three Came Home, a memoir by Agnes Newton Keith. Blithely unaware of the history of the place (though only a little over 15 years previously a site of unrelenting torture) I was more concerned about matching the extreme level of modesty my several barrack-mates, mostly ethnic Malay and Chinese young women, required. I learned very quickly how to wear a sarong, grip a corner in my teeth, and tent myself while dressing and undressing inside its folds.
Post-orientation, I was sent to Tarat Agricultural Station where students from regional kampongs were being trained to cultivate raised bed gardens and construct and stock fish ponds.
This might have been an ideal posting for me but the director and his spouse were colonial service people recently out of Kenya and the Mau Mau rebellion. That I did know something about for I was from Greene County, Ohio, home of Antioch College and two historically Black universities, Central State and Wilberforce. During my high school years, my “progressive” chums and I met and befriended Thomas Mboya’s brother and other African students attending those colleges and spent a year studying African anti-colonial movements on our own.
The director at Tarat embodied every stereotype of colonial officers I’d heard or read about. He was tall, officious, wore flappy white knee length shorts and long white socks pulled up to his skinny knee bones. He had the presence and bulk I heard Bidayuh laugh about. Such massive fellows, it seems, had occasionally crashed through bamboo flooring of their longhouses. What lies below is something you don’t want to fall into.
The director’s spouse seemed to look down her nose at me, and at the students. Worse yet, I was given nothing to do. Nothing at all. The couple’s bush baby received much more attention than I. The one time I was invited to dinner at their bungalow, the bush baby jumped about the table and nibbled on most of the sandwiches. Granted, I was cranky that evening because I was on my way to being quite ill.
I didn’t know what caused my ailment except that though it was malaria-like it wasn’t malaria. I didn’t see a doctor or even a local dresser. I don’t believe it occurred to me to ask to be taken to Kuching for diagnosis and treatment. I remained in bed, in my little house on the compound, for a couple of weeks. I had a high temperature and had never felt sicker, sometimes hallucinating as I drifted in and out of a feverish sleep. I developed large craters around my ankles from bites, bites that may have caused the fever. I still have the scars. The Australian wife of the nearby Dragon School’s headmaster melted a waxy stick and let the melt drip into the craters, that after I was able to get around. It was from her that I learned to swallow charcoal tablets for stomach upsets and to eat mixed grill. But though kind towards me, I was shocked by some of the school’s policies. For example, staff washed mouths of students with soap when they were heard to speak with each other in their home languages. I knew about Native American boarding schools in the United States and had never imagined I’d see these reprehensible colonizing practices with my own eyes.
During my illness, the wife of the agriculture officer at Tarat visited me once a day (me alone in my quarters, immobilized) carrying with her a liquid jello or some such stuff. Her cheery message as she sat by my bedside and spooned nourishment: “Go home. The tropics will take five years off your life.” Her words and presence was demoralizing, but I was defiant.
When I could finally make it to the dining room, a Chinese cook made me her personal project. Fed me congee with a lightly cooked egg on top and sprinkled with ikan pusu goreng. The kids in the course got only kaya toast and tea. She said to me, often, “I eat more salt than you eat rice.” Her life had brought many tears and experience. I adored her. She was the only adult who seemed to me to be truly kind.
At last, and it was only after a few weeks of hell, I was reposted to Bau District and given a Peace Corps house in Bau proper. I was the only Peace Corps Volunteer in the district. I remained so until the last few months of my time in Sarawak.
The house, as I recall it, was relatively new. Perhaps it was built as a Peace Corps house. It had an attap roof made of sections of palm leaves. The exterior siding was made of split, flattened bamboo sewn together with rattan to make slabs. The house was raised about four feet above ground level.
