IN 1964, an American was asked to exchange his designated post in Miri with a fellow Peace Corps volunteer who ‘did not want to be in a very small town’, namely Marudi.
The two met in Kuching and after just a short discussion, Stuart Kearns, who was just 22 years old back then, said he would be very happy to be in Marudi.
The other Peace Corps volunteer, Bob Lynn, was very happy to be placed in the bigger Miri town.
Now at age 82, Kearns is still thrilled whenever he is thinking about all those years living in Marudi.
Charm of a small town
When Kearns landed at Marudi Airport in 1964, he was not too surprised to see that there were only two vehicles. He and a fellow Peace Corps volunteer Jim Bruce, received a VIP welcome from a school principal, Dennis Pritler, who drove a Land Rover – one of the only two vehicles in Marudi.
The two foreigners were taken to their ‘attap’ (thatched roof) house, and Kearns soon wrote home to say that he was living with 1,000 ‘cicak’ (small lizards).
“The house was very comfortable, though,” said the American.
His mode of transport in Marudi was a bicycle, which he used to ride to the Marudi Secondary School, not far from the ‘attap’ house.
The school was founded under the Colombo Plan, and had been financed by the New Zealand government since 1962.
Kearns’ students were not that much younger than him, and they found him to be an excellent teacher.
“I really enjoyed teaching and in the evening, my fellow teachers and I would use the vacant land at the end of the airport runway as our sports field.”
Six months later, there were quarters available where Kearns and Bruce moved into.
At that time, Kearns shared a house with Richard Goldman, another American Peace Corps volunteer who, like him, married a Kayan from Long Atip in Baram.
Kearns never underestimated the serene life in the Kelabit Highlands, but he admitted that he was amused by his students’ reaction to seeing a bicycle for the first time.
“They used to borrow my Peace Corps bicycle, which was made of very sturdy material as my students kept falling as they learned to ride. They really enjoyed using it, especially Dr Roland Dom Mattu, who later on became the first Kelabit gynaecologist in Sarawak.”
Marudi, to Kearns, was much better than any of the old Western cowboy towns, and the people were much friendlier.
“Everyone knew everyone. On rainy days, I would just leave my bicycle in town without ever needing to worry about anyone stealing it.”
Kearns and Goldman always had students coming to their quarters, cooking for them and enjoying wholesome time together.
These friendly students also went on to become Kearns’ lifelong friends. Among them are Simon Gelan Daya, the first Kiput whom Kearns had ever met in his life; Peter Kallang; Patrick Saging Sibat; and Charlie Baya.
In those days, the Marudi Government School only provided education up to Form 3. After that, the students would move to Miri to enter either Tanjong Lobang School or St Joseph’s Secondary School.
‘The kind postmaster’
Kearns had a very interesting story about A Mennon, the then-postmaster of Marudi.
“I remember how all letters had to be kept in the post office because there were no mailmen to send them via longboats. The people in the rural villages would come to town and inquire about their mails from Mr Mennon.
“Such was the situation, the address of many of the letters included ‘C/O Mr Mennon, Marudi Post Officer’.
Kearns said quite often, he would help the postmaster deliver some letters whenever the former went to accompany some students go back home, or visit the parents in the remote pockets.
“I also helped deliver letters from the villagers to Mr Mennon. That’s a highly personalised postal service in Baram back in the 1960s, and as far as I know, no mail was lost,” he said, adding that all letters would reach or leave Marudi via boat, motor launches or the rural air service.
Kearns also said Mennon always invited him and his friends for lunch on Sundays at the postmaster’s quarters, where then-Baram District Council administrative officer Wan Malang would also join them.
“Mr Mennon was a gracious host. His wife was a vegetarian, but she would cook a delicious meat curry for us,” he reminisced.
‘Centre of the world’
As a bachelor, Kearns did not cook. He would eat out at the Marudi Open Air Market, which he described as ‘the centre of the world in Marudi’.
“It’s where everyone knew everyone, and also a place where one could meet the VIPs.
“I spent many happy hours there and enjoyed the local fresh delights like the ‘cangkok manis’, ‘midin’ and ‘paku’, the exotic river fish, as well as Marudi’s very own ‘kueh tiaw’ (flat rice noodles), fried rice and fried noodles.
“The people were the Internet – you’d meet up with them and get all kinds of news. Many of the hawkers were like the ‘news bureau’!
