Burnt and Bitten in Borneo: Part One

Jill and me in Borneo

I looked down at the blood oozing slowly out of a newly created mini-crater in my arm.  Across the room, the Malaysian guesthouse staff were staring at me with mild interest.  I was trying not to be that embarrassingly hysterical tourist – you know, the one who throws a hissy fit at every First World Problem that occurs on her expensive tropical vacation – but my arm was starting to feel like it had been set on fire.

Although I pride myself in having relative fluency in the English language, the only word I could form at the moment was a garbled, “Gaaaaaahhhhh.”

It was the end of April, and an old friend from university, Jill, and I were in Borneo, where we planned to spend a relaxing week-long vacation.  We had just finished eating when a giant, mutant, beetle /deer fly cross-species (that’s probably not what it was) attacked my arm.  After satiating its vampiric thirst for human blood, it flew off with an offended buzz, leaving me with its territorial mark now imprinted on my burning limb.

I’m gonna get you!

The three nonchalant staff members who had been watching me from the bar came over once they realized that I was not going into labour or trying to exorcise a demon, but had just been bitten by a fly.

“Here… put some of this on it,” the chef said, clucking sympathetically.  She held out her hand and offered me some old, wet coffee grounds.  I was confused by the gesture.  Really?  She thinks I want to make an espresso right now?

“It’ll help with the pain,” she informed me.  I obeyed her instructions, slathering the gross, wet mess all over my arm, although I was still waiting for Ashton Kutcher to jump out from behind one of the banyan trees with a smug, “You just got punk’d!”  But, amazingly, ten minutes later, the swelling had gone down and I was feeling relieved and a little bit embarrassed for my dramatic display of agony.

That night, I had terrifying nightmares about little mutant bug babies crawling out of my skin, X-Files style, and attacking other unsuspecting victims in the night.  That didn’t happen, though, and our trip proceeded without any other mishaps.

The view from our Sepilok bungalow

I arrived in Borneo before Jill in the town of Sepilok on a muggy Saturday afternoon.  The air was humid and tasted like a sweaty sauna.  I was immediately picked up and taken to the guesthouse where Jill and I would be spending the first half of our trip.  Really, though, the term “guesthouse” wasn’t quite accurate.  In actuality, our place was a private wooden bungalow built on a cliff right above a remote jungle.  In the morning, I woke up to the sounds of birds, monkeys, and bugs conversing.  At night, I showered under the stars.   Living in one of the most polluted cities in the world has made me forget that, in some places, people can actually see lights in the sky that aren’t from a 747.

Orangutan at the Rehabilitation Centre (photo taken by Jill Swan)

Despite sitting on a plane for over twenty hours and spending an overnight delay in a nearby Malaysian city, Jill arrived in good spirits, and we immediately left to go sightseeing while catching up on two years worth of missed experiences.  Our first stop was the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, an open jungle reserve where orphaned or domesticated orangutans can mingle with other orangutans and forage for food, while still receiving care and some food from the Centre workers.  Most of them are unaccustomed to living in the wild and still have a long way to go before being completely self-sufficient.  During the feeding session, several of them were easily scared off by a pack of vicious, noisy macaques.  Maybe I’m biased because of past experiences in Bali and Malaysia, but I really hate macaques.  They’re basically thieving primates that move in roving packs while looking for shiny jewellery and defenceless flip-flops to steal from unsuspecting tourists.

Macaques are the WORST! (photo taken by Jill Swan)

Rainforest plant (photo taken by Jill Swan)

Our next stop was the Rainforest Discovery Centre, containing a museum about the rainforest ecosystem and wildlife in Borneo as well as an expanse of lengthy, quiet forest trails.  Filled with adventurous spirit and unwarranted over-confidence, we set out for one of the longer trails, ready to begin our first jungle expedition.  At first, I was afraid that I would cause injury to my friend, who had never before visited a tropical destination and who had just arrived from a two-day, four-stop flight from one of the coldest countries in the world.  I also forget that my normal walking pace is like that of a mother T-Rex hunting prey to feed her starving offspring, and would often find myself barrelling ahead through the jungle, much to the consternation of my poor, jet-lagged Canadian friend.

Jill in the rainforest

While I would say that I love being in the tropics, surrounded by unfamiliar birds, giant trees, and strange animals, I have come to the conclusion that tropical weather is not my friend.  My hair, which is barely manageable on good days, expanded tenfold in an apparent attempt to reach the sun, much like the branches of the giant banyan trees that soared above us.  And the sun, which you’d think would be completely blocked out by the thick canopy above us, still managed to find its way to every exposed part of our bodies.  After about two hours of delightful yet exhausting jungle trekking, I had been rendered a bright pink, absurdly sweaty monster, with my Chinese-Scottish ‘fro protruding from my head, most likely scaring small Malaysian children left, right, and centre.

Giant-ass banyan tree

My sunburnt companion wasn’t doing too much better, so we decided to relax for the rest of the afternoon and evening.  We returned to our private rainforest home, bought cans of locally brewed Malaysian Tiger beers, and spent hours on our balcony, watching a sudden deluge explode from the sky and attack the verdant jungle canopy below us with the fury of a Greek god.

To be continued…

Here are some more photos of my trip on flickr.  Enjoy!

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