Blogs by Ann Massey
Enter Miss Miri
1/13/2011 3:35:41 PM
Recollections of a working class Australian adjusting to ex-pat life in Miri.
I saw that the 60th annual Miss Universe 2011 beauty pageant will take place on September 12 and will air live from Sao Paulo, Brazil and, immediately I was transported back to Borneo.
Borneo, the third largest island in the world, is a land of steamy, rain-sodden jungles and home to the Dayaks, fierce tribes who worshiped pagan gods and spirits and whose name is synonymous with headhunting.
But Jelimah, a thoroughly modern Dayak Miss, had turned her back on the centuries old tribal way of life for the bright lights of Miri.
Miri, a boom town, where a pretty girl could live in a house like a palace, and wear a different dress every day, not made with cloth she'd woven herself but purchased from glitzy shops crammed with jewels, creams and perfumes, shops with every delight imaginable to make her beautiful for the parties where she'd laugh and dance all night.
Jelimah was in a shop when my partner first met her - but serving, not buying. An assistant in a dry cleaners, she had swapped the steamy jungle for an even steamier environment and communal life in the longhouse for a cramped dormitory above the shop, shared with a dozen other starry-eyed wannabes.
There was no plumbing or power laid on in the jungle village in the back blocks of Sarawak, where every drop of water for drinking and cooking was drawn from the river. From as long as she could remember, it had been Jelimah's responsibility to fill the family's water pots at the riverbank and tote them back to the longhouse on stilts where she lived, at the end of a steep and winding jungle track.
She didn't have to go as far for drinking water in her new home. Just as far as the toilet. The only available water for washing and drinking was scooped from the cistern - the water tank that flushes and fills the toilet.
Paranoid about coming down with dysentery or, ... worse, from the moment I'd arrived in Miri, I boiled our drinking water for three minutes, always said an emphatic no to ice and only drank Coke from cans. I was appalled when my partner recounted how Jelimah was living. Even now, I shudder at the thought of dipping a cup into a slimy tank and I was easily persuaded to offer her a job as a live-in amah.
For both of us it must have been equally mind blowing. At the time, I felt I was doing something special by opening up my home to her. Heck it was a palace ... so different to what I was used to in Perth ... the deprived jungle girl had to think she'd died and gone to heaven.
I mean, it wasn't as if she had anything to do. Apart from some token dusting and sweeping, I continued to do 99% of the household chores. Some people have a way with servants. Not me! For the best part of a month, I pussy-footed round Jelimah treating her like a young relative I'd never met, over here on holiday who required entertaining.
I think Jelimah would have up and left her gilded cage sooner if she hadn't set her sights on entering a beauty pageant and needed a sponsor. I didn't hesitate and for the next six weeks everything took a backseat to winning Miss Miri.
More about Miri's answer to Miss Universe next time ... and even more about the amahs in: The White Amah by Ann Massey available from amazon
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