Two things guaranteed to ruin a trip are dysentery and bad traveling companions, and I frankly prefer the former, because dysentery at least ensures some quality private time. Unfortunately, there are no guidelines by which to cull good travelers from bad. People expected to be tough will sometimes fold like besotted drunks. Neophytes will occasionally demonstrate real steel. There is no litmus test. Credentials or perceived liabilities mean nothing until the whole hellish weight of a long trip comes down.
Had I known, for instance, that my friend and personal physician, Dr. Hummel, suffered from a phobic aversion to all varieties of snakes, and had I surmised, as I should have, that a prominent thoracic surgeon might become churlish if he were required to billet in anything less than a five-star hotel, it is highly unlikely that I would have invited him to accompany me to the wilds of northeastern Borneo for a two-week exploratory of that island’s Malaysian state of Sabah.
Such a rush to judgment would have been my loss. Yes, I would have saved money. Yes, I would have been spared the humiliation of being urinated upon by orangutans. But neither would I have found myself lost in the upper regions of the Kinabatangan River-a place whose only other active primates appear to be proboscis monkeys and smugglers. I have the good doctor to thank for that.
Early on, Hummel had said, “Dengue fever-now that’s vicious stuff. Hallucinations so intense that it’s known as ‘breakbone fever.’ There’s also the danger of malaria and typhoid. Way back in the bush, without proper medical attention, animals will devour your legs before you’re lucid enough to seek help.” This was while the man was still jockeying for an invitation.
“You’re a chest cutter, not a tropical disease specialist.”
“Yes,” he replied. “But my oath covers the whole ball of wax. The important thing for you to remember is that I can get just about any pharmaceutical I want.”
“More or less. I know your lifestyle. Sooner or later I’ll have your heart in my hands. Your insurance company’s bound to make it up to me.”
Three weeks later we landed in Kota Kinabalu, capital of Sabah, and it was there that I suffered the first niggling doubts about the man as a traveling companion. I had booked, sight unseen, a couple of nights in a cheap rooming house that I will call Toboh’s Bed ‘n’ Curry. It was one of those Asian walk-ups that smells of clove cigarettes and durian fruit, the kind of wayfarer’s crossroads that I favor whenever I’m roaming the Eastern tropics. “Hey, check out this bulletin board,” I said to Hummel. “It’s better than a shortwave radio. Messages from all over the world. Here’s an Aussie hoping to find a crew to sail to Jakarta. And here’s a note from someone named Sanana telling Biff that she’ll wait for him in Penampang. Messages in French and German and even a few with those Scandinavian crossed O’s.” I looked over at Hummel and smiled. “Come midnight, everybody in this place will be slobbering drunk on cheap tapai wine or crazed with jet lag. Pray to God none of them owns a harmonica.”
But Hummel was peering out the window, not listening. “Is that an open cesspool across the street? Raw sewage? There are things floating in it!”
“Waterfront view,” I told him, patting his shoulder. “Think of it in those terms.”
Nor did he seem pleased by our tiny room. Out of old habit, he kept reaching for a bedside telephone that we did not have, attempting to call a concierge that the Bed ‘n’ Curry did not employ, in order to complain about room service that did not exist.
“Three flights of stairs!” he muttered. “We’ve got to climb three flights of stairs just to get a beverage. And in this heat!” More than anything, he hated the communal bathroom. “I don’t mind the Swedes and their endless showers. And at least that German guy tidies up when he’s done. But those French bastards! They’ll spend an hour in there, smoke a pack of cigarettes, pee in the sink, fill the toilet with hair. But they don’t wash. The soap’s still dry when they come out. I know-I checked!”
A good traveling companion must be equal parts mediator, entertainer, father confessor, educator, and psychologist. Fortunately, I’m competent in all of these roles. “You hayseed,” I counseled him. “Never whine about the French. In these international ports, it’s considered a sign of weakness to even acknowledge their existence. Remember: The poor devils haven’t won anything since they rebuffed the Kaiser at Marne. Irritating the world into submission is their only hope. Ignore them when you can, agree with them when you can’t-but never, ever make eye contact. Particularly after dark.”
Mostly I tried to keep Hummel on the move. It was the wisest course. The differences between North America and Asia are remarkable, but the contrast between the Bed ‘n’ Curry and Hummel’s world of exclusive clubs and operating rooms was shocking. If we weren’t busy, he became fretful. As I told him more than once, “If you wash your hands in Betadine one more time, the skin’s going to peel off like a $30 paint job. You want to kill germs? Try gin. It worked for the British. It’ll work for you.”
That’s another obligation of a good traveling companion: Isolate your partner’s weaknesses and then gently convert them into strengths.
Set in the south china sea about midway between Singapore and Australia, Borneo is the third-largest island in the world. For reasons that are as complicated as they are interesting (petroleum, border wars, commie rabble, and white rajas all played roles), the island has been carved into three politically separate entities. Indonesia controls the central and southern portion, while Malaysia controls all of the north, with the exception of Brunei, a tiny, oil-rich sultanate that has few roads but many Rolls Royces.
