Borneo 1998 – “Just going for a wee walk….”

I first attempted to chronicle this, frankly surreal, journey in 2008 – to mark the 10th anniversary of the journey. An account of the journey that I then planned to give to Robbie (my fellow hitchhiker/partner in crime) as a birthday present. However, I gave up that attempt at recording the journey after a few days. So this full account was written in 2018 – to mark the 20th anniversary. And again as a birthday present for Robbie.

And as surreal as it is sometimes, this rather bizarre journey did actually happen. So, strap yourselves in and enjoy the journey of a lifetime:

Prologue (Part 1). Java to Sulawesi.

I first saw Robbie on a ferry between Surabaya, on Java, and Ujung Pandang (aka Makassar), on Sulawesi, in Indonesia.

Shaven-headed, sitting in the middle of a seated circle of Indonesian schoolkids. Strumming a guitar and singing to them (I later discovered that he had bought the guitar in Jakarta just two weeks previously – and he couldn’t play a note!).

I was travelling with two girls (a German and an Australian) and we avoided Robbie at first. He seemed to be the kind of “professional backpacker” we tended to avoid. The kind of guy who has been “on the road” for years. Is penniless. And funds his wanderings by various, slightly shady, means (usually by stealing from fellow travellers).

First impressions can sometimes be very, very wrong though!

Robbie and I first actually talked just as the ferry was nearing the harbour in Ujung Pandang. All of us “westerners” seemed to have congregated in one place (safety in numbers probably) and were busily discussing where we should spend the night. We all ended up heading to the same hotel/hostel.

Over the next 2-3 weeks our paths crossed numerous times, as we were all heading north to Manado, although not yet together. Robbie was travelling with one group of friends, I with another. We were all heading to Manado for the very same reason though. Visas.

An explanation:

In 1998, there was a 30-day limit on Indonesian visitors visas. No extensions. If you wanted to stay longer than 30 days, then you had to physically leave Indonesia – and re-enter with a new visa. And there was a ferry between Manado, on the northern tip of Sulawesi, and Davao, in the Philippines, which seemed to be the cheapest way of doing this (although there was a rumour that there was an immigration office in Denpasar/Bali airport that would issue new visas – for a price, of course).

So that was everybody’s plan. Take a ferry to the Philippines. And get a new Indonesian visa on the way back in.

When we ultimately arrived in Manado though, we discovered that there was no longer a ferry service on this route. It had been one of the first casualties of the financial crisis that was rampaging through South East Asia at the time. So we had a problem.

We could fly to Davao of course. This was too expensive though (we were all doing this on the cheap – well, most of us anyway).

So, as we just had to find a cheaper way of doing this, we immediately looked at our maps, and saw that there was another international border nearby. In Borneo.

Another explanation:

The bottom two-thirds of Borneo is Indonesian (West Kalimantan and East Kalimantan provinces) while the northern third is Malaysian (Sabah and Sarawak provinces – which sandwich the tiny, independent state of Brunei). And by travelling between the Indonesian and Malaysian parts of Borneo, we could obtain a new visa.

So we all jumped on the next ferry to Borneo (Balikpapan in East Kalimantan). Our plan was to then work our way north to the border with Malaysia (Sabah province).

During our time in Manado though, Robbie and I had become “soulmates” of a fashion. We both wanted something of an “adventure”, rather than to just travel around with packs of other western travellers. So the seed of the idea for what happened later (and is documented here), had already been planted.

The highpoint of our time in Manado though (and there were quite a few interesting experiences) was “The Wedding”:

Although it is a coastal city, there is no real beach in Manado. So if you want to take a dip to cool off from the equatorial heat, posh hotel swimming pools are the easiest way. And we had discovered a rather fine hotel swimming pool that we could use. Somewhere that the staff/security guards wouldn’t kick visitors out of if they weren’t being a nuisance, and if they bought the hotel’s food and drink. The only problem being that this hotel was quite a distance from the hotel where we were staying.

We ended up spending most of our Manado days swimming in that pool, and eating and drinking the fine fare on offer. On one of these days, by about 6pm as it was starting to get darker (as it does near the Equator), we decided that it was perhaps time to head back to our own, much cheaper, hotel.

As our own hotel was some miles from the swimming pool though, we would travel there and back on a “bemo” (a pickup truck, with seating in the rear, which acted as the local “bus” service). When our bemo reached the junction with the main coastal road, instead of turning right as it normally did, towards Manado city centre, and as we were expecting, the driver turned left!

Now, the normal reaction, the smart thing to do, would have been to get off there and then, and find another bemo/bus heading in the right direction.

The smart thing to do.

But, as the driver turned left, Robbie and I exchanged glances, shrugged our shoulders and, in unison, said “why not?”.

And so that day’s wee “adventure” started.

By this time though it was starting to get really dark (they don’t go in for street lights much, once you get out of city centres). And we were dressed for a day by the pool. Ragged t-shirts and shorts.

Our bemo kept going though, without stopping, and we watched the lights of Manado become smaller and smaller behind us. We were not really worried yet. Perhaps a bit “apprehensive”. And then the driver turned left again, this time turning off of the main coastal road, and started heading inland. Along a much smaller road. The apprehension-level in the back of that bemo had now gone up a notch or six.

It was dark. We were in the middle of nowhere. And, other than the pleasantries, we spoke no Indonesian (Bahasa).

And we were hardly dressed for nocturnal wanderings should we get off the bemo anyway.

So we stayed put to see where the driver was going. “He must stop soon surely?”, “He must go back to Manado eventually?”.

And then a light came into view. And it got steadily brighter. Very bright in fact. A house and garden were bathed in light. Our driver slowed down as he passed by. There seemed to be some kind of party going on. But we didn’t dare get off the bemo. Our initial foolhardiness had now been replaced with some serious caution. We were hoping that he would stop soon – and start heading back to Manado. And about 100 yards further along the road, he did stop. So I climbed out of the back and asked the driver (using a LOT of hand signals) if he was indeed going back to Manado. This was the end-of-the-line, he indicated. And, yes, he would be going back to Manado. In fact, he would be going back and forward for another 2-3 hours yet.

So, emboldened with this new knowledge – we got off!

And started walking back towards the lights. We stood outside the garden fence with a throng of other, local, onlookers. There must have been over 100 people at the “party” we were all looking at (which we now discovered was actually a wedding celebration). Over 100 people, of all ages, dressed in their local fineries.

No sooner had we stopped outside of the fence to have a wee nosey though, when we were approached by a rather officious looking policeman. This was obviously no ordinary policeman. His fine uniform showed his importance. Gold braiding everywhere.

“Oh-oh. This means trouble” we thought.

