I could tell you of all my adventures over the last couple weeks. I could tell you of the slow train ride up the Padas Gorge, the rail cars filled with friendly locals, the jungle streaming past windows never made to close. I could tell you of a bike ride through the Sabah countryside that turned into an epic struggle of one-legged pedaling when the left crankarm fell off the cheap rental bike. I could tell of the dozens of strange and interesting insects I've met along the way. Or about the fateful climb up Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in south east Asia, struggling minute by minute from one toilet and drinking water station to the next along the trail, only to be turned back within moments of the top by the cold, wet and windy threat of hypothermia in the predawn darkness. Or the hot spring baths and icy waterfall pools of Poring. The small crowd of orang utans meeting the large crowd of humans at Sepilok. The rugged mountains of the Crocker Range.
Or I could tell of the four days I spent at a jungle camp on the Kinabatangan river, the small boats, the crocodile, the hornbills, the wild orang utan, the millions of egrets and oriental darters, the rats and civets in the kitchen at night, the monitor lizards, the otter, the silvered languars, the pig-tailed and long-tailed macaques, the bats, a cave gecko, tracks of wild elephants, plus the floodline three feet up the inside of the walls from two weeks earlier, mud and disarray still everywhere else.
Or the two nights home stay in the native village on the little island of Mabul and the two day trips from there to the world-renown diving island of Sipadan where I saw all kinds of things in the clear, deep water like an immense school of silvery barracudas, several reef sharks, an octopus, herds of turtles, a school of squid, a poison-spined lionfish, batfish, frogfish, crocodilefish, starfish, sea anemone, anemonefish, giant clams, a host of brilliant little reef fish, and where, just holding my breath, I dove fifty feet deep to see the strange and wonderful corals and soft corals and sponges of the Hanging Gardens, and where the wind came up in one direction and the ocean current was pulling in another direction and where I got pulled far enough away from the dive boat that they couldn't see me in the choppy water and I was being sucked along and in danger of being swept past the island into the wide open Celebes sea.
I could tell you all that. But if I told you all that, you might think that everything I tell you is nothing more that some ploy to make you jealous of my adventure and envious of my strength and courage and the fact that while you are working day in and day out, I'm out playing and having a good ol' time. So maybe I need to tell you more of the story. A more balanced view that shows you the more truly dangerous side of the adventure.
I am able, I know, to make it sound like I'm some sort of death-defying hero in the tales I tell. The classic tales of Man versus Nature. But you have to remember that I am the one telling the tales and that I may have a slight tendency to work the words around to make me sound impressive. That, and I am comfortable in nature. I like it there. So, maybe it is a jungle in Borneo. Maybe it is a rugged mountain. Maybe a 2000' underwater drop straight to the dark ocean floor from the edge of a coral reef. These are the sort of places where I am happy to be. That's why my tale of the jungles and pinnacles and the leeches of Mulu never ventured beyond the Dim. There is a dark heart to my adventure. But it resides in a very different place.
Last report, I was just entering Sabah, the more northerly of the two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo. I thought Malaysia is Malaysia is Malaysia. Wrong. Sabah is very different from Sarawak. If Sarawak is a bright colorful street where busy well-adjusted people are engaged in commerce and social interaction, then Sabah is a dark alley in a rough neighborhood.
The roughness started right away with the scenery. Sabah immediately impressed me with its rugged mountains. And with the rough use the mountains seem to have undergone. I saw more evidence of logging and of unchecked forest fires and of the jungle being cleared for agriculture. And there was a rough edge to even the smallest of towns. Less pavement. Many of the people were recent immigrants -- legal and otherwise -- from Indonesia and the Philippines. Grubby pool halls on about every street were filled with idle men who stared at the dollar sign tattooed on the white face of the traveler.
In Tenom I was a little nervous carrying my money around at night, so I made use of the hotel "security" box and am pretty sure that I came out with less cash than I went in with. But since I didn't count it ahead of time, I couldn't be sure. Stupid on two counts, although I'd prefer to think "naive" and that I was learning an important lesson about travel and about Sabah. That event did put me on edge.
I arrived in Keningau on the cramped sweaty mini bus and stepped out into the crowded dirty street. And as soon as I stepped down, the friendly local people loitering around the area saw the bag of mangosteens that I was carrying and decided that they wanted some. "I want. I want." Uh, okay. I gave fruit to one lady and then her friend and then another and another. Then a man who wanted a replacement because I'd given him a bad one and one lady wanted three... Yikes! Back off you friendly local people! I got my pack on a started moving in order to be somewhere else.
I walked through the crowded streets looking at the dirt and the grime, seeing no green, feeling the dusty heat, meeting and then avoiding the blank-faced stares. I found a cheap hotel. I've had worse, but because of the town around it, this one seemed the worst of the lot. I made a plan to spend an hour or so at an internet cafe, then to hide in my room until morning and get the first bus out of town.
As I searched for somewhere to use the internet, I was struck by how much the town resembled India. Okay, I've never been to India. But there was something here in the crowds and the colors and the smells and the way I attracted attention that reminded me of everything that I've heard of the cities of India. And made me never want to go to India.
