Saturday, August 14, 2010

Our Intimate Relationship with Borneo

I want you to know that it wasn’t meant to be like this.  When we decided back in March that we were going to spend a week or so in Malaysian Borneo, we set out to rough it.  We booked “rooms” at some camp out in the wild:  looking at pictures on the internet, what we saw were rustic huts, up on stilts, with what looked like one wall missing. 

“Cool,” I said, “We can get malaria.”

“There’s no malaria in Borneo,” Ellen said.

“Then we can just stay up all night with mosquitoes buzzing our ears.”  Just to make sure she knew what I meant, I leant toward her and went,   “Neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.”

She swatted once, then clicked to the registration page.  “You want to see wildlife, right?”


This time she connected.  “Ow,” I said.  Then added, “Yes.”  Our friends Joe and Jennifer had told us about the wonders of Sabah, how you could see orang utans (closely related to, but not exactly the same as orangutans), proboscis monkeys, monitor lizards, and snakes big enough to eat a large baby, which was fine with me because Jamie was still refusing to poo in the toilet. 

I’d always wanted to visit Borneo, every since I’d seen the video for Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like a Wolf,” with its scenes of dusty noon-day cafes, steaming hot jungles, and women in bikinis crawling around on all fours.  Subsequent research that told me the video had actually been filmed in Sri Lanka did little to dampen my passion for Sabah—which likely tells you a thing or two about logic, sex, and the nature of my brain. 

Anyhow, we were all set:  for six days we’d rough it in Borneo, lulled to sleep by the croaking, chirping, and howling of Malaysian wildlife, forgoing the usual four- and five-star hotel buffets for a breakfast of mealy toast and roasted pebbles, lathering our legs with Deep Jungle Off in a desperate attempt to tame mosquitoes the size of large bats.  This was just what the doctor ordered—that, and cloroquine—to cap our year in Asia.


Then, sometime in mid-April, I was in the kitchen doing the dishes (I try to do this every month or so, just so that when Ellen complains about how hard she works, I can frown sincerely and murmur, “I know just what you mean,” before handing her the scrub brush and nudging her toward the kitchen.)

--Anyhow: I was in the kitchen doing dishes, sometime in mid-April when Ellen called:  “Paul.”

“Yes dear,” I said.  (I try to call her dear every month or so, just so that I can—oh, never mind . . .)  I went into the living room, where she was hunched over her laptop. 

She just pointed at the screen.  Settling next to her, I pulled on my glasses.  She was at a site run by the US State Department, looking at a travel advisory: 

U.S citizens should consider the risks associated with travel to eastern Sabah in Malaysia due to the threat from both terrorist and criminal groups. There are indications that both criminal and terrorist groups are planning or intend acts of violence against foreigners in eastern Sabah, notwithstanding the Government of Malaysia's increased ability to detect, deter and prevent such attacks. The Abu Sayyaf Group, based in the southern Philippines, has kidnapped foreigners in eastern Sabah in the past. Criminal elements are also responsible for kidnapping and piracy committed against foreigners. Of present concern are the resorts (and transportation to and from them) located in isolated areas of eastern Sabah, including Semporna and the islands of Mabul and Sipadan. Please avoid or use extreme caution in connection with any travel in these areas or locations.

I sat back, rubbed my eyes, and looked at the posting again.  Then I looked at Ellen.  She was frowning.  She’d spent the better part of every evening during the month of March planning this particular leg of our trip.  It was hard to tell if the look in her eyes was fear, sadness, or just plain anger. 

“Huh,” I said. 

She nodded.  There wasn’t much else to say, really.

We mulled things over for a few days, trying to figure out if this was a recent warning based on recent activity, just a casual warning—“You better bring your umbrella; it might rain.”—or a dire threat—“Go only if you want to see members of your family drawn and quartered and served on a really big pizza.”  Did, we wondered, the warning apply to the part of Sabah that we were in—yes, we were in the east, but we were in the north east, and most of the activity described seemed to be happening in the south east. 

Eventually we sent an e-mail directly to the consulate in Malaysia, asking for their assessment of the situation.  The reply we received—after six days—wasn’t really very helpful:  “The threat is real, if not imminent.  While we would never prevent American citizens from traveling where ever they wish, if you choose to go to Eastern Sabah, please do use caution.”

Long story short (like I ever do that!), we finally decided that we weren’t comfortable taking our kids into a region where pirates were doing more than saying “Arh,” and handing out balloons.  Were we on our own without the kids, the story might be different, but there are some things so stupid that even we won’t do it. 


