On our last night in Bario, the three of us found ourselves the only guests left of the homestay. Like our earlier two nights, we hung back at the main-lounge-slash-communal-area after another delicious home-cooked dinner comprised of several local vegetables and freshly caught meat. We sat freely across the table, chatting occasionally though mostly enjoying the nighttime breeze mixed with dew from the rain. The zinc roof of the homestay rattled loudly with every raindrop that fell, breaking the usual, we quickly learned, peace and quiet of small-town Bario at nighttime. I tried to read the poetry books I brought along with me but the soft, orange light and mosquitoes feasting on my skin made it near-impossible to focus.
Every so often, my travel buddies and I would exchange brief conversations touching upon everything and nothing; love, work, travels. Sometime during our trip, our guide, Larry, had pointed out something I had overlooked and now found fascinating – all three of us have gathered here from different starting points: Miri for myself, KL for Housemate #1 and Kota Kinabalu for colleague-friend-slash-recent-former-housemate. “How did you guys end up in Bario?” He’d asked during one of our quick breaks. I kept thinking about this question because I’ve always sincerely believed that no meetings are coincidental. I’ll be honest and also admit that I secretly took pride in being the bridge connecting the three of us.
As the night deepened and rain continued to shower Bario, I asked out loud, “What’s your favorite part of our trip?”
Housemate #1 looked at me with her typical scrutinizing expression, “I’ve to think this question over,” she answered. On the other hand, my colleague-friend went, “Pa’ Lungan.” She meant the village at the edge of the border between Sarawak and Kalimantan, Indonesia. In particular, it’s the village we visited on our first full day in which we took a boat upriver for 2.5 hours to reach then walked for nearly four hours to arrive back in Bario before sundown.
“What about you?”
“The boat ride! I think it felt like I was truly in the heart of Borneo.”
That feeling is special; it will always stay with me.
“I think… among my many major takeaway points from this trip though… is the realization and understanding of the role that Miri plays to the communities nearby-“
“Exactly,” I replied with a small laugh. “All those time I spent b*tching about it being a town pretending to be a city… now I know better its role to people who live in really remote places like this… it’s a transit place. Access to resources of all kinds… it exists for the communities who are otherwise out-of-touch and inaccessible.”
I’ve no doubt that Bario is but a small glimmer of a wholly different and near-incomprehensible life for me – despite also being pretty sure it’s still quite commercial for a rural town given the number of global and local tourists and travelers that it receives each year. What I mean to say is: I shouldn’t put Bario on a pedestal and thus start quoting sentences with words like ‘humbled‘ ‘modest‘ and the like. Still, I think, for me this trip is particularly eye-opening because for the first time, I think I literally walked in someone else’s shoes in a way that has never, to be completely honest, once crossed my mind.
That four-hour spent on foot walking on first the devastating (though in a way, necessary) mud-red logging road then thick Borneo rainforest – what kept coming to my mind as I walked were these questions: what must it have been like for those who walked this much, this far and this long, if not longer and further, to receive medical care and in particular, education, in the nearest town? How early in age did the local kids learn to be independent and strong – or is it more about the strength of their mind and perseverance of their will? What if one hungers for the world beyond the jungles and borders of one’s remote little village – is the world thus a cause for feeling perpetually imprisoned, or is its existence simply dreamlike?
Because for those who are aware and wanting but limited due to geography and opportunities – I… can’t put to scale the depths of their hunger. And here I am, awash with guilt as usual, for being a recipient of the world.