Thursday, June 1, 2017

Arte: Somerset Maugham and Me—Upper Sarawak River—Part IV

Laure, Karen, Peter, Phyllis, Robert. Alvin, Shan

Monday morning while visiting Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, I finally got to meet Peter John, Karen’s Iban husband, who arrived barefoot and dressed for the part of a traditional upriver Iban.  My wife had Googled Peter the night before, so I saw a picture of him in London, and recog­nized his face, but not in those clothes…

We arrived in time for the 9:00 am feeding, but since orangutans don’t wear watches they don’t always come for their appointed times, es­pecially during fruit season.  Forty minutes had passed before they finally answered the call, a mother and an infant, not to the feeding area, but a clearing opposite of the entrance.  Before we went to see them, and after the other tourists had left, Richard took some shots of me walking through jungle. 

Later, at another section of Semenggoh they considered filming me for my inter­view in the jungle but the steady drone of traffic couldn’t be avoided, so Richard settled on taking additional shots of me making my way through various patches of jungle. 

Laure and Richard became ex­cited when Karen located wild pepper growing on a rather tall tree, perfect for their pepper story.

wild pepper

I had been looking forward to riding in a longboat on the upper Sarawak River, but once we reached Kampung Giam, we brought the rain with us and had to wait it out on the veranda at Homestay Kampung Giam, run by a friend of Peter’s.  We drank tea, ate muffins and curry puffs, and took groups photos.

When the weather broke, Richard filmed Peter and a Bidayuh, the owner of a longboat they had hired, as they made a tricky ninety-degree turn from the tributary onto a faster paced upper Sarawak River bloated by the recent rain.  He filmed them leaving, while Michel got a wider river view from his drone.  For some reason, the drone dropped among the elephant grass on the far side of the river, so Peter had to retrieve it.  They were just glad it didn’t land in the river.

Michel tested it, and it seemed okay, so they picked up on their filming where they had left off.  Before they went upriver toward Kampung Git, Karen had lobbied on my behalf, but Laure had assured her that I would be sent for later, though logistically we weren’t sure how that could be arranged since we would be out of communica­tion.

I shrugged off my disappointment, having resigned myself that there would be no longboat trip for me, and joined the others in the van….Along the way we stopped for lunch and Alvin regaled us with stories from his special forces days; he was quite entertaining and even told us how to make a traditional poison that wives often used to kill their husbands that could take up to three months; gradually the stomach would be coated and unable to absorb food and then all trace would be gone.  It was quite ingenious, though I was glad my wife was not present.

At Kampong Git, I was chatting with Karen on the beach, while Michel took drone shots over the river, when a longboat approached.  I recognized the Bidayuh and he said in his very limited English one word, “Drone,” so we called Michel and got him and his drone into the longboat.  Then he said, “Two,” and Karen interpreted that to mean “two people”, that they were also send­ing for me to finish off the Maugham sequence as Laure had promised.

Michel Viet and his drone

There we were, the three of us going upriver….Twenty minutes later, we ran out of gas; luckily he had some spare in a container and we arrived ten min­utes later on a beach—a pebbled spit of land at the edge of the river where Richard was filming Peter cooking fish and rice inside various bamboo.

Richard was not at all pleased because we failed to bring his tripod!  The Bidayuh only said two words and neither of those words was “tripod”.  I don’t know why no one thought to jot down a message to give us; besides we thought they had loaded the tripod for the first trip.  Then I began to wonder, when he said “two” did he mean “two items:  drone and tripod….Sud­denly, I felt like a third wheel.

When the drizzling rain began to disrupt the filming, Laure remained unflappable as she waited it out with minimal fuss and no dramatics.  She and Richard had been there before—grum­bling never helps and patience with a positive attitude can go a long ways.  Richard had addition concerns, his filming equipment, his spare lens and the other photo­graphic gad­gets that he needed to make sure they got the best shots under the worst lighting situations. 

When the drizzle became a downpour, Richard covered his equipment with a heavy duty poncho, a tarp from the longboat, and my poncho as an extra layer of protection. 

