It all started with an intriguing story, over some iced lemon tea with just a little sugar, please:
…”my Couchsurfer took a boat to an island, where no foreigners have been…camped on the beach…my friend Jimmy took care of him…”
Fiona was telling us about this place we could go if we wanted to see a truly remote Borneo village.
“Where is this island?”
I never thought this simple question might lead me to such a complicated, trying journey, but of course, it did, or else I wouldn’t be writing this.
We tried to hitch-hike out of Kota Kinabalu, my Czech friend Kate and I. We had a sign: “Need Ride to Kudat Please.” One car stopped to inform us that Kudat was 3 hours away. We knew that, thank you very much. The next car stopped and told us he would take us closer…or to a better place along the road to hitch. But he just made a U-turn and took us back into city center: to a sketchy bus terminal, no thank you.
So finally, five hours after trying to leave Kota Kinabalu, we found ourselves in the back of a van, with five locals, driving along a bumpy road–North to Kudat. We were exhausted already from the heat and from the series of various disappointments. After hitch hiking didn’t work, we had unsuccessfully tried to find a rental car that wasn’t priced like a Lamborghini. We were all but defeated, and we weren’t even 10 km out of Kota Kinabalu.
Another three hours later we arrived in Kudat, the Northern tip of Malaysian Borneo, just as the sun was setting; this was another disappointment, as we had been looking forward to the “best sunset in Borneo.” But we did get to glimpse at the sunset, as we were on the 5th floor of the most horrendous “hotel” I have ever seen, inspecting the available “economy fan” rooms. Most of the time, when you arrive at a hotel and ask for a room, you need to take it upon yourself to ask the front desk man if you can have a look at the room first. Well, at the Sunset Hotel, the pleasant, and notably attractive man behind the counter simply smiled when we asked about an “economy fan” room, and handed us the keys.
“Go have a look,” he said, still smiling.
As we walked up the stairs, I couldn’t help but notice that the hallways looked ancient and disgusting. The peeling green paint, black mold, and putrid smells all around us were more than unnerving. A baby was crying from somewhere inside one of the rooms. Who would bring a baby into this place? It was ominous, to say the least.
“Feels like something out of a horror movie.”
After struggling to open the door with a skeleton key, we entered the first room. It smelled like death and had a heavy presence of decay. It was actually horrifying. Kate came in after me and gasped at the smell. I jumped at the sound of her gasp, thinking she had seen something I didn’t: perhaps, the Grim Reaper behind me. I wish I had been clever enough in the moment to snap a picture, but I was too shocked to even think of pulling out my camera.
“This is the perfect setting for a horror film.” I said, looking at the walls. The baby continued wailing. The orange light from the setting sun leaked through the tears in the plastic curtains.
“Where’s the fan?” I said, searching the walls. “Oh… it’s there.” It was half of a fan, propped up on a black moldy nightstand.
The bedsheets were ripped and dirty. It was by far the most repulsive “accomodation” I could never have imagined independent of visual aids.
“I mean, I could stay here, but I’m honestly worried we might contract some disease.” I said, as we cautiously crept back out of the room. We discussed perhaps laying the tent down on the bed and sleeping on that, but deciding against it with the rationale that bedbugs might still be able to find their way to our bodies. The other rooms were equally, if not more, reminiscent of all things repugnant.
We went back downstairs and approached the guy behind the counter. He smiled at our obviously expressive faces.
“Umm, I LOVE your hotel…” I started.
“But….” he said, smiling more.
“Yeah.” We all started laughing. “I think we’ll go somewhere else, but thank you. Um…is there anywhere else?”
* * *
We found a reasonable place, Hotel Grace Garden. In the morning, we set out in search of a way to get to that island. On the map, it looked pretty close. In the daylight, Kudat could be seen for what it was: a very small town, littered with garbage and a constant flow of exotic, mostly putrid, smells filling our nostrils.
It was a sort of sensory adventure. Each street corner offered a new, most awful smell that was persisted in its crusade against our olfactory system. We found a boat, but to our disappointment, we would have to wait until 1:30 to depart.
It seemed like every little thing was moving slowly and working against us. Every little step along the way was a challenge. Getting to Kudat was tiring and discouraging, and then when we arrived in Kudat, finding a habitable hotel was even more difficult and exhausting. There were only a handful, and, well the Sunrise Hotel says it all. The standard for “Hotel” in this town had obviously not yet been negotiated by the tourism industry. Every leg of this journey to get to this little island was just taking so much time and so much effort. It was clearly wearing on us.
“It’s OK,” Kate said, as we were walking through the streets trying to find something resembling a grocery store so we could bring some food along, “it seems like we’ve hit the low point. We can only go up from here, right?” We were soaked with sweat, and my vision was becoming blurred from dehydration and lack of sleep.
