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.
The truth is, Tony & I take CouchSurfing pretty seriously. If we’ve had good success with the people we’ve met through the site, it’s because we are really picky and put a lot of time and effort into selecting potential hosts. Maybe some Surfers just see the program as a means to a free bed, but we know that if we don’t choose our hosts wisely and simply fire off requests to anyone offering up a place to stay, we’re far less likely to enjoy the experience. To really make the most of the program, we approach every CouchSurfing situation as an opportunity to make a new friend, which means we make a considerable effort to thoroughly read profiles and only approach people we genuinely think we will be compatible with and enjoy meeting. On average, we send no more than three requests for any given city and I spend about 20 minutes crafting our initial inquiry. It’s a lot of work to put into something that might not work out or even elicit a response in return, but for us, the effort has absolutely been worth it; I’m sure our diligence plays no small part in why our CouchSurfing experiences go so well.
With all this said, Tony & I were especially excited to meet our host when we landed in Malaysian Borneo. From the moment we found Glorina’s profile, we knew there was no one else with whom we wanted to stay. Her smile lit up her photos and her profile exuded warmth and positivity. When we read that she was originally from the Philippines, we were convinced that she was someone we just had to meet.
Within minutes of arriving in Kota Kinabalu, we knew we had made the right choice. Although Glorina does not drive, she had made arrangements with a friend so that she could come pick us up from the airport. As we took our first steps into Borneo, Glorina was there waiting for us and immediately swooped us up into a hug so warm, it rivaled the island’s own tropical heat. It was an excellent way to begin and a sign of things to come; I felt like I was being reunited with the Filipina mom I never knew I had.
With a local by your side, you always find the best things to see and do in a city… even when you find yourself in KK, a place with little to recommend it. Though we had landed in Borneo with visions of being surrounded by untamed jungle and rustic living, we found KK to be your standard Asian city complete with shopping malls, traffic, and the ubiquitous rubbish and pollution problems. It wasn’t much of a stretch to understand why most travelers spend as little time as possible there before departing for pretty much anywhere else in the province. Practically everyone who stays longer than one night has plans to tackle the nearby mighty Mount Kinabalu; obviously Tony and I had absolutely no interest in even attempting to climb the highest mountain in South East Asia in any capacity, so we had to find other ways to enjoy ourselves.
Happily, Glorina was more than up to the challenge. With her as our guide, we uncovered the simple joys of day-to-day life as it is lived in her adopted home, the nearby town of Penampang. We took frequent trips to the center of town where we would wander through the incredible little market where inhabitants conduct all their important business, whether it’s grabbing a cup of tea and catching up on the latest gossip, getting a hair cut, or shopping for the ingredients that will make up the day’s meals.
For most of the week, the market is a sleepy affair, as if it is biding its time and gathering its strength so that come Thursday and Friday, it can spring to life. On these days, merchants from smaller surrounding towns bus in and set up abundant displays of their wares inside a maze made up of tents and awnings.
Unsurprisingly, we loved the produce section best of all. Everything was so colorful, and we were in awe of the many exotic, mysterious fruits we saw. We were so keen to identify and understand everything we were seeing that Glorina not only tirelessly answered our rapid-fire questions (“What’s this?” “Custard apple!” “But what’s this?” “Snake fruit!” “And this?” “That’s… a shoe.”), but was so delighted when we identified a fruit by its Filipino name (“We know this one! It’s a lanzone!”) that she then hectored several of the vendors into giving us free samples so we could know what all these new fruits tasted like. Careless of time, we spent several hours sampling unusual-looking items though, regrettably, not a bag of live grubs, which a local assured us would make Tony a real dynamo in the bedroom… Throughout it all, Glorina held my hand and led the way, surely causing not a few people to wonder why she had never mentioned that she had a daughter. Together, we walked and gawked at the tables overflowing with brightly colored fruits, vegetables, and other edible offerings, many of them completely foreign to Tony and me. Because Penampang is even less of a tourist destination than KK, we were the only tourists browsing around and were as much a novelty to the many vendors as their goods were to us. Virtually everyone we encountered greeted us with bright smiles and would enthusiastically pose for photos and attempt to entice us over to their tables. Truly, if you ever need proof that Malaysians are a friendly and welcoming lot, just head to the markets!