It turned out that he was in fact the chief of police for the whole district that included Manado.

But, rather than shoo us ragamuffins away, as we fully expected, he actually invited us inside. To take part in the celebrations.

For as well as being the local police chief – he was also the father of the bride!

And it turned out, as it does in a lot of other cultures, that having a stranger attend a ceremony is seen as bringing good fortune. So our attendance at his daughters wedding would bestow good luck on the marriage.

But this was no normal wedding though. A “society” wedding perhaps. All the local dignitaries seemed to be there. And there we were, a pair of scruffs just out of the swimming pool.

And then it got even more bizarre.

Local wedding custom is for the bride and groom to sit on a communal “throne” (which is just a posh sofa really). This is placed on a stage/podium. And this is where many of the official wedding photographs are taken.

And the bride & groom wanted us both up on the podium! Not for all of the photographs I must say. But for a few of them.

We dined like royalty all night on local specialities (which was a rarity for us poor backpacker-types), and were plied, non-stop, with “tuak” (a local alcoholic drink made from the sap of palm trees, and which looks like milk – looks like milk, is as potent as rocket-fuel though).

So, when the party started to wind-down in the early hours of the morning, we ended up sitting and talking to a group of lads (who were part of the bride’s family). At one point, when most sensible people would have made their excuses and left (we couldn’t – unless we wanted a VERY long walk – the bemo-driver would have long-since ended his runs), a huge white plastic container of tuak appeared. And our glasses were refilled (again and again). That’s the downside of being Scottish I suppose (because Scottish whisky is famous worldwide – everybody assumes that Scots must have a superhuman tolerance for alcohol). But as it would definitely be rude to refuse this very kind offer of hospitality, we felt obliged to stay a while longer and help them empty that container.

It was daylight when we finally crawled away.

So somewhere in Sulawesi at this very minute, a couple are showing off their wedding photographs. Especially the ones of the bride and groom with the “strangers”.

And all this happened because we had turned left instead of right.

I had met a kindred spirit in Robbie.

And a seed had been planted.

Prologue (Part 2). Sulawesi to East Kalimantan (Borneo).

There were eight of us on the ferry to Borneo. Myself and Robbie, two couples (one of which were “the Loons” from London), and the German and Australian girls.

And having been built, and very recently it seemed, in Hamburg, the “Pelni” operated boat which we were to take to Borneo, did seem rather impressive.

From the outside.

“Pelni” is (or was at the time) the national shipping line of Indonesia. And they have obviously priced their fares so that even the poorest of Indonesians can use their boats to move among Indonesia’s 13,000 islands.

So, having priced their fares so reasonably, if they want to make the boats commercially viable, they need to operate each ferry at full capacity.

And this they do. And once they have sufficient numbers of passengers to meet the official capacity of the vessel, they add the same number again. And once more just for luck. In fact, I’ve never heard of anyone not being able to board a Pelni ferry because it is “too full”. There is always space for “just one more”.

These are seriously overcrowded boats. Every inch of available space is occupied by your average Indonesian, his family of ten, and their kitchen sink. And bodily hygiene is low on their list of priorities it would seem.

So we sought out a quieter, less “pungent”, spot of our own.

We located a rather pleasant, and carpeted, hallway just behind the Captain’s quarters/bridge. Completely “out of bounds” of course, or so we assumed from the sign (it was pretty obvious I suppose – but the sign was written in Bahasa and we just feigned ignorance – it was perfectly clear what it meant though). But being tourists/westerners who didn’t spit all over the carpet, our presence there was tolerated by the captain and crew (although I don’t think they were too enamoured with having to clamber over us every time they passed – but we did make an effort to be as unobtrusive as possible).

During the overnight voyage, Robbie and I had decided that we would divorce ourselves from our travelling companions once we reached Borneo (Balikpapan). As we were more likely to find some kind of “adventure” on our own.

Looking back at this now, I’m thinking “how daft were we?”.

As on our previous ferry ride (to Sulawesi), guide books and maps were opened and pored over prior to our arrival in port. And a likely candidate was settled upon that would become our hotel for the night.

However, on docking and disembarkation, Robbie and I announced to our travelling companions that we intended to remain in the port area (a couple of miles outside of Balikpapan proper), and find our own accommodation. However, we all arranged to meet the following morning, at their hotel, when we would arrange the continuation of our journey north towards the border.

When we had first arrived at the harbour, it was a heaving mass of humanity. So we had just assumed that it wouldn’t be too difficult to find a room. However, once all of the passengers had headed into town, and we were left on our own, we soon realised the error of our ways. Aside from the ferry terminal building (which was now deserted) there were absolutely no other buildings there. So after hanging around for twenty minutes, hoping that something would miraculously throw us into an “adventure”, we picked up our bags and started the long slog into town. Not one taxi driver had been kind/daft enough to wait for us.

When we finally reached the town though, rather than seek out our companions’ hotel, we checked in to a very “cheap and cheerful” local hotel. We were just too embarrassed to turn up at our friends’ hotel, and admit that we were idiots for staying behind at the port.

Our choice of hotel was a mistake though. A big mistake.

I have no real recollection of the hotel itself. Just a memory of our night there. A memory of waking in the middle of the night to see a long brown arm poking through our window, and attempting to open our door from the inside.

And of a very naked Robbie holding onto this arm from inside of our room.

What happened next, happened in a matter of seconds. And as I had just woken up, I was still somewhat “confused”.

Robbie had a problem. He couldn’t possibly pull our would-be robber through the window. The window, an interior window that opened out onto the hallway, was long and thin with long narrow glass slats (kind of like a glass venetian blind). So, being quick of mind (I’d witnessed Robbie’s quick actions earlier in Sulawesi – but let’s not digress too much), Robbie let go of the arm, unlocked the door, and chased the thief down the hotel corridor.

Naked!

He never did catch up with the would-be thief (which is possibly just as well – as although Robbie now lives in Australia, he is originally from Holland, and is ex-Dutch special forces – and you really wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley). But we were both sure that the thief was the same person we had seen behind reception when we had checked in earlier. An inside job then!

We didn’t sleep much after the attempted-robbery though (I don’t think that I slept at all), and checked out at first light. The owners, who were working behind reception that morning, feigned an inability to comprehend our hand signals as we tried to explain what had happened during the night (of course they, very conveniently, never understood a word of English – but I’m sure that they knew anyway).

But. No bones broken. A lesson learned. Experience.

As planned the day previously, we met up with our sometime travelling companions and headed back to the port, where we understood that we would be able to charter a boat that would take us north to Nunukan, the Indonesian side of the border control point on the Indonesian/Malaysian border.

