A Travelogue in Four Parts
I spent the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 in Borneo. These are the notes I took while on the island. A warning: the following account is personal, biased, unedited, and in some places, the truth has been stretched to make for a more interesting read.
Part I: In which the narrator experiences cultural fatigue, improper sleep cycles, and one particularly unnerving bridge.
29 November 2012, 6:08 AM
Watching the sun rise over the endless tarmac, the sound of jet engines humming in the background, it’s a new day. A new day and the final day of 2012 that I’ll spend on New Zealand shores. It feels good to leave. Airports only hold good memories for me. It’s as surreal as any departure, but by now the sensation is familiar: my eyes see a departure terminal, but my mind is still at home, asleep. I didn’t sleep last night, wired on the excitement of departure. I’ve been taking it easy for the past fortnight; detoxed and refreshed; flushed the alcohol, nicotine, codeine out of my system. It feels good to be clean; to be entirely free of chemical substances; to be stable and clear. Clean. I’m ready to leave, ready for something new, ready for the skies. I welcome new adventures with open arms.
Sitting at the boarding gate, the sky is dull and overcast, the sound of people in transit is soothing, everyone has direction, someplace to go. We are all history-less, anonymous. We are all leaving. In an hour I’ll be sitting inside a tin fuselage on the way to Borneo. Malaysian Borneo, via Melbourne and Singapore. The travel won’t be particularly pleasant: airlines are cutting their luxuries left and right, no free movies, no free meals; and they say the recession is over. While I’ve never minded flying, I’m anxious about this flight. My nose is blocked, I’m battling a head cold, and nothing kills the pleasures of the sky like blocked sinuses.
On a map Borneo appears close to New Zealand, In reality our overall flight time will clock in around 12 hours. Add the layovers, and we’re looking at 16 hours. With three flights, and layovers in Australia and Singapore, the travel will be taxing, but I’m not one to complain. I haven’t thought much about this trip. I’ve done very little research and only glanced over a Bahasa Malay phrase book. “Tak apa!” But I’m excited; excited to experience a new country, and to live in a foreign place, not simply ‘tourist’ it. Do as the locals do, when in Rome, when in Kuching.
Borneo, a lost world, mine to explore and plunder. I sit on an ergonomic chair in a tastefully decorated departure lounge. The sky is now a pale bruise spreading across the damp horizon. The people around me talk and laugh and pretend they are the only people that exist. I sit, with flight details flickering across an LED screen. I sit, on the verge of a tremendous expedition, my skin itching from lack of sleep, my eyes and lips dry from the stale air.
And this is my life.
The prospect of travel, the sterile smell of sanitary amenities, the dissonant chorus of flight announcements and lost baggage and missing passengers, I’m tired. I sit, my ears and eyes molested by speakers and screens, all of them heralding urgent warnings and friendly reminders not to trust anyone. Baggage left unattended will be destroyed. If you don’t watch your things they will disappear. It’s hard to remember when everyone got so fucking suspicious. People are anxious and waiting; ready to board, irritated at the delay, eager to arrive already. It’s not about the journey, it’s about the destination, and getting there as quickly as possible. Nobody thought the sound barrier could be broken, until it was. We were condemned to the earth, to the ground, to the land, and then we conquered the sky. Now we own the sky.
Small children scream, running through the lounge, smiling. Under-slept and over-excited they pay no attention to anyone, no concern for their appearance. Pure energy, pure emotion, pure joy; a purity that becomes stained by age and irony and experience. I sit, dressed in a button-up striped shirt, a pair of dark chinos and some faded Vans. Formal enough, but comfortable. Exhausted already.
A man across from me applies balm to a new tattoo, behind him a guy so-fat-he-can-barely-sit-down speaks seriously into a phone. It’s seven in the morning, November 29th and I’m sitting in the departure lounge of gate six. The sky is now the colour of children’s aspirin and I’m coming down fast. I will try to sleep on this leg of the journey; ‘try’ being the operative word. I will soon be in Borneo, the third largest island in the world. The oldest rainforest on the planet. I am the traveller of this story. The protagonist. The lead. I am nineteen years old with a beginner’s moustache, and the plane is now boarding. Take off.
30 November, 4:30 AM
Selamat Pagi. Good morning. Though it’s really still the night. The frogs and crickets and roosters have yet to begin the dawn chorus; the heat is bearable, but only just. The air is thick and tangy with the heady smell of rotting fruit and foliage, the sky is dark, but not for long. It is 4:30 AM on the lost island of Borneo.
