24 Hours in Borneo: The Pursuit of Happiness

BORNEO, INDONESIA- There’s a good chance I’m sleeping with the lights on tonight. To me, hostels are devious cesspools of necessity, a place to lie your head as a budget traveler and make some friends in the process. Among many things you can count on when staying in a hostel is the company of fellow travelers, a defining facet of which I have been less and less a fan over the past year.

Yet everything is different in Borneo. I am spending the evening in the hostel at the Poring Hot Spring Nature Resort, and I am the only guest staying here. There is a security guard roaming the premises somewhere, but the reception desk closed 40 minutes ago and there is little other sign of life around the compound. Note that these are hardly complaints, it’s an amazing opportunity to be so immersed in the rainforest, Borneo’s rainforest at that, however I am just saying that I might sleep with the lights on tonight, since it’s one of the few times that I am so removed from the company of fellow travelers. In fact, I’m quite removed from the company of anyone. I’ve given a good deal of thought over the past year to what is the most remote situation I’ve ever found myself in, and as with most things it depends upon the metric one uses to measure such things. 

Not many places that I have been to beat the time that I went snowmobiling in the middle of the Icelandic tundra with Savoca and Kats in the middle of a heavy snowstorm, at least by my city-standards. Physically, that is likely the most remote I have ever been. Living in Western Australia, while a first-world region, was it’s own little world. Things from the outside never really affected what was going on there to a significant extent. But Borneo feels like something…wild.

Arriving at the airport in Kota Kinabalu, I acquired a data plan for my two weeks in Malaysia and acquired a few thousand Ringits in monopoly money. Like every good budget traveler, Lauren and I did our due diligence to find out whether it was cheaper to take a taxi or the city bus to our hotel for the night, at which point we found out that “Hotel 81” was a solid 20 minute taxi ride from the city center. Given that it was already 6pm and we planned to be on a bus at 7am the next morning, if we stayed there it didn’t appear as if we’d realistically be able to stroll around Kota Kinabalu for the evening…but the hotel was booked, and we’d be charged if we didn’t show up for the reservation. A taxi to Hotel 81 it was. We are budget travelers, after all.

It turns out that Hotel 81 is in a shopping center. The third floor of a shopping center. A shopping center where everything is written in Chinese, except for a food court at the far end where one can distinctly see “FROG PORRIDGE” lit up in neon. Interesting. But my thing now is to just roll with it, since everything is an experience. Up the stairs we go, and after a faff-about (my new favorite term) checking in, we make our way to the corner room. It’s hot as balls, so I crank the A/C all the way up and open the windows. Surveying our digs I reflect that it’s not exactly what I expected, but at $11/USD for a hotel room, I really can’t complain. 

It takes us a few minutes to decide on our plan for the evening. It’s already past 7, and we have to be at the bus stop early the next morning. We still haven't figured out how we're getting there, since the receptionist is less than happy to help us find a taxi. After lazily scanning the Wikitravel article for Kota Kinabalu and lamenting the fact that actually, eating around here will in fact be a more authentic travel experience, that tourists staying in Kota Kinabalu would LOVE to come out here, just to experience life the way the locals do, we head outside to get a bite to eat. As we pass the food court with the FROG PORRIDGE sign, I get that feeling one has when you pass a nondescript rollercoaster with no line…sure, you could just move on to something else, but it’s RIGHT THERE, and seriously, who are you if you don’t go on this rollercoaster? Just try it. You’re going to be disappointed with no one but yourself if you skip out on the opportunity to try something new.

 Frog porridge!

Frog porridge!

Five minutes later, and I’m sitting with a steaming bowl of frog porridge in front of me. I have no idea what to expect. I see a dozen or so massive bullfrogs quietly ribbiting in an empty fish tank with a piece of cardboard over the top, and I’m really not sure how these things make it into the porridge. Do they fry the legs, and mix them in, so it’s clear what’s frog and what isn’t? Do they mash it up, all of it, so that the frog is now part of the sauce, creamed in with all the rice? Or does it have something to do with the gizzards, whatever that might be? Unsure of what I’m getting myself into, but curious about the smell, I use a pair of chopsticks to eat a bit of the rice. 

IT'S ACTUALLY pretty tasty. I have a bit more, and aside from being steaming hot, I’m actually digging this frog porridge. At this point an ethnic-looking man sitting at the table next to us takes a break form eating his steak and fries to inform me that the porridge is supposed to be eaten with a spoon. So much for the real cultural experience.