Another geographical explanation:

There are very few roads in that part of Borneo. The only way north was by boat along the coast. And there was no public ferry (well, not that day anyway). And Nunukan is actually an island too (which nestles at the very northern tip of the Indonesian part of eastern Borneo).

We understood though, that there were numerous boat owners at the port who ferried people up and down the coast. We had to haggle furiously before one boat owner agreed to take us as far north as Nunukan though (where we could officially exit Indonesia). His boat was a rather small speedboat and the “captain” (as he liked to be called) told us he could have us in Nunukan in a few hours. We had a quick look over the speedboat and decided that, yes, we could all cope with being squeezed together for a couple of hours. Only six of us would be making the journey anyway (one of the two couples had decided that they were flying elsewhere in Borneo).

What we failed to take account of though was that the boat was completely uncovered. Not something that is at the front of your mind in the early morning of another sunny day. But not one of us quite understood that later in the journey we would be out at sea on an uncovered boat, at midday, under the equatorial sun.

So we all crammed onto the boat (sitting on our luggage mostly).

Now, this is not meant to be any kind of ecological statement about the extensive logging that was taking place in the interior of Borneo at the time. I’m just relating facts: But we must have passed the mouth of a river at one point, because, suddenly, there were logs everywhere. In the sea! And these weren’t just normal sized logs either (logs that you would see being felled in a pine forest). These were HUGE trees. It turned out that the loggers had come up with a great way of getting the lumber from the interior, where it grew, to the coast, where it could be collected. They simply let the logs float downriver, and collected them at sea.

But, rather worryingly, some of these logs were almost completely submerged. Floating just under the surface. And almost invisible to the “captain”.

And, although our boat had only the one outboard engine, it was fairly shifting over the water at a very healthy rate of knots, the “captain” weaving his way through the enormous obstacles (some hidden just below the surface).

And then we hit one!

Or, more accurately, the propeller hit one. There was an almighty bang and the engine stopped dead.

Cue silence and panic-stricken faces.

It was only then that we realised that we had no cover. When you’re becalmed at sea, with no means of propulsion other than the one outboard engine that the “captain” is furiously bashing with a hammer (a hammer?), at midday under the equatorial sun, you tend to notice things like that.

Our captain wasn’t actually bashing the propeller though (he did seem to have done this before) but was banging on the propeller guard (which probably shouldn’t have looked as bent and misshapen as it did).

But he’d obviously come well prepared for this eventuality, and had invested in a hammer. It’s just a shame that he hadn’t invested in any life-vests too though.

We were only adrift for about ten minutes I suppose. But it felt like forever. Hardly a word was spoken during those ten minutes though. And when the “captain” had eventually bashed out the dented prop guard, and the engine sputtered back to life again, you could almost hear our combined exhalation. I think a lot of breaths were being held when he pulled that starter cord.

The remainder of the journey to Nunukan passed with little incident. Thankfully. Other than the growing cramp in both my legs (being 6’4″ does come with its own problems – especially in a tiny boat).

It was at Nunukan (actually an island just off the coast of Borneo) that Robbie and I finally hatched our plan to hitchhike across Borneo:

The Indonesian immigration officials there had worked out that their border crossing was being used by tourists to extend their visas. And never being shy at extorting a few more dollars out of tourists, the robbing bar stewards had lumped an additional US$50 “fee” onto the cost of a visa issued there to us “rich” tourists.

Now, I don’t know if it was the principle involved, our dislike of spending anything at all, or just sheer bloodymindedness, but there was absolutely no way that we were going to pay these crooks. Especially as we had quickly, and so very cleverly we thought, come up with an alternative plan of getting back into Indonesia elsewhere:

There is another international border post between Indonesia and Malaysia on Borneo. In WEST Kalimantan. 2,300 kilometres away!

And from there, we could take a ferry to Jakarta.

But. Could we get there for less than US$50? Was it even remotely possible?

There was only one way to find out!

Day 1. And the fun begins.

Of the whole hitchhiking trip across Borneo, there is just one ride that I have always struggled to remember. The first.

And this is why I abandoned the 2008 attempt at chronicling this journey (to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the trip – and again as a birthday present for Robbie). After writing just two days worth of preamble on that occasion, I got bored (I guess that I prefer to do stuff, rather than write about doing stuff). But not being able to accurately remember this first hitchhiking ride with Robbie certainly hastened the demise of the 2008 attempt at chronicling this trip. So, I’ll just go on memory this time, and fill in the blanks as best I can.

I’d done quite a lot of hitchhiking before then. Mainly in the UK, but on mainland Europe too (including twice from Scotland to Greece – once via Italy, and once via, what was then, Yugoslavia). So I knew what worked best, and the potential pitfalls to avoid.

But this wee trip was Robbie’s introduction to the concept. And it was to be some introduction.

Getting away from a big city is one of the hardest parts of hitchhiking. Especially cities near borders. And the ferry from Nunukan had dropped us at a big town in Sabah called Tawau, where we spent the night.

But I knew that we just had to get away from the town. Which is why we found ourselves on a bus to Kunak at 8am the next morning.

When we had arrived at the local bus station, we had jumped on the first bus heading in the direction that we wanted to go, and paid to go only as far as the next town (Kunak). This was a much smaller town, and I had guessed that it would be a lot easier to start our hitchhiking journey from there. I had another reason too. I didn’t want Robbie’s first experience of hitching, to be being stood at the side of a busy road, watching cars speed by all day.

We had a rough idea of how far we could hope to cover in a day. So we had picked Mount Kinabalu as our destination for that first day. We also had a vague idea of climbing the mountain the following day (on the easier side), but as we never actually stopped at the mountain, I don’t know how accurate this memory is (or even of how seriously we had considered the climbing idea).

But, as I say, we never actually stopped at the mountain. And for a very good reason.

Our very first ride (a camper-van perhaps?) was going all the way to Kota Kinabalu. Which was a good few miles further than we had planned. And, as it made absolutely no sense to get off early, we travelled all the way there.

In one go!

I had been worried that Borneo might not be the best introduction to hitchhiking for Robbie. But I couldn’t have hoped for a better start.

We did see the signs for Mount Kinabalu though.

As we sped past.

So, a pretty nondescript start to the journey really.

But when we got to Kota Kinabalu, the fun and games really began.
Kota Kinabalu.

The first question that we had to answer was: where would we spend the night? My trusty Lonely Planet guidebook didn’t provide information on accommodation that was within our price bracket (that is, accommodation which was free).

But it was still ridiculously warm at night (there’s no escape from the tropical heat!). And, looking for an “adventure” of sorts (boys will be boys), we decided on the DIY approach to free accommodation.

Which meant sleeping outside!

Well, inside outside, if you know what I mean?

