Kate and I had had enough excitement for a lifetime while adventuring in Banggi. I should have warned her, in retrospect, that traveling with me might not be what most people think of as a “normal” or even “pleasant” travel experience. I tend to find myself in really unusual situations rather frequently, and I somehow seek out the strangest scenarios possible along the way. But I don’t think either one of us could have anticipated the absolutely unrelenting challenges we faced on our trip up to the tip of Borneo, so how could I have warned her?
We were exhausted, damp, and dirty upon returning to Kota Kinabalu, and decided we needed to find an easier way to travel throughout the bigger-than-it-looks-on-the-map island of Borneo (which, let me tell you, is not an easy place to travel, even if you aren’t trying to get to the most remote places). We figured the best way to see what we wanted to see was by going on a road trip. But first, we’d have to rent a car.
I’m an American, so it’s in my nature to love road trips. People abroad give Americans a sort of authority when it comes to road trips. The U.S. is a great place to go on one, and Americans–with a cooler in the trunk, windows down, and music on blast–seem to have mastered the art of road tripping. We wanted to rent a car, and have the freedom of driving around Borneo–on the left side of the road, of course. The island is enormous, and the tourism industry is not yet very well-established. Navigating around via buses is difficult and tiring, as well as extremely limiting. But renting a car turned out to be another nightmare, and it wasn’t long before we bagged the idea and started despondently discussing our hitchhiking options once again.
As soon as we’d just about given up hope for a road trip, our friend Fiona threw in a twist of amazing news: she wanted to come travel with us, and she’d be more than happy to drive. Fiona is another fantastic travel partner, and it’s impossible to run out of conversation topics with her. When I first met her, I was shocked at how instantly we clicked. Her incredible English makes me wonder how she could possibly have been raised in Malaysia, where the English they think they are speaking is quite hilariously far from standard. You ask a Malaysian if you can use their toilet, and the response is, “Can.” Then you ask if you can have some tissue paper for the toilet, and it’s “Also can.” There are signs everywhere that say “room for let” (meaning room for rent) and “la” is a suffix for many sentences, but, according to locals, carries no meaning whatsoever. Well, Fiona speaks much more clearly, and with a pretty perfect American accent. Talking with her for hours never gets old. So, we had the three most essential components for a successful road trip: good people, a car, and motivation for exploration.
The three of us packed up the car with our belongings (mine and Kate’s consisted mostly of smelly, wet clothing and shoes) and we began the journey to Kinabalu National Park, home to the highest mountain in Southeast Asia.
It wasn’t exactly the same as a U.S. road trip; there was no music, the windows were rolled up (AirCon always, in Asia), and in place of a cooler filled with goodies in the trunk there were just rancid backpacks and shoes that should have been retired months ago. But it was still exactly what we needed, and it was definitely an improvement from the past couple of days of tiresome bouncing around on various modes of transportation.
We could go anywhere and do anything, without limits. For our first stop, we went out of our way to see some cows, imported from New Zealand. I found it pretty ironic that I had come all the way to Borneo, land of orangutans and horn-bills to see cows, the black and white ones that I see all the time back home; Fiona assured me that, for Borneo, this was a very unique experience. There aren’t really cows in Malaysia, and in fact, it was her first time ever seeing a real live black and white cow.
“I feel like I’m in a milk commercial!” she said, as we tip-toed over cow-pies in flip flops on our way to the pasture, “I almost expect them to get up on their legs and start singing and dancing!”
Next, we stopped to see the rafflesia, the biggest flower in the world. Fiona told me it’s actually a parasitic flower, and it is rare to see one in bloom, since it only blooms for a couple of days before dying. It is stem-less, leaf-less, and root-less, and it smells awful when it’s blooming.
” Oh I just love carnivorous plants,” I said dreamily, as we drove away towards Poring Hot Springs.
Kate huffed subtly in the back seat. “You know, when I met you in the airport, I thought you were a normal person…”
How wrong first impressions can be.
