I heard the alarm, but refused to open my eyes.

“You wanna shower first?” I said, half asleep. This is my sneaky way of stealing a couple extra minutes of sleep.

“I showered last night. You can go ahead and take one,” Kate replied, already up and moving around the room.

Damn.

It was 6:30, and I had stayed up late into the night listening to my Turkish language audiobooks. I didn’t want to wake up, but I reluctantly pulled myself out of bed as I remembered we had a ferry to catch

An hour later, we found ourselves anxiously riding in a taxi, pleading the driver to please go a little faster! We got to the jetty just in time: bought our tickets and boarded the ferry only moments before it pulled away from the pier. We were on our way to Brunei Darussalam.

Want me to be completely honest?  The only reason I went to Brunei (pronounced Broon-eye) is because it was so damn close to where I was in Kota Kinabalu, and because I had read somewhere that the Bruneian immigration officials stamp an entire page in your passport upon entry to their country. The over-zealous passport stamping was motivation enough for me; the idea of one of the smallest countries in the world taking up an entire passport page was pretty appealing, if only to add comic effect to my travels. I didn’t know anything about the country, and I honestly don’t think I had heard of it before looking at a map of Southeast Asia about 9 months ago as I looked ahead to this trip.

We spent the day on the water, trying to catch some sleep on the rocking ferryboat, with the most uncomfortably cold AirCon I have yet experienced in Southeast Asia. I don’t understand why they insist on simulating winter in Maine when riding in vehicles in Asia. You enter the vehicle in some tropical equatorial land only to be instantaneously transported to a winter wonderland just south of the North Pole. Unless the AirCon controller has a vivid imagination that inspires him to create such a frigid atmosphere for the sole purpose of creating a more conducive environment for the creative mind to wander in a winter dreamland, there is no good reason that I should have to wear my down jacket and still shiver while sitting on this boat.

I digress.

We got to Brunei, and after Kate promptly fell in love with the immigration officer, we were through customs and ready to get exploring. We had read that a taxi into town is about $30, and the purple bus is $1. So of course, our goal was to find the purple bus. I walked up to a man outside of the ferry station, and asked where to find the bus stop.

“Bus is closed. Next one at 6 pm. Must take taxi.”

“OK, well we can wait until 6. Where is the bus?” I continued, knowing he was trying to get me to take an expensive taxi ride instead.

He continued ignoring my requests to be directed to the bus station, adamantly insisting that we needed to take a taxi as he sat next to his taxi-driver friend.  As he began snickering, and spitting through his lies, I pretty much lost it.

“Wow, you’re such a liar!  No wonder your eyes are brown, they’re full of shit!” I said, kind of regretting my New Jersey attitude right after it reared its head.  The dude was spitting at me though!  Come on!

Kate started walking away, reminding me to keep cool and ignore the man. As we walked down the road, in the general direction of where we guessed the city might be, I vented to her.

“They say you should never react with anger at these people, but I think that’s bullshit. These people are lying. They treat anyone with white skin like we’re a walking bank, and have no regard for basic human decency. I would never treat someone like that. It’s rude and racist.”

I feel like you should treat others as you’d like to be treated. If you’re going to sit there and lie to some completely helpless person, and treat them like they are no more human than a sack of potatoes (a sack of golden expensive potatoes, maybe), then you should expect some poor treatment in response. Screw the guidelines in Lonely Planet, “politely decline, and walk away.” If someone is treating me with disrespect, I’m going to dish it right back and see how they like it; just because I’m in Southeast Asia, doesn’t mean I am going to bite my tongue and be courteous to this kind of behavior. They can heckle, harass, and lie to me, but I can’t give them the old “piss off?” The hell I can’t.

As we were walking and talking about how disappointed we’ve been in witnessing this throughout the areas we’ve been traveling, a car pulled up next to us, and came to a stop. A woman wearing a hijab lowered the window, and signaled for us to come over.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“We’re trying to find the bus downtown,” I said, approaching the window, “we can’t afford a taxi.”  I had little faith at this point, in anyone helping us.  Southeast Asia has a way in reducing your faith in things sometimes.

“I can send you into town,” she said, opening the passenger side door.

Relieved and elated, Kate and I piled in trying to ignore the fact that our smelly shoes would soon fill the car with a nasty odor. She drove us into town, with a quick stop at her home first to let her husband know he didn’t have to worry about her late arrival. We talked the whole way about various things, most notably of which was her love for the Sultan. It was my first introduction to information about the Sultan of Brunei, and I was honestly surprised that she spoke so affectionately towards him. Coming from the U.S., where it is drilled into our heads from an early age that Democracy is the only acceptable form of government, it was hard for me to understand how people might be content living in a true Monarchy.