Borneo rivers have a nasty reputation of rising quickly; in no time, water had made in­roads to where all the equipment had been placed.  Noticing that his backpack was getting wet, Richard started grabbing stuff and we all pitched in to move everything as quickly as possible to higher ground, under the trees.  Ourselves, included.       

Once the rain stopped, the Bidayuh continued to fish using a weighed net casting it into the river, while Richard picked up where he had left off taking close ups of Peter cooking fish and lemang and potatoes and prawns with lemongrass in a large bamboo.  It smelled and tasted delicious when it was served on large leaves plucked from the nearby jungle.

We also tried plump sago worms cooked in an open fire, which tasted fine, though I would’ve preferred marshmallows.


Looking at Peter in this setting you would never have imagined that he studied in the US and lived in London for a number of years and was a deejay in Singapore with a deep voice.  But here, he could be an Iban from generations ago, with headhunting in his blood, living off the land.

Since he had no tripod, Richard had to use an over­turned buc­ket for storing fish to sit on and did his best to keep the movie camera still while filming Peter at the helm of long­boat as he talked about his life as an Iban living in Sarawak.

For me, just being there was a pleasure watching the French crew work.  Having worked together for twelve years, Laure and Richard knew each other’s idiosyncrasies. They had devel­oped a level of trust in each other.  They were professionals—they both wanted a good product that they could be proud of.  Basically they were a one woman, one man team, who got help along the way, like with Michel and his drone, whom they flew from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching for the rest of the Maugham shots, the pepper story and the Personal Invitation piece on Peter. 

They also had KL based Shan, who liaises with film produc­tions from oversea, offering them logistical assistance, Alvin their driver cum tour guide who assisted many different ways, including sourcing for jungle locations to film, and us, their filming subjects, quick to offer sug­gestions and tips and bring in others to assist like Karen whose proved invaluable for her production assistance into putting toge­ther the complicated pepper story through her myriad of connections.

Laure told me that Richard always wanted the better shot, not a merely good shot; at times, when weather and daylight were working against them, sometimes you just need to get any shot that you can under the circumstances, which was better than no shot!  Still the compromised shots they did get were always better than what Laure was willing settle for….Richard had good instincts; he knew what he was doing, and Laure was only too happy to work with him. 

Sometimes hold­ing out for that last great shot would pay off as we soon discovered when they filmed my final Maugham segment in Part V. 


Continue to Part V  On watching the three films.   Link to Part IPart II Part III

Book orders for Trois autres Malaisie   E-book orders

Here's a link to the intro and excerpts, and to four reviews of Trois Autres Malaisie in,,, and Petit Futé mag.

The ARTE TV report will be broadcasted on June 5th: It will be available online until August 4th!

          Joseph Conrad and Me 

Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

         Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part II


Ivy Ngeow said...

Just read this Robert. You have such a natural way with language. I loved it especially the bit about the poison and the drone.

Borneo Expat Writer said...

Thanks! Drone will take center stage in Part 5!

sintaicharles said...

Maybe Maugham had observed the same thing, I mean,the barbecue.

Krista Goon said...

Hmmm, the poison recipe sounds interesting. You're sure you didn't get the ingredients jotted down? ;-)

Borneo Expat Writer said...

I got most of them but didn't want to be blamed for anyone's untimely demise...

Andrea Boult said...

This is a lovely story. As I read this story (and the earlier parts), I feel as though I am vicariously going on this trip.

I am intrigued by the poison bit as well. Is this the same poison used for blowpipe darts?

Borneo Expat Writer said...

No, that's different...I was hesitant to include that poison stuff, but to listen to Alvin talk about it such a straight forward manner as if he was passing us a receipt to make brownies or something; all of us were mesmerized, and no doubt thinking, boy this surely could come in handy....Had I gone on that earlier longboat ride, I would've missed it and all the other great stories he told. This way, I got the best of both worlds; great stories and a longboat trip! Can't ask for more...felt like I had a month's worth of fun and new experiences packed into two days that took me five blogs to write about...