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Borneo…maybe you’ve heard of it – but do you even know where it is? I’m sure that if I gave you a globe you’d all have trouble putting your finger on it. What if I told you that it is the worlds 3rd largest island…are you surprised? It contains 3 countries on the island – Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. Even with all of this information – I bet that half of you still can’t find it! Give up? Check out this map…this should give you some context! Borneo Map
My curiosity with Borneo started about 7 years ago when I was living in San Francisco. I had just moved to the west coast (my first big move into the unknown and out of the security of the Midwest) and I was up late one night watching television. I came across the show Eco-Challenge. It was an adventure race that was shown on some cable channel (before the phenomena of reality TV). The race took place over 3 days for the good teams and about 6 days for the slower teams. It included hiking, mountain biking, kayaking through rapids, horseback riding, caving, abseiling, orienteering, and any other crazy, dangerous outdoor sport that they could come up with. It was in a place called Borneo. I had never heard of it before, but it sounded and looked completely exotic – this sheltered mid-westerner was hooked. I stayed up that night watching until about 3AM (on a school night), utterly amazed at what these people were going through. They raced 24 hours a day, didn’t sleep, they had foot-rot, leeches crawling all over their body (and into places that I can’t even mention), they were living on cliff bars, and were often hallucinating due to dehydration and lack of sleep. These were the toughest people that I had ever seen in my life…and I wanted to be one of them. I was in awe of them and the dangerous, lush, jungle landscape that surrounded them. I got out the map that night and looked up Borneo – it took me quite some time to find it as I had never really heard of it before – but when I did, I knew that it would be someplace that I would visit one day.
After watching Eco-challenge, I started getting interested in adventure racing – wondering if I was tough enough to really do what those people did. My next few vacations I took were adventure vacations to test out my ability in the various activities as well as testing out my ability to ‘rough it’. After sleeping in the Australian rain forest in a hammock scared to death of every noise and bump in the night, I realized that I probably wasn’t cut out for the adventure racing life, but the experience kicked off my interest in travel to exotic places and smaller scale adventures. I may never get to pull leeches off my body, but I knew that I wanted to go explore, I wanted adventure, and I wanted to push myself. Shortly after I got hooked on Eco-Challenge, the first Survivor aired on television (also shot on an island in Borneo).
My friends and I would watch Survivor every week religiously – I loved the mental game that came along with Survivor, getting people to do what you wanted, persuasion, mixed with athletic activity. I was so in love with the concept of Survivor that I actually applied for the 2nd season of Survivor. I was still on a quest to be considered ‘tough’ (and I liked the side benefit of the weight loss!). I obviously never made it on the show, but I’ve been a fan ever since.
When I decided to do this around the world trip, I got out a world map, laid it on my floor, and immediately knew that I had to stop in Borneo…there was never a question in my mind. It was my ‘spiritual travel birthplace ‘ – and I had to take this opportunity to see it.
On this leg of the trip I had another friend join me. After all, it is winter in NY and many of my friends were itching to get out of the cold. However, there’s really only a few people that were interested in Borneo…or even knew where it was! My friend, Russ, was ready to brave the headhunter island with me! This really marked a new experience in my traveling. Sure, I had friends join me before – but never a guy. Finally – someone to carry my luggage and to kill the bugs! Russ has been a running friend of mine for the past 2 years. I’ve trained for marathons with him (he’s super fast), and we formed an unlikely friendship through logging many miles in Central Park. I say it was unlikely because we honestly didn’t have much in common except running. He didn’t drink – I was/am a lush. Photo: Russ in China Town
He went to Bible Study on Friday nights – I went out clubbing and drinking. He loved his work – I was always trying to figure out way to get out of work. He doesn’t eat refined sugar – I put sugar on my pancakes. To top it off – I’m about 10 years older than him. But for some reason – we got along – I think we’ve both been fascinated in each others lifestyle – we both like to experience new things, and like to form diverse friendships. He’s very well traveled – so he was a great candidate for Borneo!
He arrived in Singapore and had his first adventurous experience spending time with my nieces. He beat them all at DDR (Dance, dance revolution). It was really fun for me to have a friend come and take part in my Singapore experience. Like most of my friends, he’s single, lives alone in NY, and has little to no contact with typical family life consisting of school, sibling fighting, and homework. So it was fun to watch my nieces devour him! My brother-in-law, Frank, was simply happy to have another Y chromosome around the house – even if it was just for a day! Russ and I went out exploring the cultural areas of Singapore the first day he was here – we went to China town, Little India, and Clarke Quay for some nightlife. It wasn’t long before jet lag took control though…Russ fell asleep in the cab home that night!
