Sunday, July 27, 2008

Asia in the 1970s

[Note: This travelogue has been re-formatted within the blog to facilitate better searches and commentaries. The original travelogue can still be found here]

Following graduation in 1970, and armed with two degrees in geology, I set out into the world as a petroleum geologist. Over thirty five years later I’m still doing it and, despite some significant ups and downs, still enjoying it.

My resumé says I have worked all the major continents other than Antarctica, and most of the oceans in between. I have found my share of oil and gas, but so far always for others. So I don’t own my own oil well. This is an industry I am proud to belong to, despite its reputation among those who take it all for granted but complain anyway about how “big oil” has raped and pillaged the land and the oceans. This is a subject that usually forces common sense and good judgment to be silent witness to a brawl of emotions.

There are at least three ways to see the world: hitch hike while you are still young, save up and see it when you retire, or take a job that includes travel. I chose the last option and have few regrets. Perhaps the one fault with being paid to see the world is that the employer expects results and this all too often means that the opportunities to stay an extra week or to take a side tour are denied.

The Trucial States

That said, let me begin my journey. In 1971 I spent three months working in Abu Dhabi which was then one of seven Trucial States. In December of that year they formed the United Arab Emirates and officially ceased to live under British protection. Abu Dhabi and Dubai were then competing for importance as gateways to incredible wealth for foreign investors. Buildings were rising out of the desert as fast as the concrete could be imported, mixed and poured. Out in the desert and the mountains, meantime, life went on as it always had. But not for long.

Dubai Creek, 1971
Nikkormat FT with Nikkor 50mm f2 lens. Ektachrome

Dubai was always the most exciting city in the region, having more roots than Abu Dhabi or Sharjah. The old souk was famous for its gold trade and the creek offered a good anchorage for the many trading dhows. I photographed this bustling scene from a friend’s apartment. I understand that things have changed a lot in the past 34 years.


My work took me to Singapore in 1974. As a regional center, Singapore was always nice to come home to, but somehow this city state never really inspired me in the seven years I lived there. Perhaps it was because they kept destroying all the good bits in the name of progress!

But it was a good place to raise a family. The government had all but banished the mosquito, making the city a pleasant place to live despite the year round tropical humidity.

Just one photograph of Singapore, and probably not the one the city planners would want me to show. Early in 1974 there were still night time tours of Chinatown, with a well-informed guide who seemed to know exactly when each temple would have a ceremony. This Daoist altar was one of the more colorful. I bet it’s long gone.

Singapore Chinese Temple, 1974
Nikkormat FT with Nikkor 50mm f2 lens. Kodachrome

For the rest of the 1970’s I travelled all over Asia, from Malaysia to Indonesia, to Thailand and Sri Lanka. Occasionally I stopped along the way with my Nikkormat and Nikon F2 and recorded some priceless (to me) memories. I hope you enjoy them too!

Mount Kinabalu, Sabah

My first trip outside Singapore took me to Sabah, the forgotten state of Malaysia previously known as North Borneo. This was a reconnaissance trip and for a week we drove down every highway linked to the state capital, Kota Kinabalu. Not all the roads were paved. We saw a lot of geology and took a lot of pictures. Sabah’s highlight is its crowning feature, the incredibly young but striking Mount Kinabalu. This is a still rising mass of granite that reaches over 14,000 feet above sea level, over a mile higher than any other point on the island of Borneo. It is so high that it suffered glaciation during the last ice age. It’s one of those special places.

Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, 1974
Nikkormat FT with Nikkor 50mm f2 lens. Kodachrome

Usually only visible early in the morning, we were fortunate to see it from a distance, near the town of Kota Belud, where we stayed in a roach infested hotel. Glad to leave, we soon caught a glimpse of the magnificent peak and stopped to photograph and marvel at this unique act of Nature. Later we would drive up to the National Park headquarters and spend a cool night at the base of the mountain. Unfortunately we did not have the time to climb to the top, this requiring two days out of an already very tight schedule.

