Lukas Clark-Memler’s Dispatch from Borneo, Part II

Borneo:
A Travelogue in Four Parts

 Read the first part of Lukas Clark-Memler’s journey, from last month’s issue, here. 

 

Lukas Clark-Memler

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.

 

In the previous entry, the reader found that the narrator – a bleary-eyed troubadour with a bitter distaste for holidaymakers – was coping well with the unfamiliar terrain, unpredictable weather, and unimpressive food…

 

Part II: In which, despite nursing an infected toe and jellyfish wound, the narrator conjures hallucinatory images of violent skies, theatrical squalls and suburban malaise.

 

 

2 December 2012, 5:28 PM

Last night was memorable. We stayed at a friend’s house in a tiny village just outside of Kuching – Siol Kandis – and spent much of the night sitting on the upstairs balcony, under the stars, the air full of fireflies and music. The house was rustic, and its blue and yellow chipped paint gave it a Caribbean feel. Sitting on the deck, talking, listening to Bob Marley, Ben Harper, Radiohead, Buena Vista Social Club – slide guitar punctuated by the yelps of roosters and stray dogs, the clouds dark with rain, the mosquito coil burning ash. “From where you’d rather be.” All that was missing was the Corona and lime.

We must’ve sat up on that deck for hours, the sky darkening and the prospect of heading back into Kuching for dinner seeming more and more unpleasant. But stomachs can be an amazingly motivating force, and we ventured into the night in search of food. Kuching is perhaps even more pleasant at night than it is by day. The heat is gone, the lights on the riverfront shine bright, food stalls spangle the boardwalk. Food is plentiful, and we end up across the river – the small ferry costs 50 cents – at a covered food court. I order eight (lapan) satay chicken skewers and a plate of white rice. I pour the satay sauce onto my rice and eat it with the chicken. It’s a simple dish, not entirely adventurous, but tasty. And compared to my father’s laksa – noodle soup with prawns and coconut, which sounds good in theory but generally turns out greasy or watery – I was more than happy with my meal.

It begins to pour around 9 p.m.

This is the first of the rainy season I’ve experienced. The raindrops are like an American tourist: fat, clumsy and erratic. The torrential downpour continues intermittently throughout the rest of the night.

///

I slept soundly and woke this morning to the sound of the rooster’s cry. It is an irritating, yet natural way to wake, and I can imagine getting used to it. I like being up at 6, before sunrise and before the heat. Sleeping in ’til midday, like I would do at college, now seems pathetic. The best part of the day happens before lunch. The second best part of the day is the evening. Between 12 and 4 it’s uncomfortable to be outside.

We drive from Kuching to Serikin for the Sunday morning market. On the way we pass miles of development; facsimiles of Western suburbia; subdivisions and strip malls. Sarawak is a community in transition. The people have gone from rural villages to identical gated housing estates. From market stalls to Giant supermarket chains. The government subsidizes cars so that everyone can drive, but the roads cannot accommodate all the new traffic. So we sit, jammed, and wait for a chance to overtake. What was once the world’s oldest rainforest is now a suburban sprawl.

Serikin is border country; it’s the closest town to Indonesia. I see armed military and think how uncomfortable their army fatigues must be. They look fatigued. The market is mostly for Malaysian tourists; we are the only orang putih there. Stalls are set up along a dusty road, selling everything from Angry Birds pyjamas, to knockoff Ray-Bans, to durian ice cream, to cane furniture. The vendors are relaxed and don’t pressure us to buy anything. As I said, it’s a tourist market, but a Malaysian tourist market. Serikin isn’t even listed in Lonely Planet. It may as well not exist.

I struggle with guide books. On one hand I love them, love the adventure and the writing and the backpacker romanticism, but on the other hand, I hate the attitude they foster: if it ain’t in the book, it ain’t worth the time. Lonely Planet is more than just a guide, it is the definitive reference for travel. This mentality is killing the intrepid spirit of the wayward traveller. If it’s in Lonely Planet, it’s not ‘off beaten path’ – the shh! don’t tell marketing is a laugh. You show up to the ‘unspoiled’ beach only to find a hundred other travellers there already. All searching for that unbeaten path. It is essential to stray from the guide book – to use Lonely Planet only as a ‘guide’ and not the be-all-end-all scripture it has become.