I slept for six hours last night, which is reasonable considering my inevitable jet lag, but hardly enough to make up for the sleepless travel of yesterday. When all was said and done – layovers, delays, driving, flying – the travel time from Auckland, New Zealand, to Kuching, Borneo, was a little over 22 hours. It seems funny, because on a map the two islands appear close, very close, but it took longer to get here than it does to fly to the US.
Make no mistake, Borneo is not a country, it is an island that houses three different countries: Malaysia takes the top and most significant segment of Borneo, Brunei is merely a tiny slice on the West coast of Malaysian Borneo, and the bottom of the island is Indonesia. Malaysian Borneo is further split up into two distinct states: the cultural Sarawak, and the panoramic Sabah. From what I gather, Sarawak is far more ethnically diverse and is more authentic, more ‘real’. There are fewer national parks and glossy beaches and recommended destinations in Sarawak, but it is where life happens. Real life. Not a gaudy brochure or all-inclusive getaway. Far from the fat, burnt Westerners, uncomfortable without their television sets and high-speed wireless; tourists who are upset when their smartphone gets no reception, who complain mercilessly about the heat, who spend a week in a multi-level department store because it’s air-conditioned. Fuck the overstuffed, glass-eyed herd that ‘vacation’ at 5-star resorts and avoid the local culture at all costs – because it smells rotten and is bad for their complexion. “Here’s me diving, and here’s me holding a monkey, and here’s me by the pool, and here’s me eating noodles for breakfast – noodles for breakfast! – how local of me.” They bray and whine at the discomfort of the humidity, longing for the coolness of their suburban home, secretly looking forward to getting back ‘to civilization.’
“Here I am next to a Malaysian hamburger – look how different it is!”
I am in Sarawak, about an hour from the capital city of Kuching, in the small town of Bau. I will travel to Sabah in a week’s time, and will explore the beaches and coral reefs and celebrated rain forests. For the majority of my sojourn, I will remain in Sarawak and I’m happy to be off the beaten path, away from the Southeast Asia on a Shoestring crowd.
And here we are. Here I am. It’s 5:30 in the morning and I am happy. Grinning, even. The volume of the morning is rapidly increasing. Days start early here, since by midday the heat is unbearable. I’m in a new country. New experiences await. The smells have been familiar so far. Last night, after arriving in Kuching, driving away from the airport in my father’s Malaysian-made sedan, we stopped at a roadside restaurant and ate. Remember: we hadn’t had a real meal for almost 24 hours – after breakfast in NZ, we had croissants and coffee at Melbourne airport, and a pathetic four dollar packet of crackers on Jetstar – and after a full day traveling and lack of water, we were eager for some food and drink. Malaysians are notoriously bad drivers – they are nervous, lacking the assertiveness needed to function on a road, with poor skills and motor etiquette. They drive slow, but unlike the rest of Southeast Asia, they’re not constantly beeping at you. While their driving is bad, it isn’t overly dangerous. Or so it seems thus far. We pulled up at an Indian restaurant – though it really was just an open-air collection of tables and chairs, grills and stovetops, cooks and customers – and sat at a plastic table and ordered roti and mee goreng and lemon tea.
In Malaysia there are three dominant types of cuisine: Chinese-style food (sweet and sour, fried noodles and rice), Indonesian food (satay, more noodles and rice), and a kind of fusion Indian food (curries and rotis and spiced rice dishes). A roti is a lot like a small naan, dough is cooked on a stovetop, but it is folded around your choice of egg, cheese, milk, onion, or other filling. The hot bread is then served with a dish of curry – sometimes a lentil soup, or dhal – for dipping. The rotis last night were fantastic, roti telur (egg roti) – the fresh dough dipped in spiced curry was a unique taste to me. While I’ve had plenty of Indian food before, this was a special kind of flavor, a blend of India and Indonesia – we ate rotis alongside fried noodles – a fusion of taste that I thoroughly enjoyed. The meal for all of us – four rotis, mee goreng, about seven lemon teas – cost five NZ dollars. One roti will set you back around seventy cents. The cost of living is low here, of course. Obviously.
And here I am. I can’t believe I’m writing in Borneo. I can’t believe I’m sweating in Borneo. It’s just turned 6, and while the sun has yet to crack the inky black sky, the heat is noticeably greater than it was when I started writing this morning. Today we will take it easy, unpack, regroup, walk around Bau, explore the local market, adjust to the heat. It’s rainy season in Borneo, and supposedly it rains intensely everyday for at least two hours. The morning is divided from the evening with an afternoon of rain. I’ve learned how to say ‘good morning’ (selamat pagi) and ‘good evening’ (selamat patang), but skipped over ‘good afternoon.’ It rains heavily most afternoons, so we won’t be out walking. But I have a great book that I’m eager to start, plenty of research to do about Borneo, and this here chunk of steel and glass. I will be doing a lot of writing over the next two months. I’m ready to end this dispatch, the day has begun, the roosters are getting difficult to ignore, my attention is waning. I will set an intention to write regularly, and document this experience on the digital foolscap; a postmodern Beat. My fingers tap away, fortissimo, this ream of paper full of wayward musings affirms my existence; immortalizing my travels word by word. My head is clear, and I’m at peace for the first time in months.
