Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Borneo: July 27 – August 7

So guess where I am? If you guessed Idaho, then you're incorrect. I'm in the city of Kota Kinabalu in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the greater island of Borneo, and guess what? It's not half as crazy as it sounds. Kota Kinabalu is a city of 270,000, and while the downtown doesn't exactly have skyscrapers – well, maybe a few – it does have a Starbucks, Esprit, plus at least a few Mercedes Benzes that I saw. The downtown is situated along the waterfront over which the sky is populated with crazily shaped clouds. Ben and I took a bus into the city from the airport, which took about 15-20 minutes. It didn't take long to walk to our hostel - a rather modern and clean environment with hot showers (not that I've taken advantage of them) and free internet. We're in a dorm room with six beds, though we only met one of our sleeping mates so far, a Dutch woman whom we walked around the city with this afternoon. We stopped by the office in town to check on the status of us being able to hike Mt. Kinabalu tomorrow and it's not looking promising. We have accommodation at the bottom of the mountain, but everything at the middle of the mountain is completely booked and has been for months in advance. I know what you're thinking: why don't we just hike the mountain in one day and cut out the middle man (being the mid-mountain accommodation), but the problem is that you must have accommodation booked on the middle of the mountain before you can get a climbing permit, which is necessary to hike the mountain. Regardless, Ben and I will try anything and everything to make it up that mountain tomorrow, keeping our fingers crossed that maybe somebody will cancel and open up room for us. It's sad because Mt. Kinabalu was the initial attraction that drew us here in the first place, so I'll be damned if I don't get to see that sunrise at 4,095 meters overlooking the edge of the world.
In our wanderings around the city, we passed through a massive food market serving all varieties of fruits, smelly fish, meat, and countless other inexplicable things. I'm struggling significantly with some of the food so far since everything has meat in it and it all looks like it was just slaughtered in the backroom before they serve it to you - bones and all.
Even though we're closer to the equator now, the weather is surprisingly bearable, maybe because we're near the water and it rained a bit to cool things off, though luckily it didn't rain on us.
Last night, Ben and I had to sleep in the Bangkok airport. It's amazing that such a modern and massive airport has such little options for sleeping and with chairs that couldn't be any less ergonomic, but luckily Ben and I were permitted to sleep on the only somewhat isolated comfy chairs supposedly being reserved for some special group that wouldn’t need them until the morning. It's not like it was a decent sleep by any means, though the alternatives would have been excruciating. I'm pretty beat right now and it's only 8:40pm here. It's probably a wise idea to try and rest up before heading off to Mt. Kinabalu tomorrow, even though our prospects of hiking it aren't looking so great, probably due to the ubiquity of 16 year old British school girls on organized trips here sporting hoodies that read, “Borneo 07”. Who would've ever thought?