///

The rains have come. It’s 6:07 p.m. and the sky is a thousand shades of grey. My favourite smell in the world is fresh rain drying on hot tarmac. I smell that now. The stronger the rain, the hotter the ground, the better the smell.

3 December, 5:56 AM

The smell. That’s what I’ll remember most about this place… the smell. Your eyes can play tricks on you, but the nose never lies. A picture may speak a thousand words, but only a smell can recreate an experience. I can look at a photo and remember where it was taken, what was happening, but it’s more like remembering a film than recalling the actual experience – I look at myself, third person perspective, rather than occupying my body at that moment. I’ve found through my travels that only a smell can capture the real essence of a place – only a smell can transport you back to an exact moment. A memory smell: you rarely expect them, they surprise and disorientate, but are always welcome.

The smell of a certain laundry detergent, floating down an open drain, takes me right back to Monteverde, Costa Rica. The smell of heavily air-conditioned supermarkets takes me back to Barcelona. And I will always remember Southeast Asia by the smell of rotting fruit. It’s not a bad smell, but it’s pungent. Piles of fruit carcasses rotting on the curb. Rambutan husks littered like cigarette butts. The overripe smell of fruit orchards – surplus fruit, wasted fruit, rotting fruit.

Borneo has a distinct fruit smell; a smell that is wholly unique and unlike anything I’ve smelt before. Durian. A thorny fruit – coconut like in size, hard-shelled – with an overpowering smell, oh that durian smell. It’s everywhere. In restaurants, national parks, shopping centres, even our house. Durian is a specialty of Malaysia, they grow elsewhere, but nowhere as prevalent. Durian vendors line the streets, the sides of highways, villages, cities. Everywhere. Inescapable.

It’s not the smell of napalm in the morning, it’s the smell of durian.

The smell is far beyond description. But the taste… that’s something else. Two nights ago we were invited over to the neighbour’s house for a quick introduction. Within five minutes of arrival, we’re offered some durian. The eldest son, Ming, brings the fruit out on a chopping board. He clumsily cuts through the thick shell with a comically-large knife. Once opened, the smell is intensified. The air feels hot and thick. My tongue is swollen. I scoop up a piece of durian flesh, it has the consistency of dough. The smell is bad, the taste is slightly better. A salty tang, an almost meat-like texture, a creamy and smoky aftertaste. For the next 24 hours everything tastes like durian. The ‘King of Fruits’: conquered.

///

Outside the jungle is thick with mist. Or is it fog? The ground is wet. It’s 6:30 a.m. and my arms itch with mosquito bites. It’s impossible to sleep without open windows, but that means mosquitoes. I had a coil burning, and a plug-in repellent on all night, but I’m still bitten up. My thigh itches. I scratch and it feels better, but then it feels worse. The best thing for mosquito bites is rubbing alcohol – it dries the bite, and kills the itch.

Yesterday, on the way back from Serikin, we veer off the main road and stop at a cave. A Buddhist cave. Right outside of Bau, the cave is a spiritual landmark in the area, frequented by primarily Chinese residents who pray at the Buddha’s feet. But the cave is also a natural wonder. Huge and cathedral-like – fitted with speakers playing Tibetan chants on loop – smoky with incense. It is free to enter, and donations are expected for incense sticks and candles. Once again, we are the only orang putih – the cave is full of Chinese families quietly praying. There’s a white stone Buddha sitting on a high ledge inside the entrance of the cave. There’s a rock in front of the Sublime One that is smooth from decades (centuries?) of kneeling worship. The cave shrine – cavernous temple – holy hole in the wall. I wash my hands in a shallow tub, and my impurities float away.