Our few outings into the heart of KK proper were spent on visits to the hilariously outdated and somewhat bewildering Sabah Museum, attending screenings of the latest terrible blockbusters for just $2 a person only to spend hours afterwards sputtering with mirth as we tried to unravel their nonsensical plots, walks along the boardwalk where our cries of laughter carried out far into the South China Sea, and—finally!—a pretty epic evening belting out the biggest ballads in a karaoke room of our own. I have no idea how we managed to avoid doing this when we were actually in the Philippines (a colossal failure on our part, if you ask me!) where not one night went by without us being serenaded by the not-so-dulcet tones of an exuberant Pinoy, but I’m immensely glad we had the chance to rectify our omission. I can only assume our fellow karaoke patrons were overjoyed as well…
But these moments in the city were really exceptions rather than the rule that dominated our time with Glorina, as the majority of our time was spent happily at home where we got to once more experience the wonderful hospitality for which Filipinos are famous. Despite having lived in Malaysia for many years now, in her bones, Glorina is a true Filipina mama, and that means that whenever we were at home, she was always trying to get us to eat!
Sometimes Tony & I have wondered if the reason we were generally less than impressed by food in the Philippines is because all the good chefs have migrated elsewhere. Staying with Glorina definitely added fuel to that fire. Despite her claims that she was the worst cook in her family, believe me, this lady knows how to cook. Her perspective might be a bit skewed because while were visiting, her son (who had just graduated from culinary school) was in Singapore doing an apprenticeship in the kitchens at the Marina Bay Sands… talk about setting the bar incredibly high! Food, however, always tells the truth, and both Tony & I agreed that if you can make a macaroni salad that features fruit in combination with Miracle Whip and is then garnished with flurries of grated cheese and make it more good than bad, you have skills!
When Tony and I decided to head to Borneo, I anticipated that our time there would be characterized by adventure, but I never expected it would take place in the culinary arena. However, Glorina welcomed me into her kitchen and even taught me some new dishes, which excited me to no end! With her assistance I finally conquered a food fear and learned how to make fresh pasta from scratch. I had always thought it would be daunting and difficult (not to mention extremely messy!), but the simple egg dough she taught me couldn’t have been easier. What I loved about Glorina’s method is that it so closely mirrored my own approach to cooking as everything was done by taste and touch: letting my hands guide me, I eventually discovered the correct consistency of the dough on my own. If it was too dry, it didn’t hold together; too wet and it would get caught in the pasta maker. Under Glorina’s watchful eye and patient tutelage, I churned out three batches, each one a little more successful than the last.
To celebrate my triumph, Glorina headed to her outdoor kitchen and whipped my noodles up into an amazingly aromatic stir-fry that featured crunchy prawns, velvety pork, and a wonderfully smoky “wok flavor.” We accompanied it with pork bathed in a rich sauce infused with the flavors of Chinese five-spice, red beans, star anise, ginger and soy.
Pleased with my progress, Glorina invited me to join her in the kitchen whenever she cooked and taught me to whip up some of her favorite meals. Together, we conquered battered fried eggplant, pork liver with ginger, chicken soup infused with ginger and lemongrass, and a beautiful stir-fried veggie dish that featured fresh edible flowers. Best of all, every single dish was made with love and used ingredients that had been sourced from the local market. No matter how far we travel and how many incredible dishes we eat, food made at home with friends always tastes best!
To say thank you to Glorina for her generosity and for making us feel so welcome, we ended our stay with a visit to KK’s infamous Filipino market, a fitting venue for a farewell dinner if ever there was one! Down by the docks, the market is considered the city’s best outdoor eating venue and it is packed to the gills with vendors serving up fried and grilled treats, with a particular emphasis on fresh seafood. After browsing the myriad options, we decided on a plate of spicy chili crab, black pepper squid, and two grilled fish served with a pepper-laced dipping sauce. The atmosphere around us was raucous and rowdy, and we were surrounded by fellow diners enjoying great food and the cooling breeze floating in from the sea. The food was flavorful and cheap (our feast only set us back $12US!) and we were left with no questions in our minds as to the market’s popularity and renown. The competition wasn’t exactly tough, but this market was far and away our favorite amongst KK’s admittedly limited attractions; the company just made it all the sweeter.
Under normal circumstances, Kota Kinabalu would not be a place that would lure us into lingering but through the magic of CouchSurfing, when I look back on our time spent there, it is only with the greatest fondness. I think of the small moments that felt like anything but—the walks through the markets, the late nights spent singing, my hands and clothes dusted with flour and speckles of dough. I think of Glorina and her beautiful smile, and it brings one of my own to my face in turn. The more I travel, the more I truly believe what matters most is not where we spend our time, but with whom we choose to spend it. I know that when it comes to KK, we could not have chosen any better.