Borneo Unexpected

Trip Start Aug 18, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Malaysia  , Sarawak,
Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Borneo Unexpected

One night I was sitting at a table in Georgetown, Penang, off the western coast of mainland, or as they say, peninsular Malaysia. It was a communal table at a rather popular destination for street delicacies. Actually the same place where I was scolded for not finishing my food the night before. It was great food. Cheap. Delicious. Just simply too much. This time, however, I ordered with my stomach and not my eyes. I enjoyed my soup across from two local, elderly gentlemen. "Are you mixed blood?" one asked me politely, investigating me over the wire rims of the glasses clinging to the end of his nose. Over the past couple weeks, I had become quite accustomed to hearing variations of this same question painted in particular regional accents. “Yes,” I answered willingly as I surveyed my next bite pinched between chopsticks. The two men took turns unsuccessfully guessing my mix and the bridge to conversation was officially established.

Riding an adventurous wave of advice from the gentlemen, I was on my way to Borneo the next morning. I took a bus from Penang to Kuala Lumpur. The five hour voyage on a very comfortable bus cost me about $13US. While having to repeatedly decline insistent and increasingly annoying offers to take me to the mall for some perceived need to shop, the twenty five minute taxi ride from the bus terminal to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport cost $50US. That pinched my wallet much more than expected and did nothing to restore my shaky faith in cabbies. At the airport I had my first experience with simply showing up and buying a ticket on the next flight out. Ahh, to not be tethered by cumbersome burden of planning ahead—it's kind of liberating actually. Granted I’m sure it has its shortfalls.

Following the directions received at the previous night’s dinner, I flew to Sibu, a small city on the northwestern coast of Malaysian Borneo. From there I was told that I could fly deep into the interior of the island to a small village in the highlands called Bario. There I would find my adventure in the village of the native peoples. Long houses. Long boats. Even long earlobes. Having arrived late in the evening, the ticket counters were closed and I was forced to stay for the night in this small city about which I knew absolutely nothing more than its name. Soon thereafter I found that there were no flights from my present little city into Bario. Shortfall. Instead I had to catch a five hour bus the next morning to a slightly larger city named Miri.

So five hours on a comfortable bus, no problem. However, while settling into my seat I was yet unaware that I would spend a good amount of that time wiping fearful, nervous sweat from my brow. My seat was near the front, allowing me a detailed view of the driver and the frightening display that came rushing through the huge panes of the windshield in front of us. The fact that he was missing his left arm from the just above the elbow and two and a half fingers from his right arm was no issue for his popularity as he received (and answered) more texts than I would in a week. The hills bent, beat, and twisted the road into tangles clinging desperately to steep rises and falls. Our skilled driver navigated every switchback with precision and at times I could swear that if I hadn’t been leaning deeply into some of the turns, our center of gravity would have eagerly pulled our bus down off the open ledge of the inviting chasms below. The sailing dark sheet of dusk’s approach brought a new level of difficulty for our driver. And through all this, his popularity seemed to grow with the ticks of passing hours. Miri was reached before insanity and I happily stepped down to the safety of solid, flat ground.

I had arranged to stay with my second couch surfing host before my arrival and his instructions to call when I arrived at the bus station were made somewhat difficult by an interesting issue with all of the phones in the bus station. For anyone wondering, no, I don’t have a cell phone. And trust me this was a source of frustrated discussion with my family before I left. While abandoning my phone, my keys, and my wallet before leaving home was something I had been looking forward to for all too long, the idea of not having a safety line, should something go wrong, worried many. We simply see things from different angles. Where they see a life line, I see the inconvenience of keeping it charged, and the needless concern of its disappearance, and the burden of its weight (albeit small but every ounce counts when carrying everything you own on your back through hot, heavy, almost viscous air of a tropical mid-day). Plus, if something really bad happens, it’s next to impossible to dial home if unconscious or dead. Speculation, of course, but I challenge anyone to argue my last point. Now, while the phones at the bus station were all accounted for, tucked away under slim, dirty awnings, none had a receiver. It’s not that the receivers didn’t work, it’s that they were missing all together. All of them. I pushed past my tired, sweaty exterior and positioned a smile on my face. I talked myself around until I found a receptive, lingering look that only emerges from a helpful soul. I asked to borrow his phone and he handed it over with a smile… thus solidifying my decision to travel sans phone.