///

My brother was sick last night. Perhaps food poisoning, water-borne bug, or general heat exhaustion – he projectile vomited for three hours straight, poor soul. We haven’t been eating or drinking carefully. Ice in drinks is often made with unfiltered water – it’s advised not to swallow it. There’s a bit of an urban myth here that says ice with a hole in it, that is, smooth and shapely ice, is from filtered water. Take that with a grain of salt (or a cube of ice) but I’ve been eating the ice since day one. It’s one of my favourite ways of battling the heat, and I always order my drinks on the rocks. But still, we really ought to be more careful with what we put in our bodies. My brother’s torrent of bodily fluids was a warning against carelessness.

We stayed in for dinner: three steaming boxes of nasi putih kosong (plain white rice), with soy sauce, crushed peanuts and a chili paste mixed in. It was a good meal; basic, but safe; filling and easy. Cheap – RM1 (1 Malaysian Ringgit) – 40 NZ cents.

And now it’s quarter past seven – today we will explore the wider Kuching area, brave the huge shopping centres, visit the nearby Wind Cave, and Bau’s Blue Lake. Tomorrow we fly to Sabah, for 11 days of beach and jungle.

It’s 7:30 a.m. on the lost island of Borneo. Sarawak. Monday. It’s hot and I’m ready for adventure.

[4 December to 5 January – no entries logged – 33 days of silence]

6 January 2013, 10:07 AM

Where to begin. It’s been over a month since I last wrote, thirty-three days of silence. It’s a new year, 2013, and while I’ve never been one for resolutions, it feels like a good time to start writing again. I have excuses, reasons for my absence: unsafe accommodation, inappropriate weather, river crossings, limited luggage, a technology-free sojourn. I didn’t write for the right reasons. But still, it is time to document once more; time to reflect and remember; transcribe and transform my memories into words, sentences; cement with syntax. Immortalize. It’s the sixth day of the new year, it’s not raining but it will soon. The air is stale. No, that’s not right. The air is fresh, tangy with a jungle bite, it’s my sensory perceptions that are stale. My skin and finger tips are blunt, rusty, stale. I’ve showered twice today already, but I feel the itch of perspiration all over. My toe is infected; it’s going septic. I’m going septic. It throbs and glares and demands attention. My mind wanders… Where to begin.

A linear chronology of the events of the past month is difficult. My mind is muddied. Was I stung by a jellyfish before I saw the pit viper? Had I already suffered through food poisoning when we swam with sea turtles in the South China Sea? The progression of things matters far less than the isolated moments. The to-and-from and connecting-the-dots is of little importance. What remains, after days of fever and infection and exhaustion, is a series of beautiful vignettes. A collection of moments that float to the surface of a month’s worth of memories – scenes of significance amongst weeks and weeks of sweat and insomnia – captured in ink on the pages of a crumpled notebook, captured in pixels on the viewfinder of a digital camera, captured in scars that cling to my body.

Where to begin.

///

December 4th

From seat 14C, I watch the sun rise over the equator. From 40,000 feet in the air, the light of a new morning is life-affirming. We land at Kota Kinabalu (KK) International Airport, and wait for our car, consuming cup after cup of dishtowel coffee to ward off sleep. KK is the capital of Sabah, the northern state of Borneo, the Land Beneath the Wind. Whatever that means. Outside the ground shimmers, hazy, unsettled. In sympathy with the climate, my stomach flips and contorts and cramps. I writhe. In downtown KK, where the ocean laps at the salty shore, there aren’t any public toilets. At this point my stomach is erupting from my asshole, and I’m dangerously close to losing all remaining shreds of dignity. The impatient attendant at tourist information points to the right, and 20 sen later I’m squatting over a dirty hole in the ground. It’s a roofless restroom, and as I squat and explode, I stare up at the hot midday sun.

Crouching over a stained squat-toilet, losing weight at a sickening pace, surrounded by the scent of a thousand rotting corpses (the bilious smell of dried urine, faeces, bad plumbing and, quite literally, dead and decomposing rats) really puts things in perspective. ‘Appreciate the little things’ – was the fortune cookie wisdom I could derive from this experience. And staring up to the heavens, as my bowels descended into the fetid squalor of hell, I offered a silent prayer to the lavatorial gods, eternally grateful that I didn’t have to go through this shit every day.

