Friday, November 5, 2010

Agnes Keith, Shawney Niko and I

Trip to Sandakan from July 25 to 28, 2010:

Land below the wind

Four years ago in Kuching, Sarawak. I laid down on my back reading Agnes Keith’s first book “Land below the wind”. Her first book talked about her life as a wife of a Conservator of Forests and Director of Agriculture in North Borneo (old name of Sabah). And through her book, she is able to make her readers imagine Sandakan as a place full of unique and mysterious. Readers will have the desire to travel to Sandakan, as well as Sabah, after reading her book. They want to experience the same adventure, same feelings that Agnes experienced during her stay in North Borneo. Like them, I wished that I could make a trip to Sandakan. The only place in Sandakan that I really want to visit was at the hilltop where Agnes’s house stood facing the Sandakan Bay. In her book, she described how the Sandakan was during British colonial rule from her favorite spot. She wrote “I stood looking down at Sandakan Bay from the hilltop which now was ours. The harbor of Sandakan lay below me. It was morning, and the water of the bay was motionless and flat and chromo blue as in a picture postal card.
The coconut trees, where they fringed the shore, were drawn in with meticulous attention to detail, and the mushroom islands which skimmed on the water were so small and perfect it seemed that I could capture one and send it home with Greetings from Borneo.

In Sandakan 2010

My Blackberry was ringing. I checked on the phone screen, and I knew the person who called me.

“Hi. Where are you Shawn? I’m waiting for you at the front of the Rainforest Discovery Center.”

“Dency, could you come to your hostel? I’m waiting you there.”

“OK. Just wait for me.”

Shawney Niko would drive me from Sepilok to the Sandakan uptown. He promised to bring me to see Agnes Keith’s house, which is located on the hilltop of the Sandakan Town. The time was 4.00 pm. We began our journey to the uptown after unloading my hiking bag and a box filled with field equipment into his little black Viva. The journey to town would take about 20 minutes. Along the way, Shawney asked about my plan to go to Tawau tomorrow morning. I mentioned that I would take a bus ride to Tawau in the early morning. He suggested checking on the bus schedule at the Sandakan Terminal Bus station first before visiting the Agnes Keith’s house. I just agreed with him. Once we checked on the bus schedule for tomorrow morning trip to Tawau, he drove me to his favourite eating outlet. He wanted me to taste cheap delicious home cooking food.

Shawney, a bidayuh man from Kuching, has been working as a policeman in Sandakan for almost two years. He knows many good places for both of us to sit down, eat and chat together. For previous three days, he showed me around the Sandakan town. He mentioned about his unexciting life, his works and people in Sandakan. From his talks and my observation, I could say that Sandakan has lost its glory as one of the busiest city in the state. It has changed so much since North Borneo became independent, and its name changed to Sabah. In addition, the state administration moved from Sandakan to Jesselton (then Kota Kinabalu). Many Chinese traders shifted their business to Kota Kinabalu, and they abandoned their shops to decay and thus eligible to be demolished. Old shop buildings are occupied with legal and illegal foreigners especially from Philippine. There is a water village that is located along the Sandakan Bay. Occupied houses within that village are not properly arranged. Shawney explained that the village is mostly occupied by foreigners. He even drove me to few dark, isolated areas where many hookers and drug dealers gather to sell their services and drugs especially syabu to their customers. He explained that Sandakan is the hub of drugs trafficking and smuggling.

Agnes Keith’s House

The home cook foods were delicious just like my mother's cooking. I looked at my watch, and it showed 15 minutes before 5.00 pm. I told Shawney that it was almost time to visit Agnes Keith’s house. We hurried ourselves to his car. Within 15 minutes, we already arrived at the foot of the hill, and I could see the house from below. I felt very happy and asked Shawney to drive faster. He just smiled at me when he saw my jolly face. When the car stopped at the parking site, I quickly opened the side passenger door. I did not want to wait for Shawney, and he had to catch me from behind. I was surprised to know that it was already closed when I reached at the front door. The only thing I could do now was just peeping inside the house through the glass door and windows. Shawney said he did not know it would close at 5 pm. I silenced for a while and told him that I will come back again to Sandakan in future. Shawney and I walked around the house while took few pictures.

Then, we descended the stairs leading to backquaters that were once occupied by Arusap, Keith’s personal man, Ah King and Ah Yin, the two Chinese amahs and Usip, the Dayak Murut small boy. I told Shawney everything about Agnes Keith, her son George, Henry Keith and their amahs and servant based on the three Agnes's books. He was surprised that I knew more about the Keith’s family than him even though he already stayed in Sandakan for almost two years. He let me told everything about Sandakan during colonial time, while we were on the way up to the house again. Then, we stopped exactly at the spot where Agnes spent her time looking over the Sandakan Town. I did the same thing like she did admiring the beauty of the town. Time passed quickly. We made a move back to Shawney's car. When we passed the front arch of Agnes’s house, I stopped and picked my Nikon compact camera from my bag. I took a picture of the front porch which inscribed with Agnes Keith House.

Agnes talked to Henry in their house "I will never forget this moment. I am doing what I would rather be doing than anything else in the world, with the person I want to do with. Some people live a lifetime and never have a perfect moment like this."