No matter who is in control, Borneo remains a dark heartland of rainforest with a thin perimeter of villages and roadways maintaining a foothold between jungle and sea. You expect jungle. What you don’t expect are high-tech cities booming with commerce. Kota Kinabalu (KK, as it is known), population 200,000, is a busy canyon of modern buildings, around which enclaves of Third World Borneo still thrive. You find them across the channel among the stilt villages of Gaya Island. You find them down on Tun Fuad Stephens Street, at the Central Market, where you can buy the assorted wealth of Borneo’s heartland one small chunk at a time: palm oil, wild honey, water buffalo tongue, turtle eggs, giant fruit bats, soybean milk, and all the exotic fruits, herbs, and vegetables one associates with Asia-including the infamous durian, which tastes like an onion-fed mouse climbed inside a mango and died.
Hummel liked KK for its Malay-Chinese-European cultural mix and its mingling of Muslim and Christian ways. Though he looked longingly at the exclusive Palace Hotel when we passed by, he also demonstrated an admirable patience while accompanying me to the traditional markets. As a former fishing guide, I had read about Asia’s ox-eyed tarpon, and I spent hours at the markets until I found one. I returned the favor during Hummel’s forays to local health clinics and long conversations with Chinese healers and sellers of medicinal herbs.
Yes, the man was finicky about hotels and hygiene, yet he seemed to have the ability to adapt. Even so, it was way too early in the trip to congratulate myself on my choice of companions. After all, we hadn’t set foot in the bush.
Then a second incident occurred that again triggered all the niggling doubts about Hummel’s grit. I’d heard that the local Hash House Harriers, self-described as a drinking club with a running problem, was holding a run outside KK. I thought it would provide Hummel with a gentle introduction to the wilds of Borneo, because the Harriers always choose bizarre cross-country courses. “The runs are never more than four or five miles,” I told him. “We’ll see some great scenery, and afterward the Harriers drink a lot of beer.”
The run took place late in the afternoon in a jungled area east of KK. The club was made up of Japanese businessmen. Theirs was like no Hash event I’d ever participated in before. The course took us through a primitive village, up a mountainside, over a crest that happened to be on fire, and through dense rainforest. It was while humping our way through the smoke and flames that I warned Hummel, “Keep an eye out for snakes. A burn like this will push them all to open ground.”
He slowed down. “Snakes? You mean like rattlesnakes? I’m not comfortable around snakes.”
“Rattlesnakes?” My laughter was derisive. “Rattlesnakes couldn’t survive a week on this island. If king cobras didn’t eat them, black cobras would.”
Hummel stopped. “Cobras? You never mentioned there were cobras in Borneo. If I’d known we had to deal with cobras, I’d have gotten off back in Tokyo. I’ve seen pictures of those things-they’re like vampires without legs!”
A good traveler is alert to abrupt mood changes in his or her companion, and I instantly perceived the flavor of panic in Hummel’s tone. “Relax,” I said. “Another hour or so, we’ll be back to the highway. After that, I’m going to find the fiend who laid out this course. I’ll try my best to insult him; then we’ll steal all the beer we can carry and leave.” I clapped him on the back. “You go first.”
After that, I had a difficult time keeping up with the man. Hummel seemed to have springs in his legs. It was while he was threading his way downward, through a dense tangle of vines, that the troubling incident occurred. Hummel was 20 meters or so ahead of me, an animated charcoal figure in the jungle gloom. He leaped, landed, and a long stick levered up behind him and smacked him on the backside. But Hummel thought it was a snake, not a stick.
His scream was a terrible thing to hear, the scream of nightmares. He launched himself down the mountainside, tumbling, tumbling. By the time I got to him, he was curled up in the fetal position, moaning softly. Hummel reached his hand out toward me and then gasped, “Bitten…on the butt…by a cobra!”
I had brought the stick with me. I tossed it at him. “Here’s your cobra. Now get on your feet. We’ve got beer to steal.”
Every trip has its watershed moments. Bad traveling companions usually withdraw after any small shock or trauma. They become dead weight, because mentally they’re already on their way home, even though the trip hasn’t ended. Good travelers, however, gather strength from adversity. Frankly, I expected Hummel to wilt.
I was wrong. He finished the run in what I thought was the uncomfortable silence of a broken man. Instead, it was the silence of spiritual rebirth. I began to suspect the change when, as we approached the throng of Japanese Harriers, he said, “If I get the chance, I’m going to sucker-punch the guy who marked that course. Or better yet, convince him he has heart parasites.”
But I knew for certain that Hummel had been born again as a hard-core traveler when, a few days later, as we were flying east toward Sandakan, he looked down upon the unbroken canopy of forest and said, “That’s where I want to go.”
