Never in the span of my 25 years of this sometimes unpredictable existence have I booked a plane ticket departing the next day. That is, never before yesterday.
Yesterday, I was feeling spunky. Yesterday, I was bored. Yesterday, I was feeling a little too lazy in Kuala Lumpor. Yesterday, I was tired of things.
So today, I am in Borneo.
Yesterday, as per usual, I pulled up GoogleMaps on the good old web browser, zoomed in on a place I have never been, and started looking for a major city with an airport. On the island of Borneo, as it turns out, there are two such major cities: Kuching and Kota Kinabalu. Landing in Kota Kinabalu instead of Kuching today had absolutely nothing to do with motivation or interest, and everything to do with chance and, actually, online booking mistakes. It was unplanned and completely irresponsible, the way I got here, but here I am. Kota Kinabalu.
Borneo is the name of the island, not the name of a country. I am still in Malaysia, but in the Borneo part of Malaysia–Eastern Malaysia instead of Peninsular Malaysia. The third largest island in the world, Borneo is divided into three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia (Kalimantan) and Brunei Darussalam.
I came here knowing nothing about the place besides just what I wrote to you, which I got directly from Wikipedia hours before my plane took flight. I have been here only a day and am prancing around happily like, hah! I knew this would be a wonderful place to come to! In reality, I had no such knowledge or forsight, and I can’t be given any kind of props for coming here. Like I said, it was more than random and un-researched, it was what some might call “careless” or “impulsive.” But Borneo is a natural paradise. Jungles, orangutans, world-class diving sites await me here.
I have a strange sense that I was always on my way here…like getting here was always part of my plan, even though I just penciled it in last minute. Shortly after touching down in the airport, I saw a skinny Chinese girl in high heels struggling to carry her bag to the security checkpoint. I know I should never to offer to carry someone’s bags through a checkpoint, for I could easily be caught on the other side of the checkpoint trying to explain how I just honestly didn’t know I had 50 kilos of cocaine in there. But this girl was innocent: she wasn’t asking for help, she was simply struggling. When I offered to carry it to the checkpoint for her, she looked at me like she had never been offered something so spectacular. She basically shoved the bag into my arms. I felt chivalrous, but I also felt some strange sense of purpose. I have no idea why, but this little sherpa-esque moment for me gave me a karmic pause. I had the sense that I was there to help this girl to carry her bag. Who else would have, if I wasn’t there? Maybe someone else, but this time it was my job.
Then, I was standing in that customs line, with this girl and her bag, when the girl behind me struck up conversation:
“Hey, are you going into city center?”
“Um, I don’t know.” I replied. ”I am Couchsurfing–have you heard of it? A girl is picking me up here, and I will go to her house. I have no idea where her house is though…”
“Oh, ok. Yeah I heard of it. I was hoping to share a taxi with you into the city. What are your plans here?”
“Um, I don’t know,” I said, starting to listen to myself coming across as a complete air head. ”I just decided to come here yesterday, and haven’t the slightest idea of what I will do. I think I will be here about two weeks. I hear there are orangutans here, and some diving sites. So I guess I will do that.” Someone on the plane had been talking about the orangutans and diving, so I just threw that last bit in there hoping to sound like I knew something about where I had just landed.
“Oh!” she said. ”I booked my flight yesterday too! I also have no idea what I will do here. I want to see the orangutans too, and maybe hike in the jungle. I am also certified for diving, and I want to do that too. Can I maybe have your number?”
Thus began my friendship with Kate: a coincidental meeting that seems like it couldn’t have not happened. She is from the Czech Republic, and she is lovely and free-spirited. We have exactly the same plans, or lack thereof, and the same desires for travel here in our two weeks. Neither of us have a flight out of here, but both of us want to fly out of Kuching, and fly out on the 16th. We spent the day with a lovely local girl named Fiona, walking all around Kota Kinabalu and sharing stories–at times, Kate had to politely ask if we could switch to stories that weren’t so morbid and scary. I, of course, had just been reminiscing upon my fondest memories: the time when a bear stole my food and hiking shoe, when I encountered terrifying insects in the Amazon, when I vomited into my regulator diving on Ko Tao, when I was robbed in Rio, when I got sick on the streets of Burma, when my first Couchsurfing experience turned out to be a sexual harassment nightmare, and other various traveling and story-of-my-life missteps. The three of us spent the day at the Sunday market, the handicraft market, the colonial clock tower, the observatory, the floating mosque, and finally, the beach, for an epic sunset. Tomorrow, Kate and I will leave Kota Kinabalu with our thumbs out, and signs written in Malay and English for “Kinabalu National Park.”
Gosh, I missed hanging out with girls. I’ve been so desperate to find girls to travel with, but it has been close to impossible on this trip. I was so relieved to find a female Couchsurfing host here in Kota Kinabalu, and it turns out that not only is she female, but she is awesome. Her name is Aizat, and she is an absolutely amazing, well-traveled, smart, and interesting woman. She had to work all day (she’s a doctor), so she couldn’t hang out with the rest of us, but having dinner with her and Fiona, I realized why I have been so content, to my sincere surprise, since I’ve set down on this island: girl friends.
