From Toowomba to Miri

From Toowomba to Miri

Lesley seen with her shaved head in this photo, taken during the SCCS’ GoBald event in Miri last year.

THE first thought that went through Lesley Linggod’s upon seeing her future husband for the first time was: “Such a handsome man.”

She and that man, Julius Linggod, tied the knot not long after that encounter, in 1970.

Their courtship truly exemplified the proverbial ‘whirlwind romance’, but it was more than that.

Indeed, Lesley had not only fallen in love with him, but would later embraced Sarawak wholeheartedly as her home.

Julius, the first Sarawakian trained as an agronomist in Australia, brought Lesley to his homeland in 1973. At the time, they were in their 20s.

Over five decades on, and she still finds every day in Sarawak ‘an adventure’.

“I could not have a better life than this one in Sarawak! I believe that I’m meant for this great adventure in this country, far away from my birthplace Australia,” she told thesundaypost in Miri.

Nothing much fazes Lesley, and it has always been that way for her, but when it comes to Sarawak, she claims that her life in this ‘Land of the Hornbills’ can really fill volumes of books – if she were to write any.

“I must, one day, get down to write a book,” she always tells her friends.

Lesley made Miri her home in 1981, after having lived in Kuching, Sibu, Selangau and Bukit Peninjau.

Arrival in Sarawak

Lesley was born in Toowomba, Australia, in 1951.

Julius was a Bidayuh from Kampong Stass in Bau District, who received Sarawak government’s scholarship to undergo training in Australia.

“To this day, I still believe that fate has brought us together.

“It’s like a fairy tale.

“When we got engaged, suddenly there’s somebody from, or who had been to Borneo.

“Dad had finished up at Balikpapan (Indonesia’s East Kalimantan in Borneo) after World War II.

“And then, there’s a veterinary student whom I had worked with at the Queensland University, who was later stationed at the Australian army base in Kampung Stass.

“Indeed, it’s a small world.

“Then, we met a Bidayuh family in Sydney. Someone from Borneo would always pop up,” she chuckled.

Lesley said when Julius was arranging for her trip to Sarawak, he had told her that ‘the living conditions would be bad – more or less like a chicken coop’.

“Actually, I found our temporary residence at Lintang Park in Kuching quite pleasant – a three-bedroom semi-detached unit,” she recalled.

However, it was no luxury either. The main tap was outside and the rent was ‘quite high’ for that period, RM150 a month.

The couple shared the unit with Julius’ cousin.

Lesley learned to wash clothes by hand. Bedsheets were among the non-essentials as they slept on a soft mat.

Lesley became a teacher at a private school in Kuching, with a monthly salary of RM220.

The students were not much older than her.

“I taught six policemen in the evening class – later, they all passed their Form 5 examinations,” she smiled.

‘Kuching, and its anecdotes’

Not many Sarawakians back then had ever seen any red-haired, freckled white woman, so Lesley really stood out.

“Grandmothers would come up to me and feel my hair. Some even advised me of the ‘potions’ that I should use to get rid of the freckles!” she laughed.

Julius, on the other hand, had become more tanned, having worked for quite some time on an experimental farm commissioned by the government.

“So, we had this joke: in Australia, I could find Julius anywhere, but in Kuching, it’s he who could find me just as easily.”

Lesley then related her ‘betel nut and lime’ incident.

“I was at a friend’s house when I joined a group of women who were ‘menyirih’ (having a betel-nut chewing session).

“Out of politeness, I did not refuse when they offered the betel nut-betel leaf-‘kapur’ (lime) combo to me.

“What I was not told was that I must, in between the chewing, spit the juice out.

“You see, because of my upbringing, nothing would ever make me spit!

“So I kept chewing and chewing, and in the end, I swallowed the whole thing!

“My mouth went numb for ages!”

Lesley also spoke about many aspects of her husband’s home village, located about 18 miles from Bau town.

“In 1957, when Julius was still in primary school, he had to walk home from Bau every fortnight to replenish his food supply. Back then, the school only provided clean water.