I answered, “You mean Borneo? We’re already in Borneo. Over it, at least.”
“No,” he said softly. “The jungle. I want to go back to the jungle.”
It was while we were visiting the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, near the Sulu Sea port of Sandakan, that Hummel proposed the idea of hiring a boat to take us up the Kinabatangan River. Sepilok was founded by the Sabah Forestry Department in 1964 to help baby orangutans that have been orphaned-usually as a result of poaching or logging. One of only three such rehab centers in the world, Sepilok has 43 square kilometers of rainforest in which orangutans, under the care of the state’s Wildlife Division, are gradually weaned from dependency on humans.
Hummel and I had spent the morning wandering the boardwalks, watching the red apes gamboling around the feeding platforms, when he suddenly stopped and said, “I know they do great work here, but it feels too much like a zoo. Isn’t there some way we can get out and try to see an orangutan in the wild?”
Impossible, I told him. Orangutans were much too shy. He brought out his map. “This river”-he pointed to the Kinabatangan-“starts west of Sandakan and goes clear over to the heart of Sabah. Why don’t we take a boat as far as we can, then get out and bushwhack? Maybe we’ll see one. It’s worth a try.”
Although I loved the reckless spirit of the plan, I had to repeat that it was a waste of time. “Besides,” I said, “we’re not equipped for that kind of trip.”
The next morning, though, Hummel got me up early and led me to the docks, where he introduced me to a little man named Hial Esten. Esten was standing beside a homemade powerboat. The boat was yellow. The motorcycle helmet Esten held beneath his arm was white. “Hial’s taking us up the river,” Hummel said. “I’ve got water, some food.” He patted his side, to which was strapped a newly purchased machete-a parang, as it is called in Malaysia. “I’ve got everything we’ll need. Hop in the boat.”
I spoke to Esten. “Not until you explain the helmet. I don’t get in boats with drivers who feel they need crash helmets.”
“The only word of English he understands is money,” Hummel said. “I think the helmet is a negotiating tool. It implies that his boat is fast.”
Esten’s boat was fast. With Hummel and me wedged into the console seat, Esten flew us across the bay, twisting in and out of mangrove creeks at a truly terrifying speed. We left rickety stilt houses and dugout canoes teetering in our wake. Then we were on the Kinabatangan River, a conduit of yellow water that augered its way into the jungle. Esten stopped the boat only twice-once to briefly watch proboscis monkeys brachiating through the dark mangroves, and once at a hut that turned out to be a police inspection station. Later I would learn that the Kinabatangan is a favorite smuggling channel for Filipino pirates, but the tired cop we stirred from his hammock was less than animated as he considered us and our boat. He accepted a few Malaysian dollars from Esten, yawned, and waved us on.
An hour later-we might have traveled 40 miles, we might have traveled 60-Esten nosed bow-up to the shore. He pulled off his crash helmet and pointed inland: “Orangutans!”
Impossible, I thought. But Esten was right. Hummel and I entered the forest. First, we heard them: a weighted crashing in the distant tree canopy. We immediately stopped. “Only apes could make a noise like that!” I said, delighted. We stood and listened as the crashing became louder, ever closer…and then we could see limbs high above us writhing as if in a storm, and I had the abrupt realization that the orangutans knew we were there and were deliberately vectoring toward us, two interlopers. Suddenly I was no longer delighted.
“Gad!” I said. “I think they’re attacking!”
“Just stay calm,” Hummel said. “See them? They’re right over us now.”
Actually, they were in a tree directly over me-a big female with a baby clinging to her stomach and a young, shy male. In photographs, orangutans appear to be the sweetest, most benign of creatures. In person, though, in the wild, they are intimidating as hell.
“Look at the size of her,” I said. “She could crush my head like a beer can.”
As I spoke, the female broke off a small limb and dropped it on me. I moved immediately, and the female moved so that she remained above me.
“Interesting,” said Hummel. His was the cool, remote voice of a scientist-or a seasoned traveler. “Notice how she refuses to make eye contact?”
“Eye contact?” I said. It keyed one of the memory electrodes. “Dear God-she thinks I’m French!”
Then I felt an unexpected warmth on my head and shoulders, as if I was standing beneath the jet of a Jacuzzi.
“There’s something about you she doesn’t like,” Hummel observed, backing away. “I think we’d better go.”
The suggestion was unnecessary. I was already running.
That evening, as I stood beside an artificial waterfall in a tiled pool in Sandakan’s five-star Renaissance Hotel, Hummel explained that the apes we had encountered were almost certainly from the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center.
“I just talked to a biologist,” he said. “He feels sure that our man Esten actually dropped us off at the backside of the preserve.”
“Now that’s a dirty trick to pull on anyone,” I said.
“No, I think he’s just a good businessman. We wanted to see orangutans, and he produced them.”
I shrugged and once again stuck my head beneath the pouring water. Even with the best of traveling companions, it’s important to find a few moments of quality private time.