We left for Borneo out of Johor Bahru, Malaysia. It was an early morning taxi ride from Singapore across the border to Malaysia – my first land border crossing I had done in a while. We arrived in Kota Kinabalu (the largest city in Malaysian Borneo) early in the morning. We had the day left open to explore Kota Kinabalu. We quickly found out that the Chinese New Year holiday pretty much had shut down the whole city down – like Christmas in Nebraksa…no stores or markets were open. We did find some movie theaters that were open – so we ventured into it to see what was playing. We picked the best movie out of the sad bunch of choices and decided that since the ticket was only $2 US that we could stomach Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant in a romantic comedy…ugh. We got our tickets and quickly ran to the theater as it was about it start. When we got inside the theater, it was pitch dark so we had to find/feel our way to our seat number (assigned seating is typical around Asia). We climbed over people and generally made a commotion. We no sooner sat down and got comfortable when some young kid who worked at the theater came and asked us to leave as we were in the right seats, but the wrong theater…we had it 50% right! I did think it rather odd that Hugh Grant was going to be in some Sci-Fi movie! We embarrassingly climbed over everyone again and made our way to the right theater. Little did we know that this concept of being halfway there would be a reoccurring theme in our travel around Borneo.
As we walked around the deserted town, we realized that we were two of a handful of Caucasians in the whole town…heck…the whole country. I guess that makes sense since most people from the US don’t even know where Borneo is! We were on a big island – so we decided that we would treat our-self to seafood that night.
We went to a place called The Seafood Village along the harbor. The front of the restaurant had three levels of huge fish tanks full of a variety of frutti di mare. It was also packed with people dining – large families dining together in this overwhelming banquet hall setting. In fact – as they seated us, I looked around and realized that the smallest table they had was one that sat 6 people. Most of the tables there were full of 10 to 12 people eating ‘family style’. Russ and I were dwarfed at our big table for 6…but we spread out and looked at the menu. The menu was all family style – with two portion sizes – small (feeds 4 to 8) and large (feeds 8 to 12). We looked at each other and kind of panicked…sure – Russ was a guy that could put away a lot of food – but a rice serving for 6 people even seemed a lot for him! There were tons of wait staff mulling around – most likely amused by the Caucasian couple trying to figure out what/how to order. They all had little ear pieces in their ears – most likely getting information from the kitchen or hostess. I imagined that there was a big warning going through the wait staff’s ears at that moment…”Code White, Code White! Caucasian couple at table 54 – they look confused and about ready to bail – someone go assist them ASAP!!!!” Sure enough – this older Chinese woman came over and asked – “Do you need some help” We both said a relieved “YES!!” This lovely lady led us over to the fish tanks and helped us pick out a grouper for two…perfect. Then she let us order some soup and rice that was on a per person basis rather than family style…we were saved! The Code White was diverted! The meal was fabulous – we were surrounded by boisterous Asian families enjoying thier Chinese New Year – a great way to ring in the year of the Pig!
Russ and I had worked with a local travel agent to plan our activities back in December. We were both rather busy and couldn’t seem to get to it ourselves (don’t laugh…just because I don’t have a job doesn’t mean that I’m not busy!). We had one main desire – we wanted to climb Mt. Kinabalu – the tallest peak in Southeast Asia. I’ve included that as a separate post…so you’ll have to read about that separately. However we also wanted some other adventure such as white water rafting, we wanted to see the wildlife, and we wanted to beach/relaxation time. The travel agency put together a good itinerary…at least it seemed like it at the time. I guess I overlooked exactly how much time we were spending on the road to get to these various destinations. Suffice it to say – we had ample opportunity to see the countryside as many days we were in the car commuting longer than the activity itself. After a week of activities, we also concluded that Borneo was an emerging travel destination for westerners…sure – they had tons of travel agencies, hotels, and tours – however we found that most of the time – they were about 50% there on the execution of such tours. So – as a traveler – you had to be patient, trusting, and simply go with the flow.