We showed up at the mountain on Sunday morning, and spent the whole day unsure about whether we'd be able to hike the following morning. The odds weren’t looking so good, but there were several other people in the same boat lacking the necessary accommodation near the top in order to obtain a climbing permit. Monday morning rolled around, and after some back and forth wheelings-and-dealings, we were able to obtain a permit on the condition that we hike it all – up and down – in one day. After seeing all the other puds, older seemingly unfit women and their little children managing the climb, Ben and I figured “how hard could it be?" So with our own little Malay guide Nordan, we started up the mountain at a brisk pace - a pace that would soon prove to be quite unmanageable.
“How are we doing, Nordan?” we asked our wise guide.
“I think, maybe (pause) too fast.” He muttered back in his limited English.
After a few kilometers, we were fucked.
“How bout now Nordan, how are we doing? Are we gonna be able to make it all the way to the top?”
This time, the answer was tweaked. “I think, (pause) maybe not.”
The rest stop (where they have the accommodation and restaurant) was located 6km up the mountain, and that's the point where all the normal people complete their first day of hiking. At around 4km, every additional step for Ben and I was hellishly grueling. We were alternating between carrying my backpack, but it didn't matter - backpack or no backpack, my legs were barely moving. The hike to the top is very steep and consists of thousands and thousands of steps (which straddle the line between natural and humanly groomed) that made my previous hikes seem totally laughable, plus the air is quite thin up there at an altitude of well over 10,000 feet. Every time you round a corner, you pray that there will be a stretch of flat terrain. Needless to say, Ben and I made it to the rest stop and couldn't move anymore. There was absolutely no way we were going any further, up or down. Meanwhile, we made the hike to the rest stop in stellar time; a rate which placed us at the top of times relative to other hikers. Still, we were left with the dilemma of what to do at the rest stop being that all the accommodation was booked and we were entirely spent. As fate would have it, the one day hikers are no surprise to the mountain staff, and they knew perfectly well that our chances of making it to the top were about zilch. So for more than a few extra Malaysian Ringit, they allowed us to sleep in this contingency shit-hole shack for the night and required us to pay Nordan a few extra ringits as well. It's not like it was much of a night sleep, though, because everyone wakes up at 2am in order to hike the last 2.5km to the summit in order to see the sunrise. We slept (or more accurately lied awake) on dirty beds without sheets and pillows without pillowcases in sleeping bags which God only knows when they had last been washed. It didn't really matter much because I slept in all my clothes with my hood up. It's pretty crazy going from the heat of Thailand and Kota Kinabalu to the damp penetrating chilliness of Mt. Kinabalu.
During our seven hour comatose stint in the rest lodge, we managed to make friends with a British guy named Matt who'd been in the same failed one-day hiking situation as us, so he was in the shack with us as well as a German dude somehow paying a lot less for the accommodation, and this annoying British guy and girl who chattered away the whole night. At 2am the annoying British couple woke us up before our alarm time of 2:30, and at 3am we were off for the summit. You can't really pass people as easily during the final leg of the hike because it's super dark, slippery, and too narrow at some points; plus there a few stretches where it’s necessary to grab onto a rope tied into the side of the mountain and pull yourself along so that you don't tumble all the way down treacherous rock faces. Like I mentioned before, all sorts of people (e.g. obese computer programmers from Kuala Lumpur) who don't seem to have any business hiking the mountain clog up the route, and some individuals were even throwing up off to the side while the bulk progressed forward at a rate of -2 km per hour. Ben, Matt, Nordan and I pushed ahead, and 3 hours later of muddling through the dark over ominous mountainside, we reached the summit. Waiting for the sun to rise, it was insanely cold. Coming from Thailand isn't exactly great preparation for hiking Mt. Kinabalu, and so I shivered in my soaked knit gloves (purchased cheaply in Thailand), t-shirt, thermal, hoodie, and Addidas windbreaker jacket. Peering off into the heavens, the sun rose, but in obscurity to us as it was shrouded in clouds. We still bore witness to a numinous sky illuminating before our eyes as various surrounding peaks gradually highlighted in ethereal light as if E.T. himself were touching them individually. And then, during our initial descent, the clouds receded, the sky cleared, and all those questions of whether hiking Mt. Kinabalu was worth it were put to rest. It was a divinely august beauty.
So after the beautiful views and the 2.5km hike back down to the rest stop, it felt like we were done, and then we realized we still had another 6km to hike down. Many people had told us the hike down would be harder than the hike up, but I disagree. The hike down was infinitely easier, though incredibly taxing on my joints. The trauma of going down rugged trail has left my knees experiencing an arthritic sensation previously unknown. The last stretch of the descent was particularly boring and monotonous, as by that time I was ready to be done.
Now I'm back at a different hostel in Kota Kinabalu that some friends of ours from the mountain, Ron and Carmen, are staying at. We actually met them several days prior – which in Borneo backpacker time is an eternity – on the ride over from Kota Kinabalu to the mountain and they climbed the same time as us. Ron is a 31 year old Psychology lecturer originally from East Germany but now considers New Zealand home. He’s also a very unexpectedly sill man. Carmen is a 29 year old Singaporean girl (I consciously eschewed ‘woman’) who is a former student of Ron’s at Victoria University in Wellington and just recently graduated from there. They both came over here with other members from Victoria's psychology department to attend a symposium on...surprise, Psychology, being held in Kota Kinabalu. Carmen hiked at a slow pace up the mountain and miraculously made it to the top, while Ron was the only person to put Ben and myself completely to shame. He absolutely breezed up that geological wonder, making it all seem so effortless. He looked like a fit guy, but who knew climbing mountains back in New Zealand, doing salsa, running, and practicing Capoeira makes you into a regular mountain man. Ron actually tried to make it to the summit of the mountain on the first day with plans oof going up again the next morning, but had to turn back due to bad weather. Anyway, we might hang out with them for the next few days being that they're following a similar itinerary hitting up the beaches and then heading off to Brunei for a day.