The remainder of our time in KK was filled with night markets, overpriced seafood meals, a breakfast buffet with above average waffles, and an impossibly blue un-chlorinated swimming pool at The Palace Hotel. The hotel was a sanctuary amidst the relentless heat of the north of Borneo. The quiet and calm hotel room perfection was such a relief. Arriving back to our room after a day of walking and sweating was like slipping into a clean, icy-cold (A/C set to 20ºC) glacial pool.

///

I ate six waffles on the morning of the December 5th.

The islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Park (TARP – they love their acronyms here), were over-crowded but extremely accessible. Speeding across the South China Sea, wandering through the jungle to find the ‘right’ beach, encountering monitor lizards of a disconcertingly prehistoric variety, snorkelling in the lapis lazuli water – save for Koh Samui, it was the best snorkelling of my life – surrounded by fish of all kinds. (I’d use adjectives like kaleidoscopic to describe the sea life, but that would make me feel self-conscious). The marine reserve was a worthy destination. Out of the five islands that make up TARP, we chose Sapi (the most touristed, but apparently most beautiful), and Mamutik (the most relaxed, but lacking in sandy beaches). Mamutik provided the better snorkelling by a landslide, was calmer and more beautiful. Sapi was loud and full of Chinese revellers who wore lifejackets in shin-deep water. Say what you like about the strength of their economy and industry and world dominance, the Chinese have got to learn to swim.

On Sapi, while traversing the island in search of a less populated beach, I fell down a slight rock-face and ripped my swim shorts from crotch to waist. I scratched my knee against a rough piece of coral, and walked away from the island minus a pair of togs, with a coat of fresh blood on my leg. It was to be the first of many falls and scratches and bloodied limbs. I walked away from the island with the bruised kind of satisfaction that only the walking wounded can attest to.

///

The ceiling fan spins, lazily, despite being set to the fastest speed. For a second I’m Martin Sheen, in a burned-out hotel room in ‘Nam. For a second I hear Jim Morrison wail, as the jungle turns to flames. For a second I’m haunted; the horror, the horror. And then my toe throbs and pulses and I’m back. I’ve covered my poor hallux in anti-septic cream, and after a visit to the local clinic last week am on a strict antibiotic regiment, eight pills a day. How my toe got so bad is a mystery to me. It is the same toe that was operated on last year; the toenail that refuses to grow straight and instead grows into my skin. It’s ingrown again, and in this humidity, it got infected fast. I limp, and it aches, and should it come into contact with any kind of solid object, a sharp blast of pain splinters through my whole foot. It’s going septic, I think. And the ceiling fan continues to spin, and I wish it would speed up.

On the final day of 2012, I saw a full-grown male orangutan. It looked so serene, yet at the same time, I knew it could crush my skull between its meat-cleaver fists. And despite its ostensible calm, it reeked power. Its eyes hurt. The others spoke of how friendly and gentle it looked, but I saw violence. When the giant ape swung down from the tree, and walked across the viewing platform, I was the first to back away. The orangutan was in control. It was an amazing creature.

///

December 6th

Kota Belud is the last town before Mañana Beach Resort. Oh the novelty of being white in a small town. The stares we received, not hostile, but interested. We were alien – not altogether unfamiliar, for tourists did pass through these parts – and out of place. We ate food (noodles and rice and teh tarik – the Malay equivalent of a hamburger and fries). We stocked up on supplies (nuts and crackers and cups of noodles). We left.

In a tiny seaside village, a dozen kids in rags run and laugh. I think: they look happier than most of the pre-adolescents I know. Shacks on the beach, the smell of fish and burning embers, the rotting smile of poverty.

Mañana: bungalows on a private beach, only accessible by boat. Our accommodation: a small hut, mosquito net, sandy floors, sea views. Location, location, location. A View to Kill For. Any closer to the sea and you’d be wet.

Swimming in the South China Sea in rain and sun, by dawn sky or full moon, the horizon burning in the distance. The sky is on fire. Later I find out there’s oil in the seabed, and the sky is only aflame when the excess oil is burned off in the evening. Still, it’s a great effect. Great effect.

