Borneo…maybe you’ve heard of it - but do you even know where it is? I’m sure that if I gave you a globe you’d all have trouble putting your finger on it. What if I told you that it is the world’s third largest island…and it contains three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. At one time it was a wild place inhabited by headhunters, but it’s now a lush island in the Pacific near New Guinea and the Philippines. My curiosity with Borneo started about seven years ago when I was living in San Francisco. I was up late one night watching television. I came across the show “Eco-Challenge.” It was an adventure race that was shown on cable (before the craze of reality TV).
The race was completed in three days for the good teams and about six days for the slower teams. It included hiking, mountain biking, kayaking through rapids, horseback riding, caving, abseiling, orienteering, and any other crazy, dangerous outdoor sport that they could come up with. “Eco Challenge” was in a place called Borneo. I had never heard of it before, but it sounded and looked completely exotic - this sheltered mid-westerner was hooked.
I stayed up that night watching until about 3AM, utterly amazed at what these people were going through. They raced 24 hours a day and were often hallucinating due to dehydration and lack of sleep. They had foot-rot, leeches crawling all over their bodies (and into places that I can't even mention), and they were living on cliff bars. These were the toughest people that I had ever seen in my life and I wanted to be one of them. I was in awe of them and the dangerous, lush, jungle landscape that surrounded them. I got out the map that night and looked up Borneo - it took me quite some time to find it as I had never really heard of it before - but when I did, I knew that it would be someplace that I would visit one day.
After watching Eco-challenge, I started getting interested in adventure racing - wondering if I was tough enough to really do what those people did. The next few vacations I took were adventures to test out my ability in the various activities as well as my capacity to 'rough it'. After sleeping in the Australian rain forest in a hammock – scared to death of every noise and bump in the night, I realized that I probably wasn't cut out for the adventure racing life, but the experience kicked off my interest in traveling to exotic places. I may never get to pull leeches off my body, but I knew that I wanted to go explore, I wanted an adventure, and I wanted to push myself to the limits.
Shortly after I got hooked on Eco-Challenge, the first season of “Survivor” aired on television which I absolutely loved and it was also shot on an island in Borneo. So when I decided to do my year of extended travel around the world, I got out a map, laid it on my floor, and immediately knew that I had to stop in Borneo. There was never a question in my mind; I had to take this opportunity to see it. My friend Russ from NY also had an interest in Borneo, so he flew out to join me.
We arrived in Kota Kinabalu (the largest city in Malaysian Borneo) early in the morning on the celebration of the Chinese New Year. The holiday pretty much had shut down the whole city, like Christmas in Nebraska, no stores or markets were open. As we walked around the deserted town, we realized that we were two of a handful of Caucasians in the whole town…heck…the whole country. I guess that makes sense since most people from the west don’t even know where Borneo is! We were on a big island - so we decided that we would treat ourselves to seafood that night.
We went to a place along the harbor, called ‘The Seafood Village’. The front of the restaurant had three levels of huge fish tanks full of a variety of extremely fresh seafood. It was also packed with people dining - large families dining together in this overwhelming banquet hall setting. I looked around and realized that the smallest table they had was one that sat 6 people. Most of the tables there were full of 10 to 12 people eating ‘family style’.