Supper turns out exceed all of my expectations. Frog doesn’t have a particularly high meat content, so I didn’t get much off the bone, but it was very tough and chewy with a white complexion. I’m glad I tried it, but there’s a reason traditional porridge is made without frog. Milling about the market stalls, Laurens sees a mobile phone shop and decides to get a SIM card for her phone. As if placed there by the hands of Ganesha himself, there’s a bar right next door with Tiger Beer buckets for 12MYR, working out to something like $4.14 for 3 beers. After an extended period of saint-like abstinence from casual alcohol in Australia due to it’s ball-busting prices, I really dig the fact that you can get a beer in Malaysia for a reasonable price. 

Making myself comfortable as I wait for Lauren, I take a sip of the first ice cold beer I’ve had in forever, and content myself in the moment. It’s not long before I’m burst out of my reverie by the appearance of Lisa, a short Indonesian woman dressed in jeans way too tight for her own good. My alarm bells instantly start going off, telling me there is something wrong with this situation, but all of the normal barometers tell me everything is cool—this place is not sketchy, you are not alone, you are drinking from a can you opened, your hotel is right there, and you do not have your passport on you. Lisa picks up my can and pours it into my glass for me, and I have the sinking feeling that I am being propositioned within my first hour in-country. Things are seldom as they seem however, and it turns out Lisa is just the waitress there. She pours the drinks for all of the customers. It’s weird as hell, since the glass you drink out of holds approximately 4 ounces of beer…meaning it needs to be poured very often, even if you aren’t drinking a lot. 

Lauren returns and I can see from the look on her face that she’s curious as to how I’ve made myself so comfortable so quickly, but joins the table and we all have a nice little chat about the subtleties of Bhasa Indonesia and Bhasa Malay (they are, for all intents and purposes, the same language). Fortunately, Lisa is able to help us with the next morning’s taxi cab...Ricky, the Chinese guy in the corner who appears to run both the mobile phone booth and the bar, is also a taxi driver and signals that he can pick us up at 6:30 the next morning. After numerous confirmations through various interpreters that Ricky will be there the following morning (since he doesn’t speak a lick of English), he gives us his phone number so we can call him if there’s trouble. Lisa wants to know if I want another bucket, but my answer is a sound no. I want a clean bed and an opportunity to muff it all up with the crumbs of the local chocolate cookies I intend on sampling before I go to sleep.

The alarm goes off all too early. We are catching the same bus, but Lauren is going all the way to Semporna on the east coast to get her scuba diving certification, and I’m only going an hour and a half away, to Mount Kinabalu, which I intend on climbing in a single day. Check-out is at twelve. I desperately want to sleep, but it’s Sunday morning and I figure it will be difficult to make another plan. No worries, Ricky is picking us up.

Emerging from the hotel at 6:37, we don’t see Ricky. It’s a Sunday morning, and nothing is open. There are no people anywhere. Everything is written in a foreign language. We exchange a look that says “uuuuugggghhhhhhurghghghghghg” why did we expect Ricky the Chinese guy to be here at 6:30…so I give him a ring. He seems surprised that I called, but appeared to be awake and quite peppy, saying he would be there in ten minutes. Perhaps the translators meant that we should CALL Ricky at 6:30. Perhaps Ricky speaks more English than we thought. The situation continues to lighten when an amiable Californian decked out in Taylor Made gear comes down the stairs with his golf clubs, commenting what a beautiful morning it is. He's off for a quick 18.

Needless to say, Ricky is not a taxi driver, just an entrepreneurial gent. We pile our things into the trunk of his Toyota Corolla, and just like that, we’re off to Inanam Bus Station. It’s a glorious morning with few cars on the road. The sun is shining through the clouds, and it seems as if we are in a wild land. Of course, it’s a tropical landscape that has been thoroughly modernized by tourist dollars, but it’s BORNEO, and it’s WILD. There are billboards everywhere, but you can choose to see the beauty in what you want to. 

Arriving at the bus station we are greeted by a swarm of Malay men who all grab our bags and start running towards their bus. Apparently they don’t give a shit where you’re going, as long as you go with their bus company. It appears that their primary marketing tactic is to grab your things and run towards your bus so you have to follow them, thereby increasing their chances of a ticket sale. Not having any of this, I ripped my small backpack off the back of the man who grabbed it with a confrontational degree of force. Lauren had to resort to raising her voice, saying “NO, NO, NO” in a louder and louder tone. I’m all for respecting cultural boundaries and customs, but this was a preposterous interaction and not welcome by anyone’s standards, though fortunately one guy had a business card which I recognize as the bus we want, and we go with him.

