Saloma, Queen of the Jungle

From the moment Saloma arrives to pick us up at the curb outside the hotel, we know we’re in for a special experience. We load our bags into the back of her spotless SUV and drive toward the jungle outside of Kuching. Saloma’s smile and enthusiasm put us immediately at ease — not that we’re anxious, but when you sign up to stay in a stranger’s home for a few days, there’s no way to really know exactly what you’re getting into.

We drive along in easy conversation, explaining how our search for an authentic experience in Borneo has led us to her company — Saloma Villagestay. The roadside activity of Kuching fades away, replaced by thick jungle over mountainous terrain. We stop for breakfast — hot, flaky roti paratha with a beautiful curry handmade by two women at a hut along the road. (I still dream of that paratha.) Next stop: a fruit stand with a bumper crop of durians and pineapples, and a few other plants we don’t recognize. No matter — Saloma knows her way around the fruits and plants of the jungle.

We arrive at Saloma’s village, Kampong Sadir, turn left and roll down the hill to a collection of houses next to the river. A bamboo bridge, just wide enough for two feet, marks the entry to Saloma’s home. Trying hard not to drop our bags in the river, we cross the threshold and climb the steps to the front door.

Saloma’s home has developed over time — starting with the kitchen, living room and bedrooms on the ground floor, followed by the upstairs addition that accommodates homestay guests. Her bedroom and office sit to one side, two stories in brick and tin with a charm all their own. Just a few steps down the path from the open-air dining area, Saloma’s grandmother lives in a cottage by herself — walking up the path to check on the family a couple times a day. She is seemingly frail and tiny, yet probably knows this land and its trails better than anyone around.

We explore the upstairs — a perfect perch among the treetops with double hammocks, an open living room and all the sounds of the jungle. Saloma calls us to lunch downstairs where a table full of amazing food — rice, pineapple salad, exotic fruits, everything fresh from the jungle — awaits, while her family members come and go with the business of the day. Her father arrives, fit as a fiddle, back from his outing on their land with a basket full of durians and pineapples hanging from the tumpline at his forehead. The fruits of his labor will  be sold at the market.

The afternoon includes a hike to a waterfall not far from the house. Saloma’s brother and friends show us the way and we begin to understand that Saloma Villagestay is a family affair. It’s evident in the way her family looks to her for direction. Leadership comes naturally to her. Saloma left Kuching for Kuala Lumpur several years ago, studying communications at university. The allure of a good job in the city had enticed her to stay until a yearning to be with her family on the land where she grew up called her back. With encouragement from her friends, who had visited her in Kuching and experienced the uniqueness of her home, Saloma decided to create a homestay to support herself and her family. In the beginning, her family didn’t entirely understand her plan but over time they’ve come to see the financial and familial benefits, and enjoy the guests who visit.

And we are certainly enjoying our visit. As the afternoon wanes we drive up the hill to a neighboring village of longhouses. Many Bidayuh, one of the indigenous communities of Borneo and that of Saloma and her family, still live in these elevated, communal houses with public space along one side and private rooms on the other.

We return to Saloma’s for dinner — a feast of flavors, both familiar and new, with succulent fruits straight from the trees. Some of her family members join us to eat, while others sit in the main room around an old television, one of the few modern conveniences in the house. There’s no pretense at Saloma’s — it’s meant to feel like home, like you’re part of the family.

Awake the next morning, we prepare for the day ahead. We hike from the house through the jungle and into the mountains, to the land and farm where Saloma’s family will soon be planting rice. It is impossible for us to judge the location of any property borders, but decades of hiking and farming the land have thoroughly — yet without paper — mapped all the terrain for Saloma’s family, including her grandmother who is hiking around on a trail nearby.

An extravagant lunch is prepared by Saloma’s mother, brothers and sisters, but only after we follow Saloma’s father up into the jungle to cut bamboo to make bamboo rice. He selects a grove, evaluates the shoots and cuts the ones he likes. Saloma, a living encyclopedia of  plant and flower knowledge, has gathered bounty for lunch along the way — lemongrass, ginger, chili peppers and flowers blossoms that will be prepared with durian for a unique side salad. She cuts stalks of sugarcane for us to chew on at the small farm at the top of the mountain, and after trimming down some young bamboo she buries the scraps while explaining to me that it’s done out of respect for this most precious resource of the jungle. We hike back down the mountain to the hut where we’re having lunch, passing a forest of rubber trees her family has planted nearby — a long-term investment that won’t mature for another few years, but will eventually be an important cash crop.

Our outing to the land and farm culminates in a most fabulous meal shared with nearly everyone in Saloma’s family (unfortunately Grandma has hiked back home). Pork is cooked over a fire as her mother makes the bamboo rice — a remarkable process inspired entirely by nature. Bamboo shoots are filled with rice and water, plugged at the open end and then the opposite end is placed in the fire to cook until the rice is done.

Saloma’s father, masterful with his knife, crafts a perfect set of drinking glasses out of bamboo for all of us guests. We sit in a thatched hut against a backrest he has constructed in the short time we’ve been here.

The meal is simply astonishing, exquisite, an experience resulting from years and years of Saloma’s family living, farming and knowing this land intimately. All of their experience is manifest in the details of the meal in front of us.

The same can be said of our time at Saloma Villagestay. Saloma has found a way to make a living and lead her family into the future while preserving and sharing her culture. Her choice to return home is the reason I’m able to sit here experiencing life in the jungle with the Bidayuh. Their way of life is being passed on, at least for one more generation. And for that, in my eyes, Saloma will always be Queen of the Jungle.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s