Which is how we ended up at the Rasa Ria hotel in western Sabah.  Of course, “hotel,” isn’t really the right word.  More like, I dunno, maybe “big fat fancy mansion for a lot of rich people who might as well be in Flagstaff for all the contact they have with Borneo”?

Now I want to be fair:  connected to the Rasa Ria is a reserve for the rehabilitation of juvenile Orang Utans.  I mean, if you’re going to be a big fancy hotel that makes bucket loads of money, the least you can do is dedicate some small portion of that money to weaning gangsta apes of their addiction to fermented bananas and Green Day. 

And trust me when I say that the Rasa Ria is a fancy hotel.  Imagine a place where, when you pull up in your car, they welcome you by striking a gong.  Imagine a hotel with one of those fancy pools that twists and curves through stands of palm trees, where you can get drinks with little umbrellas brought to your chaise lounge, where there’s dawn to midnight childcare, where they not only come into your room in the evening, fold back your covers, and leave little mints on your pillows, but tiptoe back in as you’re drifting off to sleep and massage your temples. 

This was, to put it bluntly, not just the nicest hotel we’ve ever been in, but a hotel so nice that I actually broke into hives just crossing the threshold. 

“We don’t belong here,” I whispered to Ellen as we followed a team of bellboys carrying our luggage to our room on a solid gold chariot.  “I have family who drink wine from a box.”

Ellen gave me a look.  “You’re wearing a shirt that says, ‘I’m with stupid,’ and has an arrow pointing to your crotch,” she said.  “I think wine in a box is the least of our problems.” 

Okay, so I’m exaggerating slightly:  we’ve been to places on par with the Rasa (as I like to call it) before:  the Brown in Louisville, the Palmer in Chicago, some fancy-schmanzy Japanese-style place in San Francisco that I can’t remember the name of.  Even our last hotel in Vietnam was pretty cool—also on the beach, also with a huge buffet, also with a fancy pool and nice waiters who would serve us Vietnamese coffee as we lounged under palm trees. 

The difference is that, by the time we got to our fancy hotel in Vietnam, we’d already been in-country for two weeks, had forged our way through the heat and dust of Hanoi, had trekked cross-country to get to Ha Long Bay, had taken dragon-boat rides in Hue.  And even when we were at our ritzy hotel, we made a point of going into Hoi An almost daily. 

In other words, in Vietnam, we felt like were getting to know the country:  we’d interacted with merchants and tour guides and taxi drivers and waiters and hawkers on the street and the roughly 6,000 people who wanted to touch Lucy’s hair.  I’m not so stupid as to claim that—after a mere 14 days—we knew Vietnam.  But at the very least, we were starting to get a good sense of it—of the people, the food, the values, the priorities, the daily life of folks.

Not so in Borneo. 

The first evening we were there, Will and I were standing by the dinner buffet, checking out the options.  There was roast chicken, prime rib, Swedish meatballs, crab legs, six different kinds of soup, sushi, spaghetti, and on and on and on.  Everything my little heart could desire, complete with a chocolate fountain at the dessert bar. 

“Is this all Malaysian food?” Will asked. 

I glanced at the gigantic platter full of meatballs.  I’m not much of a fan myself, but I have to admit they looked pretty good sitting there, surrounded by grilled vegetables and some sort of prawn-cracker type thing. 

“Yes,” I said. 

He looked at the placard in front of us, then at the meatballs, then up at me.  Swedish meatballs?”

I frowned at him.  “Are we in Malaysia?”

He nodded.

“And is this food?”

 “Yes,” he said. 

“Need I say more?”

Seriously, the sad thing about all of this is that I really can’t, finally, name a single Malaysian dish for you.  Sure, we had some “real” Malaysian food a few days later when we were in Kuala Lumpur, but by then we were already thinking about Bali, and would have stuffed a pickled goat into our mouths if they’d put it on a plate with garnish.   

This is not to say that we came away with absolutely no sense of Borneo.  We discovered, for instance, that when Borneons greet someone, they place their right hands on their heart.  This, I think, is pretty cool, although I have to admit that more than once when I was greeted in this way I was carrying Jamie on my right arm and thus used my left hand to touch my heart, something that caused more than one person to stare at me, cover their eyes, and flee in horror.

And, of course, we spent one steamy morning in the nature preserve attached to the hotel grounds watching orang utans branchiate above our heads.  Which was pretty cool.  Hotel grounds or not, the rainforest that they took us into was the real deal, filled with thick foliage, moist earth, and surreal sounds, including one high, keening drone that continued the whole time we were there.  We sweated like crazy and took maybe 2000 pictures between us—even the usually unimpressed Will took nearly 100—but dang if we didn’t get to see our ancestors eating bananas and having pee fights. 