So we strolled around nighttime Kota Kinabalu for an hour or so, looking for somewhere to rest our weary bodies.

And our first bed for the night actually looked rather promising. A shopping mall.

I’m sure that it would have been a bustling hive of activity during the day. But at this late hour (midnight) it was deserted. And having keenly scanned the area for security cameras, we worked out that we could safely roll out our sleeping bags between the exterior and interior doors of the mall entrance. Safe from prying eyes.

But, and more importantly, as we would be inside, we would be safe from the hordes of buzzing mosquitos which seemed to be following us around.

We could only have been asleep for about an hour though, when I woke up to find a torch shining in my eyes.

We had indeed chosen a spot that was out of the reach of the cameras. But we had failed to consider a walking security patrol.

And the two security guards who found us fast asleep in the mall entrance, and who spoke no English at all, made it very clear that we could not sleep there, and would have to move. Immediately.

There wasn’t even time to roll up our sleeping bags. So it was two rather dishevelled backpackers, with sleeping bags draped around their shoulders, who spent the next hour wandering around the Kota Kinabalu night, desperately looking for an alternative place to bed down for an hour or two.

After lots of searching, the best option that we could find was on a construction site. The shell of a building (which would become apartments I reckon) was complete. This meant that, should a tropical downpour happen, then we would be dry (when it rains there, it really rains). Unfortunately, the sides of the building were still open to the night though (the holes in the building which would eventually hold windows, were just that – holes). So there would be no escape from the incessant buzzing of mosquitos.

The most enclosed part of the building though seemed to be the unfinished stairwell. Definitely more isolated from any prying eyes, but still fairly open to the ravenous wee buggers who had decided that we would be their dinner for the night. So we laid our sleeping bags there.

I absolutely hate mosquitos (and I would have reason to hate them even more later in the week). But they just can’t get enough of my blood it would seem.

Luckily (?), my sleeping bag was of the “mummy” type. True, I was sweating like a sweaty thing when it was zipped up completely, with only my face exposed (which I covered by wrapping my head in a towel). But, at least I was safe from the mozzies. A tad hot. But safe.

So this was how Day 1 ended.

Not exactly the “adventure” that I was looking for. I so felt like giving up on this whole “noble” effort, taking a bus back to the Indonesian border, and handing over my visa “fee”. There and then.

But stubbornness, and a sense of principle (OK, it was just 100% plain bloodymindedness), pushed me on.

Day 2. And the travel gods start smiling. At last. And I meet the third of my Three Wise Men.

There are days when hitchhiking is really hard work.

A succession of short rides, means that you spend all day standing by the side of the road, and end up just 50 miles from where you started.

But then there are those other days. The days when everything just seems to go right.

And this was to be one of those days.

After a night of fitful sleep we walked the short distance to the main road out of town (although my towel had indeed protected my face from the mosquitos, I could still hear their never-ending buzzing, so sleep had been nearly impossible – and it was just too hot to sleep properly anyway).

So we started hitchhiking just as the day was starting to heat up.

But almost immediately, a big shiny car stopped to pick us up.

And it got even better.

With the aid of my guidebook, Robbie and I had settled on a final destination for the day. A tiny village on the Sabah/Brunei border, where we could catch a boat, early the next day, which would take us downriver and across the bay to Brunei.

And our driver, who turned out to be a policeman, was actually driving all the way to a town just beyond this wee village. In his air-conditioned car!

I so wish that I could remember the name of the village – and searches on Google Maps, even on the satellite view, have been of no help in identifying it (Merapok maybe?). Note to self: get a 1998 copy of the Lonely Planet “South East Asia” guidebook – and retrace our 1998 route.

So just one ride, which we got almost immediately, would take us the whole way there. Well, to the end of the road that led to the village. But as the village was just a mile or so up this road, we decided that we could easily walk there. Particularly after such a stroke of hitchhiking luck. We would have loads of time to walk the last mile (even more time, once we had realised that our policeman-driver obviously loved speed and was wearing his lead wellies). As we all chatted, Robbie and I watched the countryside of Sabah speed by.

This all meant that we would arrive at our destination in the middle of the afternoon. In daylight. Rather than at the end of the day, and in darkness, as we had predicted.

Result!

The wee village (name to be confirmed):

Although the name of the village has long-since disappeared from my memory, the layout of the village will be forever etched in my mind.

Had there been a saloon bar with swinging doors, then the village could have been plucked right from an old Hollywood Western movie.

Not only was there no actual road surface on the main street (it was simply a dry, dusty mud road – and the hardened ruts in the “road” were testament to the fun and games that the local drivers would have when it rained), there wasn’t even a pavement. Instead, all of the wooden buildings were encircled by their own wooden walkways.

And we quickly spotted that there were wooden “benches” built into these walkways. And had decided that these would make a good bed for the night, while we waited for the first boat downriver in the morning.

So we sat down for a while; before spending the next hour wandering around the little village. Only returning to the “benches” as night fell.

All the time though, under the curious gaze of just about everyone in the village.

So we had just started to unroll our sleeping bags when I first saw him.

Abraham!

It was his shock of white hair that I noticed first, as he walked directly towards us.

And then his thin brown face. He was obviously of Indian descent (and not a local Malay).

And, with hand outstretched, and in broken English, he introduced himself.

His name was Abraham. He was 80-years-old. He was originally from India. He had fought with the British Army in the Malay conflict (hence his faltering English). And, as some of the fighting Indians had, he’d been rewarded with a plot of land in Borneo.

He was also the village “elder”.

And, he made it pretty clear, that there was no way he would have visitors to “his” village sleep outdoors. It would be his honour and privilege to look after us. All arrangements had already been made, so there was to be no arguing (it would appear that we had started quite a few discussions earlier).

Now, Abraham lived in nothing more than a wooden shack with his elderly wife, and also with his granddaughter (who was about thirteen/fourteen). It transpired that the granddaughter would sleep at a friend’s house (which she had already departed for), Abraham and his wife would sleep in their granddaughter’s bed, and Robbie and I were to sleep in their bed.

This didn’t sit easy with me. Not at all. An elderly couple sleeping elsewhere just so that we could sleep in their bed? No. I was definitely not too happy.

But Abraham would accept no arguments.

This was “his” village, and it would be an honour for him to look after the village visitors (I think it was also his way of showing the other villagers that he could speak English).

After speaking with Abraham for just two minutes, I completely understood why he was so respected in his community. There are “good” people; there are “saintly” people; and then there are the Abrahams of this planet.

His “bed” turned out to be no more than a raised wooden board, covered with a thin mattress. But it was heaven.

