well, amigos, on tuesday, 10:35 am, i leave this wonderful place called sabah – for a new home, a new job, a new city, new neighbors, new students, new colleagues, new challenges, new restaurants, new adventures… all new-new-new-- the next part of my journey…
but as i've been wandering around this now strikingly empty three bedroom condo overlooking the south china sea the last several days, stuffing my belongings into as few suitcases and monster trunks as i can manage, i'm already feeling quite nostalgic – and grateful – for the gift of my time here. you see, when i first came to kk four months ago, i really had no idea what it would look like or what my experience would be. for little more than two years ago, i had never heard of, nor would i have recognized the geographical monikers "sabah" or "kota kinabalu". then, when i was in sarawak, the northwestern part of borneo, in bako national park near kuching, amongst the macaque monkeys that you had to beat off with a stick, this outdoorsy blond australian woman told me – as i was heading backwards towards the mythical, touristy, & definitely more civilized island of bali – that she was heading further east towards "sabah" - past brunei - to the very furthest northeastern part of borneo. well, this sounded really far away and deeply romantic to me. i figured "east", beyond the longhouses - upriver in sarawak – inaccessible – tribal – headhunting… not-for-me – "sabah".
but when my full eight month fulbright stint couldn't materialize in kuala lumpur, and the fulbright coordinator suggested i try this new, upcoming university in kota kinabalu in sabah, i jumped at the opportunity. no questions asked. i said "yes, let's make it happen". and so we did. and now many months later, having actually lived and worked here for four months, i've discovered that nothing in my mind could have imagined what i found here. another way of saying you don't really realize you're going on a trip until you're on the plane (boat, car, or train). yet it all creates new pictures for me now – full of actual people, places, and events – full of real students, real muslims, real rain forests, mud volcanoes, barking deer, flying lemur, crystal clear blue-green waters, raging red sunsets, ugly megamalls, too-hot red chili peppers, three showers a day, the A&W downstairs next to chom-the-phone-guy's mini-store, small kampongs and bigger towns called sulaman, mengkabong, pnampang, tuaran, kota belud, kudat, ranau, telupid (the last place malaria was reported in borneo over three years ago) lahud datu, tenom, & beaufort.
now i know i've already shared a lot of my experiences with you along the way, but as i continue to wander around the place picking up and trying to squeeze one more shoe or stapler into the corner of an already-way-too-heavy bag, i also want to just pick up and share a few of the random pieces and impressions floating around inside my psyche that i hope you'll perhaps see and appreciate with me…
--wati, me and mountain mike have gone to the sunday tamu (market) in kota belud, the most renowned and colorful weekly market in sabah. it's full of local bajau tribes people selling their wares – razor-sharp steel "parangs" to cut the throat of animal or foe, "tudong sajis" - traditional red, yellow, & forest green food coverings woven from died nipah palm leaves, cheap batteries, cheap underwear, stinking salted fish, live chickens, buffalo, & rabbit, raw silk, tampons, sometimes illegal turtle eggs – in other words – the way folk used to shop before those pernicious and all-consuming megamalls.
we've met this chinese dude, "abc", about 60, glasses, talks english, about a mile a minute, and he brings us over on the qt to see a couple of his local friends. they say, abc translates, that they have a bottle of an indigenous elixir – from indonesia's irian jaya, perhaps the only island in the world bigger & more primitive than borneo – and it does something miraculous for the skin. we're not sure exactly what – either heal burns & bites, or relieve aching muscles, or cure stiff joints – something – but when i see the illustration of some squirming jellyfish-looking creature on the label, i say, what the hell, and i buy a bottle. now seeing that they have an actual paying customer in tow, they bring out the heavy artillery – something to make me "strong", they indicate with the well-known clenched fist on top of the extended forearm. local viagra, we smile at each other. then they take it out – buried as it is in the bottom of their wears. it looks like a dried leather needle-type thing. "crocodile dick", abc reveals with a knowing smile and conspiratorial wink. we smell it. ooooh. it certainly smells like crocodile dick. "uh, not so sure, terima kasih". but then wati pipes up. she's heard about this since she was a kid in sumatra. crocodile dick from irian jaya. legendary powers: strength, vitality, stomach… even cures asthma. we're sold. we buy three - one for me, one for mike, and perhaps over optimistically – one for our asthmatic friend, todje. mine sits hopefully in my tudong saji on the bookshelf – waiting for just the right occasion to haul it out. boy, does it stink.
