The table fan whirred patiently, trying to startle the still afternoon with a gust of wind every now and then. But it was losing the battle. The oppressive summer heat pressed down like a heavy blanket as I tossed about trying to sleep. In the purgatory between sleep and wakefulness, I began to have hazy dreams that I was elsewhere — on an unfamiliar bed, in a stranger’s home.
When I awoke, I realised I was living my dream. I was a guest in the home of a family I had never met before, and farther in spirit from Mumbai than I’d ever imagined I’d go. I found myself in Santubong, an idyllic fishing village in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. I was part of a group of journalists and travel industry professionals from India and South Korea who had been invited to swap the clinical comfort of a hotel room for the earthy charms of staying with a local family.
Technically, this wasn’t my first time in a homestay. I had lived in a renovated haveli that was also home to a family in Jaipur.
But the second I stepped out on to the porch of the Johari family’s home in Santubong that resonated with the laughter of children and the banter of a large, extended family, I knew that this experience would be much more intimate than my first.
While the Jaipur haveli had been carefully calibrated (right down to anti-microbial toilet seats in the bathroom) to please its many foreign guests, my temporary new home in Santubong had no such aspirations. For three days and two nights, my foster family was privy to my waking, bathing, eating and sleeping patterns and I to theirs. We would haltingly communicate in a cross between pidgin English and sign language. I left my city-bred notions of privacy outside the door and marvelled at the osmotic flow of relatives between one family home and the other. During all my travels, this was at once the farthest I’d been from familiar turf and the closest I’d been to home.
Santubong is a kampung (compound or village) of about 2,000 villagers, located on the banks of the River Sarawak, about 42 km or an hour’s drive from Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. Sarawak, one of the two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo, is a hotbed of cultural and ethnic diversity. Apart from Malays, the state is also home to a large Chinese community as well as tribes such as the Iban (or erstwhile head-hunters), the Bidhayu and the Orang Ulu (or other tribes).
Legend has it that the Iban, who were the original inhabitants of Santubong, named it “si-antu-ubong” or soul boat. The Iban, who revered spirits, believed that ubongs, or boat-like coffins, ensured the safe transfer of spirits to the afterlife. Another story maintains that the Chinese, who migrated to Santubong in the 1st century AD, named it after the wild pigs they found in the area.
Whichever legend you choose to believe, it’s unlikely to hold clues to the nature of Santubong in the present day. To the city dweller’s eyes, the village located at the base of the 800-metre-tall Mount Santubong — with its wooden houses built on stilts and boats parked in the backyard — looks lost in time. But wild pigs are not as common as cars these days, and gaming consoles have made inroads.
“When I first visited Santubong
in 1972, the only means of coming was by boat,” said Abang Azahari, the chairman of the Sarawak Tourist Guides Association, who has been conducting tours in Sarawak for the last 21 years. “All the houses were built on stilts and each house had at least two boats. The bridge from Kuching to Santubong was built in the 1990s, and within a year, there had been great changes in the village.”
Although Santubong has placed one foot firmly in the future, its other foot remains solidly planted in a slower, older way of life that prizes family bonds and community spirit. This unique ethos is what inspired 56-year-old Jamilah Shukri to convert her family’s weekend getaway in Santubong into a homestay, and convince other families in the village to do so too. Shukri spearheads the village’s homestay programme, which got off the ground in July 2008 and now has a network of 15 families.
According to Shukri, a homestay is not just about cheaper accommodation (an overnight stay costs just 90 Ringgits or a little over Rs 1,000, inclusive of all meals) but also about straying off the beaten track and embracing the unknown. For the local families, who have to undergo training courses conducted by Tourism Malaysia before they are chosen, it is a window to the world. “There are a lot of advantages of conducting a homestay, including extra income and learning about other languages and cultures,” Shukri said.
For me, it was a valuable lesson in life. Shorn of exit options, I learnt to appreciate what I may have dismissed as cheesy tourist-baiting back home. The villagers had put together an elaborate roster of activities, including demonstrations of local games such as top spinning and a game of marbles that I couldn’t wrap my head around; cooking lessons that yielded mouthwatering seafood delicacies and lessons in the slow, hip-swaying welcome dance that I felt tempted to taint with some Bollywood jhatkas.
Pursuit of happiness
The piece de resistance was a cruise down the Sarawak River in a fisherman’s boat in search of Irrawady dolphins. I had only seen dolphins dance to the cue of a conductor before; this was the real thing. Every now and then, the unmistakable snout of a dolphin would break the water’s surface in search of the small fish we tossed into it. When they got particularly comfortable with this arrangement, we would hear distinctive squeaks as the dolphins spoke to one another.
On my final night in Santubong, my foster family decided to bedeck me in all its traditional finery. I wore a baju kurung (a long kurta-like top paired with an ankle-skimming skirt) in a bold shade of gold and more glittery accessories than I have worn in my 26 years, all at once. After a song-and-dance show, on my way home astride my “sister” Aisyah Johari’s bike, I pondered the generosity that prompted these families to open their hearts and homes to complete strangers. “Are you happy today?” Aisyah asked. How could I not be?
Vidya is a member of the HT Pullouts team whose dance repertoire now includes the Malaysian poco poco