***

Sadly, I'm not gonna make it to Brunei - it will forever be the one that got away. Ben wasn't as committed to the idea of going as much as I was, so I fault him for that, but regardless, I don't think it would have been feasible because of time constraints. In order to get there, you have to take a two hour ferry to an island and then another hour long ferry to a port 25km away from the capital city, so by the time we got there we would’ve had to turn around immediately and come back. It basically boiled down to traveling all that way and paying all that money just for a stamp on the ole’ passport and not being able to see anything at all. Not that there's an exorbitant amount to see in Brunei being that it's so small, but it would've been cool to check out the elaborate mosques and hotels and take a water taxi along the river to behold the stilt villages. Brunei is an interesting place because it's only been able to remain the autonomously strict Islamic monarchy that it is because of rich oil deposits, which propelled the micro-sized country into the upper echelon of the world’s richest. The country has an incredibly high standard of living, and every time the Sultan has a birthday, the entire population receives a gift. The sad part is that once the oil runs out in 30-40 years, they'll be royally fucked. Everyone knows how the Sultan of Brunei was once the richest man in the world, but not everybody is familiar with the infamous tale of how his younger brother - while appointed as the minister of finance - managed to blow 16 billion of the country's reserves on gambling debts, cars, hotels in Beverly Hills, not to mention gold-plated toilet-roll holders. So no Brunei for us, and I don't know if I'll ever be back here again, but it turns out that Royal Brunei Airlines flies all over the world, and if you fly with them, there's a good chance you'll have a layover in Brunei. Still, I feel incomplete, and now we have this extra day in Kota Kinabalu with nothing to do.
Yesterday we went to one of the islands off the coast with Ron and Carmen. It was an extraordinarily choppy boat ride with Ben nearly bouncing overboard up front, fearful that at any moment he would break his boney butt. The island we visited was called Mamutik; not exactly the kind of place you see pictured on postcards, plus the beach was pretty small and the snorkeling wasn't so great because of the overcast weather, though I did manage to get attacked by a whole school of fish (and get bumped by some floating rubbish that sent me into a panic because I thought it was a jellyfish). On Mamutik we also met up with the rest of Ron and Carmen's psych crew from New Zealand - of which none were actually from New Zealand, but rather places like Estonia, Germany, and the Philippines - and they weren't especially warm to us. Thus, it was mostly just Ben's hairy shoulder patches and I left to our own devices. We had planned on camping out on the beach that night, but the horror stories of torrential downpour and inadequate shelter convinced us otherwise, and so we returned back to Kota Kinabalu and had dinner at the market I described previously replete with all sorts of puzzling and alien food. I tried some chicken on a stick for starters, but immediately the bone inside the first piece made me cringe, so I tossed that aside and went for the veggies. I threw something on my plate reminiscent of tortellini, though after my first bite of that, I quickly realized that it was in fact not vegetarian at all, but instead a very unfamiliar type of meat; a type of meat that comes from the wattle of a chicken. At least the desserts were good. I also attempted shopping for some fake Nikes at a night market nearby, it's just that a 9.5 shoe size in this part of the world is considered gigantic and therefore in rare supply. I know buying Nike is the worst of the worst when it comes to being a responsible consumer, but what about fake Nikes?
We said our goodbyes to Ron and Carmen a little later, for today they are making their way over to Brunei (those wretched philistines), and Ben and I retired to our dorm room. The previous night we lucked out in getting a private room with twin beds made up like a little kid's bedroom, but last night we had no such luck and once again I was given a sheet only managing to cover 1/3 of my body. The air con was blasting so fiercely throughout the night that I awoke with icicles dangling from my patchy beard. Now we have no idea what to do with ourselves today. This morning we ate breakfast in the hostel with two kids from Malaysia, and guess what, I was the first Jew they'd ever met, so of course I had to field all sorts of questions about whether all Jews are smart and ridiculously good looking (I took some creative license with the latter), yada yada yada.
The plane to Mulu was quite small, with a capacity of approximately 25 people (give or take 25, I’m not so good at guesstimating). Everyone aboard was a tourist, mostly British, though we only filled up about 1/10 of the seats (the math is really starting to get complicated here). Looking out the window fro my seat, I saw mostly undeveloped blankets of green below interrupted only by the squiggly lines of brown rivers, making the earth look as though it were various puzzle pieces neatly fit together. How long could I survive if dropped into this middle of nowhere?
During our two days in Mulu, we explored the four major caves there. For some unknown geological reason to me, there are tons of caves in the region, but only a few are open to the public, one of which is Deer Cave, the most expansive cave in the whole wide world. While the caves were really cool, it was a weird part of the trip for me because I'm not exactly sure how to properly enjoy myself sightseeing caves. I found myself struggling to understand how exactly one seizes the enjoyment in cave viewing. It’s not like we were spelunking or doing any adventure caving (though that is an option if you’ve got the time and money). It didn't help that I found it incredibly challenging trying to capture the caves in photos because of their vastness and darkness, and capturing for me is often times what makes sightseeing enjoyable, maybe because it adds some meta dimension. Regardless, the caves were most impressive. Being there reminded me of that horror film, “The Descent,” in which a bunch of girls go caving in Appalachia and come face to face with subterranean monsters. It was all the more eerie when I wound up walking one-on-one with our guide who’s indigenously from the area and he told me about a great many weird things that go on in the caves. In a manner of total honesty he said, “I’ve been in this cave and others before when no tourists were here and nobody else was around, and you can here vivid voices and laughter coming from what sounds like a large group of people. It is believed that many people have died in these caves, but we’re not supposed to talk about that kind of stuff. Even the scientists who come here to do geological research and other studies have witnessed really bizarre things, but they keep it all very hush hush because it could seriously damage our tourism.” It sounded all the more spooky hearing it in that fantastic cave as we lagged behind all the others.
Mulu is totally in the middle of nowhere. There's no way to reach it by road, so you can either fly or take a boat. There's also no town in Mulu, just the national park and villages of the Penan tribe, which is an indigenous group of Malaysia that used to be known as the head hunters. It’s weird because the only people who go to Mulu are tourists, and so there’s a strange dichotomy that exists between them and the indigenous Penan. In all, it was a good time, and the second night Ben and I got plastered on locally produced rice wine. There wasn’t really a whole lot else to do there once darkness descended.

