Into the Jungle

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In Jan 2012 I had the opportunity to travel to one of the oldest tropical rainforests in the world, Taman Negara. Spanning across three states in Malaysia, it is one of the few areas in the world that still has areas untouched by modern civilization.

With few roadways leading to the jungle, we took a long motorized banana boat to reach the floating village of Kuala Tahan. I soon realized I was no longer in Kuala Lumpur – I had intelligently brought my huge rolly suitcase into the depths of the Malaysian jungle, which was probably the poorest traveling choice I had ever made. Struggling up the hillside in 85 degree (F) weather, I was lucky enough to have a wonderful manfriend that kindly sweated over the pounds of clothing I had decided to bring with me (did I mention this was a poor choice?).

The four day trip held many interesting critters and rare animals, but by far the most interesting part of the trip was the day spent with the indigenous populations of the jungle.

I have long been fascinated with the indigenous populations of the world that try to preserve their culture in the face of growing technology of the outside world. These people are no different from those I have experienced in Lao PDR, Rwanda and Argentina.

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The government of Malaysia is faced with an interesting question when it comes to these people, called ‘Batek Negritos’, as they try to bring them into the modern world. They send convoy’s monthly offering medical care, free education for children and other modern niceties such as rice and sugar. Yet the Batek people reject much of these modern attempts to bring ‘civilization’ to their hunter and gatherer lifestyle.

When I asked our tour guide, Agung,  why this was he said “they say modern world is boring. They do not know it or understand it. They grow up in the jungle from a young age being taught how to survive, what to eat and track.” The concrete jungle simply is boring when given the opportunity to climb, swing and hunt amongst tigers, rhinoceros’ and elephants.

This brings me to an interesting question – is modernization really the answer? Do we really have a superior lifestyle to these people with our cubicles, box lunches and treadmills? What is our obligation to these types of groups throughout the world? Is it to understand, watch and modernize? Turn them into tourist destinations?

Or maybe we have a thing or two to learn and/or remember how we were meant to live. Free and wild under the scorching sun, in the humid air protected only by the trees above you and the leaves beneath your feet.

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The Indigenous People of Malaysia

There are a few communities in the world that still carry on their traditional ways of living. Excluding the communities in Africa, Southeast Asia has a few of these rare communities. Living in what is claimed to be the oldest rainforest in the world, Taman Negara, the Batek people have lived in this 130 million year old forest for hundreds of years. Though the world around them has developed into a world of cars, TV and internet, the people in Taman Negara have remained nomadic, living in leaf thatched roofs, hunting with shooting darts and making a fire with wood and rubbing sticks.

How, in our modern world, can communities such as this exist? Their children receive fully funded schooling opportunities from the government, modern doctors that go to their village and opportunities for employment in the outside world – yet they refuse this assistance and made the prideful choice to remain in their old ways and carry on the traditions of their fathers. When looking at this rare and small community (it is made of ruffly 1000 people), one must ask – why do they choose a life in the jungle for the comforts of the modern world?

Being an American Women in Kuala Lumpur

Have you ever been to Muslim country? For all my military friends – war zones excluded – I am speaking for places like Turkey, Egypt, Morocco and the country I am currently in, Malaysia.

Don’t ask me why I didn’t factor this in in all my trip preparation for traveling here, but the Islamic influence in this country is one of the major striking factors for a person used to largely secular societies (albeit even religious areas of the US are nothing in comparison to religious areas here). At first, I tried to ignore the head scarfs, floor length, full armed dresses and shops that read ‘the modern Muslim women’, but after wiping the sweat off my brow wearing shorts and a tank top (it was 100 yesterday) I began wondering how dedicated I would really be to the whole conservative dress thing if I lived in this weather day in and day out.

– there was that – and also the constant cat calls, smooching sounds and honking of horns I couldn’t really understand, even when wearing a full length dress myself and a jacket, why I was getting so much attention (my boyfriend kept saying it must be my sexy ankles).

Then it hit me – yes I need to be wearing a headscarf myself and a poncho of a dress that covered all areas, side from my hands, in order to stop getting awkwardly long stares and smoochy sounds thrown my way. In this society, that was clearly acceptable behavior towards a women who decided to show as much skin as I had. But why?

I would argue that it was the national religion that provided this influence. A modest women would never wear what I was wearing (but let me also caveat that every westerner was). To protect her womenhood and dignity she covers all areas of her body – and the more attractive, the more covered.

What affect does this have on a society? Does it protect the women of the country? ( Let me also be fair and say that there were also women at work in every area of society – female cops…with head scarfs, female barista’s at starbucks…with head scarfs and immigration officers..with head scarfs). Or does it create a society that constrains other areas of being a women.. such as dress, behavior and freedom?