I was supplied with government issue furniture with uncovered cushions, a battery operated radio (I could hear Radio Sarawak and Indonesian Radio easily. Radio Sarawak carried BBC news.), a Phillips battery operated turntable, a kerosene fridge and cooker, a hand crank table sewing machine (upon which I made cushion covers), and a bed. The cooker was used to boil water. All water was to be boiled. I had a toaster that worked when power was available. But I often found crispy chit-chat lizards in between the coils. Did not make much toast. I seldom cooked. I ate a lot of Cadbury chocolate and tin after tin of bisquits. And many pisang was, tiny bananas. I ate most meals in the bazaar in a kedai, a short walk from my house, or with host families in out-lying kampongs. I always carried packets of tomato soup (Knorr) and tins of sardines in my knapsack to add to the evening meals with families in the kampongs. There we normally ate hill rice, long beans cooked with shoe and chilis, and, maybe some dried fish. On special occasions we had rice and pork cooked in green bamboo tubes or maybe a village chicken. Some families served chopped very hot bird’s eye chilis on the side, often in a small dish of shoyu. In the kampongs, we ate on beautifully woven mats on the floor and, of course, used right hands for eating. I became accustomed to using only my right hand for all transactions and I understood, for this was customary even among non-Muslims. The main room of the house had an overhead fan and we did occasionally or for some hours have electricity But in the evenings, we used kerosene lamps for light. The most unsettling thing about the house was that because there was a ceiling of some kind of hard board between the attap and the room below, I could hear the rats scamping to and fro. All night, most nights. It was like listening to a bowling alley. The rodents ran one end of the roof line to the other and crashed into the walls at either end.
The house was on a hill overlooking the District Office and Constabulary. Next door was the Scots road engineer, Tom Oliver. At the base of the hill and a little removed was the Public Works Department barracks where Tom’s road laborers were domiciled. My house and Tom’s were placed ideally for Indonesian invaders should they come. Our hill provided a perfect perch from which to command the District Office and Constabulary.
Tom’s spouse and children were there for the first weeks of my residency. After that, it was just Tom and his amah, and with occasional visitors. Often other Scotsmen.
I was also given a black Raleigh bicycle. The “boys” in my cohort were given motorcycles. This bit of discrimination was duly noted and complained about. During the last two or three months of service, I was given a three wheel, balloon tire vehicle that ran, I believe, on a lawnmower engine. I don’t remember much more about it but that it garnered laughs wherever I took it. I think it was supposed to be good on the muddy tracks sometimes five or miles long, I followed to reach the Bidayu kampongs I frequented.
Bau was a village with two or three long block bazaar. Bau was founded by Chinese entrepreneurs. Hakka miners moved into the area from Kalimantan where they had migrated from Guangdong province of China. Three thousand or so of these Hakka miners left for Sarawak in the about 1850 after attacks by the Dutch. Many lost their lives in the disastrous Chinese rebellion just a few years later. The Shum Too Kau Kongsi became the dominant partner in mining operations there. The rebellion was precipitated by a disagreement on whether Rajah James Brooke or the Hakka would rule Bay area. The Chinese gold town of Bau was burned to the ground in 1857, then slowly rebuilt .
Bau merchants were primarily if not exclusively Hakka Chinese, but there was a Malay kampong area on one end of the town and to the west and toward the Indonesian border was a district office, police headquarters, and a few other government buildings including the residence of the district officer.
There were Chinese kedai (shops) including kedai makan (eateries), all at street level, all with living quarters above. The buildings were made of wood with concrete floors and drains along the road and wooden shutters on upstairs windows. The shops were closed at night by long folding doors. These were opened during the day to show off displays of goods in the day. At the front of the cafes, men without shirts fanned charcoal fires and cooking in huge woks: char kueh tow, nasi goring. These are the foods I still crave. I became friendly with some shop owners. Though at first, some habits were, I thought, peculiar. Babies in their bottomless bigs were held over the open drains that fronted the shops to pee. I had never seen mucus expelled from the nose with such energy and without a handkerchief. Emaciated dogs wandered to and fro. My Malay friends told me never to eat in town if a dog had been run over. I took their meaning. Malays, of course, did not eat in the Chinese shops though there were times when I saw Malay acquaintances eating at the back of the shop, hidden from view of the public. I do believe that there was Hennessy on the table.
The town had a movie theatre. The auditorium had rows of backless wooden benches, much like the benches school children used in some of the village schools. They were set upon the hard packed dirt floor. The Chinese theatre owner had an imposing overstuffed chair placed somewhere near the middle of the interior, arranged for optimum viewing. I don’t remember the cost of entry, but it was pennies. We stood and sang “God Save the Queen” before every screening. And we smoked. People smoked, for the most part, hand rolled cigarettes. We had no television, of course, and to see a film out in the Bidayuh kampongs required walking in with a projector and a battery to power it. This did happen on occasion. But town folk could see a new movie every week even during monsoon. I believe the Chinese owner was thought of as a rich man.