Iban Longhouse

The indigenous Iban people of Sabah still lived in communal longhouses in 1974. Well, a few did, as we found out when we asked directions to one. If one still exists today it is probably in a museum.

Sabah Longhouse, 1974
Nikkormat FT with Nikkor 50mm f2 lens. Kodachrome

The concept of a longhouse community is an early indication of society forming amidst the harshest of environments. I profess to be neither anthropologist nor ecologist, but the simple life of the Iban longhouse community had much to commend it. The head of the village lived in the center of the longhouse, with families occupying rooms to right and left. I assume that the most junior families lived at each end. Each family room opened onto the communal veranda where the village society held sway. Crude ladders carved out of logs served as the entry way up and down from the structure.

In retrospect I feel honored to have stepped up the ladder and visited a vanishing culture - already the trappings of western culture were taking over.

Iban Elder

Iban Elder, Sabah, 1974
Nikkormat FT with Nikkor 50mm f2 lens. Kodachrome

Sitting on the veranda with a bemused expression, the Iban elder barely acknowledged our presence in his community. In times past he would have provided for his people. He would no doubt have fought off trespassers and might even have hunted the heads of other tribes. But now he sat listless on the veranda, still wearing his traditional headdress but with western style trousers and t-shirt. Look into those eyes and you see some of the mysticism that was Borneo.

Tenom Gorge

Several days later we traveled to the Tenom Gorge in order to examine the rocks that make up the Crocker Range. No road crosses the mountains, but a narrow gauge railroad follows the Tenom River through a spectacular gorge. We caught the daily passenger train and then walked down the track, stopping to examine and sample the various outcrops along the way.

Logging Train, Sabah, Malaysia
Nikkormat FT with Nikkor 50mm f2 lens. Kodachrome

We had anticipated no trains until the afternoon passenger train, but had neglected to remember that this railroad was built to serve the expanding logging industry already established deep in the center of the country. So it was with some surprise and concern that the first logging train blasted through a narrow cut, leaving precious little room to dodge to safety. Later in the day we became accustomed to the schedule - full train downhill, empty train uphill - and waited for a good photo opportunity.

In many respects the logging trains were symptomatic of the changing times, engaged in stripping the skin off a living ecosystem that included the Iban elder, sitting in one of the last longhouses in the state. As is the case with so many places once visited, I have no desire to return.

Jakarta, Gateway to Indonesia

Jakarta is the capital of Indonesia. It is also the place you more or less have to go to in order to get to most other parts of this huge archipelago (in area the size of the contiguous United States). Most of the time I passed through this huge, sprawling city on the northwest coast of Java in order to go somewhere else.

Flying into Kemayoran Airport, Jakarta, 1974
Photographed through the window of a Fokker F-27 on its approach into Jakarta’s Kemayoran Airport.
Nikkormat FT with Nikkor 50mm f2 lens. Kodachrome

Fly into any tropical city and the first thing you notice is the abundance of red-tiled roofs. Jakarta is no exception, it’s just that there are a lot more of them than most tropical cities. The many canals provide all the water the locals need, including an open sewer system. Fortunately it rains a lot.

My principal job in Indonesia was to look after an exploration program on the island of Sulawesi, previously called the Celebes. It’s the island with four arms, or legs, or is it two arms and two legs? Strange how man can be anthropomorphic even with an island. But what an island this is!

To get there I took a Garuda DC-9 flight from Jakarta to Ujung Pandang. Ujung Pandang used to be called Makassar. [Trivial information: the linen squares on the backs of sofas and armchairs were called anti-makassars. They protected the fabric during the time when men used makassar oil to slick their hair]. The landings at Ujung Pandang were hair-raising to say the least due to the presence of a mountain chain at the southern end of the runway. But twice a day the DC-9s would groan and struggle their way into a hurried approach and somehow defy what appeared to be the inevitable crash landing.