“Located about three miles from the Kalimantan border, Kampung Stass was on the map during the Confrontation (between Malaysia and Indonesia) period.

“Members of the Field Force (now General Operations Force) would regularly go into the ‘kampung’ (villages), while the British Royal Marines Commando 40 Coy were sent in via helicopters.

“These were joined by the British SAS Unit, also flown in.

“Then there were the British Green Jackets and Irish Hussars, they all came – all about 1,000 of them!

“The village folks would often get lifts from the troops.

“By 1973, the road to Kampung Stass had improved, thanks to the military. Still, when I went there in May that year, the road was still bumpy.

“There’s a clean and clear river by the village. There’s no electricity or water supply.”

Photos from Lesley’s family album show them in Bidayuh attire during a past Gawai Dayak celebration, and (inset) the couple on their wedding day back in the early 1970s.

‘Of food, language and transfers’

Lesley learned to eat not only rice, but also chillies and ‘belacan’ (shrimp paste).

“Not that I had much choice in those days, right?

“So I stoically learned to eat and cook anything that was available, be it from the jungle or the local market. Still, at times I could get good meat in Kuching.

“For me at the time, I was happy in terms of food.”

Not many expected Lesley to be quite fluent in Malay.

“I actually studied Bahasa Indonesia; in fact, I could speak Malay in just three weeks after having landed in Sarawak.

“Still very good in Malay today,” she said, with a wink.

Lesley took everything with forbearance. She continued her story.

“We were awaiting the birth of our eldest child in Kuching, when Julius got the order for a transfer to Sibu. Our baby was due in two months.

“So what happened was Julius was able to stay in Kuching until the baby was born, and I was very happy about that.”

Obviously, being an Australian, Lesley did not undergo the usual lengthy confinement like many Asian mothers would.

Moreover, she went to the school to celebrate Teacher’s Day in 1974 when her first-born, Natan, was only two weeks old.

“I got an earful from the friendly Chinese shopkeeper, who chastised me for not undergoing the 40-day confinement, and warned me that because I didn’t do that, I would have a lot of future disasters!”

Still, three weeks after that, Lesley went with the baby to celebrate Gawai Dayak in Kampung Stass.

At the village, she recalled another anecdote.

“My brother-in-law said the baby had ‘lovely skin, but pity about the hair’.

“Natan is indeed fair, and his hair is slightly reddish. Today with the availability of modern and easy-to-apply dyes, many people, including some elderly folks, sport that very red shade that Natan has.

“Well, one can never know how hair trends will go, right?”

The family, at the time, had a small car – a Suzuki 360cc pick-up.

“The road conditions were still bad when we travelled to Sibu. Our car was so overloaded that Julius could only see forward, because the view from the rear windshield was blocked by bags, mattresses and all things that we brought along.

“The fear was our little tiny car could just ‘disappear’ into a pothole!” she laughed.

At the Mukah-Balingian oil palm estate, Julius was provided a unit at the barracks, which they had to share with two bachelors.

“Later, the conditions became unsuitable for the born baby, so I decided to move to Sibu.”

At the town, Lesley and Baby Natan shared a house with Julius’ cousin, whose wife spoke no English.

“I could not speak ‘Jagoi’ (a Bidayuh dialect) then, but after a year, we could converse fairly well with each other – she in English, and I, in Jagoi. It’s where I picked up the dialect.”

Not everything was ‘all rosy and fine’ at the time.

“The road to Selangau was bad and dusty. The political situation was equally bad, as there were stories of shootings and killings. The Sibu town itself was like a war zone, with the government offices and houses surrounded with barbed wires.

“And there were many road blocks everywhere.”

In 1975, the family went to Australia where Julius had completed his degree studies.

In 1976, they relocated to Bukit Peninjau, near Miri city, where their second son, Daniel, was born.

In 1978, the family moved to Ladang Tiga near Bekenu, and in 1980, they went to Lambir.