The Sultan of Brunei is a true ruling king. He has all the power, and, quite obviously, all the wealth (well, the vast majority of it, at least). All of the parliament members are appointed by him, and most of the brilliant buildings around town have been funded in full by the Sultan or a Sultan of past. The Royal Family has multiple palaces, and all of the money they have accumulated has come from their oil revenues. One liter of petrol here is cheaper than one liter of water. Can you believe that? People don’t pay income taxes here, and they only pay $1 for all medical expenses.  The Sultan takes care of the people.  The little country of Brunei was able to stay independent of Malaysia primarily because it has so much money.  And walking through the streets, you can just feel that wealth all around you.  The only word I could think of, walking around with my jaw hanging loose was “bizarre.”

The streets are clean, and the buildings are magnificent. It’s like a little fantasy world, really. Some buildings are just shocking in their stature.

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When we started exploring on our first full day in the capital city Bandar Seri Begawan, we were shocked at how dead it was. It was a Sunday, and evidently, Bruneians take Sunday very seriously as a day of relaxation. The streets were dead: no cars on the road (which is amazing, since everybody in Brunei drives everywhere) and most of the shops were closed.  Kate and I found ourselves rather bored. We were staying at a Youth Center, which has sort of become a hostel, although not really. There was no one at the front desk for the first 2 days we were there, and our dorm room had dirty sheets and questionable ant colonies.  It was hardly worth the $10 that we were supposed to pay, but couldn’t since no one ever showed up at the front desk.

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We went for a walk to look for a park Kate had read about online, and decided to walk around a bit when we finally found it. It was a really nice, clean park, full of locals keeping fit (apparently, obesity is a growing problem in Brunei) and wild monkeys galore.

Monkey sipping spilled coconut milk off the ground

Monkey sipping spilled coconut milk off the ground

We walked up the main path and watched the monkeys hopping around the hillside. The boredom we had been feeling earlier dissipated with the fresh air and vivid scenes.  We went all the way up to the top of the hill, and watched the sun setting over Brunei from a watch tower.

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Everything really was beautiful.

Deciding we should take a different path home, Kate suggested we walk on this little dirt path to the left. She had seen it on the map and thought that it would certainly loop back around to the front entrance.

I hadn’t glanced at the map, so I just followed blindly.  What’s the worst that could happen, right?  We started down this path, and quickly found ourselves in the middle of a forest, veering far away from the direction of the park. There was still some light, so the walking was easy. But of course, every little adventure Kate and Anoush embark on bright-eyed-and-bushy tailed, ends up in with quite dim eyes and wet tails, right? Have you heard, yet, about Anoush and Kate’s luck on Borneo? It’s not so great. Soon we found ourselves in the middle of a forest, in the dark, talking about religion.

“Anoush,” Kate said, cutting me off in the middle of a segment on ‘statistical improbabilities’, “do you realize we are walking through a dark forest right now, talking about religion?”

I actually hadn’t really realized, because I was pretty caught up in my tirade about how being born into a place often automatically determines a person’s religion. But at that moment, yes, we were indeed walking through complete darkness, in flip flops, through a forest on a path that was quickly looking like it was not looping anywhere. We were no longer talking about religion; our conversation quickly was replaced with silence and nervousness as the reality of our current situation dawned on us: we were lost in the dark.

We didn’t talk much more as we made our way further down the path. It didn’t seem like we were getting anywhere.  Kate used her cell phone as a torch, and we meandered slowly until finally, we reached the park again.  What a relief.

Everyone in the park had left, and it appeared we were the last ones there. Anywhere else in the world at this hour in a dark park, and we would be in trouble, but luckily, we were in Brunei where there is virtually no crime.

The next day, we didn’t quite know what to do with ourselves. We had waited an extra day to see if we could go rig diving, which sounded pretty intriguing. Shell Oil Company sunk an oil rig and platforms a couple of years ago, and it has developed into a really rich little bio-diverse ecosystem underwater. But of course, on Monday, we called and they were closed.  So that burst one of our last remaining bubbles about what Brunei might offer us, as tourists, and we found ourselves desperately trying to figure out what we could do here to reinvigorate our spirits.

The capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan is very small. We walked around the entire city at least 5 times, accidentally viewing “tourist attractions” that were marked on the map. You see, there is no tourism office here, and the one map we found at the hostel was our only guess at what to do and see here. But when we looked at the map after a couple days of exploring, we realized that we had already seen almost everything on the map, without even trying.

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With nothing else to do, we spent the day frustrated, trying to book tickets and make plans for the coming days. This ended up being a terribly draining process.

Prices on Borneo are much higher than prices on the mainland, and we were starting to suffer greatly from this fact. It seemed we couldn’t do anything or fly anywhere without spending an arm and a leg. I had wanted to go further South to the town of Kuching, but after working out the various costs involved, I decided I would be better suited making my way back to Kota Kinabalu and flying somewhere else. I typed in destination: “anywhere” in Farespotter, and the cheapest place to fly to from Kota Kinabalu was…the Philippines. So that’s what I booked.

