Lessons from the road


We are huge fans of road trips. Not just those little four-hour jaunts up to a cozy hotel in a nearby town. Nay. The uncharted multi-day drives in an economy rental car stocked with munchies and energy drinks, that utilize a bit of ingenuity and a few extra bed sheets to transform the rental into a three-star motel on wheels, that is our kind of road trip. Driving your accommodation around grants you more freedom and a fuller wallet. Knowing exactly where you will sleep (the back seat) but not having a commitment on where geographically you will situate that spot, leaves the doors to adventure wide open. The thought that only a few destinations along your path have been decided, makes pulling out of the rental lot feel like a grand departure on a quest to discover new land.

While on Borneo we decide to take to the road again. We have no idea if/when our life will bring us back to this multi-national jungle filled island. Therefore we could not leave the little country of Brunei unexplored during this trip. With a five-day break from our volunteer jobs in Kutching we chose to embark on a jungle filled journey to the distant dry land. Loaded up into a Nissan X-Trail provided at a bargain by ‘Hornbill Tours and Car Rentals’, we set off late one day on what was to become a sweat-laden, 1,200 mile roundtrip journey through Sarawak and Brunei.


Our late departure brought about two of the worst ideas we had during the trip. The first of which was Sugarbun. Sugarbun, for all those fortunate enough to be ignorant, is a Malaysian founded fast food restaurant serving a lineup of Western and Asian options. Out of convenience and an overall lack of knowledge we stopped in for dinner. Ordering from the menu we picked a hearty looking spicy chicken sandwich pictured with crispy lettuce and a plump fire-engine red slice of tomato as well as a cheeseburger modeled almost as pristine. Being from the states we are not oblivious to the magic of food advertising photography. Armed with our knowledge of such wizardry, we sat and waited for what we assumed would be a far less appealing meal, though we did hold a glimmer of hope in the back of our minds that in this foreign land we could be surprised by what we were about to be served. That little glimmer was quickly extinguished. After a short wait we were presented two cardboard boxes with our dinner inside. As we cracked open the containers we were met by a fast food disappointment of epic proportions. The chicken sandwich that had been featured with lettuce and tomato was void of both. That, however, was good news as the one “tomato” that lurked inside the “cheeseburger” was the consistency of wet bread and completely without color. In fact, both sandwiches looked as if they were white washed black and white images of really sad sandwiches. Both buns were flat and pale. The chicken and hamburger alike were flat with a miserable beige hue. The crowning achievement of this parvum opus was the sauce. Both offerings were swimming in a grotesque amount of white and yellow sugar sauce. We silently whipped away as much sauce as we could manage and choked down the color absent sandwiches. Vowing to starve before allowing ourselves to be fooled into another fast food trap.


Our second mistake brought on by late travel was picking the wrong spot to pull over for the night. Sarawak (one of the two Malaysian states on Borneo, were most of this journey took place) is undergoing a monumental highway improvement.  This means that soon, the trip we just made will be far more comfortable to transverse. However, it meant for us that roughly 700Km (435 miles) of road we were to be traveling down was under construction, SIMUTANEOUSLY. Having most of our journey be over torn up pavement and gravel with a construction zone speed of 50klh (31mph) meant we were not going to make it to the city we thought we would on the first night.

As we began to get tired we started looking for a good place to park. Sarawak, from what we could tell, is void of rest stops. After an hour or so of searching we found a construction staging site off the side of the road that seemed it would do nicely. We nestled the car into a corner of the dirt lot and arranged our sleeping quarters. Just as sleep was about to wash over us we noticed a flash of blue from the front of the car. We sat up just in time to see Malaysian police tapping on the window. The language barrier was luckily not difficult to overcome. However, trying to explain to a native Malaysian why a person would choose to sleep in the back of a car rather than a hotel was a little harder. We decided to shirk the questioning by stating that we chose to sleep in that spot out of necessity of a tired driver. After a round of questioning and a search of the car by the officers that seemed eager to find foul play yet trusting, we were allowed to continue our journey. An hour further down the road we found an overnight parking lot for truckers. We pulled between two big rigs and passed out hard. The first morning on the road we woke up sweating and starving. We rose just enough to start the car and engage the AC. We lounged until it cooled enough to function and then we were on our way.

The rest of our trip went relatively smoothly. Our drive through countless palm fields, raised for palm oil production, sped up during daylight hours. With local cars zooming by us we quickly realized the construction zone speed limit is merely a suggestion that should only be loosely held to when near law enforcement. We enjoyed hiking through a few jungles and exploring the caves of Niah National Park, home of the oldest human remains (dating back 40,000+ years!).

The moral of the story is: Don’t set out late and in the dark on semi-aimless road trips in foreign countries. This lesson may come naturally to many people. On the other hand, I fear that we will end up being reminded of it down another road in another land.

Trader’s Cave in Niah National Park



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