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HE OPENS THE undercarriage of the gleaming, brand new coach bus for us to put our things, but alas, a metal cage with 4 roosters is already taking up the entire length of that section. In a hilarious reaction, he says in his wacky accent “Ahhhh shit. No. No. No.” and opens up the next section for our bags. “Ahhh yes”, he says, with that cheeky little smile one can give when there are no other common words to express one’s sentiments. I guess this place has been overrun by tourism, but only to a certain extent. The roosters are still non-paying passengers.

 

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An hour or two passes before the bus takes off, but once we are out of the city grounds we are treated to one of the most miraculous journeys I have ever had the pleasure of taking. Flights to Semporna are $16 one way (I kid you not, AirAsia is CHEAP), but I could not be happier that we tossed that possibility in favor of taking an overland bus through Borneo. The scenery is spectacular, taking you through the rainforest, up and down the sides of the mountains, and above the clouds. Words cannot describe it. This picture can try, though. Our overland route takes us past Mount Kinabalu, which can barely be seen through the cloud cover. I get a giggly chill of anticipation at the thought that if things go well, I'll be standing at the top of it in just a few days' time.

 

Before I know it, we are in the gas station at Ranau. Ranau is the city I decided to go to after looking at the map during the journey…you see, my plan is to climb Mount Kinabalu in the next few days, but there is no reasonable accommodation near Mount Kinabalu. I booked in at a hostel (for $11/night— expensive, but the only option) that I thought was somewhere near Mount Kinabalu, but turns out to be at least 40ks, 50minutes away. The bus doesn’t go there, so I need to get off at Ranau and take a taxi. It doesn’t take long to realize that no taxis go to Poring; I need to get a share-van. Hm. OK. It’s time to have lunch, and think about my options.
 

I wander around the city for a bit, and this is one of the first places I’ve been where I’m really getting stared at. Not too many gringos in these parts it looks like, especially when he starts wandering around the Sunday market. It’s a bright and sunny day though, and it is, after all, Sunday morning. Everyone is out with their families, and I feel totally safe. I see a stall off the side of the main markets, and decide to eat there. As I walk up, I see the locals bursting with anticipation, hoping they can find out JUST WHAT IN GOD’S NAME I AM DOING THERE. Sauntering up to the counter, I drop one of the few phrases of Bhasa Malay I know, “Pagi Makan?”, aka, “breakfast?”. 
 

In most groups of foreigners in these situations, there is an alpha who speaks English better than the rest. They usually take charge; both to practice their own language, and help me out. I was in desperate need of help. He walked me through the menu, and I ended up having rice, local vegetable special, and squid with string beans for breakfast. With a coffee. It’s still breakfast. I forget now, which attests to the fleeting nature of many of my relationships, but I believe my friends’ name was Jala. He sat with me and soon had the whole clan asking me questions about where I was from, whether I was married...you know, casual Sunday chit-chat. 
 

It turns out that Jala is from Indonesia, but came to Borneo because he can make more money here. He now works on a farm and repairs cars, but, to me, seemed to demonstrate a level of education that I had yet to encounter in this region. Little things that we might take for granted in the first-world here catch one’s attention as the sign of someone with the background of a man of letters. For instance, knowing that Brunei and Malaysia were formed in 1945 after the Japanese were defeated in WWII, or the fact that Ford is an American car because, you know, Henry Ford. American, right? It might be common knowledge that Malaysia and Brunei were founded after the Japanese were defeated or that Ford is an American car, but it’s rare to find someone here that knows that it happened in 1945 or that Henry Ford founded Ford Motors. It turns out that Jala has a university degree from Jakarta, and was a very good student, yet he can’t use his degree here at all, even though he can make more money. It’s a paradoxical world we live in, isn't it? And you might ask, where did he learn his English? Surprisingly, the same place that most Americans learn theirs. Sesame Street.
 

