Small World on a Big Planet

Day 464 – 7 June, 2016

Nothing makes the world seem quite so small like traveling. And nothing even more so than randomly meeting another traveler on two sides of the world. I met Robyn for the first time in Sucre, Bolivia. In truth, I don’t remember the exact moment I met her, but I remember seeing her having drinks with another traveler at our hostel and we were also taking Spanish lessons at the same school in May 2015. We had dinner with my friend, Stuart, and another girl at an adorable Italian restaurant in an unmarked residential home. The next time I saw her was in a thermal hot spring near Colca Canyon in Peru in June 2015. And the last time either of us can remember seeing each other was at a remote hostel in Cotopaxi National Park in Ecuador in August right before the volcano by the same name erupted, causing the evacuation of thousands of people. This is not entirely uncommon in South America because backpackers generally follow the same route, stopping in the same places in a north to south trajectory or vice versa. There were several people I randomly connected with in this way.

One of the few people that I’ve met traveling as long as me, Robyn left South America around the same time as I did, going home to England on a couple of occasions, but also to Africa with her dad. Meanwhile, I had been in Spain, walking the Camino. At some point, Robyn and I had connected on Facebook and while we were rarely in touch, I knew that she flew to Hong Kong not long after I landed in Thailand for the first time. She was in Hong Kong and Taiwan in the beginning and months passed. I didn’t notice her posting on Facebook often enough to follow her exact route, but at one point, just as I was reentering Thailand for my second time, I noticed she posted a series of photos as she was leaving Thailand. Almost…

At the same time, another friend I met in Salento, Colombia, Jade from Trinidad, was to be in either Chiang Mai or Pai at the same time I was there, but my schedule delayed me and I missed her by only one day. About 10 days later, I was in Ko Lanta, Thailand and reconnected with Kara from Boston, who I had met in Huanchaco, Peru. Kara is now working in Dubai and was on a short holiday with her friend from work so we met for dinner one night on the beach in Lanta. More time passed and I was in Borneo in late May 2016 visiting the orangutan sanctuary in Sepilok. Robyn saw my photos on Facebook and reached out from Singapore. Her trip was almost drawing to a close and she wanted to see the same apes that had stolen my heart. “Where are you?,” she asked. I told her and the next day, she had booked a flight to Borneo. I had booked my Kinabalu climb so I would already be gone from Sepilok by the time she arrived, but such is travel. I gave her a brief rundown of my anticipated itinerary for the remainder of my stay on the island, but we made no plans. A week later, I posted a photo of a meal I had in Kuching. She responded that she would make sure to go to the restaurant the next day when she arrived, not realizing that I was still there. While I was excited to see her, it was more fateful somehow that neither of us had actually planned the rendezvous.

Kuching, being a food city, had lots of options for great dishes. Robyn and I met at a Chinese restaurant, having so much to catch up on, that we shut it down at the ripe hour of 9:00. The next day was my birthday and I was planning to go to Bako National Park, a wildlife reserve on a peninsula easily reached from Kuching. Thankfully, it didn’t take much coaxing for Robyn to join me.

Earlier in the week, upon arrival in Kuching, I had already gone kayaking inland, almost to the Indonesian border where we floated lazily among limestone peaks. I had also eaten my way through some killer fusion menus and met some great people. The city was proving to be full of nice surprises. First, there was Claire, the tall athletic English girl who was 5 months into a lengthy trip and who was my kindred travel spirit in a lot of ways. I adore her and hope to meet her somewhere else around the world as well!  Then there was Brian, from the Netherlands, who joined me on the kayak adventure. And then the Australians, Adam, Ryan, Hans, and Gabin, who were visiting Borneo on a quick tour of the island, were good fun. They were kind enough to buy me a slice of birthday cheesecake and hopefully I can convince Ryan to take his own extended journey one day soon…. Rare to meet so many interesting people in one place, it was with a heavy heart that we all had to part ways so soon.

Robyn and I took a bus and then a ferry to Bako National Park, where we were lucky enough to reconnect with the Australians for a portion of our hike. Bako is less visited than some of its sister parks and I hope it stays that way. It is one of those places that still possesses an essence of wild nature, especially if you can spare the time to spend the night. The lodging is tightly controlled by the park services so only a limited number of people can be there any given night and in contrast to most parks in Southeast Asia, it felt “untouched,” which is often the holy grail of pure travel experiences. Sure, there is a cluster of lodges and a restaurant, all basic and unassuming. Some of the trails are even covered with a wooden boardwalk, but this is more to protect the natural terrain than to develop the park as a tourist attraction.

The first day Robyn and I, with the Australians for part of it, hiked to (…..). We encountered few people along the way and once we reached the viewpoint, I couldn’t believe no one else was there. It was stunning and virtually empty. A single macaque cautiously edged his way across the vacant beach. I remember feeling immensely grateful for being there. It was my birthday (my second away from home if anyone is counting) and here I was in one of the most remote places on the planet, overlooking a secret beach. I had to get closer. Robyn had enough so I descended on my own. Even though there was a crude sign drawn into the sand, indicating a boat pickup at 4:30pm, there were no footprints and no other sign of human presence (i.e, there was no garbage). I don’t know what this says about me, but the remoteness of my situation made me smile and gave me a giddiness I can’t explain or control. When I returned to Robyn on the cliff, I had a renewed spring in my step.

That night, following a mediocre night walk with less than enthusiastic guides, Robyn and I were settling into our 4 person room. She was determined to shower; I thought this was of marginal importance under the circumstances. Cold water, mosquito-laden showers with a discernible layer of scum usually lose with me when weighed with the alternative of not showering at all. Nevertheless, upon her return, Robyn was in a buoyant mood, “I scored! There was a sliver of old soap in the shower!,” she exclaimed. Most travelers are keyed in to the fact that there is always a piece of old soap in the shower so if you don’t feel like carrying your own soap for an overnight excursion, you will most certainly find the leftover evidence of the shower 500 people took before you. It’s a great way to cut down on weight in your overnight bag and hassle and most importantly, your dignity. Robyn, I kid! I can only hope one day I will have your willful resolve to use the old sliver myself. 

The next morning we woke up early to fit in another hike before the heat of the day. Following the advice of the Australians, we were in search of mudfish. It only took us about an hour to reach a small bay and there they were – little half fish, half lizards, evolution in progress. Resting in the small surf so that they were half in and half out of the water, were some very interesting little creatures indeed. Like a wave, they would move as one entity when we got too close or when a larger surge would come in. Fascinating…

Later that afternoon, we packed up and left this little bit of wild territory. We were bound back to Kuching and because the birthday fare left much to be desired in the park, Robyn and I were keen to go out for a respectable meal in the city. Because I had been eating my way through Kuching already, I knew that I wanted to try Bla Bla Bar for my final meal before I flew to Singapore the next day. On Southeast Asian standards, Bla Bla was five star. The food was served in excessive quantities, was exceptionally delicious, and had a price tag to match….AND they had wine! We gorged on sea bass and shrimp and green beans and it was a meal for the ages with even better company.

Even though I still had a few days to spend in Singapore, when my plane flew away from Kuching, I knew I was leaving Southeast Asia behind. Singapore would not have the same aura; the grittiness and unruliness would be left behind, although another backpacker would undoubtedly fill my void so these raw qualities could continue to inspire and annoy a new generation of travelers. If I’m being honest, I was ready to go. I needed a change of scenery whatever that might be. I had a fantastic time experiencing these unique places that so few people ever get to see, but I was tired. Asia is tiresome. I was ready to spread my wings once again.

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