Paul is a doctor in Miri and he was a fantastic host. He’s a walking encyclopedia of knowledge and from him I obtained very useful travel knowledge for my next many countries. The following days were spent in the confines of this affluent petroleum city. Given that I knew next to nothing about Borneo, save for what I had seen on nature programs concerning old growth tropical rain forest and the endangered orangutan, what I had seen so far of Borneo was not at all what I had expected. Where were the orangutans? The hornbills? The long earlobes? The headhunters? Not actually having taken the time to fully explore in the name of certainty, it’s quite possible they were all hiding in the alleys behind McDonalds, KFCs, and Starbucks.

Paul and his adorably beautiful friend, Pei Yen, spent time answering my seemingly nonstop train of questions concerning regional culture and customs over a series of very enjoyable meals. Included were two “delicacies” that I had long been passively seeking. One was a century old egg. It’s just a name as it cures in brine for months rather than decades. The egg takes on a hard-boiled properties but instead of white surrounding the yolk, it’s a dark tinted, semi-transparent jelly. The yoke is deep brown, almost black and the smell punches your face distinctly with ammonia, making it hard to push the spoon further into your mouth. Stares from on-lookers don’t provide any comfort. I bit down through its rancid odor into the black yolk and its questionable, chalky texture didn’t improve its standings. I was kind of expecting my audience to erupt into laughter because the foreign guy dropped a spoonful of wretched practical joke into his mouth. Beyond not requiring immediate forced control of my gag reflex, it was actually not that bad—kind of smoky in flavor. So I doubt I would ever have a craving for another one but I’m glad I tried it.

The other delicacy was bird nest soup. Very straight forward. No clever, friendly monikers like rocky mountain oysters; you know exactly what you’re getting. Unlike the century egg, the soup was pleasant from beginning to delicious end. The only two surprises were that it’s sweet and served cold. If you’d have a problem with the notion that you’re actually eating a broth with gummy strands of bird saliva, just pretend that they’re rice noodles because they have the exact same texture. The rest of our meals were simple Malaysian fare. After having told Paul that I would try anything, he was very good about ordering for me when I would stare blankly at a menu for too long. I really felt so comfortable with the two of them. Their fantastic, hilarious, almost disturbed sense of humor was quite refreshing. Given that I’m so far from home and everything I know, time spent with them was a very welcome break to the solace of solo travel.

Just when I was thinking how thankful I was to have friends in Miri who brought life to the otherwise lackluster industrial city, I learned that both were headed out of town the following day for separate work functions. No problem, I’ll just book a flight for tomorrow and leave before the city crushes the good memories I had built with my new friends. Pei Yen had told me about her trip to Mulu National Park—a park that can only be reached by a prop-engine plane ride into the jungle or a ten hour journey by long boat up the river. My sense of adventure leapt at the idea of the boat ride; my sense of practicality wagered a bet that any sense of adventure would wear thin after an hour or two. I made my plane reservation on the internet and when I received my confirmation email, I noticed that where I was sure that I had opted to fly on the 14th of October, my flight was somehow booked clearly for the 16th. Even though I recognize the extremely low possibility that their website carried out some inexplicable agenda to disrupt my journey, I still maintain my innocence.

Paul and Pei Yen left. I stayed. From a simple hotel room with two single beds I spent the next two and a half days exercising my patience and spending an inordinate amount of time thinking and staring at the empty bed next to mine.        

p.s. my pictures won't load so everyone will just have to wait until I get to a place with good internet connectivity. Sorry.
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Rosco on

It's actually not that BAAD!! hahaha....NICE!!

Don't let those little snags get you down. More new friends and good times await you!!!

Nanci B (Passport Health NM) on

I am so glad to hear from you again, you had the entire office worried. Post frequently as I don't want to have to come looking for you!

Stacy Stefan Passport Health on

Yes Robert you were the topic of the "Where is Robert" discussion! Sounds like you had some interesting experiences this month. You could do a whole chapter on that bus ride! Keep us posted when you can. We are with you in spirit we look foward to your blog.

Lisa on

Tried Bird Nest soup last year from like . Tastes really good... yeah, I thought it was gross at first, but wow, you won't regret it.

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