I read in my hammock, the sound of the water reminds me of home. Lying on a foam mattress, under a thin mosquito net – rain falls heavily onto our tin roof and the waves seem to lap at the door. I feel like I’m in a reggae song; all that’s missing is the grass. Oil wells burn at the edge of the Earth. I’m hot, humid, uncomfortable, wide awake, but happy. I’m on a private beach, in the north of Borneo, and I’m happy. I’m covered in insect bites, coral wounds, lice rashes and salt (from sweat and sea), but I’m happy. Who wouldn’t be?

Mañana was relaxing, but after three days we were all ready to go. Paradise was lost when I saw a large rat dig through my bag. I was hit with the realization that I was in the most bio-diverse place on the planet, separated from the millions of insect species (three new species of insect are discovered every month in Borneo) by a flimsy net. And there were rats. My nights at Mañana were long, but all was forgotten and forgiven in the morning as I ran straight into the warm and clear sea. I know of no better way to start the day. The food was good – fluffy pancakes for breakfast and dinner, plentiful noodles and rice (of course), and cold drinks. I read, and finished three books, and my skin browned under the Bornean sun. I lost track of time, and my temporal mind entirely. Like a Vegas casino, there were no clocks anywhere. I felt like I was living in a glossy-paged travel brochure.

///

December 8th: or, how I learned to stop worrying and accept the pain of a jellyfish sting

Jellyfish are evil bastards. They float, inconspicuously in the waves, and attack with menace and no mercy. To call it a predator is giving the jellyfish far too much credit, as it simply waits for unsuspecting prey to breach its space. They mar the seas (Spanish pun, anyone?), spoil the scenery, and destroy the skin. And on the eighth day of the final month of 2012, I experienced the bright and electric pang of a jellyfish sting. During my morning swim I noticed a number of ghostly shapes in the water. At first I assumed they were plastic bags – rubbish from the mainland often ends up on the beach; the urban jetsam was cleaned up each morning by a cigarette-smoking, fat and toothless Malaysian man. I quickly realized that the water was full of jellyfish, giant things, their long, purple tentacles dangling nonchalantly. Backing up to the beach, my eyes on the savage jellyfish in front of me, I entirely missed the jellyfish that was behind me, and felt a sharp, hot pain shoot up my leg, (now that I think about it, it’s very similar to the pain I’m currently feeling in my septic toe).

Ali G (the boatman) ran to get vinegar. When he came back with a small bottle and knelt over my leg, I thought he was going to urinate on me. Pee on a jellyfish sting, they tell you. Thank god for vinegar. It neutralized the poison, and dulled the pain. Thank god for Ali G, he peeled the tentacles off my foot and leg, and rubbed wet sand onto the wound. The pain: imagine wrapping your foot in boiling hot, electrified barbed wire. That’s what my right foot and lower leg felt like.

The sting: an intense, white heat, like a thousand needles. The aftermath: long, red, angry welts across my foot and around my ankle. Secretly, I hoped it would scar. To have gone through the pain and the trauma, only to emerge unblemished would be terribly unfair. It did scar, though only faintly. And nearly a month later I look at my foot and see the pale scars, in the shape of jellyfish tentacles.

The night of the sting the rain came down in sheets, threatening the simple bungalow architecture. It was as if Poseidon himself were raging at the door. On a private beach, in the north of Borneo, in the middle of a tropical, equatorial cyclone, my foot painfully throbbed…

///

My foot throbs. I stand up to get painkillers (I only have common Panadol – how I long for my codeine supply), and nearly buckle over in pain. I sit back down to write. And action…

///

December 10th

The Tip of Borneo hasn’t happened yet. The cancer of tourism has yet to spread to its golden shores. It will though, it’s only a matter of time. Everything has an expiration date. The Tip of Borneo is still fresh, largely undiscovered, untainted. It is beautiful. Spangled with virgin beaches, tropical waters, thick and healthy rainforest. It is alive. Wild. Fucking beautiful.

Kudat is the hub of the Tip, and we passed through on market day. Everything’s for sale. Tobacco is perhaps the most popular commodity sold: wizened old men and women smoke and chew and spit fresh tobacco. We check email and news at a cyber cafe (a CC – acronyms for everything I tell you), as eight-year-olds kill hookers on Grand Theft Auto. Does society reflect the media, or is it the other way around?

