“You might not stomach the water here, so you can use these.”
The three of us stare at three huge, dirty water bottles—full of nothing—that sit on the kitchen floor of our host’s apartment. Even our host seems surprised that they are empty.
He moves on quickly. “Help yourself to whatever’s been left behind by the other guests,” he says, gesturing to some dusty spices in half-opened bags and jars of curious Asian condiments.
He points to the darkness outside. Apparently, a small store can be found nearby. And a moment later, our host, whose name is Gerald—an odd name for a Malaysian—is gone.
That was our welcome to Kuching and another lesson learned: sometimes budget travel just doesn’t work. We should have known by the twelve-dollars-a-night price tag what we were in for. But for now, this is where we will live for the next two months.
My partner, Ion, and I reflect on our ride from the airport. The local area looked empty, almost industrial. We need water, but we are too exhausted to wander the streets in the dark.
Our taxi driver had been so welcoming—even calling Gerald when we could not explain our address to him. He had given us some interesting travel information, too. He told us, in broken English, that our plans to visit the orangutans in the rainy season may not be fruitful. He urged us to try the ayam pansuh, a popular Malaysian dish of spiced chicken cooked inside pieces of bamboo. He proudly revealed he was from a tribe of head hunters, the Iban. And he had cackled as he assured us that their headhunting days were over.
We survey the kitchen. It is basic with a large double hotplate, a decent wok and some dubious pots. The old fridge reeks of spills and the cutlery is dirty. We had read glowing reviews about Gerald’s friendliness and his great apartment. Were we in the right place?
For once, I am grateful that Ion purchased ‘dinner’ for us on our cheap flight—pasties in cardboard pouches, along with watery coffees. Our two years of full-time travel means we are also prepared with emergency supplies in our luggage: tea, nuts, sweet biscuits, kitchen sponges and antiseptic wipes. We should manage for the night.
Ion and I get to work. I clean the fridge and freezer. Ion tackles the dishes and kitchen bench. We spend the night boiling water, pouring it into freshly-scrubbed coffee cups and refrigerating it.
Our bedroom fares better, with air conditioning and some clean, basic furniture. We stand by the window and look out to the quiet Sarawak River. Last night we were in Bali and only three months before in Turkey. Now we are here, in Borneo. We flop, exhausted, onto the low, wooden bed.
Early morning, we are woken by a rowdy crew of fishermen. I get up to watch them from our window. In rubber boots, t-shirts and threadbare pants, they shout at each other as they lug huge tubs of fish onto trucks. The river looks murky in the morning light and across it, along the water’s edge, I can now see rows of makeshift homes on stilts. It’s moments like these I am reminded how fortunate we are.
I go back to bed, but we are woken again a short time later; this time it’s the azan. We are used to this call to prayer as we have travelled in Muslim countries before. From the first time we heard it in Turkey, we loved it. It feels good to hear it again, its rich, mysterious call drifting across the river. It feels exciting to be in a new place.
When we finally see our apartment in the light of day, it is quirky and bright. The walls are cheerfully painted, the lounge room being red with a large print of The Yellow House by Van Gogh on the main wall. There are shelves—yes, dusty—bursting with information on Kuching. An ancient sewing machine table serves as a desk and a gas lantern hangs from a wall beside an eclectic pile of CDs.
We find an old coffee grinder and a traditional Chinese medicine brew pot in the orange dining room. A small, wooden orangutan complements the grass-green kitchen. An array of coloured caps decorates the purple hall. It feels like a hip budget-travellers’ place, perhaps more suited to a young backpacking couple than ourselves.
We make tea in our freshly-scrubbed cups and put on a CD. The apartment echoes with delicate Sarawakian sapeh music. We hold hands and take in the gentle melody. We certainly aren’t young anymore, more young at heart.
Ion’s father died eight years ago, and it had knocked the wind out of us. My mother passed away three years later, and our lovable, old terrier had to be put down not long after. With death making itself so prominent in our lives, we decided we’d better start enjoying life.
When Ion and I met, he moved into my small home in the outer suburbs of Sydney, Australia. I had only bought it just before I met him. Together, we were a great budgeting team and paid it off quickly. Each year, we also managed to save for a short overseas trip. And each year, the trips got longer and cheaper as we learned more ways to save.
Now, with few commitments in Australia, Ion and I decided that ‘enjoying life’ meant travel. We didn’t have much, but we knew we could live and travel on a small budget. We stopped working, sold our place, and headed off. That was two years ago.
“You’re an amazing cook!” Ion teases as I hand him a third round of biscuits. It’s definitely time to head into town.
The heat outside is alleviated only by the cloud cover of the rainy season. Thankfully, numerous eateries line our street, their plastic chairs and tables filled with locals. Spice hangs in the humid air: banana fritters, steaming trays of vegetables and Sarawak laksa, a traditional spicy dish of rice noodle soup with chicken, prawns or fish.
A sign ahead advertises icy lime juice. We head straight for it.
We enter the crowded seating area and immediately attract attention. My blonde hair, amid the mostly Chinese and Malaysian horde, stands out a mile. People say hello to us; others smile and wave. It feels too friendly for a city, but as we continue our travels in Kuching, we find this kind of welcome almost everywhere we go.