1 December, 9:11 PM
Exhausted. Today was long and gruelling. Food fatigue, heat exhaustion, culture shock, jet lag. But what a day. What a full and rich day. From orangutan searching, to waterfall climbing, to rambutan and durian tasting, to general lack of food. Awake at 4 and retiring a little past 9, my first day in Malaysia, in Borneo. The lost island. I have so much to tell. For the first time in a long time, I have worthwhile experiences to document. But now I seek solace in the artificial breeze of the portable fan, the wafer-thin mattress and the thick night air. It’s still early, but I’m so far gone.
1 December, 5:45 AM
The first of December. A new month; new adventures. A new life, here. This is only my second night in Borneo, but it already feels like I’ve been here a week. A month even. I find that islands have this effect – the combination of relaxed ‘island time’, the heat and humidity, the intoxicating smell of rotting fruit that becomes familiar after a day or two… New Zealand seems like a dream.
On the arm of my brown faux-leather chair, a tiny translucent gecko rests. The rooster has been cawing for the past three hours. It’s coming up 6 AM, and the sky is thick and dark; the air is warm, but not uneasy. Everything still seems surreal, but when does the surreal become real? When does that hazy filter fade, and things appear as they are? The light here is dim: light bulbs, street lights, even the moon is dull; it adds to the surreal mysticism of the place. Like an unfocused projector, obscuring the images ever so slightly. It is a soft light. A calming light. I like it.
My body aches from yesterday. It was a full day, a good day. After a jet lagged and restless sleep, breakfast at a local food court in Bau – roti susu (roti with milk), fresh orange juice, a spiced rice dish – we drive towards Semenggoh Nature Reserve. The roads are tight, windy, potholed, and it doesn’t help that Malaysian drivers are, forgive my generalization, bad. We get stuck behind an industrial truck on the way, going 30 km/h, but the driver is either rude or oblivious, probably both, and doesn’t give us space to pass. Semenggoh is an interesting place. It only claims to be a nature reserve, but it’s also one of the only places in the world to see wild orangutans in an accessible location. Credit goes to the park for their relaxed attitude and brutal honesty – on arrival we see a sign that reads “in fruiting season the chances of seeing orangutans are close to zero” and the rangers certainly err on the side of caution regarding the possibility of an orangutan encounter. We’re told that there will likely be no orangutans and that we shouldn’t expect to see anything. Unfortunately the ranger is correct, and we don’t see any of the red-haired apes. While we don’t see an orang-utan (wild man), we see plenty orang-putih (white man). The park is one of Sarawak’s top tourist destinations, and by 9 it’s filled with eager white faces. We leave soon after the first feeding session, satisfied with the knowledge that we can come back another time (tickets cost 10 RM for adults and only 5 for kids – that’s $4 and $2 respectively).
The sky is light now. The jungle mist rolls in. Today we are heading to Kuching to wander the esplanade and explore the city… After Semenggoh, we took a back road through a number of tiny villages. By now it’s almost midday, and I’m sweating despite the air-conditioning in the car. I pull at my shirt, and sweat drips down my back. We stop in Benuk, a ‘home-stay village’ that’s been maintained for tourism. For authentic tourism. A village so authentic, it’s not. But the orang-putih love this kind of shit: local villagers dressing up in archaic costume and dancing around a fire – a sick kabuki enactment of ‘authenticity.’ Fake. There are few tourists in Bau, and everywhere we go people stare. White skin is strange, and while we can strive to fit in, speak Malay, do as the locals do, we will always be looked at as alien. In Benuk we buy ice blocks from a shack-like store. They melt before we open them, the sickly sweet syrup running down my hand. Nothing escapes the heat. Nothing can conquer the sun.
From a roadside stand we buy rambutan – an exotic red fruit, covered in green tendrils. The vendors are old women, and between the three of them, might have a mouthful of teeth. A full set of pearly whites is a luxury of the wealthy. Everywhere smells like durian. That large and spiky fruit, known for its fetid smell. It’s a local favorite and available for cheap at nearly every street corner. Eager to escape the heat, we drive up to the Borneo Highlands Resort – a gated high-altitude park covered with trails and gardens – but find that it is closed until one. This is common in equatorial countries where the humidity and heat is impossible midday. Attractions open early then close around 11 – they will then open again in the afternoon, after the worst of the heat is over. The heat is never truly over though, even at night the air is thick and heavy.