Christmas decorations are for sale at a Muslim supermarket. There’s holly strung up next to the mosque. Malaysia is a truly multi-cultural place. Christianity, Buddhism and Islam coexist, and the respective religious holidays are celebrated by all. The Chinese Buddhists will have a Christmas dinner, and the Bidayuh Christians will have a day off on Ramadan. Satu Malaysia (One Malaysia) goes the government propaganda, and while there is the inevitable religious and cultural conflict, it is a largely harmonious place. It is more blasé than accepting – the people don’t care which god you worship – and Catholic churches are built alongside Buddhist temples.

We stay at Tampat Do Aman (in Rungus, the local dialect, it means ‘place of peace’). It’s an eco-lodge and rustic as hell. But we sleep. And sleep well. There’s an Australian volunteer school group taking up six of the ten rooms – from across the hall I hear one of the teachers call out “Good night John-boy.” Like they do in The Beach or from that television show. It feels like a bizarre coincidence, as I was reading The Beach that night, but he’s probably just read the book too. A lot of people around here have read that book.

We spend a week at the Tip. Our time is divided between Tampat and Tommy’s Place. Tommy’s is far nicer with A/C, tiled floors, and our own private balcony. We drive down dirt roads to small beaches. At Pantai Kembala we find sea turtles. But they could have been otters. It was that kind of encounter. The ‘I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure those are sea turtles’ kind of encounter. But since otters don’t make a habit of swimming in the South China Sea, we were happy to declare the black shapes in the water sea turtles. Later it was confirmed that that particular beach was known as a breeding ground for turtles. So, yeah. Sea turtles.

The amount of rubbish on the beach was unfortunate.

At Tampat we watched the sun rise over the rice paddies, as twenty-eight Australian volunteers ate breakfast together. Is there any sound as grating as an Australian accent?

On the way to Kota Maruda it began to rain. And although a rainbow had yet to stretch the expansive divide between land and sky, bridging the mortal soil and infinite blue, there in the rear-view mirror, soaked in the sudden drops of water and glimmering in the morning haze, it wasn’t especially hard to imagine one.

///

December 12th

The guidebook says that you can see the Philippines from the very tip of Borneo. Standing next to the cast-iron monument that marks the northernmost tip of the island, if I squint, I can almost make out the husks of the islands of the Philippines in the distance. Tommy’s Place is a welcome escape from the gritty ‘eco-friendly’ simplicity (read: horribly under-equipped) of Tampat. Ours is a brand-new villa, built on a hill amongst tall and lanky coconut palms. There’s a palm-thatched deck area, with a bamboo boardwalk to the villa, a mini-fridge and cane furniture. Inside there’s comfortable beds, air-conditioning and a powerful shower. A hidden blue light gives the room a modern and oh-so-hip look. Pardon my superlatives, but the beach was one of the nicest I have ever seen. In the world. The water was by far the best I have ever had the pleasure to swim in. Warm, perfectly clear, sandy-bottomed… I’m tempted to use Biblical descriptors like Edenic and Elysian; hell, even empyrean could be used to paint an image of Technicolor beauty.

The sea looked like desktop wallpaper; like default Windows wallpaper.

Stop me if I’ve gone too far.

At night, from our balcony at Tommy’s, we watch the sun set. The coconut palms were silhouetted against the violet (violent) sky and the colours were so exaggerated that if I saw a painting like it, I’d think it was cheesy. There’s some things that shouldn’t be captured. A picture rarely speaks a thousand words.

I walk to the tip of Borneo, climb over the ‘Do Not Pass’ sign, and amble down to the rocky outcrop. At the very tip of the tip of Borneo, the tippiest-tip, I stand, arms flung wide, the wind stealing my cries of victory. The incoming tide threatens my position, and water spills onto the rocks, pulling at my legs, the Philippines beckoning me closer. Those salty Filipinos, with their greased-back ponytails and pockmarked grins; selling cigarettes for a tenth of the price at the supermarket (which is already a hundredth of the price back home); the Mexicans of Borneo… shit, did I just say that? What I meant to say was: the hardworking, illegal aliens of Borneo; the backbone of the island’s industry, the grease that turns the cogs of commerce. No, that’s not right either. The Filipinos are just chasing the dream, in the same way that my friends in New Zealand move to Australia for work, or how my friends in small-town USA move to the city.