Ujung Pandang

In 1975 Ujung Pandang was a huge city dominated by the bicycle. There were few cars and trucks but thousands of bicycles and bechaks, or pedal-driven trishaws. Twenty five years later they probably have huge traffic jams, but then it was possible to ride your bike with a friend and smile at foreigners with cameras.

Ujungpandang 1975
Nikkormat FT with Nikkor 50mm f2 lens. Kodachrome

It took us most of the day to get from Jakarta to the Rest House in Ujung Pandang, so it would not be until the following morning that we would venture out into the country for a six hour drive to Sengkang, a provincial town closest to our operations. This afforded me three cherished opportunities: go shopping for the local filigree silver jewelry, visit the old Dutch fort and harbor, and eat the local barbecued jumbo shrimp at the Asia Baru restaurant.

The port is home to the Buginese Merchant Navy - well they didn’t exactly call it that - which consisted of the last remaining tall ships engaged in regular trade around the Indonesian archipelago. This is what the Buginese have always done best, but progress is changing this for good. The tall ships, three-masted schooners called prau, were constructed on an island offshore Ujung Pandang out of local wood. No nails were used in their construction. I never managed to take a really good photograph of a prau, but was pleased, years later, to see a remarkable documentary series on PBS that brought the memories flooding back.

Early the following morning we would depart Ujung Pandang by jeep and take the mountain road over to Sengkang. If I was in the field for an extended stay, I would take my field assistant, Hassanudin, with me. Being Buginese, he was trilingual, understanding the local language that was still thriving despite the government’s urge for all Indonesians to speak one nation-binding language. Hassanudin had been given the name of a great ancestor, a warrior much feared by the many other peoples of the archipelago. He looked the part, with long black hair and a silver ring on each finger.

Buginese Girl

Foreigners were not very common in Sulawesi in 1975, so I drew a crowd wherever I went. Cries of “Belanda” went up as our jeep drove into each village. I checked my dictionary. Why were they calling me a “Dutchman”? Hassanudin explained that all foreigners are considered to be Dutchmen. “Tidak Belanda, Inggeris” I exclaimed more than once, but it made no difference. Children flocked around the jeep, laughing, pinching the hairs on my arms and asking to be photographed. The little girl in the white dress with blue spots caught my eye and after taking several pictures of her, I added my flash and took one more.

Buginese Girl, Sengkang, 1975
Nikkormat FT with Nikkor 50mm f2 lens. Kodachrome

The Buginese have a reputation for being fearsome people - the bogeymen of bedtime stories - but all my contacts with these wonderful, proud people went against conventional wisdom. I was invited to parties, a wedding, and to philosophical discussions over a warm bottle of Bintang beer with a Kepala Kampung (village head). I shared a swimming pool with an entire village, placing second in a two lap race with the local sports hero at the end of each long day’s fieldwork.

Toraja Country

Toraja House Carving - 1974
Nikkormat FT with Nikkor 50mm f2 lens. Kodachrome

North of Sengkang and in the central anatomy of Sulawesi are more mountains, and the people here are quite different from the Buginese. Instead of rice-growing plains people and sea-going sailors, the mountain people are also a tough lot, eking out a living on the hillsides. The people of Toraja have become better known as a result of tourism and television documentaries, but in 1975 they were still largely unknown to the outside world.

Strange, therefore, that these Animist people had already embraced aspects of Christianity, unlike their Muslim neighbors to the south. The missionaries had yet to complete their work, however, as the Toraja people still clung to their ancient ways. Perhaps the most obvious of these were the cliff graves and the wonderfully decorated houses and barns..

Given the possibility of a time machine I would go back to Rantepao, the largest town, but only if I could be sure that the place looked like it did in 1975. They were already beginning to build fancy hotels back then.

A culinary note: we sat down to dinner one evening and I asked what was on the Rest House’s menu. “Half cooked chicken” was the reply. I thought about this and the implications of eating raw meat that might not be all that fresh, in a remote area far from clinics and hospitals. I modified my order to “Twice-half-cooked-chicken”. It wasn’t exactly like the ones from Kentucky but I survived.