Photo: Local woman and child traveling on the train We decided to go white water rafting on the Padas River. We had both done white water rafting before and were looking forward to some good rapids. We seemed to overlook the timetable that laid out our day…2 hour bus ride, 1 hour train ride, 1 1/2 hours rafting, 1 hour train ride, 2 hour bus ride back to hotel…oops…I guess I should read the fine print better! Our driver picked us up 15 minutes early which made us miss our free breakfast at our hotel. Now there are two things that I hate…I hate missing breakfast, and I really hate missing a free breakfast. My friends in NY know only too well how cranky I can get without breakfast – poor Russ – he had to put up with me. Since we had to leave early – I grabbed the bag of trail mix that I had in the hotel room figuring that I could eat it on the bus as a substitute for missing breakfast. The guide put us on a tour bus with virtually no information exchanged besides ‘hellos’ – no one really told us what to expect, what to bring, where we were going…ok – no big deal…just go with it. After an hour of driving and me fuming about not having breakfast – I decided to eat my trail-mix. I got it out and was about to open it when I noticed that ants were crawling all over inside of it. They were in ant sugar heaven…I was in a sick hell. After another hour of bus driving, we arrived at a train station in which they once again told us nothing but we simply followed the crowd out to the train tracks. We waited around for a train and after about 15 minutes in the hot sun a single rail car pulls up. We all piled on to this old, dilapidated train car like sardines. Luckily Russ (being a good 5 inches taller than everyone else) got on quickly and got us a seat. We then set off for another hour and finally got out and followed our guides – for the first time in 3 hours of commuting – they actually told us what we were to do…leave our stuff here since this was our ending point. Great…some information finally. We hopped back on the train slathered in sunscreen and went to the beginning of the river rapids. We were put together with the only other Caucasians in the big group as well as an older Chinese couple. Gina (of the Chinese couple) immediately asked everyone if they had done this before. She was clearly worried that this was going to be dangerous and her husband was making her do this. We all piled onto our raft after a small bit of instruction and Russ and I were in front…we were ready for a ride! We went over a very small rapid and we hear a shrieking noise from behind Russ. At that moment, Gina announces to the raft, “I’m a screamer.” Poor Russ would need earplugs the rest of the trip. There were a few good swimming holes along the way. Everyone would jump off and float down the river cooling down before the next rapids. At this time we picked up a hitch hiker…a middle age Indian man that seemed to float away from his boat and was precariously floating towards rapids without his raft in site. We pulled him in and gave him a seat in the front between Russ and I. Upon approaching a rapid, our guide would always give us the run down of what to expect and the percentage likelihood that we would capsize. He would give us 2 options…a route that we would have a 50% chance of capsizing, and a safer route and then he’d survey the raft on which we would prefer. All of a sudden out of nowhere, Gina yells – “let’s go for capsizing!”…what’s this from the woman who was scared to death a moment ago and screams bloody murder every time we rock the boat. What a nutcase! As a group we always ended up picking the more difficult route. As we took off through the rapids, the Indian hitch hiker sat up on the front of the raft hanging his feet over the front and hanging on to the rope like he’s riding a bull. He starts to hoot and holler like a cowboy, “Yeeeeehaaawwww” screamed in an Indian accent! He was bounced around so much that his pants were falling off – he had some serious plumber crack! I was laughing so hard at him that I could barely paddle! He told us later that he grew up on a cow farm…perfect. I was ready to take him to Texas to ride a mechanical bull…he would have been great at it! We made it through most of the rapids in tact – however we did lose Russ once…we were jostled so much in the front that he fell out and I fell off my perch onto the raft bottom…it was great fun! Between Gina, and the Indian Cowboy…it was a blast. We had the oldest, whitest boat, but we definitely had the most fun! I finally got some much needed lunch once we got off the raft and then we started the long commute back to Kota Kinnabalu. It was a short rafting time – but it was packed full of laughs.
The next night we went on a river safari – once again a 2 hour bus ride out of Kinabalu. We went to go to go see the Proboscis monkeys which are only found in Borneo. They are these funny looking monkeys that are large, and have a distinctive large nose and big pot belly. They look so ugly they are cute. Ever since the Balinese monkey jumped me and took my earring, I’ve been trying to stay away from monkeys , however tonight – I was in search of them! We took off under the cover of ominous skies and went in search of the big noses! I was hoping that they would be easy to spot and I had my telephoto lens poised to get a great close up – however my hopes of a great tight shot of their funny faces was dashed when I realized that even my telephoto lens couldn’t get close enough. We did see plenty of the Proboscis monkeys – however they were high up in the trees and rather shy. Maybe I should have tried to lure them out with a shiny earring. We raced around the river for 2 hours looking at monkeys, and looking for crocodiles. Once the sun went under, we were treated to a strange site, Christmas lights blinking wildly in the trees. However, these were natural Christmas lights, they were fire flies. Growing up in the Midwest I had seen many fireflies, like most kids I used to catch them and put them in jars, take them in room at night and fall asleep with my natural nightlight. However these Borneo fire flies were different, they were the size of gnats, and instead of a long flash, they had a very short flash and would blink in unison in the trees. There were thousands of them – coordinated like a symphony.
