Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo
The monsoon rain beat the ground and poured off the thatched roof in sheets. The petals of flowering shrubs lining the path sagged under the weight of it.
Butterflies as large as the palm of your hand had rested on the flowers only minutes ago but were now nowhere to be seen.
Palm trees bent as if to pay homage.
Squinting through the wet haze, you could just make out the near shore of the Kinabatangan River as it ran its swollen course.
Everything looked grey.
“So where are you from?” C.T., the lodge co-ordinator, raised her friendly voice above the drumming rain. With everything on hold until the deluge let up, she sat down at the table.
She apologized in advance for her English, explaining that the first words she had learned were during training to work at the lodge, but she had obviously picked up a lot since then.
C.T. is a local girl, professional yet somewhat shy. Her village was not very far away.
“Just a minute,” she said, heading to the small front office. She returned with a well-worn book, Kinabatangan, flipping the pages excitedly.
“This is my father,” she announced with pride. The picture shows a black-haired man in a white T-shirt, his hand resting on the banister of a staircase attached to a wide balcony.
The house behind him stands on stilts; in front of him are long rows of flowering potted plants.
The caption reads: “Many local homes have well-kept gardens.”
Turning several pages, she pointed to another picture: “A young Orang Sungei man sports a traditional hat.” Made of dried leaves, the hat provides shelter from sun and rain alike. Elder members of C.T.’s family wear hats like these; Orang Sungei means “people of the river.”
C.T. asked about yesterday’s night walk in the jungle.
Well, it had been a bit creepy to be honest: pitch black, slippery underfoot, unable to see more than a few feet in front, beside or behind no matter how powerful your flashlight, as if the jungle was hiding things.
Were those eyes over there, or just a reflection? Who knew?
The frogs made an incredible racket. And then the guide stops and starts poking around with a stick in an old tree trunk and … something in the rotted stump starts scurrying around.
There’s the flash of a shiny black … leg, or tail, or something. The guide leans over, grabs the creature and holds a flashlight on it.
It’s a very large, very shiny, very black scorpion. It is in his bare hand. It is running up his arm. He picks it up and puts it back in his hand. He wants to know if anyone else wants to hold the scorpion.
“She won’t bite; she’s a friendly one.” Well, that’s reassuring enough isn’t it? “Yes,” someone says, “I do.”
So the scorpion is handed over, starts running up another arm. The guide gently keeps it in its place.
The person holding the scorpion certainly looks pretty bug-eyed nervous, but manages not to scream or anything.
Judging the time is up, the guide places the scorpion back amongst the rustling leaves in the tree trunk.
“Yes, she’s a very friendly one.”
Everyone laughed at the story. The rain continued as we sat at the table drinking tea.
No longer able to contain a burning curiosity, it was as good a time as any to ask C.T. a question.
“So, what about head-hunters?”
It rained for two solid hours, and the handful of unwritten postcards lay neglected on the table.
Catherine Millar is a Whitehorse-based writer on a months-long tour of far-flung places. Her chronicle appears here every Monday.