We got to Poring Hot Springs around 4 pm. I had grown sour about this fact. Well, Kate says I had turned into Godzilla–sour would be an understatement in describing my frustration. We had left Kota Kinabalu at 7 am and not arrived at our actual destination until 4; the park is only 2 hours away, so it had gotten pretty far under my skin that I had woken up at 6 in the morning to get to a park 2 hours away, only to get there 10 hours later. I was tired from the beginning and anxious because we had planned for only one day in the park, and it seemed like the day was pretty much over.
But as we entered the Canopy Walk within the park, I grew less agitated. We walked up to the top of the canopy in a little tower, and then walked across a series of unprofessionally designed bridges. It was lovely to see the forest from above, and walk through the sky among the massive trees. The three of us had a lot of fun taking pictures and bouncing along the bridges. Suddenly we were all smiles and amateur models.
That night, as we ate jungle ferns for dinner, my fatigued-enhanced disappointment had pretty much disappeared. I was satisfied with our walk through the tops of the trees and content about our decision to stay the night just outside the park instead of going back. We could explore more in the morning. Also, I had passed out at the hot springs for about 30 minutes following the canopy walk, so I had a bit of rest to reorient my senses.
The next morning, we visited an orchid rehabilitation center whose orchids must have been some serious addicts, because they were in a very dire state. It seemed there were no orchids at all, until I realized that the little roots hanging from various places were, in fact, orchids, rehabilitating.
I wandered through the paths aimlessly thinking about everything that I needed to think about. I’ve been so busy lately, that I haven’t had much time to think on my own. It’s led to an overall sense of pressure, and chronic exhaustion. I’ve trained my body to be dependent on serious alone time over the past few months, and now, when it doesn’t get it’s fix, it begins to shut down. This little jaunt through the (not-so-many) orchid garden recharged me a bit. I found it magical.
Afterwards, we headed back towards Kinabalu National Park. Kate and I wanted to do some hiking. We had decided against climbing up the mountain, in protest of the ridiculous crook of an industry that has claimed this natural attraction. You must pay heaps of money to hire a guide to lead you up the thing, and then when you get to the top, you must spend the night in an expensive lodge. And, to top it off, you must make reservations for this endeavor months in advance, BUT it happens to rain (in this rainforest) on the day of your reservation (which you made from a distant country, unaware of how regularly the skies open up), the trip is cancelled and your money is not refunded. No thank you, Tourism Industry. What a joke.
So we decided to take the economical path, and just walk the trails around the mountain. The skies were foreboding, but we had come all this way and were determined to do something in the park.
Fiona stayed behind, as she had been our dedicated driver for the past 24-hours, and was understandably exhausted. Kate and I set off bright-eyed and bushy tailed up a trail, hoping to loop around for an hour or so through the jungle.
It was really lovely at first, like an expedition through an enchanted forest. But, of course, the auspicious circumstances we found ourselves in were too good to last.
“I’m going to start calling you the rain-maker.” Kate said, as the rain started to come down through the canopy.
“Oh yeah, why’s that?” I said.
“Because every time I’m with you, it rains,” she said, laughing slightly as the rain picked up.
“Yeah, well, I could say the same for you. Or maybe it’s just that we happen to be in Borneo in the middle of the rainy season…”
As per usual, the skies started dumping. Our trail soon became a river, and we had to raise our voices to continue the conversation we were having. Kate stopped to get her umbrella out, and I reached down to roll up my pant legs in order to keep them a little less muddy.
“OH MY GAD!!!!” I screamed, in my most American accent, staring in horror at my exposed skin.
There was a leech attached to my ankle. I stupidly tried to yank it off, inspiring it to suck harder onto my skin. I’d never heard of leeches in a forest and this guy was like a super leech. All the poking and prodding and pulling in the world wouldn’t get him off. It was disgusting. I became squeemish and almost frantic.
“Salt! We need salt!! The only way to get this off is salt! Or chemicals!” I said, poking it harder with a stick.