--i'm hiking deep in the rain forest in danum valley. danum's the other nature reserve on the opposite side of lahud datu from tabin. still southeast sabah. it's the more established one – been open for years – it's got the pricey "borneo rain forest lodge" for 450 ringit a night, or the quite comfortable dvfc (danum valley field center) for scientists and researchers – for 35 ringit a night. guess which one i choose? right. i flash my trusty UMS photo ID and i'm cool. i've just arrived the night before, but thanks to my inspirational tabin experience, i've rounded up eight scientist-cowboy types and organized a night spotlighting safari. we're all crammed into the back of another dirty white pickup truck, and although there are no clouded leopards or sun bear this time, there are some wicked night-grazing barking deer, a low-hanging flying lemur and three giant, long-tailed red flying squirrels. one of the cowboy scientists, an american (his is the only group of americanos i've met in four months in sabah), jumps out of the halted truck and starts throwing stones at the huge squirrel. "let's see it fly, dammit", the cowboy scientist cackles. one of the rocks actually hits the animal. it doesn't move. we convince the cowboy to get back in the truck before the squirrel comes down and eats him. he does. i get a little instant karmic satisfaction a few minutes later when the cowboy scientist discovers he's lost his watch. he's thrown it off his wrist into the rain forest.
anyway, i've been walking for four hours now – way past my ability quota – up and down, up and down. boy do i really hate those ups! and - it starts to rain. seriously. it's the rain forest, for christ sake, so believe me, it really rains. torrents. i take out my trusty $5.95 army surplus silver lake-sunset boulevard purchased-for-borneo plastic rain jacket (c'mon -- just to protect my new digi-camera), and the guide looks at me like i'm crazy. we start picking up speed – at least he does – but i'm knackered. i can't keep up with him. i need to rest. too many uphills. a nasty blister forming on my big toe inside my fancy mountain-climbing, left leather trekking boot, way too heavy and clumsy for this kind of wet leaf, slippery up and down climbing. my guide is wearing his trusty pair of lightweight plastic "adidas kampongs", purchased for eight ringit fifty somewhere in the local tamu or megamall. what can i do? i'm in pain. i'm out of breath. ok….. i give up. i surrender. prideless, i sit down right there in the pouring rain. on a horizontally fallen tree. it cracks under my weight. termites. i stay put. on my ass. on the wet forest floor. with thirsty, lustily-squirming, blood-sucking leeches all around me. i'm soaked. i'm defeated. i'm happy…
the people? you still want to know about the people. what can i say that i haven't already? it's a very ethnically mixed population here in sabah. malays, chinese, indian, many local indigenous tribes. the natives and locals ("bumiputras") are friendly and notoriously, as the missionaries liked to say, "lazy". they do the minimum and then enjoy. they don't like to work too hard. they're different from we "orang puteh" (white people). not bred, educated, and/or motivated to achieve/accumulate/possess. of course prime minister mahathir and mtv are trying to change all that. and of course sabah parents want their sabah children to be better off than they are. understandably; it seems part of the reproductive cycle. but this so called "ma-laise" (!) is also why the missionaries were able to sell the friendly, wanting-to-please natives their patriarchal, punishing christianity so easily. now half of sabah is christian. most of the rest, muslim. if we wanted to do an updated romeo and juliet, it wouldn't be an intertribal marriage or love affair between murut and dusun - like even sixty years ago - it would be between a romeo christian boy and juliet muslim girl – or vice versa. it would be very controversial too. and politically incorrect. perhaps even censored and shut down by the big islam police – like the "vagina monologues" in KL! needless to say, there's a lot of tension and criticism between the two religions. (thank god, they don't know what a jew even looks like!) and it's same between the "lazy" malays and the "hard-working" chinese. the same, i suppose, as anywhere between neighbors and people of differences. palestinians-israelis. bosnian-serbs. irish-brits. blacks-whites. but at least it's only talk here. sabah is not the middle east, not somalia, not bosnia. not…
the people towards me? friendly. helpful. sometimes even warm. but in leaving sabah and heading towards KL (kuala lumpur), i'm leaving with some doubts about their sincerity and follow through. i mean, i am a guest here. i pay good money, earn good money comparatively. i believe, as a consequence, people treat me as such. they open doors for me, literally; they call me boss in public, and they say things that they think i'll like to hear. and i believe them. the problem is, sometimes what they say either isn't true, or will be different tomorrow. schedules. meetings. promises. opportunities. i don't mind "rubber" time, i just don't like "never mind". if it isn't true, or you're not going to do what you say, then please – never mind.