Bidayuh rolled a bit of Indonesian tobacco in a dried palm leaf. These cigarettes self-extinguished regularly so one could judge the distance to a village by how many cigarettes one had to smoke during the trek. Berapa rokok ke Kampong Sudoh? “How many cigarettes to Kampong Sudoh?” one might ask someone coming the opposite direction on the path. And one could judge how far ahead someone was by how bright red the spit was on the path. Fresh betel spit was a blood red. But it gradually dried brown. A greeting in town with Malay speakers was often Pergi mana or pergi ke mana? It meant where are you going. No one really cared for an answer. It was similar to the American, “how are you.” Tiresome when a friend begins a litany of woes. And in Bau or on a trail it was usually obvious how you were and where you are going.
I did smoke. Too much. One could buy Players singly from an open tin in the shops. I did.
Though only two blocks long, the only street of Bau was often the site of loud and fascinating parades and promenades. I ran down my hill at the first hint or rumor of a ritual performance. The Da Bo Gong Miao temple in the middle of Bau, I learned much later, was built to honor the leader of an 1850s rebellion. I did not know anything of the protocol associated with this temple. It had dragon gate posts and leaping carp on the peak of the roof. Occasionally men sat upon highly decorated chairs in brocade gowns and large hats and were thus carried through the streets on the palanquins, apparently in deep trance, as drums and cymbals and gongs crashed. A makeshift stage was erected in front of the temple when the opera came to town. Incense wafted into the streets from inside the temple. Who were these people and what was this about? I didn’t understand until years later.
After only a few months living in Bau, we heard of the Brunei Revolt. That was December 1962. Somehow I knew that one of my Peace Corps cohorts, Fritz Klattenhoff, from Moses Lake, Washington, just out of high school when he volunteered, had been captured by the North Kalimantan National Army (TNKU) and was held with the district officer and his wife in Limbang district office jail. Fritz and fellow captives were rescued by the British Royal Marine Commandos. They were to have been hung.
The big flood, the largest in the history of Sarawak at the time, enveloped us at the end of January of 1963. My house was on a hill. Fortunate. But all night long, for many nights, I could hear the water below me and people crying out. Those whose houses were inundated came into the Bau bazaar on dugouts. Some swam and it was rumored that people died of snake bites suffered while in the water. The bazaar at Bau was flooded, but people moved upstairs, above the 10 foot flood line. The Public Works barracks and even the police station were under several feet of water. Bau was isolated, surrounded by water and in water. There was no telephone contact (I did not have a phone, but the District Office did when not inundated by water). I was recruited to help with aid efforts. Tom Oliver and others of us went above to the unfinished roadbed and laid out a large cross made, I believe, of bed sheets. This marked the target for the military helicopters to make drops of food. In Kuching, repurposed kerosene tins were filled with rice and shoyu and packed in parachutes then sent out. The first few drops were useless because the shoyu bottles shattered. But soon, we were in business. Drops of clothing helped, too. We set up a distribution point in one of the shops in the bazaar when the waters receded. I was one of those in charge, if not solely in charge, of distribution.
Other than that, I was just living my life with my Phillips radio, my trunk full of books (including Somerset Maugham’s Borneo Stories and The Caine Mutiny), and a very large first aid kit and manual. I consulted the manual each time I had a symptom. I always concluded that I had a deadly disease. Thank goodness the dresser came, maybe once a week. I waited in line with everyone else for my exam and medicine. We took our own empty bottles and usually were sent home with a packet of Panadol and a replenished supply of gentian violet. My fellow patients were worse off than I. Some seemed to have lost their noses. Others had what looked like Elephantiasis. I knew a man who died of a simple parang knick around his ankle.
I also ordered library books from Kuching and these could be replenished through a mail service with written requests enclosed in a strapped/buckled carton with returns.
And then Timah and Gorot moved in with me. The Public Works barracks were gone. Timah was my Amah. Embarrassed by having an employee, I nevertheless realized there were things I couldn’t do myself. So Timah arrived once a week, collected my bundle, and brought back another much tidier bundle washed and pressed. We chatted amiably as we poured salt on giant snails or greeted the border crossing Indonesian woman who came peddling batik at the porch. But after the flood swept away the barracks, she and her husband Gorot and his bachelor brothers, Bujang and Hamdan and two or three small children came to me, homeless. My house was small and simple. But it was divided by an open porch with a simple shower and toilet just off the porch. This layout of the house was perfect for us. They took the side of the house with the kitchen and dining area. I kept my bedroom and the big room with the chairs and table. We shared the big room at night until I went to bed.