“I have some Betadine and eucalyptus oil,” Kate said.
Perfect. We doused the thing in the chemicals we had on hand, and it came off. But it left a nasty hole in my leg that kept bleeding for the next couple hours.
Ew, ew…ew, ew, ew!
By the end of this “trek,” I had 3 more encounters with these awful animals. Kate only got one. We showed Fiona the damage when we got back to the car, and she wasn’t surprised. “Yeah, there are leeches in the forest. You didn’t pull them off, did you?”
Apparently,the existence of forest-leeches are common knowledge around here. Go figure. I love how I always hear about the potential hazards in a place after they are potentially hazardous.
Back in Kota Kinabalu that evening, we were happy to be clean and dry. But the road trip had to end with a final American twist. Kate and I had been spending days talking about food, and it was time we took advantage of the fact that we were staying in a place with a kitchen.
I love cooking, and I have missed it so much since I left my cozy little home back in Woods Hole. Kate and I have been desperate for some real al dente pasta and fresh salads, the way I love to make them back home. In Malaysia, the food is not exactly healthy. We have been on a quest, in the last week, to find fresh vegetables at a restaurant. But it’s been terribly difficult. Even when we are lucky enough to find a restaurant that has a variety of vegetable options, the vegetables are usually soaked in oil or deep fried in something-or-other. Don’t even get me started on the rice. Rice is part of every single meal here. It’s gotten to the point where I am so sick of rice that I will do everything in my power just to avoid eating it; it takes a lot of hand gestures and frantic “no no NO nasi!!” to get the point across. Everyone eats rice with every meal, so ordering just vegetables and fish with no rice is quite a difficult concept to communicate.
Unfortunately, when traveling, you have to accept the hard reality that when you order at a restaurant, you are likely to get something you didn’t expect at all. Most of the time, the menu says something like “fish soup,” or “chicken rice,” but the range of interpretations for those words is quite liberal. I once ordered “chicken rice,” and was presented with oily fried rice, chicken feet, beef, and the vertebrates of some kind of animal. You have to be ready for disappointment when eating out here, just because usually when you order, the person pretends like they know what you’re saying, when they actually have no idea. They walk away, and you are left with the distinct feeling that they were shaking their head an awful lot, implying understanding, but their head shakes seemed misplaced in their timing among your requests. When the food comes out, you realize your suspicions were valid: they had no idea.
This is how it goes, most of the time:
“Can I have kopi please?” (Kopi = Coffee)
“Please, NO SUGAR, NO condensed milk. Just Kopi?”
“Ok, no problem, yes.” Man yells something to woman in back of restaurant. His order sounds strangely short, for my request…I hear “Kopi” but nothing else surrounding that order. My doubts are high.
Woman returns 5 minutes later bearing coffee that looks like a melted milkshake. I take a sip. It’s sweeter than drinking liquid coffee ice cream.
I’m generally used to this by now; it’s almost fun. It gives new meaning to the Forest Gump phrase, “life is like a box of chocolates.” In Asia, it really is. You truly never know what you’re going to get–when ordering food, drink, or even a hotel room.
So Kate and I decided to make a meal as if we were back home. Hold the rice, and bring on the pasta. I cooked at Aizat’s house, and felt like I was back home, chopping veggies and assembling a salad just like the good ol’ days. And when dinner was served, my friends were delighted. Kate was thrilled with the appropriately cooked pasta, and Fiona was intrigued by the idea of eating avocado in a salad (here, it is eaten with sugar or chocolate, as dessert). Kate and I were in heaven–it was our first time in Asia eating fresh steamed vegetables, and pasta that didn’t immediately disintegrate in our mouths.
We finished the night off with some YouTube classics, and went to bed feeling utterly content in both our stomachs and minds. I fell asleep to memories of my kitchen at home, and National Parks where the mountains can be climbed free of charge. The road trip had been a success, and had apparently achieved some level of US-like status, because I fell asleep feeling more fondly homesick than ever before.