i hate to be at all critical of my hosts, and for the most part, malaysians of every breed and ethnicity have been quite hospitable and accommodating with me. but as i've said before, this is a foreign culture, and i do ultimately feel like an outsider here. then again, i feel like an outsider in LA and in my own country, so who knows, maybe it has more to do with me than the people i move among.
but rest assured, sabah is an outstandingly beautiful and unique place to visit. the natural beauty of its rain forests, islands, countryside, and native people are absolutely worth going way out of your way to see. before it all disappears. to the logging and timber industries, to the ever-growing human & commercial pollution, to the ongoing creep and corruption of western civilization. globalization certainly does have its pluses and minuses; it's just that here the negatives, at least outwardly, glaringly outweigh the positives. fortunately, one of the great positives is the malaysian government-supported eco tourism movement, with its tremendous strides towards education, conservation and preservation of wildlife and rain forest. and if ever this economy and the world can recover from september 11th, then this place will become the thriving and booming tourist destination it so deserves to be. because from at least one traveler's and visitor's point of view, sabah is an almost 100% safe place to come to see. there is no war on terrorism here. people don't know or care if i'm an american. at least not politically speaking. only economically. they want the american tourists back. their businesses are really hurting. the hotels are 80% vacant. western tourists have canceled their reservations. why? seemingly, just because of this generalized and media-hyped fear. don't listen to everything you fear, amigos. the planes are safe. the drinking water is safe. the accommodations are comfortable and safe. of course, i can't guarantee the course of east-west civilization in the immediate future, but please don't let paranoia ride herd. caution - ok. but remember, most of the world's citizens would just like to have enough to eat, make a decent living, raise their children, buy a new tv, and relax.
so many of you thought i was crazy to come here in the first place. well, voila - so far, so good. and knock wood (knock, knock, knock), KL will be as safe as sabah. or nearly as safe. it's a big bad city after all. smog, heat, poverty, competition, attitude. oy, i already don't want to go! but please don't worry about me – except when i come back to big bad LA. but do -- think of this place, sabah, as an incredibly different and wonderful place to see and learn about. and come soon. climb stoic kinabalu, cruise up the kinabatangan, sleep in a tent at tabin, give blood to the leeches, snorkel sipadan, get drenched in the rain forest, tamu on sunday, drink tapai, avoid the bomos, listen to the hornbills, see the rafflesias, visit the water villages, laugh with the children, hear the call of the muezzin, buy some pearls in the filipino market, drive over the mist-covered crocker range at midnight, see the rainbows, waive to the smiling faces on the sides of the roads, spot the leopards, sloths, lemurs, civets, gibbons & orangutan – before it's too late.
ok, off the soapbox. back to the real ones. a few more odds and ends to pack. and then off into one of the sky's raging red sunsets…
(soon to become, KL ken)