This is our third year visiting our friends on the Tulai River, and we thought we'd seen it all....regular readers will already know about the marriage, however life here has a way of grabbing you by the throat and forcing you to face reality. A few days after our Aussie visitors headed back to Australia we were relaxing in the cockpit when a local longboat approached ... " Uncle, can you help us ?" they asked. "Of course, what is the problem ?" we said. " My wife is having a baby" he said ... "When ?" I asked ..." Maybe now" he said !!!
Wow .. They needed a fast trip to the clinic, and our Caribe dinghy is the fastest boat on the river. Quickly I threw some clothes on, Ley checked the fuel tank and the wife and husband climbed aboard. The grandparents were left in the longboat to travel down stream at a slower, traditional pace. So off we went, with me busily thanking God that we'd serviced the Tohatsu outboard and there was good air pressure in the tubes.
Always the wise one, Ley had spotted the storm clouds in the distance and thrown in our largest umbrella. As the rain started I slowed the boat and set the umbrella up as a kind of dodger ... mother-to-be and father sheltered behind that and off we went again, flat out to Bintangor town. Dodging logs and flotsam at 20 knots in a rain storm proved kind of challenging, but we got there OK. The clinic put them in an ambulance to Sarikei Hospital, and a healthy baby girl was born about two hours later. Thank heavens ! That's Grandmother at left, in the photo above, with a nervous mother at right.
The following Sunday Ley set off to church early, and was immediately aware of a loud keening and wailing coming from the longhouse. On arrival she learned that our friend Lucy had passed away in the early morning ... suddenly everything had changed in the longhouse. Lucy was 60 years old, had eight children, the youngest being only 13. She was regal and proud, a beautiful woman. Unfortunately she had high blood pressure, as many Iban do, and suffered a stroke in the early hours. With no transport available, the family sat with her until she passed away around 6.00am.
Lucy was laid out in the public area of the longhouse for two days while visitors and family arrived from all over Sarawak and Malaysia. We sat with the family, next to Lucy, while friends and relatives arrived and completed there lifetime relationship with her. Each person was able to sit with her, to talk, to sing their memories and to hold her hand. The family never left her side, sang to her, burned candles constantly and still managed to look after the dozens of visitors.
Frankly I've never been so moved by a social process - the ability of these folk to deal with death and face it positively, actively combining Christian and traditional practices, was awe inspiring. After 48 hours so many people had gathered it felt like a party ... the locals erected a special kitchen just to cook for the visitors, who all slept in the public space of the longhouse.
For three days no one in the longhouse worked - no fishing, no agriculture, no hunting. Then Lucy was buried by the community and her family, who asked specially that we take the final photograph of her, as seen above. As a practicing Catholic her final resting was organised differently to traditional Iban practice, which would have seen her laid out on a platform above ground. For another two weeks, the chi ldren in the longhouse must now be careful - no running, no music, no television, no entertainment. Life will be quiet.
We departed the Tulai River last Wednesday, on the outgoing tide. Given our close relationship this was a very sad departure - many tears were shed for days before, yet on the day our friends were all there on the river bank, wishing us safe travel. We really do love this river, but we love the people even more - they're family now, and it is very hard to leave them.
Crystal Blues is now anchored on the Santubong River, near Kuching, and will depart for Singapore tomorrow morning. The passage should take three days. Our next six months will be spent in Phuket, Thailand, refitting and painting Crystal Blues. Our refit booking starts in September, so we need to get a move on ... we have to cover 1000 nautical miles (about 2000km) in the next 2 weeks.