“It was great for me and Jim (Bruce), of course. All we had to do was go there and we’d catch up on the news, whether from upriver or from across town.
“Today, the open air market no longer stands, and the stall operators, many have passed on.”
Still, Kearns had forged a lifelong friendship with one of them, Tan Ah Piou, who is still around.
Stuart and his wife, now having settled back in the US, would come to Sarawak almost every year to visit Tan and his family.
At one time, when Mrs Tan was afflicted with cancer, the Kearns helped out by raising funds to cover the cost of her treatment.
‘One hundred, enough’
When Kearns first arrived in Marudi, he was not surprised to see that there was no bank in Marudi.
However, he was definitely impressed by how his banking needs could still be done without much hassle back then.
“The Peace Corps teachers in Marudi, at that time, would collect their monthly allowances from Mr Lau Kim Loke, better known as ‘Kimlok’, the treasurer for the district office.
“At the end of each month, I would receive 100 ringgit, and Kimlok would simply tell me” ‘Satu ratus cukup’ (one hundred is enough).
“Where in the world could you get a banker like that?” Kearns chuckled.
The first bank was set up in Marudi in the 1970s, at the beginning of the logging industrial boom in Baram.
Kearns cherished one particular trip into the Kenyah-Kayan territories in Baram, organised by then-district officer Wan Hashim, involving students and Peace Corps teachers including Kearns and Andy Buchanan, a New Zealander.
“That longboat ride – it was an adventure of a lifetime. At every longhouse, we received Kenyah-Kayan traditional hospitality.
“To some of the longhouse residents, Andy and I were the first white men they had ever seen in their lives.
“The girls would perform the welcoming dance for us and everyone would participate in games like ‘main tali’, and of course the ‘burak’ (rice wine) would be served at each household unit.
“The drinking would continue until dawn. No one was actually allowed to sleep, as the host wanted to make sure that everyone stayed up until dawn!
Stuart said the next day, they would be sent off to the riverbank where soot would be smeared on their faces, ritualistically to augur another meet-up soon.
“We, the visitors, did the same to those sending us off. All these ended up with us chasing after one another, and laughter filled the air.”
The river trip up to Baram from Marudi spanned 120km, with each longboat powered by one gasoline-fuelled engine.
In this regard, Kearns recounted another memory.
“When the gasoline allowance provided by the district office ran out upon our return to Marudi, we stopped at Long Lama.
“In my pocket, I had my last 10 dollars. Tama Wing Tingang Wan, a former Member of Parliament from Long Ikang, then went to a shopkeeper to negotiate for some fuel using that 10 dollars.
“Thankfully, we had enough fuel to reach Marudi. He (Tama) was a great negotiator!
“No way would any ‘towkay’ (businessman) be that generous to provide fuel at a discounted rate in 2023!”
Another story had Kearns chuckling to himself.
“There was one almost unfortunate mishap during our trip. At Long Dunin in Tinjar, Baram, the people had been telling us about the ‘penyamun’ (marauders who would capture people for sacrificial offerings).
“One particular evening, Andy (Buchanan) got really drowsy from all the continuous feasting and drinking, and wanted to sleep in the boat. Someone saw him and suddenly shouted: ‘Penyamun’!
“Guns were immediately taken out from the rooms and people started to run towards the boat, ready to kill the ‘penyamun’.
“It was so fortunate that someone knew us, and managed to calm things down.
“It was starting to get dark; if things had gone really wrong at that time, Andy Buchanan might have ended up dead!
“At that time, the locals were terrified of the ‘penyamun’ and they would do anything, even killing, to prevent anyone of them from being a victim of the ‘penyamun’.”
Love for Sarawak
Kearns’ wife, Uyang, is from Long Atip and the couple has a son, Baya and a daughter, Unyang.
Since retirement, they have been living with their children in California, USA.
“I do my best to come back to Sarawak every year.
“The ‘small town’ (Marudi) gave me the best years of my life, and it’s a defining experience.
“Now I’m 82, and I’m still thrilled by Marudi, and the whole of Baram.
“I really enjoy all those enriching years teaching in Marudi, watching many of my students excel in life and become key figures in Sarawak, forging everlasting friendships.
“I even met my wife there, with whom we now have this lovely family.
“Sarawak will forever be in my heart, and I love it,” he said.