To kill time before the park opens, we wait at a nearby restaurant, the Love Café, and order a cool drink. Be careful if you order a tea, or even a soda, because it’s common for locals to put salt in them. The most popular drink around here is 100 Plus, an isotonic soft drink that tastes like a mix between Gatorade and Lift. The addition of salt to refreshments is actually a smart way to combat the excessive sweating, and I enjoyed the salty tang of the drink. A lazy ceiling fan moves dead air. The drinking glasses sweat. A cat sleeps under a table. The novelty of being white wears thin. We don’t take our shoes off before entering the restaurant, and only realize we were supposed to as we leave.
On the road up to the highlands resort I notice a waterfall and we stop the car. Off to the side of the road, across a bamboo bridge, up some ancient stone-cut steps, is Shangri-La. So close to the road, yet miles away from civilization, hidden from sight in thick rainforest undergrowth, two wooden Buddhist pavilions lie next to a grand waterfall. No gate, signposts or safety ropes, it felt like I had discovered a new land. A lost site. Xanadu:
[In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.]
Walking shoeless across a waterfall, sliding down mossy rocks, climbing hidden stairs – it was like an Indiana Jones film. And I was the fearless explorer. Venturing deeper, going further than anyone before me. Up a crumbling stone path above the waterfall was an old wooden bridge. A number of the slats had fallen away, and the whole thing was only supported by fraying rope and a rotting beam. Underneath was the waterfall, not huge but still very impressive. I climbed to the bridge. Across was another set of stone steps, leading up to nowhere. Or somewhere. Why would I try to cross? I had nothing to gain except the adrenalin rush and sense of accomplishment… I crossed. Slowly at first, then sensing the bridge’s sturdiness I ran to the end. Across. Accomplishment. I wanted to keep exploring, venture deeper into the jungle, up the stone stairs, into the unknown. The sense of adventure was intoxicating. My family were far below at the waterfall. A butterfly sat on a rock, its neon blue wings spangled with an orange band caught the sun in just the right way. It was huge, disarmingly beautiful – I close my eyes and realize that what it comes down to is that I’m a nineteen year old boy in the highlands of Borneo covered in sweat, jacked on adrenalin, above a waterfall, staring at the most beautiful butterfly in the world. Discoverer and conqueror of Shangri-La. Suspended above the world on an ancient bridge. If it were to break, if the support rope were to snap, I would die. Simple. Few things in life permit such clear calculation as the potential for death. The most basic binarism: if the bridge holds, I live; if the bridge breaks, I die. I live. A different butterfly, this one with petroleum black wings and a green strip across its body, flies above me.
I wasn’t scared about the bridge breaking, about dropping into the waterfall. What scared me most was the motor scooter parked across the road. From the bridge, I could see out to the road, and on the opposite side to where we were parked was the scooter, hidden by shadows, unremarkable, but still there. Its presence meant two things: one, my fantasy of secret discovery was ruined, and two, there were other people here. I’m not particularly paranoid, but the thought that there were people somewhere in the jungle, anywhere around me was unsettling. I imagined the worst – stumbling upon a drug deal, wandering into an opium field, being shot dead by Malaysian drug lords. Why else would there be a scooter parked across the road? Of course they were involved in some illicit act. I wandered into the jungle, scrambled up a bank and expected the worst. Caught in the middle of the Golden Triangle; VC in the trees; tattooed men carrying machetes; the smell of napalm in the morning. I would be an ignorant witness; the wrong place at the wrong time. Of course nothing happened. But just imagining it was enough. We descended back to the car. Nothing seemed real. It wasn’t Shangri-La, it was a roadside waterfall.
We continue up the steep road to the Highlands Resort. No cars are on the road. Healthy green vistas in every direction. Park in the visitor parking and walk up the path to the resort proper. It’s empty, renovations taking place; chanting leaks from discreet speakers placed around the area. The descriptor ‘Fellini-esque’ is thrown around more than once. The resort is lusciously manicured, with flowering gardens dotted around an expansive field. Horses trot in a fenced off paddock; gardeners in wide-brimmed straw hats tend to the flora. We’re not greeted by anyone. The last thing we ate was breakfast, and the sun is searing. Eager for a restaurant, for food, anything, we trek up the path to the ‘Clubhouse’ – 15 minutes later we’re still trekking; after an hour of walking, we decide to throw the towel in. Hungry. So hungry. Back to the car, down the road, salivating over imagined meals – half pound burritos, meatball subs, turkey melts, everything except Malaysian food – faint with hunger, tired, hot… Bitching and moaning in an air-conditioned semi-luxury sedan. Outside my window a boy carries an armful of durian up the road. A leather-skinned man sells fruit for five cents. A mother fans her child with a palm frond. Inside the car it is cool, too cold even. I roll down my window and roll it back up when I smell the outside world.