Timah went around the house at dusk each evening and closed all the shutters because there was a Hindu cemetery behind the hill below my house. If the shutters weren’t closed, the ghosts would come in. Even if the shutters were closed, the ghosts would come to our doors and could call our names. If you answered and followed, you would surely die. And they were clever ghosts. They could sound like someone you knew. So they could seduce you into following them. Because of them, all the people in the Public Works barracks had been sleeping in one large room before the flood. They figured that with the others around, each had a chance of being prevented from following the ghosts by the others.
I heard the voices. I heard the knocking. It was as real as anything I’d ever heard. It called to me and convincingly imitated Timah and then Gorot. But I knew it was not them. They would not wake me in the night or call out to me. The ghosts called my name. I remained silent and very afraid.
Timah and Gorot made my life rich. They were, of course, Malay and therefore Muslims. Timah wrote in Jawi script in a large journal each evening. Along with now having meals at home, when I was there, I had people with whom to pass the evenings, eating roasted peanuts and playing poker, and many new ways to understand what I really had to fear. In addition to the Hindu ghosts, there were stories of shapeshifters, men and women who turn into tigers. Hantu harimau. Lycanthropy was not just a term in my anthropology books. There were stories of flying eggs. I was surrounded by these tales, day in and day out. I dreamt them alive under my mosquito net. I heard the rattling of a Japanese sword, crafted by a local blacksmith for an officer during occupation. I had foolishly hung this on a wall of the big room. (It is said it was used for beheadings and given the bloody and cruel Japanese occupation of British Borneo, this is not a far-fetched story.) I heard my name called in the night. It is that fellow from the Bidayu kampong, “kaki kosong” Timah called him because he wore no shoes. He has put something in the food I’m told. Or, it is that fellow from the Malay kampong. He is in love with you. He brings love charms. They told this, my housemates, over games of poker and plates of roasted peanuts in the light of the oil lamps. Sometimes they were just having me on. They hung a charm around my neck and said it would make me Malay in the eyes of the Indonesians and even if the soldiers fired bullets, they would miss me. Bujang demonstrated his ability to eat glass. Hamdan cheated me at poker and screamed in laughter when I found him out. In short, we had fun. In time, Timah and Gorot adopted a Chinese baby girl and one day, when I returned from my rounds in the Bidayu kampongs, the baby was gone. She had died. By this time, I took this in with very little emotion. I still wonder what had happened to me emotionally in the previous months. After Timah and Gorot moved in, we built a chicken house for meat and eggs and Gorot butchered them in Halal fashion. Of course, Timah cooked Halal food.
And then there was the fireball. Of course in those days there were no city lights or house lights or street lights to obscure the brilliant starry skies. There were few gas stations. We carried large metal containers of gasoline strapped to the back of the car. There were no motels or hotels. There were guesthouses for traveling British officers and families. But when I went on little trips with Timah and Gorot, we had to make whole journeys in a day or arrange to stay with relatives if there were any. Of course, you could not phone ahead. Each trip was a trip beyond the pale; each mile took one further into uncertainty and danger, even if the danger was seated in your own beliefs. One night, we pulled off to the side of a sticky, rutted road cut by Public Works Department through a patch of jungle, the beginning of the unfinished highway between Sirian and Simmangang. No. Unfinished is not the right word. Neither is road. This is a muddy, hardly drivable scratch through brush. A poor effort at something we might call infrastructure today. It was impossible to drive it after a big rain. That meant it was impassable during the whole monsoon season. It would not be completed until the lorries of rocks are delivered and dumped and the Chinese and Malay laborers carried them, basket after basket, to the road bed and placed them one by one to make a cobble bed for the macadam surface. That surface would be rolled several years from then. The road, as it was that night, was very much like the paths I trekked on to get to the villages I visited. I was usually at least ankle deep in mud….passing sometimes through rubber plantations, each tree with a little cup under the runny slash on its trunk,, and sometimes through impossibly beautiful acres of high palmate trees hanging with ferns and orchids and so thick under the canopy that nothing can pass unless it be those that crawl on their bellies or have the strength to break through it all. Beasts and demons, perhaps. Then, as I leave the untamed and approach a village, pass the guardian totem that can call upon a hill demon to “tangle my neck” if I come bearing ill will, I see the pepper plants or pineapple fields at my side or untidy fields of red rice growing on slashed and burnt hillsides. The mud from the journey covers my boots and encases my legs all the way up my calves. I am tired and thirsty and wet clear through my clothing from my own sweat. My hair is dank. The skin over my stomach is inexplicably dry and cold. Someone cuts the top off a green coconut and I drink the water.
