I’ve gone back and forth about whether to write a wrap-up post for our time in Borneo—normally I only do these for countries (which Borneo is not, made up as it is of three different countries) and much of what I have to say about Malaysian Borneo is true for Malaysia as a whole. Then […]
Our final stop in Borneo was Kuching, a sleepy riverside city masquerading as the capital of Sarawak province. In Malay, kuching means “cats”; even though the city is named for the Kuching River rather than any actual population (or governing body) of cats, the name still seems apt: like its namesake, Kuching slumbers during the […]
“What do you think this is?” Joseph, our guide, holds a small, green object in his hand, about the size of a grape, but clearly much firmer. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before, but given that we’re at the recently relocated Satok Market, one of Kuching’s most famous food markets, I’m reasonably certain […]
Stepping out of the pint-sized airport in Mulu is like being vaulted straight into a nature documentary. We’ve already been on Borneo for about two weeks, but it isn’t until we’re walking the 1 kilometer stretch of road from the airport to the grounds of the national park that I really, truly feel that we […]
If you’ve never been to Nashville, you might think I’m trying to pull a fast one on you when I tell you that in the center of Centennial Park (Nashville’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park or London’s Hyde Park) sits a full-scale replica of the Parthenon. Constructed in 1897 as part of celebrations marking the 100-year anniversary of Tennessee’s official entry into the United States (one of Nashville’s monikers is “Athens of the South”), it was built to exactly mimic the original. From the decorative friezes depicting scenes from ancient battles and myths, to the glittering and gaudy 42-foot tall Athena Parthenos statue that stands inside the building’s sacred cella, every last detail of Nashville’s Parthenon has been lovingly restored. Accordingly, when you stand in its shadow and gaze up the smooth length of its columns, you see it not as you would the Parthenon in Greece today, but as the original once appeared over 2000 years ago. Just a five-minute walk from my doorstep, I spent a lot of time marveling at its majesty, and sometimes wondered whether I would ever really need to make the trip across the ocean to see the original.
Borneo. Although few people can locate it—the world’s third largest island and home to three different countries—on a map, the name alone conjures visions of a vast, unexplored jungle where wild animals and indigenous tribes mingle beneath the dense canopy of the forest. Borneo is a haven for sundry wild animals: for now, it’s one of the last refuges of the “man of the jungle” (orangutan), the only home of the Borneo pygmy elephant, and holds a dwindling population of the Sumatran rhinoceros. But Borneo, like the rest of Asia, is rapidly changing thanks to its human denizens. It is also fighting a losing battle with deforestation; the world’s oldest rainforest is quickly giving way to vast tracts of oil palm plantations and slash-and-burn farmland. Much of the flora and fauna of Borneo is on the brink of an abyss, being driven ever closer to extinction by the encroachment of civilization. We knew that so much of the island was changing so quickly that, if we didn’t see it now, it might be gone by the time we had the opportunity to come back.
Walking down the wooden jetty into Semporna’s harbor, I couldn’t help thinking what a difference 180º can make. Behind us lay Semporna, a shantytown so grim and gritty, it can only be likened to an angry red inflammation on the otherwise flawless cheek that is the northern Borneo coastline. But with our faces turned to the Celebes Sea—stretched out on the horizon and that perfect shimmering shade of blue that is too rarely found in nature—it was hard to reconcile what we had just walked through with the beckoning paradise before us. Living in Semporna may not have many perks, but I’d wager that with its views, you’d be willing to put up with quite a lot.
One of my favorite parts of travel is how a place (and the people in that place) can surprise you, especially if you can find a way to get beneath the surface. Kota Kinabalu by all accounts, isn’t a very exciting city, but when Steph & I plunged into the fragrant, smokey labyrinth of the Filipino market we walked into another part of a very different town. Wandering the sun-dappled aisles of the local market the next day was a similar experience, one that felt very removed from the few tourist zones of the city. These markets weren’t especially large or flashy, but they were filled with local people simply living their lives before us and it was a beautiful thing to behold. We felt a very real sense of honor as we joked with the locals and exchanged smiles with the vendors, honor that we had so been so easily accepted into this weekly ritual with welcoming smiles and good-natured curiosity. I think we’ve said it before, and it remains true: the people are the places. And if you ever want to see the heart of an Asian city, find its local market and jump in with both feet. The sights, the sounds, the smells and the smiles… they’ll combine to give you an experience you won’t soon forget.
Whenever we have talked about CouchSurfing on the site, people have remarked in the comments about how lucky we are that our experiences across the board have been unequivocally excellent. Although I will allow that there is inherently some element of uncertainty and risk when you agree to meet strangers from the internet in real life, I don’t think that our positive experiences are the result of chance. Heck, I don’t even think it’s because the world is predominantly made up of good people and that CouchSurfing has attracted an unusually high proportion of said individuals.