Sunset | Laban Rata, Mount Kinabalu

 

Above the clouds, a diagonal line is a silhouette of trees.  The last light of day.  I watch as the colors drain from this world.  Before first light we will wake and into the dark we will go where our eyes cannot see and our feet do no want to go.  I rest my poor tired soles upon this granite moonface.  If I stop too long, I may not continue.  In the distance I see the dots of light stop, where before they were stars on this dark rock, blinking a kind of morse code.  There I will go and wait for the colors to return–if I can make it in time.

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Moth | Mount Kinabalu

 

Hello beautiful creature the size of my hand, in your glorious gradated black to white coloring.

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Moonface | Mount Kinabalu

 

A climber looking at his reflection in a frozen pool at the top of Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia.

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Bejalai | Journey

 

 

You’re turning it up, and I’m breaking it down.  The sounds.  The sights.  The smells.  And even after all the laughter, the celebrations, the petals that gather in the wind, the sun angling down in slants, striking the chords of the water, the breeze on the waves, the way all your eyes sparkle, the little hands and tiny curling fingers, I am only here–a world away from home, a place that has existed in the depths of dreams and the recesses of imagination, and I can’t ever see myself going back to where everyone I know exists, not to the same home, not as the same me.

 

I remember.  From the large bed in an empty room, in the stifling heat of Penang, on the tenth day (or maybe it was the eleventh), I laid there, sick from the heat or maybe it was some street food that had been in the sun too long, realizing that I have comforted myself (and my stomach) with the familiar–I have been only to cities–and that the point of this trip isn’t to be somewhere familiar, but to go some place different, some place other.  It’s not that I wanted an escape from reality or that I was even running, but I wanted to enter a different world.  Whatever world San Francisco was when I boarded that plane to Vancouver, I needed it to not be the same when I boarded the plane homeward in Taiwan.

 

Each year I age.  I see the skin on the back of my hand becoming more textured, the wiry grays punching through my black hair, how my cheeks appear more angular and sharper through my sagging skin.  I know.  This is part of the process and there is beauty in becoming better.  While everyone around me seems to be having children, moving on in their careers, getting married, I feel–what?  Not stale.  Not stagnant.  Like I have yet to begin.  Like my whole life has yet to unfold.  I am only starting.  This is only the beginning.

 

In a smoky tattoo studio, talking to Robinson and Ernesto, about the Iban, about the local people, about Borneo, about skipping out on days of work to go fishing in the wilds of the jungle, not caring about money or fame, my heart raced and my skin burned from the ink, feeling kindred.  A dragon dog.  Transformation.  Bejalai.  At 15, the Iban mark their shoulders with the terung kuning, twin aubergine flowers tattooed on the shoulders.  To gain them strength and power (the straps of their backpacks go over these flowers) as they leave their longhouse and go out into the known world, into the depth of the jungle, away from the comfortable and familiar.  They seek their fortune, their future, their growth.  Each place they visit, each new skill they acquire, they further mark their bodies in commemoration, as tokens.  Tattoos on skin like stamps in a passport.  I had always said, if I ever end up in Borneo, this is where I will get tattooed.  So begins the transformation: the journey is the destination; this is mine.

 

Oh the sounds, that first night in the jungle, listening to the toads creak, the bats streaming by the millions out of the mouth of the cave, the birdsongs in the morning–I jumped the first time I heard the call of a baby hornbill because it sounded like a dying person’s laughter–and the plunk plunk of my feet on the wet wooden plank walk.  All of my life I had believed that I would end up a certain way, that I would have a certain kind of life, but as I got older and I started to live more, I fought my way through it all.  The truth is, I’m not ready for that kind of life.  I’m not ready to have that career, the perfect marriage, or beautiful children.  I envy my gorgeous sister for her lovely boys.  I covet the feeling of satisfaction from that job my friend has in which she has risen to a position of prominence.  I feel that I am still languishing somewhere in the shadow, waiting leagues and miles behind everyone else, trying to get my bearings, trying to fathom who I am in this world, trying to just understand.  What is this place?  Who am I in this world?

 

The electric wings beat back sunlight.  Raja Brooke butterflies are huge and can live for a year.  There aren’t just butterflies or giant moths, but also wood nymphs, in paler colors, but still in vibrant blues, cornflower, lilac, mint green, daffodil yellow.  In my heart I can still see this place as real as it was in front of me when I wandered on my own, alone, just me and the rhythm of my blood flowing through my veins.  The sounds, the sights.  I thought about my life.  Cities I have known and islands I have seen and through backstreets I have wandered and I have even been graced by the dancing northern lights in the frozen field of Alaska, but I had yet to see a fuzzy caterpillar wearing orange yellow boots walk in front of me.  Lion hunts I have witnessed and I have felt the vibration of the humpback whale’s call, but I had never heard the sound of the jungle– not the separate things but as an entity.  As a whole.  A symphony.

 

This is my journey.  This is my bejalai.  This is the true start of where I will cast off what has been safe for me, and go after the kind of life I want.  Without shame and without fear.  Because this is my life and it’s okay that it’s not the perfect one I had envisioned, that I have yet to write that novel, that I have yet anything to show what I have done.  If it scares me, if it frightens me, I will push myself to do it.  Chin up, back straight, eyes ahead.  Like crossing the street in Phnom Penh or Hanoi.  Walk right in.