This time, this night, I’ve traveled in a car. We have gone to visit one of Timah’s relatives and are on our way home when someone spots a light moving through the trees just below us. No one seems afraid. But everyone wants to get out and watch. I see it too. It is ball of fire and it is moving rapidly through the brush and cover. It is higher from the jungle floor than would be a torch carried by a person. And it is rounder than the flame of a torch would be; it is bigger than a lantern or flashlight beam. In fact, there is no beam nor light diffusing from the central core of it. It is just a solid ball of light. I don’t hear a noise. I don’t hear wind or branches being moved or hit. We’ve all stopped breathing as we behold this thing. Is it a hantu? I wonder. A ghost? Will it harm someone?
After the flood, when roads were open again, I traveled to Kuching occasionally and spent some evenings in a Peace Corps hostel. It was usually an unpleasant stay because I could hear Peace Corps boys having sex with local women. The walls were that thin. I had other ways to entertain myself. I went to the Aurora Hotel and learned to drink Pimm’s Cups and Singapore Slings. I loved the mushroom soup. And there was usually a live band. Later in 1963, I met dozens of press sent to cover the confrontation, and received a proposal of marriage from a Sarawakian man who was politically prominent and soon to be even more so as the new government came into power. He thought it would be good to have an English speaking wife for his tours around the world. His words.
In August of 1963, as we drew closer to the date when Sarawak would no longer be a British Crown Colony but rather a state of Malaysia, rumors ran amok. A good Malay word for what it felt like.
In August, a United Nations team arrived in Bau, one stop on their mission to establish the will of the people regarding Sarawak becoming part of Malaysia. The report of the United Nations Malaysian Mission was submitted to Secretary-General U Thant on September 14, 1963.
I happened to be in Kuching in the last days of the United Nations team visit. I was having a dinner in the Aurora hotel in Kuching and the U.N. Team were seated at the next table. Someone at another nearby table had ordered a flambé dish. A waitperson approached, torched the alcohol in the dish, and a large flame leaped to life. The U.N. Team rose as one and ran out of the hotel. Such was the tension around us in those days.
We knew when the team were to arrive in Bau. They landed in a helicopter on the soccer field of St. Stephens school. Everyone was ready for trouble, most likely from the Chinese Clandestine Communist Organisation (CCO), and though I’m not at all sure what happened, I found my way to the upper floor of a friend’s shop in the bazaar as people scattered and Royal Marine Commandos trooped down the thoroughfare, dressed for combat. We were all to be off the street and nobody challenged the order. I took a series of photographs from my window perch. I never floundered in my will to document. I made some photos later of troops shooting from a tank toward the border. I was on a bus that time. I took photos of the encampment of the Malay army and Commandos, officers smiling at me. I took photos of prisoners being loaded on military lorries. I think I fancied myself some kind of war correspondent. The troops were very nice to me. I was invited to officer’s mess. A Royal Marine colonel had me for tea a couple of times in his make shift bungalow by the local lake, Tasik Beru. My companions and I often swam in this lake, me dog paddling near a small dock. I now know that the lake was full of arsenic. Apparently swimming there has long been discouraged.
The colonel played recordings of Highlander bagpipe favorites. Scotland the Brave. He also used snuff, very daintily. This was the same colonel who came with a lieutenant to my house late one night and attempted to recruit me to spy for them. His reasoning was that I knew the trails and the language and could spot unfamiliar Chinese and pick up rumors. He also warned that I should be carrying a weapon for the Indonesians or CCO would not stop to ask my nationality before shooting. I reported this conversation to the Peace Corps the next morning and, alas, my colonel was removed. One Peace Corps couple in Sabah apparently took up the request to assist military and they were sent home.