It would’ve only been $17.50USD per person for Ben and I to share a bed in the airport hotel, but $17.50USD could afford us five meals or more at Smoothie Blues in Thailand (the Western food joint five steps from our apartment), and probably ten meals if we got them anywhere else. We’re trying to be budget travelers, so we just slept in the airport itself on the floor. For some reason, most airports don’t provide anywhere to sleep, and Kuala Lumpur’s Air Asia terminal is no exception. They made their chairs as uncomfortable as possible, hard plastic ones lipping up at the edges so you can’t lay down on them unless you want an indented spine. By comparison, the floor was our best bet, even though I felt the eyes and stares of strange people burning into me all night. It was freezing as well, and on numerous occasions I was awakened by multifarious pieces of trash hitting me from the hands of people who’d either missed the nearby trashcan or just plain mistaken me for one. The airport sanitation worker also insisted on sweeping up by my head every thirty minutes like clockwork.
We’re going home. Two days ago we were relaxing during our glorified layover in Miri for a day, an oil town that’s recently tried to reinvent itself with a name change to “The Resort City”, which seems a tad oxymoronic (if not just moronic) because there’s nothing resort-ish about it. We didn’t do much there other than deal with our perpetually disgruntled and acerbic guesthouse owner, though rumor has it that she’s actually very nice and just can’t help her caustic demeanor. Yesterday was spent milling about the fair city of Kuala Lumpur with its Western skyscrapers and Islamic flare. My friend Stephanie from the glory days of International House at Melbourne Uni was kind enough to play host for the evening and I showed my gratitude by staining her shirt with some laksa lemak after bumbling with my chopsticks and dropping a giant piece of tofu that sent the curry splattering. She took us on an abridged car tour of some of KL’s highlights, like the Sydney Opera House knockoff and the campy technicolored ferris wheel known as “The Eye on Malaysia”. We’d already covered the Menara Kuala Lumpur and Petronas Towers earlier in the day, so don’t go gettin’ your panties in a bunch. It was amazing how well Steph, such a meek and innocuous lass, could maneuver so aggressively through the city’s crazy traffic, in a manual transmission no less, and she got us back just in the knick of time to catch our bus to the airport.
It’s 5:30am right now and the airport is bustling with people eating either McDonalds or standard Nasi Lemak as they bustle to and fro with little regard for anyone else or personal space. People probably bustle like this in every airport, it’s just that in other airports I haven’t had the luxury of living like a bum and awaking to such a terrible a case of irritation. At least I only have to take my malaria pills for another seven days while Ben has to suffer through thirty more.
Goodbye Borneo (and the tad that we glimpsed of Kuala Lumpur), you were a good lover. I’ll try and spread the good word.

1 comment:

helen said...

sounds like an awesome trip! Hope I'll be able to get some time off to journey those parts. If you're looking for more island fun you know where I'm at! : )