Kate hadn’t made up her mind yet, but she didn’t have the same flexibility I had in making plans. Her mom was coming to Kuala Lumpur in a couple of days, and she was going to meet her there. So it seemed this was where Kate and I would have to part ways.

After spending hours trying to sort out flights, we took a break and decided boost our spirits with chocolate cheesecake before going down to the harbor to see if we could get on a boat to see the water village and some monkeys. Before we left for the boat trip, I called a girl from Couchsurfing, who I’d been trying to meet with for the past few days. She told us we could come to her place that night, and she would meet us later on to pick us up. We were relieved to get a break from the dirty bedsheets we’d been sleeping on, but also a little hesitant because we weren’t entirely sure if we were up for a Couchsurfing surprise: sometimes you can find a really great host, but the sleeping arrangements are less than comfortable.  We kept our hopes low, so as not to be disappointed.  It was a last minute arrangement, and could end up being less than ideal.

We went on a little boat excursion, after bargaining for a good price. He took us through the water village, where he lives, and showed us the various schools and “bus stations,” which are little platforms in the middle of the water, where one boat drops you off and another picks you up.

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The water village was the first glimpse I had at the poor side of this country. It is easy to think that everyone in Brunei is rich, because that’s certainly how it seems, but then there are these people who live on the water in very modest homes. It was actually quite lovely, just a very different scene than what we’d become used to seeing around here.

We saw some Probiscus monkeys down the river a bit, and monitor lizards in the trees, too. It felt like a little boat trip down the Amazon, except for the royal palace that was visible over the trees.

monitor lizard chillin in the tree

monitor lizard chillin in the tree

When the boat trip ended, we went back to pack our things. Ready to go, we headed to the coffee shop to meet with Sofiah, the girl from Couchsurfing. Right on time, Sofiah was there to pick us up, with a lovely brand new Audi. Kate and I looked at each other after seeing the car and we both wore the same expression on our faces: eyebrows raised in surprise.

The surprise didn’t end there. Sofiah turned out to be a really amazing person, and she took us to her family’s home, where we met her similarly amazing family. Their home was incredible: luxurious and beautifully decorated, I felt like I was in the home of royalty.

Sofiah's home

Sofiah’s home

Sofiah’s mother is the master interior designer, and I had to give her praise for her work. Sofiah led us to our room, which was an enormous, clean space with a king sized bed and at least 10 fluffy pillows. Kate and I remained in shock for a little bit. This was by far the most comfortable Couchsurfing experience I’ve ever had.

Our first meal with Sofiah's family!

Our first meal with Sofiah’s family!

We ate dinner with the whole family that evening, and I learned so much about Bruneian culture just from a couple of conversations. Sofiah’s father is from the U.K. and so their entire family speaks impeccable English. He is full of information about Brunei, and asked us if we had experienced “Bruneian nightlife” yet. We confessed that we hadn’t.

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That night, father, cousin, Kate, and I, went on a stroll around town. We visited all of the sights at night, which was a really remarkable experience. The mosques were lit up beautifully and the city from the top of a hill looked amazing at night. This was Bruneian nightlife. There are no bars, no nightclubs, nothing besides wholesome night strolling–and it was great.

The next day, Kate had to leave to catch her bus to Miri, then Kuching. We went out for dim sum, with the mother, Sofiah, and her sister, and then Sofiah took Kate to the bus.

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It was really sad parting with Kate; I actually choked up for a bit as she walked away. Hopefully we will be able to travel together again soon.

I spent the day relaxing and eating, as Bruneians do best. I went to Zumba in the evening with Sofiah’s sister, and came home to a wonderful traditional Bruneian dinner. I was so happy to be in the presence of a family–a really wonderful and hospitable e family, mind you–because it has been a long time since I’ve been able to take place in family events. It was inspiring to observe how much time Bruneians spend with family.  They seemed so content and loving towards each other.  I went to sleep hoping that the Sultan of Brunei has made long-term plans for how to support the country once their oil reserves run dry.  This little mecca of culture and happiness was just so lovely, and it was such a nice surprise to see the country from the local perspective.  The boredom and regrets were long gone by the time I had to leave.  I was wishing I had just a little more time to enjoy this little country.

I left the next morning quite early, on my way back to Kota Kinabalu.  I was genuinely sad to leave the great company I had been in, but I was looking forward to the Philippines.  Since deciding to fly to the Philippines, I had spent some time emailing dive centers, and decided I would go to one, stay for a month, and do my PADI dive master training.

That’s right: the girl who needed 3 instructors to coach her into just jumping off the boat has fallen in love with diving and decided to make a career out of it.  In one month on the island of Boracay, in the Philippines, I will be a professional PADI diver.  So that’s the next step in this trail of adventures.  I guess I never really can anticipate what comes next, as I myself have no way of knowing where this road will take me. Tis the beauty of the road: you might not know where it goes, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take it.