Our last bit of adventure included a trip to a secluded beach off the coast of Borneo called Pulau Tiga. This wasn’t just any island, this was the island that they filmed the first ever Survivor! I was excited to see it and get a feel for what they experienced – climate and landscape. However, it was also a chance to work on my tan and catch up on reading. The island resort (if you can call it that) was small, no frills, and rather empty. We had the whole beach to ourselves. Once again – the place seemed to be about 50% of the way there when it came to service and it included a long commute. We took a 2 hour car ride, and then a boat to the island – I found myself daydreaming about the first Survivor cast, wondering if they knew how much they would change television viewing for the next 6 years. When we arrived at the dock, a young boy came to greet the boat. We threw our bags onto the dock. The boy picked up Russ’s backpack and offered to take it – that left me lugging a big suitcase and a backpack. I was more than a little peeved that the boy didn’t even offer to take the suitcase – but that’s fine – I’m a strong, independent woman – I’ll let it slide this time. He took us to the lodge and gave us our complimentary welcome drink (no booze – just juice…bummer). He told us about the island and gave us a little map of the trails. I asked him where the show Survivor had been filmed (after all – they used the Survivor reference in their marketing material), and he just looked at me blankly – he said that he didn’t know. I also asked the woman at the front desk – and she said that she didn’t know. Russ and I looked at each other in confusion thinking the same thing – how can you market yourself as the first Survivor Island and then not know anything about it?! The young boy then showed us to our bungalow and once again took Russ’s bag and left me carrying mine. Russ, being the gentleman that he was, offered to carry mine – but my pride got the better of me and I told him I could get it myself. I lugged my stuff to the bungalow 400 meters away and Russ followed the boy, I was more than a little miffed when Russ gave him a tip!
Remember that episode of the Brady Bunch where Peter had a science experiment and built a mud volcano that proceeded to blow up inside the house? We had heard from other tourists that the island contained a mud volcano. Not a small science experiment, but a real one that you could get into – a crude spa of sorts. However – there was a catch to it – you had to walk 1 km to get to the volcano in the middle of the island, and there was no running water around the volcano – just a little jungle trail that led back out a km to the ocean where you could wash off. We decided that we would go check it out, we found it on the map and took off. We had planned on only one of us going in at a time as the other one would have to carry our personal belongings else everything would be covered in mud. When we got to the volcano – there was a small structure there – we looked at it and found that it was the makings of a nice set of outdoor showers to wash off at – however – the structure was there – but there was no water – just a little facet on the side of the building. Once again – it was 50% done – and no one seemed to be in any hurry to complete it. We put all of our stuff on the ground near the volcano and Russ took the plunge. It was about 5 ft. deep – but the thick mud was buoyant so you would float and couldn’t touch the bottom. I was shooting pictures like the paparazzi and then Russ all of a sudden surprised me…without warning – he went under…completely under the muddy sludge as if it were a swimming pool. I don’t think he thought this through too well as when he came back up – he had no way to wipe his eyes or get it out of his mouth or ears as his hands were covered in mud! He eventually cleared his eyes and could see again – but he was picking mud out of every crevice for the rest of the day! After playing in the bubbling mud he had to make the long walk back to the ocean. When you are covered in mud – everything sticks to you, leaves, twigs, ants, flies…it’s not pretty. He blended into the trail camouflaged with leaves. When we finally got through the long walk I dared him to go inside the lodge covered in mud – he got as close as the stairs. He looked like one of the blue man group actors…yet he was gray. He washed off in the ocean and was continuing to find mud in his ears 7 hrs later!
The next day I decided that I needed to try this mud volcano experience – so once again we made the long walk in the jungle to the mud pit. I had a love/hate relationship with the mud volcano – I didn’t really want to go in, however I felt like I should try it. I thought about how when I was a little girl I would love to make mud pies in our backyard. I would work on them for hours, getting just the right consistency. Photo: I’m Fabulous!!! I would decorate them with leaves and twigs and take it to my mom showing off my proud ‘baking skills’. I told myself that this was no different than making a mud pie…so I went into the gray/green sludge. It was grainy and thick. It was full of leaves and twigs (at least that’s what I told myself the solid objects were) – the whole thing generally grossed me out. I guess I liked making mud pies, however I don’t know that I liked being in a mud pie! I knew that I wasn’t brave enough to go underneath the mud as Russ did – but I floated around in it for a while. It’s a weird feeling to lay back and have the mud hold you up – you couldn’t have sunk if you tried. It was a good experience…and my skin felt softer than ever – and it was free! What a great spa value!
Russ and I enjoyed our last night in Kinabalu by the harbor. We celebrated with a fresh coconut at the market (I would have loved a little Rum in mine!) Borneo met my expectations, my trip to ‘wild’ Borneo was complete. I didn’t have to pick leeches off of my legs, but I still felt tough having survived the white water rafting and mud volcano. I may not ever be an adventure racer, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not adventurous!