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.
13 January 2013, 3:50 PM
There are little things that I wanted to remember, things that I’m slowly forgetting. It’s the small, seemingly inconsequential anecdotes that make a story. As time goes by the plot, the characters, the setting all fade and grey, but the chance encounters, the spontaneous decisions, the sudden downpours, stay clear in the mind. The mundane trumps the monumental. And so I must commit these anecdotal happenings to word, put pen to paper (so to speak), and archive them in the deep recesses of my mind (and hard drive).
I will remember the ants: learning to live in harmony with them, accepting their inevitability, and respecting their place here. Even now, I feel a tingling sensation as an ant – a tiny, red ant (though not a fire ant) – navigates my thigh.
I will remember the rain: the intensity and unexpectedness of it, the power of the heavens. It’s raining now, the wet skies keeping me inside, but this isn’t a bad thing. I need the time to write and edit and think. So I thank the rain for that.
Last night we drove to Siniawan, a small village near Bau that is known for its twice-weekly night market (Friday and Saturday, beginning at nightfall). Really it’s just one street, lined with old storefronts that have remained unchanged since their construction. The buildings along the road are wooden, most of them unpainted, with shutters, and balconies. Lonely Planet would use words like ‘vintage’ or ‘heritage’ to describe Siniawan, but that would be putting a touristic filter on a village that is far simpler. There is no pretence, no attempt at drawing tourists, no affectation. Siniawan is unchanged because the people left the village when it became too small. The storefronts retain their original wood because it would be too expensive to update them. If someone had the money to renovate the buildings – to plaster and repaint them – it would be done in a second.
The locals who visit the night market, don’t pay any attention to the ‘heritage’ buildings or their ‘vintage’ façade, but it is a festive place. Red Chinese lanterns are strung up between the buildings, over the street, year-round so there’s a constant sense of celebration. And every Friday and Saturday night the ultimate sign of Bornean festivity, a karaoke machine, is rigged up on a central stage.
When we arrive at seven in the evening, the street is mostly empty. We meet Enid and Carl, two older New Zealanders who love to talk, can’t seem to listen, and have that geriatric sensibility that makes everything they say sound a little bit racist: “You know how these people are” and “I wish these people would learn how to cook a fish properly.” Wandering down the street we come to a Chinese temple where a group of teenagers are practicing a dragon dance. They’re dressed in traditional garb and some of them play the drums and gongs while others shake and writhe in a dragon costume. Chinese New Year is right around the corner (February 10th); the holiday completely dwarfs the Western New Year, and is perhaps the largest celebration in Borneo.
Young kids race by on bicycles, waving sparklers, lighting up the night. I hear the sound of a firecracker going off, but can’t see it. The stars are bright, but not as interesting as the red lanterns.
We make our way to a table – the street is roped off to traffic, and filled with tables in front of various cafes and food stalls – and order some food. I choose a black pepper chicken dish from a stall (essentially a wok on the street), and the others order stingray from a man with nicotine-stained teeth. He smokes as he cooks, but then again, everyone smokes here. I’ve never encountered so much smoking in my life.
A pack of cigarettes (20) costs roughly ten ringgits: that’s four New Zealander dollars. Smoking is not banned anywhere, it’s almost encouraged. Men smoke behind the counter of hardware stores, women smoke as they fry noodles. A few days ago at the public pool, a man smoked as he showered, scattering ashes down the drain. Smoke while you drive, while you shave, while you shower, while you eat, while you sleep.
The teeth here are terrible; rotting teeth are as common as ashtrays. But the strength of the Malaysian economy shouldn’t be underestimated. Yes, there is some poverty and poor dental hygiene, but the majority of people seem to have some kind of employment. I’ve only encountered a handful of beggars, and there’s enough consumer purchasing power to support the dozens of shops that fill every town.
There’s an open drain in front of our house, and it attracts dragonflies of fantastic colours. Something ugly and something beautiful, coexisting. It’s like a lot of Borneo, the ugliness and beauty sharing the island: derelict housing estates in front of rich jungle, piles of rubbish on stunning beaches, faceless hyper-malls alongside vibrant fruit markets… open drains and dragonflies.
