We spent a couple weeks in Malaysia this spring. Most of that time we stayed in the classic tourist destinations: Georgetown and Melaka for their rich layers of Dutch, Portuguese, British history.
We tried to see some of the incredible nature, too. My personal highlight was Sarawak on Borneo. We went to the UNESCO global geopark on Langkawi Island and took a bus inland to the tea country of the Cameron Highlands.
Everywhere we went, I was struck by two things. The first is that in a predominantly Muslim country it can take a while to find alcohol. Evening mealtimes for Uwe and me are when we want to linger over a glass and talk about what we saw during the day. In Malaysia we’d peruse the menu at the front of a restaurant and turn the pages to the very back where the drinks were listed. If it didn’t serve beer or wine, often we’d smile and say thank you, and head further down the street feeling slightly like jerks.
The second thing I noticed is that in every place we visited, streets in Malaysia contain the houses of worship of different religions. Muslim mosques, Christian churches, Hindu, Buddhist, Tin Hau and Chinese temples, one next to the other line a street. Everywhere.
We explored many of them and I was delighted and calmed by the sweet atmosphere in these roads. The world feels more and more divided. But the Malaysians we talked with are proud of the religious tolerance and multicultural blend that makes up their country.
And that’s a concept I’ll gladly raise a glass of wine to….
I was going to tell you about Malaysian Borneo when I got sidetracked by their neighbor Brunei. Moving on quickly (which is what we did as we flew over the sultanate on our way to the state of Sarawak), we landed in Kuching. What a lovely, lovely city. Kuching should get its own post, and likely will. We roamed along the riverfront walk and slurped down laksa noodle dishes with gusto. Kuching is a great spot to head out to various national parks to see wildlife.
Borneo is home of the native Dayak tribes. Remember childhood tales of the wild headhunters of Borneo? The Dayak call this ritual Ngayau. We visited Dayak long houses. Smoked skulls still hang at the hearth in the central long house.
The most important tribal figure is the head chief, closely followed by the shaman. This medicine man, also known as a balian  is responsible for the health of the tribe as well as interceding between the worlds.
During our time in Kuching I’d been glancing in shops without actually entering any of them. Among the streets of tourist trinkets, one store fascinated me. On the last day I made a beeline for that shop. 
And then I made a beeline for a shelf lined with containers topped by human figures.
Jerry Ang, the soft-spoken shop owner, kindly answered all my questions. He told me these were Dayak shaman medicine containers. The figures are hand carved from polished buffalo or cow bone. A shaman had hand-etched the jar with scrimshaw patterns. Dayak shamans used the containers to store herbs, magic powders and betal lime to make medical potions. Some still contained resins – Jerry and I opened each jar and sniffed.
The carved figure indicates the illness the potion was intended to treat. Some of the figures held their heads (aches and pains of the head) or their stomachs. Some figures even depicted a person crouched over… the traveler’s curse of diarrhea for sure.
My piece has a prawn carved on the back: Jerry thought maybe prawns were one of the main ingredients in the medicine. Or perhaps the prawn indicated the woman who made the potion (he said the figure was female), or an ancestor. An on-line source tells me the scrimshaw work represents animals that bring good luck. If anyone can give me more information, I’d be most grateful!
NOTES:  Balian is the term used for traditional healers on Bali, too. Healing arts are passed down through generations. Twenty years ago I did a massage exchange with the son of a balian there; he had been taught by his father. To learn more about the Dayak shamans go to http://factsanddetails.com. The article gives the following information: “Shamanic curing, or balian, is one of the core features of these ritual practices. Because illness is thought to result in a loss of the soul, the ritual healing practices are devoted to its spiritual and ceremonial retrieval. In general, religious practices focus on the body, and on the health of the body politic more broadly. Sickness results from giving offense to one of the many spirits inhabiting the earth and fields, usually from a failure to sacrifice to them. The goal of the balian is to call back the wayward soul and restore the health of the community through trance, dance, and possession.” [Source: Library of Congress, 2006] Or see Wikipedia: The Dayak People  See also Unika Borneo, the shop where I found my figure. I receive no commission for mentioning the store. I just think they deserve to be mentioned. More figures can be admired at https://borneoartifact.com and https://www.esotericstuff.com
The island of Borneo is very special. Its territory is divided up between Malaysia (the Borneo part), Indonesia (Kalimantan), and the tiny sultanate of Brunei. Brunei is currently in the news as the all-powerful Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who also acts as prime minister, insists that Brunei will implement sharia law. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has ruled non-stop for 52 years.
Harsh penalties have been in force since 2014; the second and third stages to the penal code just went into effect a few weeks ago on April 3. People convicted of being gay men or adulterers die by stoning. Thieves lose the right hand for a first offense, and the left foot for the second. Blasphemy or leaving the Muslim faith earns the death penalty. The new laws criminalize ‘exposing’ Muslim children to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam. Cross dressing earns imprisonment. Abortion shall be punished with public flogging. Lesbians get flogged with 40 strokes of the cane and/or a maximum of 10 years in prison.
These laws mostly effect Muslims, though some aspects apply to non-Muslims. One-third of the country’s population is not Muslim.
Human Rights Watch condemns the new penal code as “barbaric to the core”. In ‘fairness’, it’s not entirely clear whether death by stoning will actually be implemented. A high burden of proof is needed.