The grass is always greener. The gleam of money is always brighter on the other side.

///

Sipping chilled water out of a glass Gin bottle – the bottle sweating as much as I am – as the heat slowly fades. It’s just turned four, and I’ve been writing for almost the entire day. Painkillers numb my toe, but it still throbs. The streets are full, seriously fucking full, of wild dogs and roosters and spiders and snakes and feral cats. Roosters caw, and dogs yelp, and cat carcasses lie stripped on the roadside – emptied of meat, long gone. This morning a spider the size of a baseball mitt (an XL mitt) dropped from the ceiling onto the stovetop. It was fast too, not one of those lumbering furry tarantulas, but a quick and mean long-legged hunter. The kind of spider that fights back as you’re crushing it with a shoe. Of course I knew there were spiders and snakes and scorpions living in the house, in the ceiling, inside couches and under beds. But up until then, I hadn’t seen any. Seeing that spider, that beast of an arachnid, confirmed the fact that we were not alone in this house. Ignorance is bliss, and the spider was a wake-up call that screamed, “Hey! We’re here! Try and forget about us when you’re lying in bed tonight!” Biodiversity is a euphemism for ‘horribly outnumbered.’

///

December 15th

We left the Tip of Borneo in a torrent of equatorial rain. The palm trees bending horizontally in the squall, blinding sheets of rain, thunderclaps like cannon-fire; a tropical storm is theatrically intense. It was unimaginable to be anywhere but our air-conditioned and watertight Proton Saga. The Saga. The Civic of Borneo. The Corolla of Malaysia. Cheap yet sturdy, comfortable yet efficient, it’s a Malaysian-made car that is beyond ubiquitous. Owning a silver Saga is akin to eating rice and noodles for dinner: inevitable and boring. But rice and noodles can sometimes taste delicious, and the Saga has been a dependable companion.

Kudat to KK via Mount Kinabalu National Park. The pool at Palace Hotel and a South Indian meal on Gaya Street (the Khao San Road of Borneo). Twenty kids are killed today in one of the worst massacres in US history – Sandy Hook enters the annals of school shooting sites, along with Virginia Tech and Columbine. After the news, I watch The Last Airbender, a film I can calmly declare to be the worst I’ve ever seen.

///

On December 16th we flew back to Kuching, drove back to Bau, and everything felt surprisingly familiar and comfortable. Despite the fact that before our Sabah trip we had only been in Sarawak for five nights, arriving back in Bau felt like coming home. It seems to be human nature to establish a base no matter where you are in the world. We deem a place ‘home’, make a mark, piss a perimeter, and it is ours. Home isn’t where the heart is, it’s the place we can smell our own urine. And arriving back to Bau – our shoes by the door, our clothes strewn around the house, dried urine on the toilet seat – our scent was strong and clear.

///

I’m satisfied now, happier than I’ve been in a while. Without writing I feel bottled up, broken, burnt out. This is therapeutic for me, but more than that, it’s expressive. We all need an outlet, and while my brother finds his at the lens of a camera, I feel most comfortable with the vast arsenal of words that bleed from my fingertips. With the flex of a finger, the click of a shutter, a moment can be captured; and with a well-turned phrase, so I capture mine. Looking back on old photographs, the smiles and landscapes seem a century away, and so two-dimensional. A sentence written in the past however, comes alive as soon as it is read. I write for myself today, and for myself in the future. I write to transform a decaying thought into a concrete insight.

I have a remaining thirteen days on this island.

It’s a new year, I’m in a new country, life is full of new opportunities and experiences. If 2012 was the end of time, then 2013 is a new beginning.

Lukas Clark-Memler lives in Madison, Wisconsin and can be reached at yeslukas@gmail.com

 

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