In 1980, the third son Jason was born. The couple later adopted a girl, Nadia, who was born in 1984.

Lesley with her children (from left) Natan, Nadia, Jason and Daniel.

Life in Miri

Life was slightly better in Lambir, which was about a half-hour by road from Miri.

There was electricity and water supply, and a very large ceramic jar was placed in front of the house that stored water for washing the feet before entering.

It was convenient, but Lesley especially found it exciting that she could go to Miri using the bus, while carrying Baby Jason in a wrap-strap.

“People kept staring at this white woman, carrying a small child the way that they did.

“It took some time to get used to that,” she recalled.

Lesley set up a kindergarten in Lambir, and she enjoyed teaching all the children.

“I was fortunate that I could get lots of books for the pupils. The kindergarten thrived.”

Her regular trips to Miri connected Lesley with the members of the expatriates’ community. The Gymkhana Club was a haven for her, where her boys enjoyed the pool and also the playtime with other children.

In 1982, Julius landed a job in Shell Company, and the family moved to Miri.

In 1984, they bought a house in a Chinese neighbourhood in Krokop, where Lesley described the environment as being ‘delightfully rustic’.

With the move, Lesley had to pass the management of the Lambir kindergarten to a friend, whom she jokingly said ‘inherited all her books and her pupils’.

Nonetheless, she continued teaching at some private kindergartens in Miri throughout the 1980s; in 1989, she went to teach at the Sri Mawar Kindergarten, and then moved to Sri Mawar Primary School, where she served from 2002 to 2014.

English tuition was in great demand, and she was able to augment the household coffers by taking in a few students.

Her boys attended the St Columba’s School, known to house children from the local and international communities.

“Well, all this passed too soon – the boys grew up, went to universities, got married and built careers of their own.

“Julius later retired from Shell and after that, had a stint of contract works related to his special qualification – agronomy.

“Sadly, he passed away in 2019 after a short illness, at age 72,” she said.

‘Giving back to community’

Lesley’s friends describe her as ‘a very friendly person, always able to get along with anyone, and also very giving’.

Indeed, Lesley is known to have organised many successful events for Gymkhana Club Miri and concerts for Sri Mawar Group of Schools.

The late Florence Moon Enau hailed Lesley as ‘probably the most amazing person I had ever known’.

“Whenever Lesley takes charge of a function, she would see it through.

“Also, she is a very good sport. She went bald to raise money for Sarawak Children’s Cancer Society (SSCS).

“The Miri Ladies’ Christmas Dinner is another event that many of us would look forward to.

“It was sad that during the MCO (the Movement Control Order, in force during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021) when no social gathering was allowed and we all must stay at home.

“Of all the expats married to locals, Lesley has lived under the most adverse conditions.

“Probably, she’s the only among us who has lived in many places in Sarawak,” said Florence during a meet-up with the writer a few years ago.

Florence was a teacher too, having taught at St Columba’s Secondary School in the mid-1970s and later, she became the headmistress of Sri Mawar Kindergarten, serving from 1985 to 2006.

She passed away in May last year, at the age of 80.

Another ‘Lesley’, Lesley Tan, married to Tony Tan, said: “I first met Lesley at the Gymkhana Club in 1987. She had planned many Christmas and Halloween parties, and also other events for the members’ children.

“She played a main character in the club’s stage production of a Shakespeare’s classic, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. She gave a fantastic performance, with all her children playing some parts as well.”

Lesley had put her tertiary education on hold after she married Julius.

However, after her children had gone on to pursue their undertakings, she went back to Australia to pursue her Bachelor’s Degree.

When she was at the Sri Mawar Primary School, she already held a Master’s Degree in Applied Linguistics, on top of other teaching qualifications.

This photo, taken in 2015, shows the couple with their grandson Reid, who is Jason’s son.

Today, even in retirement, Lesley continues to provide tuition to those in need to improve their command in English.

It is not a surprise at all that her friends hail her as ‘an inspiring human being’.

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