Many years ago, while spending two weeks in Morocco recovering from a broken heart, after an unfortunate meeting with an Argentinian gold digger in the south of Spain. In a state of uncare, I decided to attempt a new form of travel I call the ‘no guidebook’ method. It involves arriving in a country with absolutely no forward planning. To arrive not knowing a single thing and having to get by purely on one’s wits. This method really sharpens your resolve and breaks down what you need to do into very simple steps. ‘Get money’, ‘Get hotel’, ‘Get food’, ‘Get bearings’! It is a foolish way to travel, but once you have survived it once, using only pure cunning, it becomes a little addictive. So I still practise it to this day.
Like most cities, the area around the Pontianak bus terminal was pretty rough; homeless people wandering aimlessly, cold eyed prostitutes, nothing out of the ordinary. But what I wasn’t expecting was the complete difference between Sarawak and Kalimantan, between Malaysian Borneo and Indonesian Borneo.
I should have picked up on it on the 10 hour bus trip from Kuching, passing swollen rivers inundating low lying makeshift shacks, sullen eyes staring out from darkened windows. That pitiful look of accepting one’s fate.
As the bus crawled along this muddy goat track excuse for a highway, I wondered where all that wealth had gone, from the timber, the coal, the precious diamonds? How could one section of an island, with the same resources as another section of same island be so different?
And so here I found myself, in the most vulnerable situation for a backpacker, newly arrived, fully loaded with all my gear, on unlit streets, rubbish burning in piles on the sidewalk, botulic food carts flickering with coal fires. The people of the street leering and sniggering at this oddity that had come from the north. I sensed from the attraction I was getting, I was a ‘Bule’ in a town where tourist’s don’t exist. Using the ‘no guidebook’ method of travel in this part of the world, I knew it was only luck that would keep me safe. I quickly achieved step one, getting cash, a hand symbol conversation with the security guard at the bank providing the resources for step two, finding a hotel.
I opened the door of my hotel room and instantly recognised the smell. That mix between mould and industrial strength cleaner. It’s the smell of neglect, of ‘I don’t care’, and despite experiencing it all over Asia, it still makes me cough every time, reaching to open the nearest window. Welcome to Kalimantan!
I have a theory on the dangers of travel. I’ve been pretty lucky, I haven’t been robbed or bashed that many times in my travels. And I put this down to the way I carry myself. Crime is generally related to poverty or addiction and the seizing of an opportunity. Most poor people who commit crime, don’t want a fight or a struggle. They want an easy target, they pick up on people’s fear, they sense it and hone in on the weak like a wolf pack moving in on an injured calf.
So I always walk confidently, head back, smiling eyes meeting the eyes of everyone I see. I move purposely, even if I have no idea where I am going. And sometimes, just to get away from situations that could escalate, I just keep moving!
Most people are kind hearted, street crime doesn’t work for any society, so unless your faced with some crazy fucker with a gun, most people are willing to help. Getting hassled by a homeless person, walk into a cafe! Someone hassling you on public transport, move away from the crazy man, no need for heroes!
Which leads to lesson number two – never get angry, it’s all just a game!
There is a attitude I see in travellers, particularly younger travellers, which disgusts me.
Usually they are just out of home, supported by mummy and daddy, on the first big world trip.
First is the idea that every other traveler or local they meet should support them…because they are travelling and um, like not earning money, so like, it’s not easy man!
And second, that every local person they met, is ripping them off, so they must constantly beat these ‘scum’ down in every interaction.
It’s sickening to see, Westerners with strong currencies haggling over pennies. In my view, it is a sure way to ruin any holiday, being ridiculously tight with money.
And believe me, I have learnt this through my own mistakes, from arguing with one taxi driver that lead to a situation where I had a gang of taxi drivers want to beat me, to paying more for things because of my lack of trust of local people. And the time you must most be aware of this rule is when you are most vulnerable, when you are tired, sick and annoyed with the vagarities of travel.
It’s all a fucking game, no need for anger. It’s like with a boxer, you get angry, you lose. You are no longer working on logic, but emotions.
So here I am wandering the streets of Pontianak, named after ‘undead vampire women’, an oddity, a white man in a brown land, shop girls giggle and stare, asking for photos on their mobile phones. I see a half naked man run madly across a busy street, wearing only crazy eyes, a ragged beard and a pair of underpants with the ass out of them. No one bats an eyelid. But when I walk past, the big white man, average height by western standards, but tall in Asia, everyone stares and grins, murmuring in hushed tones.
I think about Joyce, and the idea that “in the particular is contained the universal” and I wonder what it is I have to learn here, in this most unpleasant to cities, swarming with noisy pollution spewing motorbikes, everything covered with a filthy grime, it’s only claim to fame being a statute to represent its location on the equator!
I think of Wilde, and his idea that “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
I ponder whether I should discuss the things I will remember most from my travels, my recent 3 day love affair or my meeting with the ghost women of Sarawak! Or should I just keep it all sugary sweet, advertiser friendly. And if I do decide to reveal all, can I hide these stories behind another character, like a songwriter or a poet?
And I know, these stories……can wait for another day