Journeys: Alone in Borneo

We travel for many reasons. For the beauty of strange places. For the freedom of a life less scheduled. To stretch our legs and our minds. We travel to experience the unfamiliar and, as the philosopher George Santayana said, “to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness… to sharpen the edge of life.”

At Flatbook, we believe that travel has the power to be life changing. That’s why we want to share the journeys that have shaped our lives, careers and passions. And we hope that, in turn, you’ll share your journeys with us.

For the first in our Journeys series, Bailey Seybolt, travel writer and Flatbook wordsmith, reflects on a trip to Borneo that taught her the difference between loneliness and being alone.

Looking up at Mt Kinabalu

Q: So how did this trip come about?
 A:
I’m based in Montreal now, but a few years ago I was living in Vietnam, mainly working as a freelance travel writer. An article got canceled at the last minute, and I found myself with a few weeks between jobs. So I bought a plane ticket to Borneo, a huge jungle island in Southeast Asia just off the coast of Malaysia.

Usually, I plan trips way in advance, but this one was so last minute that none of my friends could take off work. So I ended up going alone.

Q: What did you do there?
 A:
After landing in Kota Kinabalu, I traveled overland to Sepilok, near the coast. From there I spent about two weeks traveling in the jungle on the Kinabatagnan River.

After that I finished by climbing Mt Kinabalu, one of the highest peaks in Southeast Asia. Then I took my aching muscles and flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, and basically ate for two days straight.

Q: Why Borneo?
A:
Historically, Borneo has a fearsome reputation. There are huge mountains along the coast and the entire center of the island is impenetrable jungle dotted with limestone karsts that rise out the rainforest like knives. A number of tribal groups there practiced headhunting until the early 1900s. After the European colonizers showed up, legends spread about this terrifying place.

So I was interested in the history. And the wildlife is fascinating too. There are thousands of species there that don’t exist anywhere else. Like the orangutan. Plus there’s a certain romance to the idea of trekking off into uncharted jungle.

Q: Was it what you expected?
A: Well, it gets a lot less romantic when there are ten thousand leeches crawling towards you. I think, in some ways, I’d lived in cities so long that I was used to the environment around me as something fully created for human comfort. This was the opposite of that.

One night, I was standing outside brushing my teeth and this 4-ft-long monitor lizard just strolled across the path. It looked like a dragon. And another morning I woke up to this thumping and saw a couple monkeys using a rock to break open shellfish for breakfast.

There’s this sense of life happening all around you and you’re just an observer. It somehow makes the world feel much bigger without making you feel small.
Carnivorous pitcher plant

Q: What surprised you?
A:
At first, everything feels dangerous. You get warned not to get too close to the water because of the crocodiles. And to watch for poisonous vipers since they sometimes drop out of the trees onto unsuspecting people below. But it’s not always the things you expect that scare the hell out you.

One day we were trekking through an open area and this huge flock of butterflies appeared out of nowhere and covered everyone in our group from head to toe. You could feel them licking your bare skin. Later I found out from my guide that butterflies really like the salt from our sweat, but at the time it felt like that scene from Hitchock’s The Birds where Tippi Hendren gets attacked by a thousand seagulls.

The summit of Mt Kinabalu

Q: What’s one thing you learned on this trip?
A: I’d never taken a big trip by myself before. I think there’s a certain embarrassment to doing things alone.

No one wants to be the person eating alone at the restaurant. But you really look at the world differently. You’re completely present in your surroundings, really observing what’s around you and engaging with people. You learn the difference between being lonely and being alone.

I also think that traveling alone opens you up to taking a chance on a new experience since you don’t have anyone to answer to except yourself. After the jungle, I met a few people who were about to climb Mt Kinabalu. They invited me to go along and since I had no plans and no one I had to check with, I did. And it was incredible.

Sunset on the Kinabatagnan river

Q: Did you take anything home with you?
A:
A lifelong love for Malaysian food. Seriously, it’s incredible. Especially in Kuala Lumpur. There are a lot of Chinese and Indian influences, but flavors are combined in new and interesting ways. I’m still searching North America for the perfect BBQ pork bun.

Q: Where will you go on your next trip?
A:
I’ve developed a love for road trips. This summer I drove around Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula for a week. I’m still harboring fantasies of finally taking a cross country road trip or driving down to the American South — Savannah, Charleston, New Orleans. We’ll see!

Whether it’s a trip around the world or a stroll down the street, we never get tired of travel stories. Tell us your story at journeys@flatbook.co and you could be featured on the blog.


Originally published at blog.flatbook.co on November 6, 2015.

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