The “bathroom” was more basic still:

In that part of the world, the shower is replaced with the “mandi”. This varies from country to country, but the principle is the same. Water is stored in a large barrel/tub/bucket, and you pour some of this water over your head using a smaller bucket/ladle. And the water eventually runs down a drain.

Well, that’s the luxury version.

As the rear of Abraham’s home actually hung out over the riverbank, Abraham had decided to make the most of this opportunity. So he had put his bathroom right at the back of the shack. And, as it was made of wood, (and water and wood don’t really go well together after a while), he had devised his own ingenious washing system.

He had simply cut a hole in the wooden floor of the bathroom. So that you could see the riverbank far below. And to wash, you simply straddled this hole, and poured cold water over your head and body. And the water simply fell through the hole, and then down to the riverbank below.

Different.

This whole encounter was to be one of the greatest lessons in my life though. But it was in the morning that I really started to understand:

When we woke, breakfast looked to be no more than tea (tea which Abraham’s wife was taking great pride in making). Even a breakfast of just tea would be very gratefully accepted.

At the same time as his wife was preparing the tea though, Abraham was rooting around at the back of a cupboard. Until he eventually found what he had been eagerly looking for.

A packet of “Rich Tea” biscuits.

They had been given to him, as a present from somebody-or-other, some weeks before. But, instead of eating them immediately, he was saving them for “a special occasion”.

And it turned out that our visit was that “special occasion”.

So here we were, all happily chatting away, as we savoured our breakfast of tea and biscuits.

Materially, Abraham had very little.

But, spiritually, he was a giant. He had everything he could ever need. And he was genuinely the happiest man I have ever met. Before or since.

I was slightly bemused though. How could I ever hope to repay his kindness and generosity? Even with Abraham’s assurances that our presence was payment enough.

Yes, his hospitality was very gratefully received. But I still felt uneasy. He had nothing, but had given up his bed for the two “strangers” who had wandered into his village. Two strapping lads who would have been happy sleeping on the floor.

But I had had an idea though:

Although we never actually met his granddaughter, Abraham had told me that she was learning English at school.

And I had a copy of the Lonely Planet “Bahasa Indonesian” language book in my bag. And it was written in a way that could be used in reverse. First, the English word/phrase was listed. Then there was the translated word in Bahasa, with a phonetic translation. I had worked out that you could use it in reverse, and that it could be used to learn the English translations of the most important words/phrases.

So I gave it to Abraham, to give to his granddaughter to help her with her English studies.

Abraham reacted as if it was the best present that had ever been given to him (maybe it was – but it only cost me £10 – £20 at the most).

There was definitely a tear in his eye as he accepted it. Which he very graciously did with no fuss (which was another lesson learned: how to accept a gift with good grace and dignity).

But the lessons that I learned that night/morning are lessons which have stayed with me all of my life. And were priceless.

Although we never actually met at the time, his granddaughter and I became “pen friends” for some time after, as it was a great way for her to learn proper English (her English teacher was obviously American though, because I was forever adding “u”s to her words).

Three Wise Men. A wee digression.

Our lives are shaped by the people whose paths we cross. However briefly.

The encounter may be brief, but the affect is permanent.

And Abraham was to be the third of the three wise men who have seriously influenced my life:

The first of these meetings was not a brief encounter at all though. In fact, it was an encounter that lasted for my first twenty one years.

Life with my father (before he left this world much too soon).

Every positive aspect of my being can be traced back to the lessons that my father taught me when growing up.

The greatest of which was, and this is something that I’m sure he regretted about two minutes after telling me, was to question everything that I was told.

Thanks Dad. This inquisitive mind never stops asking questions.

The second person who was to profoundly shape my life was a complete stranger though:

An elderly South African guy I met sitting under a palm tree on the most idyllic beach on Pulau Kapas, an island just off the east coast of Malaysia, in 1994.

Now, this story may not affect you in the same way. In fact, I’ve told this story to lots of people over the years, and several people just didn’t understand the reason for him being there at all. They saw it as the most selfish act imaginable.

But this one chance, and very brief, meeting had such a huge bearing on how I see the importance, and fragility, of Life. And of Death.

Now this guy was in his late sixties (sixty-eight, I think, but I’m not sure now).

So a bit older than the usual backpackers you meet on beaches all over the world.

And he was dying.

Just as we all are, but he was going a lot quicker than normal. Cancer. Terminal cancer.

He had been a bit of an adventurer/mountaineer in his lifetime though.

So as I sat chatting to him under that palm tree, on that idyllic white sandy beach (which had tropical jungle immediately inland, and a reef, teeming with fish and coral, just metres from the beach), he regaled me with stories of the places that he had been and the, quite frankly, amazing things that he had done during his time on this planet.

He had been to both Poles. He had climbed all of the highest peaks in the world (but not Mount Everest for some specific reason that he told me, and which I now forget).

So when he was diagnosed with cancer, at home in South Africa, he had made a huge decision (and definitely not an easy decision either).

He was a proud man. A big man. A strong man.

And this was how he wanted his loving family to remember him. Rather than as a frail and sick old man who spent his final days withering away in some hospital bed.

So he had thrown a huge “farewell party” to say “Goodbye” to the people he loved most; packed a rucksack full of the medicine he would need (mostly for pain relief if I remember correctly); and got on a plane.

Which is how I came to meet him on that beach. Pure white sand; a coral reef just metres from the beach; and a lush jungle on the other side. Paradise.

This was a man who squeezed every drop of joy out of his Life.

[And, although we never discussed it, I’m sure that he had made arrangements for when the inevitable happened].

And Abraham was to be the third.

Here was an elderly man who had nothing.

Well, nothing of any material value anyway.

But what he did have was something that no amount of money could ever buy.

Day 3. Staying with one of the richest men in the world. Well, kind of.

Abraham waved us off as we boarded the small boat which would take us downriver and across the bay to Brunei.

And it was the saddest river I have ever seen.

It was like floating on a river of thick red/brown hot chocolate. Courtesy of the extreme logging that was going on in the interior of Borneo.

The topsoil, the topsoil which is so vital to life, was simply being washed out to sea.

And not just a little of it. The river was thick with it.

Not that any of the logging company owners, from the comfort of their city offices, will care a toss for the desert that will soon replace the once-verdant Borneo.

Or the fact that the people of Borneo will either starve (you can’t grow much food in a desert), or end up in a shanty-town shack in Jakarta.

They’ll be too busy looking for the next forest to ruin.

So. Back to the story.

For a couple of hours we darted from riverbank to riverbank as the boat deposited and collected passengers. Always on our river of chocolate – the water only turning clearer when we finally hit the open sea of the bay that would lead to Brunei.

It was at the immigration checkpoint in Brunei harbour that I was glad to be holding a big blue British passport.