“Right.” I appreciated her optimism. Some people would have thrown in the towel by now and hopped in the first car heading South. I might have, if I hadn’t already come this far with someone else who was counting on my sense of direction and trusting in my idea to search for this island. I didn’t know what to expect traveling with this girl I had just met, but it was starting to seem like she had quite a grounded sense of humor and an appreciation for optimism against the odds. This is a good combination, in a travel companion.
After an hour and a half on the boat, and we finally reached the island of Banggi. As the boat approached the shore, a feeling I hadn’t felt in at least 24 hours reintroduced itself to me–delighted anticipation.
Little houses on stilts floated along the coastline, with the backdrop of palm trees and sunny skies. We wanted “off the beaten track,” and this was just that. I hadn’t seen another foreigner since we left Kota Kinabalu the day before, and I knew we would not find one here.
But now what? I had a tent in my hands that I borrowed from a guy named Fez, in a last minute act of grace combined with a bizarre race against time. He zoomed up to our van just as we were about to drive away from Kota Kinabalu, and handed me the tent through the van door. It felt like a drug deal, coordinated by frantic text messages riddled with changing time frames and shifty meeting locations In moments, he was gone, and we had a tent. We had hoped to camp on this island of Banggi. That was the plan, I guess, but we had no idea where camping might be possible. A map of this area was out of the question, and it seemed no one spoke English at all.
We were looking for a toilet when a man with a bright pink backpack demonstrated that he could speak English, reasonably well.
“You have to pee only?” he said, surprising me with the forward question.
“Yes, just pee.” I replied, looking at Kate with a slight grin. He led me to a cell in the back of a restaurant with a cement floor and a pipe in the ground, in the far left corner. He had warned me not to be “surprised” by the “traditional toilet,” and I was only surprised by the fact that there was no toilet. Not even the typical hole-in-the-floor. It was just a cement floor and a pipe. Now I understood why he asked so bluntly about the specific job we needed to perform in the toilet–pee or poop. The latter would be simply impossible here.
I felt uncomfortable peeing on someone’s floor, but what the hell. He told me I could, so I had justification for defiling someone’s building.
Anyways, after that was taken care of, we asked him about where we could go camping. He was our best bet for getting information; the only English speaker we had met–we were not going to let him off easy. I told him we wanted a beautiful, isolated beach, that we could find without getting too lost. Smiling and exaggerating his mannerisms, he told us it would be no problem. We could take a shared pick-up just 10 minutes down the road, to Sangi Wat-Wat then walk down a trail through the jungle for 15 minutes and…viola. We’d have our beach.
We thanked him profusely for his advice and asked if we could take a photo.
After snapping this photo, he bid us farewell with an “Oh my GOD! I look so FAT! Well, good luck! Enjoy your day.” He was quite the character, and his flamboyant nature and kind disposition instilled within me a sense of trust that he had sent us to a legitimate camping place.
As the pickup pulled to the side of the road, I was praying that it wasn’t our stop. The guy in the front turned and looked through the glass. We made eye contact, and he nodded. Yes, this is your stop. Shit. The road we were supposed to walk down was a small dirt path leading the opposite direction of the coast, into nothing but green and brown forest.
“I hope so.”
We started walking down the road, which cut through dense jungle in all of its muddy glory. I couldn’t help but think with each step that with each step this was becoming more and more ridiculous. The road was littered with garbage, and seemed like it must be the town dump. Dark grey monkeys were hopping around on the piles of trash, gossiping loudly about the foreign monkeys trudging down the road with bright colored backpacks. Enormous mosquitoes had identified our bodies via some super-advanced GPS-like technology as landing pads equipped with their very own built in refueling stations.
Everywhere we stepped we sank into the mud, as the monkeys stared at us with a distinct look of foreboding suspicion.
“My mom would kill me if she knew what we’re doing right now.” Kate said, just as the same thought occurred to me. “And she would probably kill you too.”
At this point, it was becoming clear that this adventure was going to manifest as one of two things when we got there: it was either going to be really beautiful and relaxing and safe, or extremely gross and tiring and dangerous. Obviously, we still had hope for the pay-off, or we wouldn’t have continued down that path through the drizzling rain that had just begun to dampen our clothing and spirits.
Kate stopped to change her shoes, and I dropped my backpack on the trail so I could run ahead and see if we were actually walking towards a beach. We had already walked 15 minutes into this jungle and there was no sign of any beach, although the landfill scenery had been slowly replaced with thick, noisy jungle and a thinner trail.
