Of Men and the Moon: A Malaysian Memory

The author of this essay, Judith Doerr is a parishioner at Our Lady of the Mountains in Sierra Vista, Arizona, and served in the Peace Corps in Malaysia from 1967-1969. Also on this river trip was Judith’s friend Jim DeHarpporte, another Peace Corps Volunteer. Jim later became CRS Regional Director for this part of Asia and now leads the CRS West team, based in San Diego. Judith sent the essay to Jim on the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing.

Night was near as the long, narrow boats we’d hired edged around the bend in the Rejang River. As the Sekapan longhouse came into view, it appeared to be marooned on an island of mud in the low river. The children who had gathered at the bank accompanied us along the wide logs that formed the path up to the longhouse, which contained an entire village – an equatorial equivalent of a condominium on stilts. With kindness and with little fanfare, the “tuai rumah,” or headman, welcomed us for the night.

We were seven volunteers from four countries – the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand – on break from our teaching duties. It was 1969 and we were in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. We had met by chance the day before while seeking transport from a bazaar down river to another, smaller bazaar, the most remote one on the river. It was a trip involving two days of longboat travel and passage through a series of rapids. Our first day’s journey had brought us to the Sekapan longhouse.

As we settled in, we volunteers entertained one another with tales of our childhoods in four widely dispersed countries with remarkably similar cultures. A group of Sekapan men soon joined us in order to engage in the favorite entertainment of longhouses – lively conversation.

The Sekapans, we had been told, were an ethnic group unique to this longhouse, with language and customs distinct from their neighbors. Their immediate ancestors were said to have been hunters and gatherers. Having no other common language, we communicated primarily in rather broken Malay.

We sat on the floor drinking “tuak,” a fermented rice beverage, in the flicker of kerosene lamps: young adults from strange lands overseas and men of various ages from the heart of Borneo. Our conversation soon turned to the event that had fascinated all of us for weeks: the first landing of Americans on the moon. We had so far seen only photographs of the event, for this was a time before television could reach every corner of the globe. But the radio had revealed enough for all of us to be thrilled by the idea that humans had stepped out onto an object in space.

The Sekapan men were especially eager for more information than they had gotten from their radios. And so they quizzed us. “How far is the moon? Is it further than Singapore?” “How much did it cost to send men to the moon?” “Is President Nixon going to go to the moon?” “How does the moon go around the earth? Is it like the way I move my flashlight around my head?”

Our limited Malay and uncertain knowledge of physics could carry none of us through an explanation of gravitational forces. So, we all laughed and drank some more tuak and continued to talk of men and the moon.

During this long night in a remote community almost 13,000 miles from my home, I learned in a personal way some things I have never forgotten: How really small our world could become; how good humor and the desire for knowledge can cause language and cultural barriers to crumble; how a “giant leap for mankind” could indeed inspire people everywhere; how one can receive the gift of membership in the human family in the face of an infinite universe; and how technology subtly alters people’s perceptions of the world long before anyone is conscious of the impact that alteration will have on traditional values and traditional relations.

Today we live in a world of deteriorating nuclear plants, ocean pollution, global warming, a damaged ozone layer, and – most important for the Sekapan – a world of disappearing rain forests. So advanced technology and globalization seem far from benign. But that night – in a small village in the rain forest, far up a Borneo river, with the moonlight and stars almost as bright as our lamps, we were all innocents. We could sit together on the floor of a longhouse speaking in halting Malay of magical things. Our common sense of wonder lifted us beyond national boundaries, past differences of ethnicity, culture and religion, to contemplate the entry of our race – the human race – into the space age. And for that night we celebrated our own version of world peace.

– Judith Doerr

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4 Responses to “Of Men and the Moon: A Malaysian Memory”

  1. Mary Harrison Says:

    Thank you my dear friend Judith,I love you essay of your experience in Malaysia. You
    and your companions also took a “giant” step
    for mankind in cause of peace and brotherhood.
    Much love alway, Mary

  2. Sandra LaHouse Says:

    I was so proud of my college “roomie” when you joined the Peace Corp and I continue to be proud to know you as you continue to remind all of us about what is truly important.

  3. Mary Ann & Bob Hansen Says:

    This was such a beautiful statement on the meaning of brotherhood and peace. Perhaps it will inspire all of us to keep reaching out to others. Thank you so much, Judith.

  4. Anne Holmstrom Says:

    It was always such a joy to work with you at Northland Pioneer College — a lot having to do with your wonderful command of the English language and your ability to narrow things down to what is truly important in the project at hand — or even life in general. Keep writing — and we’ll all keep reading. Wonderful essay.

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