We sip our lime juices—which turn out to be lemon drinks—and look around. The place is full of people eating scrambled eggs, baked beans, hash browns and sausages! But not the delicious, home-cooked kind of breakfast you might imagine. The eggs appear pre-made and heated, and the sausages are so processed they do not look real.
Having eaten spicy foods in Asia for over two months now, we opt for plain, toasted cheese sandwiches. As we scoff the overly-sweet toast and oozing cheese, we confirm our plan for the day: a bus ride to the Borneo Convention Centre for lunch.
We wait over an hour at the bus stop in the increasing heat. Ion is determined to stick to our budget, so each taxi that stops for us is quickly waved away. A car pulls over and its driver offers to take us for eight ringgit. No. A rickety, old van follows: twenty ringgit. Definitely not. Even the passengers in the van smirk at the price.
Finally, our bus arrives. It is so crowded, we can barely board. We squeeze into the packed crowd and head off, pressed up against one another and sweating profusely.
By the time we get to our stop, the bus is empty. As we disembark, the driver points vaguely across the road. A local bus will meet us there at four, to return us to Kuching.
The Convention Centre is modern and agreeably cold. Crowds of people attend a home show. The majority are seated in an enormous, temporary restaurant, surrounded by chefs cooking food of all kinds. The food ranges from Malaysian to Indonesian, to Thai, Italian and Western—even pies with mash are on the menu!
We notice people eating cake-like dessert, so we skip lunch and decide to follow suit. We order the mysterious apam balik and watch as it is made. Think thick pancakes filled with loads of crushed peanuts and sugar. Think blobs of butter melting into fluffy pancake. The result: delicious pieces of warm, salty-sweet peanut butter cake—perfect with coffee!
The atmosphere is family-oriented and jovial. All around us are women in hijabs and I wonder how they manage outside in the heat. A little boy hides behind his chair and squeals each time I catch his eye. A Chinese woman joins us at our table. She smiles at me, then wipes her fork meticulously; I am glad someone else shares my need for cleanliness.
With time to spare, Ion and I decide to visit the home show. There is everything you could imagine: spaceship-like vacuum cleaners, designer fire hydrants and gas cooktops that cost thousands of dollars. We wander past expensive couches and luxurious beds, their mattresses filled with exotic ingredients. It is an upmarket affair, quite the contrast to our current lodgings—and irrelevant now that our ‘home’ is two medium-sized suitcases.
Sometimes I miss the niceties of a real home. When I feel nostalgic, I envision my favourite teapot and the teas in jars that once decorated my kitchen. I often miss baking, as ovens are a rarity in our budget accommodations. Occasionally I fancy new clothes. But when I think of my life now—even with its inconveniences—I feel free.
We step outside into thick, humid air and wait for the bus. A passer-by approaches us. Apparently, we are waiting in the wrong place. He directs us to the main road.
We wait an age. This time, no taxis pass. Crowded family cars drive by and a huge storm gathers on the horizon. When a bus eventually stops for us, no luck; it is going to Bako National Park. Desperate, we resort to hitchhiking, and a car stops for us almost immediately.
When we get in the car, I tell the Malaysian driver we must have missed our bus. He seems to understand but appears confused when we tell him we are heading for Kuching. He drives on anyway. Speedily. Until he tailgates a bus. We are thrown about in the back seat as he dodges left-to-right in an attempt to pass it.
When the bus finally stops ahead of us, our driver speeds past it, screeches to a halt and tells us to get out. “Hurry!” he screams.
We run hysterically to the bus and step up to pay the driver. It is only then that we realise we have been chasing the bus to Bako National Park. Yes, the same one that had already stopped for us!
“Okay,” says the weary bus driver. “You come Bako with me, and then Kuching.”
So, we take the thirty-minute ride all the way to Bako—and another fifty, back past our previous bus stop, to Kuching. We had been waiting on the right road, but on the wrong side. What a day!
When we get home, Gerald knocks on our door. He wants to take us out for dinner. We are exhausted but go anyway. He turns out to be a wonderful person, more overworked than anything. And it is with him that we get our first taste of ayam pansuh (chicken in bamboo), a delicious soupy mix of chicken spiced with ginger, garlic and lemongrass.
We have many wonderful dinners with Gerald during our stay in Kuching. He also brings us herbal teas to try, fresh Chinese vegetables, as well as pieces of watermelon.
We love living here. We frequent a quiet Buddhist café to sip matcha tea and read. We indulge in inexpensive massages. And, despite the inklings of our taxi driver on arrival, we are lucky enough to see several beautiful orangutans in the wild.
We never tell Gerald our thoughts about his kitchen. We just feel blessed, and fortunate to have met him. Now that we have cleaned up the apartment, things are a lot more comfortable. We have a wonderful home by the Sarawak River. The only downside is the noisy fishermen in the morning and sometimes, in the evening, the wafting smell of fish.
Lisa Reily is a former literacy consultant, dance director and teacher from Australia. Her poetry and short stories have been published in several journals, such as Panoply, Amaryllis, Magma Poetry, DNA Magazine and Foxglove Journal. Lisa is currently a full-time budget traveller and her writing is often inspired by her journey. You can find out more about Lisa at lisareily.wordpress.com