My “sincere surprise” comes from the contrast I’ve had in my move from there to here. I was overcome with a complete sense of imbalance in my last few days of Kuala Lumpor, and I didn’t expect that to suddenly vanish upon arriving in my new surroundings, but it did. I left the peninsula frustrated and antsy, after spending five uninspiring days at the orphanage/farm/school. I will write about my dissatisfaction with this place in a later post, as it will take brain power that, at this hour, I can not muster. Like a bat out of hell, I flew out of that place; but today, sitting under the sunset on the beach, I could literally feel the orange light upon me.
“It feels like heaven,” I said. And I meant it, even though I have no idea what heaven is or what it might feel like. I felt balanced and calm.
Maybe all I needed was a quiet plane-ride to my self, alone again with my thoughts for just a couple of uninterrupted hours. Working twelve hours a day, I had no time to think, with the persistent thoughts of what the hell am I doing here and how did I end up doing THIS job now walking in and out of my mind like they owned the place. I needed to again take the reigns and steer my life as I see fit, and that’s what I did.
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Listen: I realized something so terrible about myself, as I was leaving the farm that day, and I think it’s worth sharing because it’s not everyday that you realize you’re a big fat liar, and it’s rather fascinating for me to come to realize such a thing.
My friend Hakah came to help me work on the farm, after recieving SOS text messages about my misery. When he arrived, he immediately got to see the hole I had sunk into and was living in.
“I hate it here.” I kept saying, “Oh! And yesterday…oh man…YESTERDAY! She told me I was inviting people to kill us because I left the gardening tools outside. Can you believe that??”
He advised me that I should leave.
“Just leave. Tonight. Tell her you are unhappy here and you want to leave. You can stay in my student room, and be done with this all.”
“Tell her I need to leave? Now, tonight, this moment? Because I don’t like it here? I can’t just tell her that!” The idea of honesty in this situation actually appalled me; it was hardly an option.
I then proceeded to come up with excuses and ideas for decampment that I could use to get out of my volunteerism here. I thought up every excuse in the book, including (but not limited to) leaving a note and arranging a middle-of-the night out-the-window escape plan, complete with a getaway car and everything. I even considered having Hakah present my case, as if he were my lawyer, as I secretly packed my bag and then slipped off down the street.
“Anoush, in Asia, people appreciate honesty. You can just tell her you are not happy here and then you can leave. She will be fine with it. This isn’t like in America, where you have to come up with an excuse like they do in the movies; you can just go.”
I just couldn’t do it. Or, as they say in Malaysia, I “could not.” I could see myself melting in front of my friend for at least two hours, as he talked me out of tears and tried to reason with me that the truth was just easier.
“I don’t know if anyone has ever seen me like this.” I told him, as I began to realize how insane it was that I was even getting upset about the prospect of admitting to this woman that she was making me miserable. Really, I was exposing to him the blatant truth about something I had never formally recognized before: that I can’t always bring myself to be honest.
I realized in this moment, that wanting to tell the truth–or valuing “truth”–and actually telling the truth are two very different things. One is easy, the other is hard. And seriously, I just could not manage to do what I thought I was good at: just tell the truth. I settled on telling a half-truth, and even considered actually living out the excuse I came up with, so that it could become the truth. What the hell is this about? Seriously, what is my problem? Is this about saving face, or not being able to face her potential reaction?
I have a friend at home who will never admit the full truth to his recent ex about what he’s been up to as a single man because he “doesn’t want hurt her.” I have used the same excuse before, too: that my evasiveness has to do with the other person, not myself. But this is the biggest bullshit I’ve ever heard, I am culpable of this indeed. Do we lie like this because we don’t want to hurt the other person, or because we can’t stomach the reality of our decisions and weaknesses?
For the moment, I will choose to attribute my inability to be honest in certain situations to:
1) an underdeveloped sense of true self-confidence and
2) a cultural expectation for politeness and sugar-coating
Of course, deeper soul searching will probably result in me discovering that there is nothing to attribute this to besides a simple a lack of courage, but for now, the above two will work for me. I do know for a fact that I am not the only one in my immediate friend group that struggles with things like quitting jobs, dumping a boyfriend, or speaking to college professors. So that’s where I get the idea that this has to do with my culture. Excuses and apologies are what I am used to. But in’t it strange that I have the confidence to be blatantly honest when it comes to my peers, but not at all when it comes to people who truly intimidate me–usually people who have assumed some role of power over me? And I only just realized this, which is even more strange.
As I was leaving Kuala Lumpur, I told Hakah I was hoping to find a little room somewhere in Borneo where I could just lock myself in and sit and think for days. I soon realized this isn’t necessary to achieve what I am looking for; there are less extreme methods for introspection.
Today, a text from Hakah:
Creat a safe place where u can be yourself if u desire to knw urself. Then, look at areas of denial, accept hard truths, and face reality. Make peace wt your dark side, using it as neither a secret or a feared enemy. Honestly assess and heal guilt and shame. U feel inspired. I think Now it is the time to serve people and help them…Higher reality seems real and attainable.”
He knows as well as I do that this next little chapter in my life–perhaps this New Year–should begin with a little bit of truth, with myself and with others, and that takes facing the reality I’ve created.
I never want to make up another excuse or “white lie” in my life.
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I hope you’ve enjoyed tonight’s segment, Anoush’s Lessons on Honesty from Malaysia. Stay tuned for the next episode: How to Avoid Finding Yourself Weeding a Tropical Bush infested with Ants in Malaysia.
Tomorrow, hitchhiking to the highest mountain in Southeast Asia. To nature, and beyond!