And on one fine day, we signed up for a trip south to see Proboscis monkeys.  Now I know what those of you who’ve seen me in person are thinking:  Proboscis monkeys?  Those simians with the huge snoz?  And you paid for this?  Why not just go look in the mirror and save yourself some money? 

Because, smartass, my kids have already seen my huge snoz, and have ceased to be impressed with it long ago (emphasis on “long”).   And besides, Ellen and I were hoping that by getting off of the compound we’d have a chance to see some of the real Malaysia, beyond the bikini-wearing masseuses doling out sunscreen by the poolside. 

And we did.  Driving south, through Kota Kinabalu toward Penampang, we rolled past low hills and thick brush, weather-beaten homes with pick up trucks and Toyotas in the front yard, rusted basketball hoops, billboards advertising hotels and restaurants. 

“Dang,” I said to Ellen as we glided along.  “It looks like Virginia.”


The monkey trip was a hit, though.  Pulling up to a long boardwalk leading into the jungle, we marched toward a base camp where they fed us a few small snacks, tried to sell us some really cool masks and carvings that I now wish we’d bought, and led us to a long boat which they steered up the river.

Our guide, a small man with a thick accent, cautioned us about getting our hopes up.  “They are very shy,” he said of the Proboscis.  “We may be lucky.  But maybe not.  Who knows?”

We were lucky.  After trolling up the river for maybe 5 minutes, we saw several groups of makaks and two or three monitor lizards the size of either a really small Oscar Meyer Wienermobile or a really large Oscar Meyer wiener,.  Ten minutes after that, our guide pointed to a distant tree, bare of leaves.  We looked.  Strewn among the far tips of the branches were either squirrels’ nests or really really huge bags of laundry.  We got out our binoculars.

Sure enough, they were proboscis monkeys—orange-furred, with white spots around their eyes and those unmistakable noses.  We watched them for a while, concentrating hard getting some good shots with our cameras.  Soon enough, our guide started the boat again and we moved further downstream.  We were satisfied:  we came, we saw, we took fuzzy gray pictures of monkeys with huge noses.  What could be better?

And then we rounded a bend and everyone in the boat went, “Ahhhhh.”  Not two hundred feet away was a huge tree, right by the river, filled with monkeys.  The boat’s driver steered us as close as he could without running into the trees and shrubs overhanging the river bank.  We just stared. 

“Seven,” said a Filipino doctor at the back of the boat.

There was silence, then his wife said, “No, I see eleven.” 

“That one,” the guide said, “has a baby.”

We stared in silence again.  The monkeys were so close we could see the different shades of fur, the features of their faces all without binoculars or zoom lenses.  True, none of this was completely clear, but even so. 

“Fifteen,” someone finally said. 

But there were more than that.  One branch alone held three, all lined up as though having a meeting.  On the opposite side of the tree were three more:  a male, a female, and a baby.  And every time we thought we’d counted them all, some bit of branch or vegetation—or what we’d thought was vegetation—would move, and we’d have to add another to our total.

We probably stayed there a good half hour, taking pictures at first, then passing around the super powerful binocs Ellen and I had purchased in the Cheng Du airport—you could read a newspaper at gate A5 from A31—then just sitting and watching, simply enjoying the cool evening, the broad, white sky, and the unfazed monkeys staring back at us calmly, then ignoring us completely.

After that, it was back to the base camp, passing several herd of water buffalo cooling off in the water.  We had dinner there, then our guide insisted on taking us back on the river to see the fireflies.  We did, were duly impressed, then motored down toward a village not far from where we’d left our van. 

Climbing out of the boat, we followed our guide through the nearly pitch darkness along a number of bamboo walkways.  We passed a school, then made our way onto a paved road.  I had Jamie on my shoulders and was sweating even though it wasn’t really that hot.  I could feel his fingers on my ears, stroking what little hair remains on my head.  In the distance, a chime sounded and we could hear Muslim chants blasted over a loudspeaker.  The smell of smoke and cooking came from somewhere nearby, and all in all, as we marched down that road in the black night, I found myself wishing we had a few more days in Borneo, that we had more time to get out of our hotel/resort/compound and get to know the people a bit more, the food, the culture.

But alas, we didn’t.  In another day or so, we’d head off to Kuala Lumpur, then it was down to Bali for what was to have been the relaxing final leg of our journey—indeed, of our year in Asia. 

So no, there was no more time to explore Borneo, no more chance to get to know anything other than this dark road, this smell of bamboo and palm fronds, this croaking of frogs and chanting in the darkness.  This was it. 

And we all know who’s to blame.  

Duran Duran.  

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