Sold Down The River – Part 1
Bako, Malaysian Borneo – “Mr. Allnut, says Rosie, played by Katherine Hepburn to her boat mate. “Yes, Miss,” replies Charlie acted by Humphrey Bogart in the classic film “African Queen.”
This exchange takes place several times in the movie and was replayed, jokingly between myself and my wife Suriani during a trip down the Bako River. I had screened the movie, my second favorite after “Casablanca,” for my wife from a collection DVDs I had purchased and brought back after my last trip to the states.
We had arrived at the dock serving the village of Bako after a 45-minute venture up river where we had spent the night at a national park by the same name. A bus would take us back to our home in Kuching and we waited at an open air coffee shop overlooking the muddy river.
My son Dzul, three days walking on his own, was busy chasing a battle scarred, orange and white river cat around the restaurant which kept a few lazy steps ahead of him. Suriani was ordering food from the counter as it was around lunch time while I was sitting at a table keeping an eye on both.
I always make it a point to strike up a conversation with my neighbors in the local language. Two retired gentlemen were enjoying their tea and I know were wondering who I was with the Malay wife and the small, obviously racially mixed child.
I answered them in Malay and we had a laugh as I described our visit to the park. They obviously could not fathom why Westerners paid so much money to see what they saw every day; long tailed Macaque monkeys, wild boars, proboscis monkeys and the many other denizens of the rainforest.
Suriani arrived with a plate of fried noodles with chicken and fried rice for her and Dzul. She picked up the conversation and went in to Sarawak Malay, a dialect I have trouble understanding. However, I did hear the word “buaya,” which I knew meant crocodile. The conversation became a bit animated with the men pointing down the river.
I had always wanted to see these reptiles in the wild and asked my wife what they were talking about. She said there were many of these reptiles down the river and swimmers, along with fishermen who had ventured to far into the water while cleaning their nets, were many of their meals.
Surveying the harbor and noticing the several moored boats, I asked my new friends if we could rent one. They directed me to a counter where employees coordinated the many tourist trips to the park but almost never the other way. They asked around and they quoted a price which was way too expensive and my negotiating skills failed to bring down the price.
Dejected, I sat down and resumed my meal as Suriani hand-fed Dzul, a local custom. I got up to wash my hands and when I returned a wise and weathered elderly gentleman was having a talk with my wife. I asked and he proposed to take us down river to see the crocs. I asked how much and he replied a ridiculously low offer and I said yes.
I had looked over the dock and had seen modern fiber glass boats with outboard motors that could hold nine good sized Americans sitting across three slats with backpacks. These had been provided by the Malaysian government to promote tourism.
To my astonishment, we were led to a four meter (12 feet for the Americans) inboard ancient wooden boat with one slat at the width which would barely hold the two of us with Dzul in my wife’s arms. The ancient mariner, proudly at the oars used to guide the boat, was welcoming us aboard.
My wife immediately said in her best Hepburn accent “Mr. Allnut” as I stared blankly at the boat whose sides were an inch or two above the water. She rubbed it in further as she teased me that its name was the “African Queen.”
In this vessel we motored down the Bako River in search of the man eating crocodiles of Borneo as I replied in my best Bogie accent “Yes, Miss.”
To be continued…
…Life is good. . .