I asked a man in business attire where I could find somewhere to use the internet. Friendly man, he took me to a nearby internet center. Michael also got to talking about how he was teaching English classes in town and how there was a seminar that weekend on the importance of learning English and how it would be great if I could come and speak a few words to help the people appreciate English. Cool. Maybe I could do something useful while I was in Borneo, I thought. When I finished on the internet I went to find his office but couldn't, and the more I walked around town, the more I really just wanted to hide in my room until morning, so that's where I went.
But I had told Michael which hotel, and soon, he came by to see me. He took me to his office and then we walked through the streets of town while he talked on and on about how he'd lived in the states and the American company he'd worked for and the names of Americans who would have talked at his seminar if they'd been available, and how we could have dinner and a brainstorming session that night with his associates. And as we walked, he kept introducing me to people and reminding them about the meeting that night and how we could have some drinks.
I was, however, getting more and more on edge. Maybe it was the town. Maybe it was how Michael had made sure to suggest that I not leave my valuables unattended in the hotel room. Maybe it was the way he shifted from suggesting beer, to saying he didn't drink either as soon as I told him I didn't drink. Maybe it was the dangerous looks I continued to get from the townspeople and the feeling that if something were to happen to me in broad daylight, no one would have seen anything.
I stopped Michael, thanked him for his time, and told him that I had changed my plans and would not be available to help him. Then I went back to my hotel, got my things and caught the evening mini bus out of the ugly town of Keningau for the relative safety and big city anonymity of Kota Kinabalu. Where I hid in my hotel room.
I fled Kota Kinabalu the next day and insulated myself within the company of other travelers and the welcoming arms of nature. I met two young Canadian ladies, sisters Lisa and Sara, and we agreed to share guide fees for the climb up Mount Kinabalu. They had been traveling for months and had been to India (Incidentally confirming the similarity of Keningau and India.) After the climb, we joined a group of American exchange students over from Hong Kong and went to Poring Hot Springs. Then Lisa, Sara and I traveled to Sepilok to see orang utans and to the jungle camp on the Kinabatangan River. I stayed four days at the jungle camp (the ladies left after one night) and then I headed for a home stay on the island of Mabul.
Mabul is a bite-sized island off the coast of Sabah about fifteen miles out from Semporna and an easy day trip away from the world-class diving at Palau Sipadan. And yes, the diving was excellent. And the tropical islands were incredibly beautiful. And the ocean was warm and clear and filled with interesting creatures. But the real story lies within the dark heart.
The boat dropped me and four German travelers on the beach between the rickety stilt houses and we walked to the house where we would stay. Our host welcomed us quietly and got us settled in the simple house.
I walked through the village that day. White sand. Palm trees. Looked into the lives of the villagers. Saw the jumble of thatch-roofed stilt houses that held small naked children and chickens and dogs and cats. Saw adults who showed the signs of hard work and little disposable income repairing fishing boats and nets, drying coconuts in the sun, cooking, selling cheap items through open windows.
I was able to admire the lives of the people in the village. The apparently uncomplicated lifestyle, a bountiful sea, a warm climate, the support of close family and friends. But at the same time I found that I was uneasy. I had to think back to Keningau and all the other towns I'd come through since entering Sabah. The looks from the people. The greetings everyone aimed my way. The attention I got just by being there.
In Sarawak there had been a level of civility and dignity that made it unnecessary for the population to follow me around saying "Hello fren! Hello fren!" And though I was no less white in Sarawak than in Sabah, I FELT way more white. Or maybe like a big sore thumb walking around, sticking out. To these people I was huge and rich and strange. And I didn't like it.
There is a big chunk of my personality that has evolved to thrive on stealth social development. I slide into peoples lives in the crowd, unnoticed. Then I gradually deploy pieces of my personality until I am at last perceived and loved as an amazing and dynamic guy. (To which I should probably add that if things don't seem to be going in this direction, I can ease back into the crowd without getting too hurt.)
But here in Malaysia, there is no way that I can lurk in the background and start so slowly. I have a big "notice me" sign blazing right on me. All the techniques that I have developed over the years for "being myself" are challenged. And as I've gotten closer to Indonesia and the less developed world, the more awkward I have become.
I looked around the village on the island of Mabul and realized that I did not belong in such a place. Even if I had no money and only the kinds of possessions that the villagers had, I would still be separated from them by their perception of me and, more, by my perception of myself. A small dark part of my heart, perhaps.
I came to Borneo seeking adventure. Success. And I came expecting to learn things about myself. Expectation fulfilled. But there is also a part of me that is seeking a home, a new place where I can fit in and where I can contribute and live and grow. And that place is not Borneo.
Maybe I'm not as adventuresome as I think I am. Or maybe I'm just learning my limits. I have been thriving on the nature, but struggling in the culture. There is no reason for me to stay if I'm not having fun. And nothing to say that I won't want to come back some day. But I will not keep banging the sore thumb by traveling to the Indonesian side of Borneo.
Though you haven't heard all the tales yet, this report should be ("should be" -- lightning can strike, you know) the final chapter of the Borneo Adventure. However, if I can swing it, Borneo will only be the first chapter of the supposed Bikeabout that I am on.
Wish me luck, and I'll let you know what I'm doing next when I figure it out myself.
And, incidentally, in the three days I spent diving with the group of German tourists on Mabul and Sipadan, I was able to ease into their company gently and by the last day, one of the German girls absolutely couldn't keep her eyes off me.