There was absolutely no visa fee for Brits. The immigration officer just smiled at me as he stamped my passport, and waved me in to Brunei.

But Robbie, with his Australian passport, disappeared into an office building. Only to emerge a few minutes later. With a nice new stamp in his passport. And a few dollars less in his pocket (*smug British smile time*).

Ahh, Brunei.

I still pinch myself to this day (but, yes, this really happened).

Before arriving in Brunei, I had scoured the pages of my Lonely Planet guidebook, and had decided on two things:

1. The first of these, was a place to stay. There was one very cheap hostel right in the centre of Brunei, which would leave us pretty close to my second discovery;

2. The single-most “must-see” attraction in Brunei for me.

A funfair!

But not just any old funfair. One that was completely free.

Yes, free!

Why?

The Sultan of Brunei owned the funfair, and the beautiful garden that it was in. And he had opened it up for all of the citizens of Brunei to enjoy. All free-of-charge.

It had been given to him as a birthday present by his brother some months before. So if you have ever wondered “What do you give one of the wealthiest people in the world for a birthday present?”, then the answer is: “A funfair”.

Now, buckle up for the story of a lifetime:

As soon as we had sorted out our visas (or Robbie had, *smug British smile time again*), we made our way directly to the downtown hostel. The idea being that we would drop our bags there, have a quick shower, and then immediately make our way to the funfair, where we planned to spend the whole day/evening.

Well, that was the plan.

We did head directly to the downtown hostel, as planned. And that’s when all of our plans went out the window.

When we arrived at the hostel, it was closed. Completely closed. A big, handwritten sign in the window explained that the hostel would be “closed until Tuesday” while refurbishment work was being carried out (and this was just Sunday).

So much for our plans then.

All was not lost though. My guidebook also indicated that there was indeed another hostel in Brunei, but that this was in completely the wrong direction to the funfair. Miles away.

It was our only other cheapish option though.

But I didn’t really want to carry my rucksack all the way to the other side of the city in the, now, midday heat, only to find that it was closed too.

And that’s when I had another of my “brilliant” ideas: we could just leave our bags there somewhere, near the first hostel, and if the other hostel was open, we could check-in, shower, and return to collect our bags from wherever we had left them. And on the way back from the funfair too.

This all made sense.

But where could we safely leave our bags? It had to be somewhere that would be open all day and evening, so that we could collect our bags at a very vague time that evening.

The answer?

There was a swanky hotel near to the closed-hostel. So I had another “brainwave” (and a completely innocent idea it was too). We would ask if we could leave our bags in the hotel for a few hours, while we wandered over to the second hostel. And as the hotel was located so near to the “closed hostel”, then they would know what I was talking about (and they might even sympathise a bit)?

So in I went.

And, yes, they would be delighted to look after the bags of a couple of Westerners for a few hours (in that part of the world, then, everybody assumed that all Westerners were fabulously wealthy and trustworthy).

A few minutes later, after leaving our bags with them, we found ourselves standing outside of the hotel. Unencumbered by our bags for the first time in days.

Now, patience has never been a virtue of mine. And was definitely not in Robbie’s make-up either.

And that’s when the stupidest thought I have ever had ever entered my head:

Finally, we had no bags to worry about (or carry around), and my first thought was: the funfair! [“We could always head over to the second hostel later in the day. Do things in reverse”].

So we started walking. Towards the funfair. And in the totally opposite direction to the second hostel (which would have been the sensible thing to have done).

The funfair was indeed free. And was everything that I had expected. And more.

It was also nearly deserted to start with (it turns out that only “Mad Scots and Australians go out in the midday sun” in Brunei).

Imagine Alton Towers, on a hot Summer’s day, but with more staff than visitors.

We rode around on go-karts until we got bored; had a few rides on the rollercoaster (you know, the type where you dangle your legs below you); and were dropped, screaming, from a great height numerous times (“do you want to go up again?” – so up we went).

The place only started to get busy in the late afternoon.

My guidebook had mentioned that in the evening there was a magical fountain “sound & light show”. This I really wanted to see.

The book also mentioned that an outdoor “food market” (not free) opened up in the evening.

So, over a bowl of noodles, and while it was getting dark, a new, and even stupider, plan was hatched:

All day long, as we had wandered around the park, we had noticed a lot of wooden huts. These were like mini-bandstands, but with waist-high wooden sides so that visitors could admire the gardens as they sat on the benches inside the huts.

“We could always just sleep here”, I suggested.

And Robbie, never one to turn down an opportunity to experience something different, immediately agreed.

So that’s what we did.

After the fountain show had finished (it was as spectacular as I had hoped), and the crowds of locals had started to disperse, Robbie and I looked for a wooden hut which was as far from prying eyes as possible.

We found one, and lay down on a wooden bench each, which meant that we were completely invisible to passers-by (unless they actually came into the hut too).

And we both immediately fell asleep.

The next thing I knew, it was daylight. And a beautifully fresh morning it was too.

So we slowly wandered back down to the posh hotel (I can’t remember if it had four or five stars – I just know that it was way beyond our budget), collected our bags, thanked the staff very much for taking care of them – and walked to the bus station.

We had slept in the Sultan of Brunei’s garden; our bags had spent the night in a luxury hotel; and, other than the noodles we’d eaten for dinner, we hadn’t spent a penny!

This idea of getting from one side of Borneo to the other, for less than $50, seemed to be working.

Day 4. And a proper bed at last.

We left Brunei by bus.

It was only a short distance to the Brunei/Sarawak border but I knew, from previous hitchhiking experiences, that trying to catch a ride anywhere near a border is tough. Drivers are extremely wary of picking up strangers at border crossings. And with good reason.

And, apart from a few scoops of cold water at Abraham’s, we hadn’t been anywhere near a shower, or soap, for way too long. So we definitely wouldn’t have been pleasant company in the confines of a hot sweaty car.

And it was such a short bus journey too though – to the first town of any size on the Sarawak side of the border (Miri).

So the bus it was.

Miri.

And there was to be no let up in the strange happenings here either.

The day started off in fairly unremarkable fashion though.

The bus journey was pleasant enough; and the border crossing was so uneventful, that I don’t actually recall it at all (although the Sarawak entry stamp still lurks on an old passport page to remind me that I was actually there).

The bus dropped us at Miri bus station and, as we were a wee bit hungry (we hadn’t eaten yet that day), we followed our noses until we found food.

Our breakfast (although it was now early afternoon, this was our first food of the day) consisted of a kind of thick curried lentil soup which we mopped up with a plateful of greasy roti. Delicious.

And this is true of just about anywhere in south-east Asia. The food is absolutely amazing. If I lived there permanently, my backside would have taken on bus-sized proportions long before now.