The colonel’s visit came after a major error on my part. One night at officer’s mess, I noticed aerial photographs of the district and began pointing to tracks and trails and villages I recognized. Something caused me to realize that I was attracting a lot of attention. I stopped. But my familiarity with the territory had been noted.
Two nights before Malaysia Day, I was in Kuching eating with Peace Corps friends at the large Open Market in Kuching. Someone threw a hand grenade nearby. We didn’t know that was what caused the explosion nor that people had been injured. People ran through the street, clearly frightened. The blame was placed on the CCO.
I was in Kuching with some friends on September 16 when Lord Alexander Waddell and Lady Waddell were paddled across the Kuching River to the Pangkalan Batu. The last British Governor of Sarawak was taking his leave. Bands played, speeches were given, and a 17 gun saluted boomed a farewell. Lord Waddell was dressed in ceremonial uniform. The pomp was extraordinary, the excitement contagious. The Central Padang of Kuching featured a large decorative arch emblazoned with the words, Merdeka Malaysia. Bands played, troops paraded, speeches were given. It was, indeed, a wonderful day.
As weeks passed and as the Confrontation heated up, troops moved into Bau. The British Royal Marine Commandos, Ghurkas and the Malay Army. They brought their tanks, and set up field tents and other equipment to create a sort of headquarters below us. There was much noise and bustling and not just from the soldiers. British jets flew low overhead where nothing much noisier than hornbills had flown. They dropped pamphlets upon us urging us to either surrender or stop cooperating with CCO or whomever. These were printed in several languages including Jawi script, an Arabic alphabet used for writing the Malay language. Jawi, by the way, was introduced by Islamic merchants who brought Islam to the region in the 7th century.
Military helicopters flew onto the school soccer fields. At first this was a novelty and we all rushed to watch the landings and have our scarves and hats blown about. Soon it was commonplace.
The CCO were said to be hiding about here and there. In the jungle. In the shops. Growing vegetables. Selling rice. Meeting in secret and plotting to take over the country. So it was not only the Indonesians at the border who posed a threat to Bau.
As rumors (and maybe even actual intelligence) spread, our house was surrounded by rows of barbed wire and a few slit trenches. These trenches were occupied by men with Sten guns in the late evenings. The Stens were British 9mm submachine guns.
A curfew was imposed and required that we be inside at dark and pass a checkpoint at the bottom of the hill. It was all very daunting. I rehearsed my Malay responses to any challenge I might receive when going home at dusk.
All I had for transport was my British made bicycle and my legs. If an actual Indonesian invasion began which the nearly hysterical Singapore Straits Times headlines predicted would happen in every edition as did the angry broadcasts from Djakarta during which Sukarno threatened same), my next door neighbor, the Scots road engineer Tom Oliver, and I were to hustle into one of his big lorries (preloaded with dynamite) and drive to the capital of the state, Kuching, blowing up bridges behind us. So much for Peace Corps neutrality. I kept an oversized rattan rice basket loaded with essentials near the door for my whole second year. I was ready. Meanwhile, the troops lined up nightly outside the door of Tom’s amah’s house, a beautiful Malay woman who was sister to Bujang and Gorot and Hamdan. I could hear them taking turns with her. I wonder if she became rich? Many schoolgirls were suddenly sporting new shoes and other trinkets as well. It all happened overnight. The shops on the only street of Bau were frequented by troops as well. I drank Konchi beer by the quart with them and smoked too many Players cigarettes. They’d get so drunk they’d forget their Sten guns sometimes. The fellows went to the border for a few days and always came back missing one or two of their mates, though official stories don’t report that, and with tales of having their heads licked by salt-hungry rats while they slept. These fellows were around my age: young and uneducated Brits who were, I imagined , much like my high school pals who were soon to be drafted into a war I heard was cooking up in Vietnam. The cooks with the woks who made the best mei goreng in the world were suddenly producing plates of beans and bangers and fried eggs for the boys. One day we even had the Highlanders marching down the two blocks of shops bleating and drumming for all they were worth. I still cry when I hear bagpipes.