I came back from my reconnaissance mission with good news. Yes, there was a beach, and yes it was beautiful. But the rain was coming down a bit more dramatically now, and I was realizing this good news may be lined with some bad. The beach had only a couple of meters of rocky sand, and if the tide was coming in, we’d be in trouble. But we pressed on anyway. We had come too far to turn back now.
We got to the beach and set up camp in the rain. Of course, our drug-deal of a tent didn’t have a rain fly; it had a mesh roof, which let the rain come in in the form of mist, and the walls were not waterproof either.
“Maybe here, people don’t camp in the rain,” Kate offered. Maybe here people don’t go camping so spontaneously, in the middle of the rainy season, I thought.
In terms of helpful tools and provisions, we were limited. We had hastily bought some crackers, a little baggy of fried bananas, and one grilled fish. It was going to be a wet night.
As we sat on the shore, in the now pouring rain, eating the fried banana slices, we couldn’t do anything but laugh.
“It’s only for a night, right? At least tomorrow we will be dry.” Kate said, as we sat on a log the width of my arm and huddled under our one little umbrella. Rainwater was pouring down my back and accumulating in the bottom of my shorts.
“Yeah, and the sunrise might be really pretty tomorrow,” I said, trying to find at least one justification for our existence on this forsaken beach.
The sky began to dump water on us like it was sobbing after a difficult breakup.
“Hey, are you religious?” I asked.
She took another bite of fried banana, with the curiously accompanying chili sauce. ”Why?”
“Oh, I was just hoping if you were you could pray to God and ask for this rain to stop and for the tide to go out.”
“Mmm,” she said. “Are you?”
“Nope.” I took a bite of the banana. “Damn it.”
We sat there for a quarter of an hour, in the rain, I guess somewhat stubbornly waiting for our situation to improve. We filled the time telling stories. I told Kate about the time in the Amazon when we had to sit in “lightning position” for over thirty minutes on an island in the middle of the river as the sky vomited electricity and water. Our tents had been filled with water, such that we were literally bailing them out with pots and pans in the middle of the night when the rain finally subsided. And in the Amazon, there was no chance for a “dry tomorrow.” We were always wet, and we would always be wet.
The rain turned into nothing short of a torrential downpour. The stick I had stuck in the sand to determine if the tide was coming in or out had just become the next unfortunate story of the evening: the tide was coming in. The sky was a very dark shade of grey. If there had been even a slight break in the cloud cover, maybe we could have hoped for salvation, but there was not one single glimmer of sunlight.
I got up and went over to the tent. Unzipping it, I finally saw the reality of our situation.
“We have to make moves.” I said. The floor had three puddles the size of soccer balls, and my backpack was resting in one of them.
Like many other times in my life, I found myself scrambling to break down camp as fast as possible. Everything, I mean EVERYTHING, was soaked. I was trying not to think about my computer, my iPod, and my kindle…
As a last hurrah, a ceremonial offering to the ‘awesomeness of nature and the insignificance of man’ (see: Gap Yah for the reference), I began to carefully unwrap the fish from the newspaper and plastic.
“I’m not going eat a fucking wet fish.” I said, chucking it somewhat gracefully into the ocean. “There, ocean. You can have it back.” Kate laughed at this, and I broke down into laughter too. This whole dismal situation was just too much. We had to laugh to keep from…I don’t know, deciding to just sleep in the ocean? The idea had been thrown out there. The water was warmer in the sea than coming down from the sky. We packed up the last of our water-logged belongings and headed back, barefoot, to the path.
The sun appeared to be setting behind the dark grey storm clouds, and the rain was still tremendous. We reached what had once been a small stream crossing the path, which was now a sizable flowing river. I went across first, and then turned to watch Kate.
“THIS is the low point,” she said as she waded through the rapidly flowing stream. I remembered how we had thought the we had reached the low point before we even got to the island. Apparently, that wasn’t low enough for rock bottom. We had to travel to hell first. But we weren’t miserable, there. For some reason we were still managing optimism through it all. Hey, we had been expecting an adventure of sorts, and this certainly exceeded that expectation, didn’t it. The road was becoming a stream.
Five minutes later, I realized I had left my pants on the beach. My only pair of pants. I had to go back for them, and I had to go fast, before this whole place was flooded.
In just the 10 minutes that we had walked from the beach, the path had indeed flooded completely. When I arrived back on the beach, the shore was nearly gone. I grabbed my pants and turned back, trudging now through the dark, alone, knee-deep in water along the path in some places. And the icing on the cake?