The “toilet” of this backstreet eatery that we were in (I was about to say “restaurant” – but a few tables and chairs does not a restaurant make), was to be the source of that day’s strangeness.

The toilet was obviously being used by the cooks (they lived there?) as their bathroom too. Because a mandi sat proudly in the corner of the room, surrounded by bottles of shampoo (there was even a tube of toothpaste on the windowsill too).

Robbie gets the blame for what happened next. Although, to be fair, he did check with the owners/cooks that it was OK first. And it is important to remember that we hadn’t showered properly in days.

I had used the toilet first. Just as a toilet. And told Robbie all about the mandi, the shampoo, and the toothpaste too, on my return.

So, after rooting around in his bag for a bit, Robbie stood up, said that he too was off to visit the toilet, but that he may be some time.

It was a new man that returned about twenty minutes later. A rather wet new man.

He’d only had a shower and brushed his teeth!

So I followed suit.

We had wandered into a wee nondescript place, far from the main streets. And the toilet had shower/teeth-brushing facilities waiting for us? It’s a weird world right enough. Surreal.

Because of the time that it had taken to clear customs, and then the unexpected time spent showering after our meal, we decided that it would be wiser just to stay in Miri for the night. Rather than try to get a few more miles down the road, and risk being stranded outside again. Really, it was just the thought of sleeping on a comfortable bed that had made up our minds. We were going no further than the nearest cheap hotel.

And it was at the hotel that we met Sara. The cutest Japanese girl ever. Travelling alone around Borneo. With her pretty little hat.

However, Sara was travelling in the opposite direction to us (Brunei was next for her – so we told her all about the funfair). And the three of us then spent a wonderful evening wandering around town, and taking in the restaurants/bars of Miri.

And our wee adventure continued.

Day5. Elvis and Priscilla.

As our hitchhiking days went, this was to be our shortest day yet (we only ended up going as far as Niah, and the caves that we wanted to visit there).

But it was also to be the most eventful, and scariest, of our hitchhiking days.

[And I have to thank Robbie for recently reminding me that we had nicknamed our second group of drivers that day “Elvis and Priscilla”].

Our first ride of the day wasn’t without incident either (definitely not scary though – amusing perhaps?).

As previously, we had wandered out of the main town centre first, to a place that would be better for hitchhiking.

And we had only just found a good spot to stop by the roadside, and had started smiling and waving at passing motorists, while sticking our thumbs out, when a young boy walked up to us, started tugging at my arm, and pointed to the bus stop further along the road.

Hitchhiking was obviously a novel concept to him. He left looking seriously bemused, smiling but bemused, once I had explained using handsignals that we were happy where we were.

I don’t actually remember much about that first ride, other than one thing. A whole family stopped for us (there were about four or five of them in the car), and we were sat on the floor behind the rear seats (so it must have been an estate-type car). And within seconds Robbie had the whole car singing.

We couldn’t have gone that far with them though, before they dropped us off. Because I have no other recollection, so am guessing that it was just a short ride.

I have absolutely no problem remembering the second car that stopped for us that day though.

A little 2-door Honda, driven by a young couple. Who we instantly nicknamed “Elvis and Prescilla” (as he was obviously going for the rocker look, with his black leather jacket, and his slicked-back, very straight, black hair, and she was a very pretty little thing to have on his arm).

He was definitely of Chinese origin though, and he was very stockily built for a wee guy. He’d either had really bad acne as a teenager, or he had contracted some kind of disease when he was younger which had left his face covered in tiny scars/pockmarks. And his scarred face, combined with his black leather jacket, made him look like your typical Chinese gangster.

His girlfriend was a very slightly built Malay girl. Stunningly beautiful (and fitting the “gangster’s moll” role perfectly). Maybe a few years younger than him, about twenty.

Now, had I been travelling alone, there is no way in hell that I would have got into that car. Sometimes things just don’t feel right. But, as I was travelling with another rather tall guy, I felt that, between us, we’d be able to handle anything that might arise.

It was only once I was sat down on the back seat of the car, with Robbie beside me, that I realised the potential danger of the situation. This was a 2-door car. So we were trapped in the back should anything occur.

We weren’t too worried at first though (although it didn’t feel right, we were going in the right direction at least).

But then the Chinese guy, who was driving at that point, left the main road and started driving along a very minor backroad. In the middle of nowhere. And in reply to my “where are we going now?” question, I was simply told “don’t worry”.

A phrase that is almost guaranteed to make someone really worry.

He stopped when he reached what looked like a disused quarry of some sort. When he switched off the engine, and turned to face us in the back seat, I was fully expecting him to be holding a gun.

I could just read the headlines: “Two Western tourists robbed at gunpoint. Bodies left in disused quarry”.

But when he turned his scarred gangster face to us, his hands were empty.

Again he mumbled something in broken English (I could just about understand the word “lesson”). And then they both got out of the car. He from the drivers door, her from the passenger’s door, with Robbie and I stuck in the back.

So was he going to teach us a lesson? For wandering around “his” patch?

They both walked around the front of the car, and got back in. Now she was sitting in the driver’s seat, and he was left totally unencumbered in the passenger’s seat. And then he immediately turned round to face us in the back again.

And that is when all of my fears evaporated. Those imaginary headlines disappeared.

Ah, “lesson”. Now I understood.

I finally realised that we were actually going to be part of something pretty special.

He had only decided to give his young girlfriend a driving lesson!

Hence the disused quarry (there were no other cars around, and nothing for her to bump into).

It can’t be much fun learning to drive when you have two strangers sitting in the back of the car. So realising this, the three of us were as encouraging as we could be.

After about thirty minutes of careering around the gravel, we were all in fits of laughter (the girl included).

When the lesson was finally over, they changed places again, and we rejoined the main road. And they took us right to where we wanted to go. The official park lodge at Niah.

And we had made it to Niah just in time to witness the changeover (the whole reason for us wanting to go there in the first place):

The main cave at Niah is home to thousands (millions?) of bats. And the same number of swifts.

At sunset, the swifts come home to roost in the cave, just as the bats, who sleep in the cave during the day, are leaving.

It’s a great lesson in sharing. One cave. The bats have it during the day and the swifts have it at night.

And witnessing the changeover is truly remarkable. The normally-bright sky is suddenly dark with clouds of swifts and bats.

If you can go, then go. It’s one of nature’s wonders.

Day 6. Kuching.

In contrast to all of the other days before, and the two days still to come, Day 6 of our wee adventure was actually rather unremarkable.

Other than for the fact that we scored a very long, and fast, ride.

Looking at the map now, I’m sure that we must have planned to stop somewhere midway between Niah and Kuching, and continue to Kuching on the following day. But we got all the way there in one day, on this one ride.