19 January 2013, 2:11 PM
The departure tunnel, connecting Gate 9 to AirAsia Flight AK1775 is dark. The air is cool and stale, there’s no indication of the humidity outside. I’m walking from one life to another; from the wild, to the West; from the unknown, to home; from Borneo to New Zealand. I’ve been on this island for two months, and I still don’t know what to think about my travels here, about living here. In some ways it has all left a bitter taste in my mouth: seeing the development, the environmental degradation, the collapsing ecosystem. While there’s been beauty and thrill, there’s been a lot of frustration. Frustration at the carelessness of locals, at the blindness of tourists. We drive down a stretch of road, through the jungle, and watch as another hyper-mall is erected. We wander village paths and watch the mass migration to the suburbs. Tour buses connect the dots across Borneo’s ‘hot spots’ and miss the true wonders of the island.
I don’t know.
What I do know is that my time here with my father has been relationship-defining. This was a bonding experience that will never happen again. And through thick and thin, through absence and silence, we will always have Borneo. Whether it be eating at SCR three times a week, drinking a root beer float and watching the sun go down, exploring the winding streets of Kuching, wandering around Giant and enjoying Upin & Ipin – the moments I will remember most from this trip are some of the more mundane experiences we shared. Yes, the ‘touristic’ experiences were impressive: seeing orangutans, snorkelling off the coast of KK, hiking in the thick rainforest. But it is the domestic adventures that will stay with me: shopping for furniture, eating at local food courts, driving. It’s the little anecdotes that make a trip; these small things that I’m slowly forgetting.
So now I sit in seat 11F, alone in my aisle (the flight is almost empty) awaiting arrival in Singapore. I have eight hours and forty-five minutes to enjoy the world’s best airport. I will write. I will finish the things I need to. Until then, I will watch funny things on my screen.
19 January 2013, 9:18 PM
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a special announcement: The trafficking of illegal drugs into Singapore is a very serious offense and carries a mandatory death sentence. Thank you.”
and can finally reflect on the past few weeks. The airport is fantastic of course, but it’s still an airport. The toilets still smell like stale urine, the perfume saleswomen still look incredibly bored, the carpet is still patterned in a terribly insulting way. But I like it here. I like most airports: the history-less-ness of the place, the transience of the people – the mixture of anticipation and sadness, for new places ahead and loved ones left behind.
It makes sense to go backwards, though the past few weeks of my life in Borneo, and attempt to complete this travelogue. I have a lot left to tell, but my entire perception of the place is so different than when I first arrived, and I don’t know that I have the same arsenal of adjectives and descriptors at my disposal anymore. It’s not that I’m desensitized to the beauty of the island, it’s just that I’m tired. I’m worn out and not as eager to fill the page with lush sentences. But maybe sparseness is what I need to capture my current mind-set. The saga continues…
In the morning I write, and then we eat. Bombay Recipe, our saving grace in Padawan. Fauziah and Anwar; fresh lime with ice, sugar but not salt; dua roti kosong, dhal, nasi biriani. The food is good, not great, but consistently good. Surrounded by food courts that sell syrupy juice and seriously erratic noodles (sometimes delicious, mostly greasy), a consistent, dependable restaurant is a lifesaver. We drive to Sentosa and shop for hardware and kitchenware and Hawaiian shirts. At Shalom, a bundle store, I buy a necktie with James Dean’s face all over it. These are the kinds of things that putihs do.
We eat dinner at SCR (Singapore Chicken Rice) for the third time this week. The chain restaurant is housed within the Giant complex, and we choose a booth in the back and fill out an order form. It’s a strange place SCR: it’s a chain and bears the usual signs of homogenized ethnic cuisine, but the food is prepared fresh and the presentation is tasteful. The food’s surprisingly excellent. We sit beneath harsh, neon lighting and wait to be served. Though there are six employees standing by the door, we’re ignored for a good ten minutes. We hand over the order form, and the woman eyes it suspiciously.