We just finished up a trip to that part of the world and had an amazing time on Borneo. It repels me beyond words to think that we might have visited this barbaric regime.
But I digress. I wanted to tell you about our trip. Come back later; I promise I’ll be in a better mood. I’ll have stories about orangutans, rare frogs, and Dayak shaman medicine to share with you.
I’ve worked as a massage therapist for the last 30 years, licensed in both the USA and in Europe. I reckon I’ve probably touched 1,000 different bodies.  I’ve massaged the following people:
A helicopter crash survivor. His back had turned into a mass of trigger points. He felt like they were on fire. It took four intense, 90-minute sessions over a two-week period to hunt down and treat the triggers one at a time.
An elderly neighbor with recurrent cancer. I went over once a week for years. A few weeks before she passed away, after her massage Gerda surprised me with a huge bouquet of flowers. She hadn’t forgotten that it was my birthday.
Tri-athletes at competitions to keep their leg muscles from cramping.
A dear friend with muscular dystrophy. She handles her disease with a grace that inspires and warms everyone lucky enough to know her.
My sister Barb and brother-in-law Javier. Both are potters, and their arms are like ropes of hardening clay.
My mother-in-law as she lay dying.
Two war refugees.
A woman with a cleft palate right after her corrective surgery.
Yesterday morning I did my final massage of the year: a return client who is now 4½ months pregnant. Kristi is the daughter-in-law of a German woman from my town. I’ve massaged three generations of that family. Today I got to meet the fourth generation, still in her mother’s belly.
We chatted through the massage. Like me, she’s an Ami married to a German. The two of us talked about the holidays, our cross-cultural families, what the year had been like. Kristi lay on her side bolstered with huge pillows. I placed my palms on her belly and imagined the little child inside. And, because so much of massage therapy involves directed intent, I turned my focus inward to tenderness, and a welcome, and hope. My last official hour of work couldn’t have been gentler. Or happier.
It’s been a long and somber year. I’m so glad to be ending it with a post dedicated to a promise of joy for the future.
Thanks to all my readers and followers for your support! As the Germans say, We will meet us again in 2017!
NOTES:  They say for true mastery you must perform a technique 1,000 times, on 1,000 different bodies….
I always feel a little strange when I recognize it’s time to mark milestones and I have several to announce.
This is my 99th blog post.
I’ve posted in these virtual pages twice a month since I began way back in September of 2012. It all started with my husband’s suggestion that I establish an Internet presence….
My published books are fiction, and this blog serves as a good place to present excerpts. Potential readers of my books might want a sample of my writing and a glimpse of the human being behind the words. It’s also a place for non-fiction essays. I get to explore ideas and topics that don’t need to be transformed for novels. Posting every other week is great writerly discipline. I’ve never missed a bi-monthly posting date!
…. and this all began simply as a way to introduce my two novels Tsunami Cowboys and Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Both are available at amazon.com in book and eBook form.
It’s been a fun journey these last three years! Thanks to all of you for visiting these pages. I wish everyone the happiest of holidays. I’ll be back in the new year with an announcement. Milestone #2 is on the way!!!
The Germans have a wry saying. “We sent for guest workers, but Menschen came instead.” Meaning that after WWII, the work force of foreigners who came to Germany turned out to be fellow human beings.
I find myself thinking about that saying. The flow of refugees heading this way is huge and overwhelming, and in some ways I am afraid. I love the security and safety of life here, how clean it is. I’m proud to live in a land with universal health care and great mass transit, wonderful street cafés, and (most important of all) the guarantee of personal freedoms and a firm commitment to human rights.
What does this have to do with the hordes of refugees flooding the country? I’m not sure. Maybe nothing at all. But I hear from some of my friends, “What if Europe becomes Muslim? What if the streets are filled next with women in full burkas? What if we lose our freedoms as Germans bend over backwards to accommodate the newcomers?”
They’re nameless, faceless. They’re the others, the ones who constitute a vague but ever-growing threat.
One of my great bonds with the man I married is our desire to explore the world together. We’ve taken vacations in moderate Muslim lands. Every trip was wonderful, filled with people with dreams and hopes like yours and mine. I have a serious disconnect when I try to reconcile the horror of ISIS with the kindness of the friendly people we met in Egypt… Indonesia… Tunisia… Malaysia… Turkey… Singapore. The answer, of course, is they can’t be reconciled. The two have nothing to do with each other.
I’m terrified of the fanaticism that just killed more than 100 people in Paris. The refugees are terrified, too. The people fleeing to Europe want the same things we do: a civilized place to work, live, and raise their children. A stream of humanity is arriving. People with dreams and hopes, like yours and mine.
Each time I go to massage the refugee M. , I’m confronted with my own fear of the unknown foreign.
We have no languages in common. I’m not only working without any knowledge of her history; we can’t even talk. One of her children remains in the room the entire time to translate into German for her.
These are the hardest sessions I’ve ever attempted.
As a therapist my hands know their work; I’m capable to treat her PTSD symptoms. But the person-to-person connection…. I have to do this solely through touch. The afternoons of therapy have changed my understanding of the human dimension. It’s become more complicated, and much simpler. It’s changed me as well.
NOTES:  To respect the privacy of the persons involved I have changed the names and use initials only.