In his poem “Anecdote of the Jar,” Wallace Stevens explores the image of a jar placed on a hill. He writes, “It made the slovenly wilderness / Surround that hill.” The message is simple but non-trivial, and I try to keep it in mind when I travel.
We arrived in Kuching, East Malaysia around midday and took a short taxi ride to our hotel, which we were told was near the city center. It was not immediately obvious that this was correct. The “city” I saw was a few empty-looking apartment buildings, hotel towers, and banks – American, European, Chinese, Malaysian – all rising out of a base of two-and three-story buildings. The sidewalks and roads were mostly empty.
We were in Kuching to identify research topics around the theme of “urban sustainability,” but we had no ground contacts in the city. We decided that our method, for lack of better options, was to walk around and ask questions. Without a map and looking to orient ourselves, we walked through empty blocks of concrete storefronts – aluminum distributors, electronics importers, rice wholesalers, their signs all in both English and Chinese characters – and we eventually made it to the river, which we had seen from the air on our way in.
There were boats tied up near where we were looking out onto the river, and some fisherman called out something unintelligible in a friendly way. I used this as a pretext to approach them and talk, and I discovered that they were migrant workers from Indonesia, where I had previously spent a year living. We invited ourselves onto their boat, which they happily accommodated, and talked about the expected topics—their homes in Indonesia, life in Kuching, how it was to live on a boat. A small ferry was leaving the near bank of the river for the other side, where the low wooden houses were in the traditional Malay style. The fishermen told us that that was where all the Malay lived— that Kuching was an unofficially segregated city.
The observation piqued my interest. Urban segregation, I thought, could be a research lead worth pursuing. My mind carried the thought well beyond the scant information I had before me. Later that evening, I returned alone to the riverbank, eager to see the other side – and, looking back on the moment, when I am honest with myself, already expecting to see some kind of dark secret. No matter how much I travel, I fall into this naiveté with depressing regularity. If I had been more aware at the time, I might have understood that this “wilderness” of inequity might not have existed until I brought a jar into the mix.
I paid a fisherman to take me across and, once on the other bank, I encountered a friendly man who insisted on giving me a tour on the back of his motorbike, which I accepted. He took me up and down the road that ran parallel to the river. It is true that things were slightly different here: the quality of the houses, the newness of the cars parked by them, and the well-designed community spaces complete with river walk and a variety of restaurants. These things slowly introduced the thought that things here might not be better or worse so much as they are merely different. This revelation opened the remaining days up to more nuanced and productive questions…
Post by Christian Nicolás Desrosiers