Rambutan only tasted good when I was hungry. I drank water to pass time.
Back in Bau. It hasn’t started raining yet but it will soon. We’re all tired and still haven’t eaten. It’s too early for dinner, and the restaurants stopped serving lunch hours ago. We drive to a huge supermarket, Giant, to buy snacks and drinks. It’s eerie. Bing Crosby croons over the speakers, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. For a predominantly Muslim and Buddhist country, there’s a lot of Christmas decorations. The supermarket is a microcosm of Western influence on the East: a man sells fruit alongside a store selling American infomercial exercise equipment; women in headscarves buy iPhone accessories from a vending machine. Giant is a product of the Malaysian government’s push towards first world status; the crass consumerism is a sign that things are working.
Take the worst of the West, slap on a discount sticker, and call it progress.
Economic progress is measured in bottles of Coke consumed. ‘Emerging economy’ is a euphemism. Every time a tract of rainforest is cleared to make way for a new shopping centre, the GDP goes up.
I go to bed with a knot in my stomach but maybe it’s just the A&W and Oreos. The West tastes bitter in this humidity.
2 December 2012, 3:47 PM
I’ve been in Borneo for 60-odd hours. It hasn’t even been three full days. Everything is still out of focus, but I’m adjusting to the haze. Surreal is becoming real, and it’s starting to sink in that I’m here for two months. I struggle with time, its inevitable passing, and my own powerlessness to stop it. Yesterday I was in Kuching, on the waterfront, eating satay in the rain. Now it’s Sunday afternoon and all that exists is this screen and my thoughts, and my anxiety at filling the former with the latter. I need to write everyday or I will explode. I can’t backlog my adventures, so I will aim to write for two hours everyday. Part travel writing, part subversive journal, part emotional purge. I showered an hour ago but my shirt is already soaked through.
Breakfast yesterday was cereal and apple juice and fresh pineapple. Then to a thrift store in Sentosa, Shalom, to buy much needed loose shirts. The shop is a bit of a novelty – mainly stocking Southeast Asian-made Hawaiian-style shirts – but it’s cheap with an excellent selection. The drive into Kuching was unremarkable. Kuching itself is a fantastic city: clean, well-kept, easy and accessible, with a noticeable lack of poverty. The riverfront shops are a joy to browse through, Jalan India is colorful and exotic, the Mosque is impressive. Nothing negative to say about Kuching, the ‘cat’ city.
Technology has become a brand. Facebook, Twitter, Google adorn shirts and caps and backpacks. Angry Birds is the new Hello Kitty. Everything has unlicensed merchandise. The Internet is a commodity that can be bought, sold and worn. Nothing is sacred. Traditional architecture is painted over in garish colors; vendors sell kitschy souvenirs next to century-old temples. Malaysia’s push to first-world status is stifling its own traditions and culture. Like how Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ destroyed centuries of Chinese culture and customs, and replaced it with bland conformity.
We walk to the Hilton, where my father stayed for his first two weeks in Borneo. It’s plush, of course, and we explore the rooms, and the pool. We meet Jilian, the pool attendant and he tells us his story…
… In a small village, a boy dreams of becoming an English teacher. He studies hard, and is set to take his college exams, but falls ill a week before the exam –
serious heart problems – and misses it. He cannot afford to take the test again. In a second his dream is gone. He now gives pasty Americans towels. He now checks the temperature of the Hilton’s lap pool. He smiles, but it’s a sad smile. And we leave with the weight of one man’s misfortune on our shoulders.
Travel tip 1: When in need of a freshen-up, use the lobby bathroom of an expensive hotel. Walk in like you own the place, greet the doorman, don’t bat an eyelid at reception – your white skin is as good as a room key.
Travel tip 2: Smile at people, nod slightly, and realize that people are friendly if you give them the chance. Engage with the locals, learn a few words of their language, ask their opinion. Travel is about the connections you make, not the sights you see. Travel is the cultural barriers you cross, not the souvenirs you buy. Holidays are for photos next to landmarks, travel is for experiencing authentic culture. Holidays are an escape; travel is real.
Lukas Clark-Memler is a regular cultural correspondent for Synch Chaos, who has written about music, generational differences, travel, and culture. He can be reached at email@example.com