I had spent this time debating whether or not I should stay in Ranau, or head to Poring. I had a booking in Poring in a beautiful resort, but it was in a hostel, and it was going further from Mount Kinabalu. I was in Ranau, which was closer to Mount Kinabalu, but Ranau was a city. What to do? When in doubt, due diligence. I’d walk around for a bit and see if I could find a reasonable place to stay. If so, I’d spend the night in Ranau, and figure out Mount Kinabalu in the morning. As I got up to leave, Jala thanked me for my company, and I thanked him for his. Asking what my plans were, I told him I was considering staying in Ranau. After all, we had spoken enough about how family friendly it was, and I had snuck in a quick read on Wikitravel and seen there was enough to occupy me for a day…but still, I needed a sign to tell me where I should go. 
 

It was at this point that Jala told me that in Ranau, I should just be careful after dark if I see locals that have been drinking. They drink the local drink (God only knows what that is), it makes their head crazy, and they could try to hurt me...well, if I ever needed a sign, there it was. I won’t be staying in Ranau tonight. Of course, all of the taxi vans had cleared out by this point, but I found a taxi driver who pointed me to another pickup spot which appeared to just be a bend in the road. Since my backpack is a lot lighter than it used to be, I waltzed around for a bit until a white van pulled up (with passengers in the back), and asked me “Where you want go? 30MYR ($8) to Poring”. The world works in mysterious ways. I hop in, and we’re on our way to Poring.

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 AS IF THERE was any need to reinforce my decision to stay in Poring, I am greeted by three smiling, over-attending workers at reception. I booked in for a hostel, so I’m pleasantly surprised at all of the mahogany wood paneling. I’m even more pleasantly surprised at the cold towel and papaya juice that are presented to me. That is the Universe saying, RIGHT CHOICE- RIGHT CHOICE!! You’re in the right spot. The bellhop, as I will call him, takes my big bag and leads me to the room. I see a large cabin-like structure, and I fully expect to walk into a small, cramped room with 4 dorm beds, the first in a series of rooms designed to maximize space. But no, I’m treated to the cavernous living space of this. My room is a single bunk bed, and it quickly becomes apparent there are not a lot of people around. 

 

I spend the afternoon walking around the nature reserve, and come back to the lounge to laze for an hour before venturing out again. Around 4, I leave and realize things are much quieter. It’s not as sunny as it was before, and there’s no one in the hot springs. It’s drizzling a bit. Walking across the street, I eat dinner at a Chinese restaurant, where the inspiration strikes me to write about this experience. I take a short walk down the road, and everything looks deserted. For whatever reason there are a large number of Chevrolet Colorado’s on the road, but they are all going in the opposite direction of the springs. It’s only then I realize that we’re on a dead end. Heading back in towards my hostel, I realize that there are not many people around at all and that I’m probably going to be very alone tonight, but that’s OK. If anyone has ever read the Alchemist, they may recall the line that “when you really want something to happen, the whole universe conspires so that your wish comes true”. There are tons of ways to interpret this and even more ways to write it off, but basically when you are on the right path, things will work out, and when you look for little signs, they are there. This is just one step in the journey to climb Mount Kinabalu, and it will all work out in the end, but only if I really want it to.

 

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 AS I WRITE this post in the deserted common room of my hostel cabin, I hear the sound of the river out back and of jungle insects chirping away. While I've been a solo traveler for the past year, I've made lots of friends along the way and have embarked on the majority of my adventures with some company. This time, however, I'm all on my own. Looking across the room, I spy a single issue of National Geographic. Having always been a fan of NatGeo and it's pictures, I walk over and pick it up. The cover features a large tornado and a picture of a man standing far too close to it, Tim Samaras. At the risk of sounding crazy, I smirk to myself and laugh, knowing that I'm on the right path.

I brought a copy of this particular issue of NatGeo--it must be from Fall 2013-- from home on the plane with me when I left for Australia. I distinctly remember reading the article about Tim Samaras on my flight from LA to Fiji, though I haven’t thought of it since then. I remember admiring Samaras for the way he pursued a profession that was something he was truly passionate about, however unconventional it was. I also remember thinking what a crazy bastard he must have been, but that he must have lived one hell of a life, filled with excitement. A lot of you might think I'm off being my own crazy bastard, pursuing some nonsensical dream, but right now I’m just following my own Personal Legend, and it’s working out wonderfully for me. 

Odds are, I'm not the only one. Each of us might be doing crazy different things, but  if you just take a moment and look for the signs, you'll know you're on the right path. Even if it means you have to spend a night or two with the light on.