The cobra, pythons and vipers were coming out, having been flooded out of their homes. Walking through muddy water, in the dark, with snakes all around our feet, it was not quite an optimal scenario. I saw four in total; one enormous black and green one half submerged in the water. I was hoping that Kate had her headtorch on, but I couldn’t tell because she had gone on to the road while I ran back for my pants. Adrenaline now was pumping through me; my heart was racing and my eyes voraciously scanning the ground before me. Clearly, this situation had taken a turn for the worse.
I met her at the road, and we started walking aimlessly down towards the village center. It was only 7 pm, but it felt like midnight. We had no idea what we were going to do. It was dark and raining, and we hadn’t the faintest idea where there might be a hostel, or even if such a thing existed on this island.
A couple of motorbikes passed us as we trudged down the road towards the port. I didn’t even bother to turn on my headtorch, deciding to save my battery for an actual car or truck that we could wave down.
In just a few minutes, a rather noisy motorbike approached from behind us, and sounded like it was slowing down. I turned around, waving my torch. It was a truck, not a motorbike! We discovered in the daylight why we had mistaken it for a motorbike:
One headlight, in the center of the fender. The driver, to our amazement, spoke English. We asked him to please take us to a hostel.
He dropped us at a “homestay,” which is like a home where the owners charge you to stay. Like a makeshift hostel. We had to call the cell phone of the owner to get someone to check us in. As we were waiting for him to come, the man who drove us there reappeared.
“If you need any help, call me. Take my number,” he said.
“Sure, yeah. Thanks.” I said. I was just tired. I doubted we’d need any help anymore, but I took out my phone and entered the number to please him.
But when I tried to save the contact in my phone, something odd happened: a message appeared on the screen, “Contact already exists. View Contact?”
That’s weird, I thought. I pressed View Contact, and a name came up: Jimmy.
Jimmy…..Jimmy…why do I have this guy Jimmy’s number already?? Who gave me this number??
“Is your name Jimmy?” I asked.
“Yes!” he said, looking as puzzled as I was.
My brain was working overtime, trying to sort through my recent memories.
Another moment passed, and then…I located the memory in the filing cabinet within my skull. Fiona had given me his number back in Kota Kinabalu. This was Jimmy–the same man that Fiona’s friend had stayed with! In Kota Kinabalu, I had texted him saying we were coming to his island, and asking if he could meet us. He hadn’t responded, so I imagined we had the wrong number or wrong island. But now, here, in front of us, was the man we had come to the island to meet in the first place! What are the bloody chances.
I needn’t say much more to explain how we ended up in Jimmy’s home, drinking hot coffee and eating a home cooked dinner of rice and vegetables. As we were driving to his house, I turned to Kate and said,
“Wow. At least this will be a pretty badass story to write about.”
“Yeah, it’s not over yet…” she said, staring out the window.
We stayed up talking with Jimmy for hours. We discovered that the only reason he was driving down that road at just that moment was because the electricity in his house went out, and they needed to buy candles. Had he left a couple of minutes before or after, we would’ve missed him. A native Philippino, he came to Malaysia illegally in 1984. He explained that the Southern-most island of the Philippines is only a three hour boat ride from the island we were sitting on, sipping our coffee. That’s how he came to this island, Banggi, for the first time. He told us about this island: a population of 5,000 people, 17 villages, with more monkeys than humans, 800 students in the high school, government building projects (his home is the result of such projects) and salt-water crocodiles…
Yes. Salt-water crocodiles. You see the photo of Kate wading through the water?
Yeah, this is home to some vicious crocs. Jimmy has lost four friends this way…at dusk, along the shores. You should have seen the looks on our faces when this information came out. I found it amazing that our friend with the hot pink backpack had failed to mention this minor detail.
And hey, did you know that the reason there are not very many monkeys in the Philippines is because it is a Christian country and not Muslim? Christians are OK with eating monkeys, but it is forbidden in Islam. Also, did you know that the way he and his friends go diving is by going under the surface with a long tube that they breath through all the way down to 45 meters, functioning like a super-long snorkel? They collect shellfish down there. Sadly, Jimmy has also lost friends to this very dangerous activity, and some, he said, have become paralyzed from decompression complications.
Besides being kept awake from 3 am on by a disoriented rooster, gasping for air as I choked (for the first time in my life) on my breakfast, being asked by a man on the boat back to Kudat if I was “afraid to be raped,” and finding an enormous cockroach in my purse while on the van-ride back to Kota Kinabalu (and then, casually zipping my purse back up), I’d say the adventure was pretty pleasant, overall. We had a unique experience–to say the least–and were able to see and learn about a place that is extremely remote and untouched by foreign visitors. I can say, with confidence that the story is now, finally over, that it was one hell of a trip.
Tonight, I am clean, dry, and content, in Kota Kinabalu. Tomorrow, it’s back to the jungle