 

A while ago I had a dream where my reflection said to me, “You have to go darker, you have to go deeper.”  I started with the jungle.  No, that’s not true.  I started by buying that plane ticket. It was just that Borneo was so unlike anything I had ever seen, but still everything I had imagined and more.  And though I have been back a few weeks now, I don’t feel that the journey has ended.  When I wrote about my visit to the refugee camp, I feared that things wouldn’t change, that wouldn’t change.  There had been nothing to fear.  Everything has changed;  I am different–I am made of fire.

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Mouth | Clearwater Cave

 

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Diving | Turks & Caicos

The GoPro turned out to work well during the dive–the only thing I wish I had gotten for it was a red filter.  I hadn’t thought of it because the Canon we usually take for underwater snorkeling photos (doesn’t go deep enough for diving) has a red adjustment mode.  I managed to take a shot of myself when I was trying to change the mode to video.  The lends is pointing up towards me and got a part of the boat behind me.  I love the perspective: I’m upside down and the boat is sideways.

 

The one thing that absolutely amazed me about the Caribbean is how the water glows aquablueturquoise.  In the South Pacific, you get so many tones and shades of blues, but it’s rarely ever just one color.  The Atlantic side of the Turks & Caicos just took my breath away.  Is that cliché to say?  I can say that, right?

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Entrance | Mulu National Park

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Otherworld | Bako National Park

 

Dipterocarp.  Tropical lowland rainforest trees.  The richest area in the world of dipterocarp is in Northern Borneo.  Bako National Park consists of 25 distinct ecosystems: karangas, mangrove, dipterocarp, grasslands, and peat swamps to name a few.  But the reason why I wanted to come here was specifically for the numerous nepenthes.  But the park also is the best place to see the elusive big-nosed proboscis monkey, whose sounds are reminiscent of balloon deflating in loud, quick bursts.

 

Alone on a hot afternoon, I boarded the bus to Bako National Park.  I wasn’t sure if I was at the right stop–just a concrete bench with a weird bladed fanned overhang that failed to provide relief from the heat of the tropical sun. The stop was right in front of a mall that had  KFC at the front.  Across the street the green façade of a corner hotel loomed tall with the promise of cold, dry air.  Still I waited, unsure of the bus schedule, until it pulled in front of me, its name tag bearing the destination.

 

I knew I had to go the HQ.  From there I had to hire a river boat to take me to the actual park.  I could either book the entire boat or wait for three other passengers to split the cost with me.  As soon as I arrived, there were conveniently three visitors from Shanghai in front of me.  We paid our fees, and I sort of just signed myself up on their boat.  Well things went from easy to bad pretty quick.  There we were cruising the river, looking at the scenic forest lining the banks, calm placid water.  Until we went into the mouth of the river, where it opened into the South China Sea.  From the distance–where we were still in mirror like water–I saw streams of white foamy waves, but there were so many, they seemed unreal, splattered across the brown sea by angry flicks of the arm.  Have you ever been on a small wooden motorized boat as it navigated whitewater?  Well, I breathed and stayed calm (barely worked), white knuckling the whole way as the three other passengers screamed and yelled things in Mandarin that I assumed must be “Oh God, save me from this forsaken place!  I do not want to die!”  Meanwhile, our boatman–a cool man with a silver goatee and wrinkles and dark-sun burnished skin–barely breathed.  He turned off the motor, and then back on again, his eyes not on the wave in front of us, but at who knows how many others in front.  Like a game of chess.  Several waves ahead.

 

At times I could see the crest of the wave over my head as the boat dipped into the trough.

 

We endured–but how long?  It could have been just minutes, but it felt like forty minutes.  I thought, I can swim to shore, I can swim to shore should the boat overturn.

 

When we finally reached the shallow water, we had to disembark and walk the rest of the way to the beach.  I had arranged for a guide (since I was alone, I didn’t want to run the risk of getting lost in a Borneo jungle), who had been waiting for me.  “Your captain is brave.  Ours wouldn’t cross because of the rough water so we had to hike over here.”  Wait, that was an option?  I told him that I had been clinging onto the boat, told him how I thought I would just swim to shore, to which he responded, “Don’t do that, the currents will swallow you even if you’re the best and strongest of swimmers.  Better to hold to the boat until help comes, it would only take a few minutes.”  Okay, well, I learned something else.  Don’t try to be brave, at least, not stupid-brave.  If a boat were to capsize in unknown water, don’t just blindly try to swim or run away from the problem, it might be best to hold and ride it out: help is coming.  I learn something new all the time, but I think this one is one I will take to heart.

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Happy 4th of July!

 

After stopping by four stores, I finically got my hands on the GoPro Hero 3 White. The first two sold out of stock minutes before I walked in. Now I am all set for the holiday weekend, but I don’t know where I am going.  We will be off to Parts Unknown!  (I do know it is somewhere in the Caribbean.)

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Clearwater Pool | Mulu National Park

 

Water so clear you can see the fish swimming at the bottom.  After exploring Clearwater Cave, coming down drenched in sweat and wet cave smell, you can take a refreshing dip into this cold pool.  I can only imagine what the heat and humidity is like in the summer; I visited during February and it was uncomfortable, but nowhere near the sweltering temperatures of peak season.

 

Because I had just gotten a tattoo, I couldn’t swim, but I dipped one leg in at the bottom of the stairs that led into the pool.  I want to come back soon, so I can float while my eyes scan the lush jungle, listening to birds, to the swishing of branches, to the water trickling down into the river.  What is it like at night?  Do fireflies come out?  I hope to someday find out.

 

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