And I have a feeling that our driver that day was yet another off-duty policeman – as I have memories of an inordinate amount of policemen (and soldiers – but we’re just coming to that) being involved in the journey.

Day 7. “Malaria Vector”!

So far, the main road had been following the coast.

But after Kuching, the road turns inland as it heads towards the West Kalimantan (Indonesian) border. It also becomes much smaller.

So there isn’t as much traffic. Especially heading away from Kuching in the morning, as we were. So, although we didn’t have far to travel, we knew that it was going to be a long day. We were actually hoping to score a lift on a truck which was heading into Indonesia (Pontianak is the first major city in that region of Indonesian Borneo, and it is actually the first place of any size after the border).

But we knew that that would be the best-case scenario. We would be very lucky indeed, if that were to be the case. And after a few shorter rides, and as it grew later in the day, we realised that it just wouldn’t happen after all.

And then, what turned out to be our final driver for the whole trip stopped to pick us up. And the second-most amazing part of the whole trip started.

And I just wish that I could remember his name now. For I really want to go back and shake his hand (and maybe do something for his wonderful family).

I don’t even remember what kind of car he was driving when he stopped to pick us up. It was definitely not a military vehicle though (maybe his own personal car?).

He was definitely a Malaysian soldier though.

But an off-duty Malaysian soldier. And a man of immense humanity.

Like most of the people who had stopped to pick us up, he could speak a little English. And speaking English with native-English speakers (well, as English-speaking as a Scot and an Aussie can be), was probably what had made all of these people stop in the first place. Hey, you have to use what you have.

The border crossing there is one of those border crossings that isn’t open for 24 hours a day. Usually just during the hours of daylight, which is 6am until 6pm on the Equator (but I have a feeling that the border might have been open until a bit later – maybe 8pm?).

So, unless this guy had been driving a time machine, we wouldn’t make it in time. Our plan though, at that late stage of the day, was just to get to the border point, and bed down anywhere that looked suitable (we were guessing that there would probably be a building or two – and that we could just sleep under the eaves until the border opened in the morning).

But our soldier-driver had a much, much better plan.

He wasn’t going as far as the border tonight anyway. His house was a few miles before there. So, instead of leaving us in, what would have been, the middle of nowhere, he would:

Drive us to his house (where we could meet his wife and two young sons);

Feed us (we were welcome to break bread with his family);

Put us up for the night in his house;

And then drive us the remaining distance to the border crossing early the next morning.

But most importantly of all, we would have absolutely no problems at the border crossing at all, because the border guards, well on the Malaysian/Sarawak side of the border a least, were good friends of his.

Result! Somebody was definitely watching over us.

His house turned out to be a “proper” house too. All bricks and mortar. With real windows – and a door!

And it was the door that first caught my attention.

Not the door itself, but the notice that had been stapled to it.

The notice was all written in double-dutch as far as I was concerned. Except for two words which were written in English. And had been placed in quotation marks. And were written in a slightly larger size to the rest of the notice (to emphasise these two words perhaps?).

“MALARIA VECTOR”

“Oh that?” our host said without a care in the world. “That’s just because there was an outbreak of malaria in the district”.

Cue two guys rummaging through their bags in a desperate attempt to find their mosquito-repellant.

We were then introduced to his wife (a very pretty young Malaysian lady – who spoke no English at all). And his two young sons, who knew the odd word (they were learning at school – and their father was teaching them at home/helping with their homework).

So both parents were absolutely thrilled to have not one, but two, personal English tutors for their children for the whole evening.

And we were equally thrilled to be able to give something back. And something which was of evident value to them.

And this is something that I also noticed recently when I was “Couchsurfing” during my fundraising walks. There are a *lot* of families taking part. Which initially bothered me a bit. “Why would you want to invite a stranger into your house (or in this case two strangers), when you have a young wife and children there?”. It all seemed a bit risky to me. But the answer I got from one happy pair of parents recently, on the morning that I was leaving their house, would have been the same for these parents too:

Education.

Specifically English language education.

And, in a world where the sensationalist media constantly warns of the dangers that strangers can pose, these parents would prefer that their children don’t grow up with an irrational fear of people who they don’t know. They still teach their children to be wary of strangers, of course. But not to be scared as a default reaction.

And there is nowhere that a child feels more secure than in their own house, with their parents watching over them.

So it got to the stage, when Couchsurfing recently, that I would actually seek out families first. Being part of their child’s education is something very special indeed.

And, being a father of two (?) of his own children, Robbie has amazing patience with children. And they absolutely love it when he is around. Non-stop laughter.

So after a very happy dinner (rice and fish – it seems to be a staple), we were shown our room.

Which we took no time in turning into a sauna!

Remember, this is just about right on the Equator (we actually stood on the line of the Equator the following day – in Pontianak). So it is hot. And in Borneo it is sweaty and hot.

But even so, and to keep out every single mosquito, we closed every window in our room (I think we might even have laid a sarong along the bottom of the door – to block that means of mozzie-entry).

Again, my “mummy” type sleeping bag was to come to my rescue (once it is zipped up, only your face shows). So in I got, and zipped it up. I even put my sarong over my face. Impervious.

So we were in a sealed room. On the Equator. I was in a sleeping bag which I had fully zipped up. And I had even covered my face.

The sweat ran.

My sleeping bag was absolutely soaking the next morning. But, unbelievably, I had managed to sleep like that. In that heat? I must have been tired.

In the morning, and as promised the day before, our soldier-friend drove us to the border crossing. He even disappeared inside the border guard’s building for a second (we could see a few glances in our direction).

And this was one of the easiest border crossings ever in my life (I even got a handshake from one of the border-guards).

And we had done it!

We were back in Indonesia. With a brand new visa. And we had spent less than the $50 as planned.

And I had had, without doubt, the most amazing week of my life.

A week that will never happen again (it just has to be spontaneous).

So Robbie. Thank You (and Happy Birthday)!

Education and Humanity. It’s what travel is all about.

 

[pic: Lonely Planet]

2 Comments Add yours

  1. frejatravels says:

    sounds like you took it a bit more low budget than when I went – I guess the low coast airlines still hadn’t broken through in Indonesia in 1998

  2. ataxiascot says:

    It wasn’t all that bad though. In the months running up to going away, the exchange rate was 12,000-13,000 Rupiah to STG£1. When I arrived it was nearly 26,000 (there was a bit of a financial crisis in all of Southeast Asia at the time).

    This was back in the days of Traveller’s Cheques – and all mine were in £100 denominations. So when I changed one on arrival in Bali – I then had a mountain of rupiah notes, which lasted ages (not bad for a “poor backpacker” I suppose).

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