That night I listen to “The End”, sprawled on a faded couch, a ceiling fan slowly spinning above me. I’m going back tomorrow, back to The World. The jungle in front of the house goes up in flames. My bag’s packed, and waiting by the door. Jim Morrison sings louder, the fan spins faster – my last night together in Borneo. Back to The World tomorrow. Sipping water out of a glass gin bottle, the night explodes with John Densmore’s drumroll. It’s a clear night and if you squint you can make out a Greek hunter, club raised, lighting up the heavens. “The west is the best,” Morrison cries, and I’m flying home tomorrow.
We spend the day in Kuching, exploring the winding streets, taking in the waterfront; the colour of Jalan India, the history and tradition of Jalan Carpenter. We arrive at the planetarium ten minutes before the show is supposed to start, but the theatre is closed for maintenance. Instead, we take a glass elevator to the top of the Civic Centre. It’s the kind of structure that would have been impressive once, but time has bruised its exterior, and the building now looks tired. From the top, it’s a view to kill, even better than the view from the top floor of the Riverside Mall (a building equally as tired, but far brighter). We park at the Sarawak Public Museum – the stuffed animals are embarrassingly rendered, googly-eyes glued onto a flat face. Terrible taxidermy. We eat at Restaurant Jubilee on Jalan India, then walk to the Chinese History Museum to escape the heat.
Kuching is a delightful city: accessible, eclectic, revealing a new treasure upon each visit. The grand Buddhist temple at the foot of the Hilton may take centre stage, but it’s the hidden shrine set above Jalan Carpenter (#36) that is the true gem of the city. At night, the waterfront lights up and Kuching feels more Mediterranean than Southeast Asian.
The preceding week is a blur. I accompany my father to a number of his schools – public schools that are poorly resourced, yet stocked with friendly students and staff. There’s moral slogans painted on the walls: from the hopelessly religious, “Believe in God, Believe in Country”; to the vaguely fascist, “Strength through unity”; to the comical, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”; to the creationism-bashing, “God creates, Science investigates.”
The kids, no older than seven, stand up as we walk into the classroom. “Good morning Teacher.” And then when I introduce myself, “Good Morning Mr Lukas.” Most of them speak three languages. “Thank you Mr Lukas” when I help them with a problem. They smile, happy, despite not eating breakfast. Some of them don’t bring any food to school, and the Malaysian government provides a small meal. Is it Western imperialism to bring English to a village school, or is it cultural progress? The Muslim girls, in long dresses and headscarves are ostracized from the indigenous Christian kids. They sit alone, or with one another. The fans rarely work, and the classrooms steam up. But there is no complaining, no whining. The bright ones, with bright eyes, are already bored. The teachers struggle with classes of forty.
“Goodbye Mr Lukas.”
At the Chinese school, the students work with military precision. Self-disciplined. Organized. Determined. The West doesn’t stand a chance.
Little events stick out from the routine of life that we easily fell into. Walking around the housing estate for the first and last time. Dogs bark from gated driveways. People eye us suspiciously. We stick out, of course, but not because we’re putihs, but because we’re walking. In the Kampung, these people would’ve walked around, visited each other, strolled in the evening. But here, in this new housing complex, people lock their gates, lock their doors, and watch television. Sitting in a small room with the air-conditioning on. No communication. No community. This is progress. This is ‘the dream.’ Nothing seems real, still. It will all be over before anything makes sense; even then the neon lights will shine from another place, inaccessible to the conscious mind.
21 January 2013, 2:30 AM
It’s 2:30 AM and I’m home. Sitting in our lounge, on our fresh-smelling couch. Home. It feels good to be back – good but not entirely normal yet. There seems to be a lag between my eyes and my brain – my retinas and my mind. What I see and what I understand don’t match up. Driving up Patui Avenue, I see the trimmed lawns and blooming gardens of our neighbours, but my head is still in the dark streets of Padawan. In my mind I’m still in the humid night of Borneo, the ceiling fan moving hot air around the small room. The jungle is painted on my eyelids, my skin itches.
It’s conflicting, but I know that it will get better as days go by.
Lukas Clark-Memler is a writer and cultural critic from Madison, WI. He may be reached at email@example.com