When I first arrived in Bau, I was meant to report to the District Agricultural Officer. I made one trip with him. He had helped a village build and stock a fish pond. I went with him for the first harvest. People of the kampong stood in a huge circle around the pond. I don’t remember if he threw an explosive into the water or, perhaps, poison. People used both methods. In any case, after all the anticipation, not one fish appeared. The officer lost face and I was concerned that nobody would take me seriously if I were seen to be associated with this fellow. My heroic savior was Mary Retan. She was a young (about my age) teacher at St. Stephen’s school. She was from Kampong Sudoh up at the foot of Singhai Mountain. She approached me on the street one day and said she knew I was there to do something useful. She invited me to her home kampong and introduced me to her uncle, the Orang Kaya Pemancha of all of the kampongs that circled Mt. Singai. At that time, remains of the old longhouses and headhouses still stood near the peak of Mt. Singai. The kampongs at the foot of it had moved down, I believe, following WWII. In any case, I visited Sudoh often and met with young people all around the region. I stayed with Mary and her parents, joined in slash parties, went along on harvest expeditions, bathed in the river and helped fill green bamboo tubes with water for household use. There were dances in evenings with gundongs (drums with skin heads..deep tones) keeping a steady beat. Gradually, I was known and welcomed in other kampongs. Kopid was one regular destination. Many kampong farmers grew pineapple, pepper, and rubber for cash crops. They processed rubber and pepper in the kampongs and carried them on their backs to market. Some kampongs were Catholic, others maintained old religions. Some kampongs were half and half, while others were in transition. Mary was an exceptional leader who had the ear of her uncle and was eager that her friends and families grasped the reality of the world that was overwhelming their lives. Imagine my joy at hearing from her through Facebook in November 2017. My life was enhanced immeasurably by knowing her.
I managed to work at the Sarawak Museum during breaks in my daily obligations in Bau and to send observations on trance activities to my senior prof at Ohio State. In the museum Tom Harrison put me to work assembling and drawing pot shards from the Niah Caves. I returned to Ohio State and worked with Dr. Erika Bourguignon on her NIMH grant focused on dissociative states. Because I was an honor student, I could spend time putting together a couple of articles for the Sarawak Museum Journal. One was on Bidayuh labor exchange and the other a note on a Bidayuh ceremony long discontinued. It was all a bit cheeky of me given my relative inexperience. I also took classes with Robert Dentan, newly returned from his field work with Orang Asli. Later, after Tom Harrison left Sarawak, he invited me to join him at Cornell. Enticing. I kept the correspondence. He was a terrific mentor and supporter and I am forever grateful for having had the opportunity to work with him and in the museum. But I wanted to go west, knowing full well that I was a bit of a gadfly. I worked with Peter J. Wilson there. He had worked in Madagascar. But eventually, I was sidetracked into more activist work. It was the late 1960s and I was in the streets. I returned to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in the early 1980s as a tag along with my Fulbright friend, Sally J. Cloninger. I studied performance and healing in Kelantan. My language skills were still relatively intact and I could make my way to friendly kampongs with the support of people like the Minister of Culture, Ismail Zain, who was a friend as was Wairah Marzuki who was director of the National Art Gallery.
I went back to Sarawak at the end of that year of work and saw what one sees all over the world: youth had left the kampongs for work in oil or tourist industry. Elders were left behind and unable to tend rubber and pepper plantations or rice fields. As I predicted in my earlier publication, the labor exchange system had fallen apart with the departure of younger members and disintegration of residential extended families. I saw my old friend Mary Retan, now living in Kuching. I visited Kampong Sudoh and saw friends and the many ways a road and bus and battery operated televisions had changed life there. The Bau bazaar had burned. Business people were making do in makeshift temporary shelters behind their now destroyed shops. Over the ensuing years, Bau has been rebuilt and is now, apparently, a major tourist destination. I look at what was the old bazaar with the aid of Google and am incredulous.
Though my Peace Corps colleagues, Guy Priest and Gary McMurry, have made regular trips to visit Sarawak and their friends there, I haven’t. Sometimes Guy brings word of a roti man who remembers me and sends greetings. Gary calls regularly to talk about Serian and his visits and shares tearful stories of the passing of old friends. But it was not until December 11 2017 that I had the surprise of my life. My dear friend Mary Retan found me through Facebook. As I write this, I am buoyed by this recent news and wonder what I’ll learn as our lives connect again, so many years since those first days when she approached me and took me on as a project.
*Dee Baer, People to People: The Peace Corps in Sarawak. 2012. https://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/concern/defaults/4x51hk321