The plane banks over a lush green carpet of riotous tropical jungle juxtaposed against immense swathes of equally lush green, yet far more homogenous and monotonous palm tree plantations, both bisected by a tangled branching of light brown rivers finding their paths to the ocean a short distance away. We’ve been on over twenty hours of flights from New York City, connecting through Dubai and Kuala Lumpur; we’re groggy and untethered – our minds and bodies bouncing between disparate airline cuisines and the plots of over half a dozen second-rate movies we’ve desperately distracted ourselves with.
Arriving in a new country, and even more so a new continent, is always a moment of excited and nervous anticipation. Was this a good idea? Will it live up to expectations, or perhaps even exceed them? What new discoveries and challenges will it bring? Where and how soon can I get some real food, and how soon until I get seriously ill? There is a fleeting moment that always takes me by surprise for some reason (perhaps the sedating effect of the endless movies and airline food has something to do with it), but that I always relish; that brief scattering of seconds when you first exit the airline and set foot on the air bridge or the stairway. For me it’s not so much the setting foot on a new land, or the sights; it’s the smell. Continents and countries, at least those not in the sterilized developed world, have their own unique smells. It wasn’t until my first trip to Africa, stepping out into Rwanda for the first time that it really struck me. Kigali had a rich, smoky aroma, from the eucalyptus charcoal that so many there used to cook their meals over. Stepping off into Borneo brought a fertile wave of humid, warm vegetation, perhaps not surprisingly.
I’ve been lucky thus far in my travels, and never lost a piece of luggage, and we’ve gotten a bit careless because of it. Of course one of our suitcases is missing, and naturally it has every important document we possess in it: passport copies, school transcripts, police reports, health certificates, etc. Not a big deal for me, but Jenny needs all of those documents for her new job, which starts in two days. We’re usually fairly good about this, but in the last-minute, frantic packing-up of our whole life in NYC, we forgot to make sure we had all of the important stuff in our carry-on luggage.
A short cab ride downtown, and we are deposited at the Kuching Hilton, which we are actually quite looking forward to. Perhaps some background at this point. We don’t normally stay at Hiltons when we are traveling. Nothing against Hilton, I’ve actually long been a member of their frequent guest program, and I’d usually pick them over the other major chains, if for nothing else other than the points. We’re not Hilton travelers though; we’re usually in the lower-end guesthouses, just a slight step above backpackery hostels and such, except for those occasions when we feel like a splurge on something really nice, though that is still virtually always an independent, boutique B&B-type place. So, back to the Hilton. We’re in Borneo because Jenny has secured a job as an English Teacher Mentor, and we’re in Kuching for about five days for her initial orientation and training, and they’ve put all of the new Mentors up in the Hilton. We’re more than happy to enjoy a paid-for stay here, with the pool, gym, buffet breakfasts and all of the other luxuries we are not unaccustomed to.
We drop our luggage, take a quick shower and give our bodies a brief but stern internal harangue – “You may be severely jet lagged and that king size bed with the high thread count linens does look quite inviting, but you’re just going to have to suck it up for a few hours, because there is an entire city of Malaysian street food at our doorstep and it’s not going to eat itself.” The siren call of Kuching street food is no match for jet lag.
We make our way to the open-air market, a food court with a few dozen small stalls, each specializing in just a dish or two. Unfortunately it is already late afternoon and most are closed, but we do score a bowl of Sarawak laksa, the local noodle soup; a tangy, spicy broth of coconut milk, calamansi lime juice, curry powder, belacan (a spicy shrimp paste), and a few shrimp. It’s an excellent start to our Borneo eating, as well as a good introduction to the people here – the handful we encounter are friendly and helpful, which certainly isn’t always the case when traveling.
A bowl of laksa under our belts, we venture a bit further and come across a handful of open-air seafood restaurants, each with an attractive display of a large variety of fresh seafood and local vegetables. We settle on one of them and start pointing at various things we want to try – mussels, razor clams, baby jungle ferns, and an assortment of other wild local greens, as well as the ubiquitous mee goreng (fried noodles).
English is fairly widespread here, though with varying degrees of proficiency. We thought we ordered everything stir-fried together, with a side of noodles. A plate of mussels and onions in a thick brown sauce arrives, followed by the ferns stir-fried with garlic and I realize that instead, we’ve actually mistakenly ordered a number of individual dishes. A few moments later, our table is full, with the addition of razor clams in a curry sauce, stir-fried mixed greens, and mee goreng.
One of the simple joys of street food in our past Southeast Asian experiences is the availability of fresh juices and smoothies everywhere. A waiter asked if we’d like any drinks:
Us: “Do you have any fresh juices? ”
Waiter: “Yes, we have fresh xyxyxyx.”
Us: “What is that, a fruit?”
Waiter: “No. It is xyxyxyx. I don’t know how to describe it.”
Us:”Great, we’ll take one. And a beer.”
Us, to ourselves: “I wonder if we just ordered a glass of fresh squid juice?”
It wasn’t squid juice, though by appearance it could have been, as it was a milky white color. It possibly had rice in it, as it reminded me of horchata, but less chalky, and fresher tasting; tasty and refreshing whatever it was. Another table had drinks that seemed to have pieces of squid or poached eggs in them, though it could have been (perhaps more likely) lychee.
All of the food is quite good, and we stuff ourselves on the new flavors, aromas, sights and sounds of Kuching.We turn in early after a beautiful dusk stroll home along the waterfront.
A good night’s sleep behind us, and up early with jet lag, we head off to aimlessly wander the streets, the only way to really start to get to know a place. Bubbling Chinese hot pots of goodness in a restaurant window and an enticing spit-roasted pig mural quickly reach out to me and let me know that I am in a good place and that this year in Borneo will indeed be a good experience.
We pass a nondescript noodle restaurant, virtually identical to a dozen others we’ve passed, except that at a table on the sidewalk are three old men, with a pile of crushed beer cans on the table in front of them. After we pass them, Jenny decides to double back and get a picture of them. A moment later she waves me back; she had asked to take their picture and they had in turn asked us to join them for a beer. We cheerfully obliged; these are the experiences that make travel so special, when locals invite you to join them for food and drink and you get to truly step out of the tourist world and into the local world, if only for a brief moment.
Of the three men, only one could speak much English. Chan was a Malaysian of Chinese descent, with only one visible tooth, a bald head, and the crazy eyebrows so often typical of elderly Chinese; he had at one point owned a bookstore and taught himself English from the books, and had been a mechanic most of his life. Joosep was thin, short, perhaps skewed more towards Malay in his ancestry, and possessed of all of his hair and all but three of his teeth; he owned a noodle stall a few doors down. The third man we either never learnt or promptly forgot his name and occupation.
Animated discussions followed, with much pounding of fists in palms. Chan was a delightful host, very curious about us and our lives, and genuinely concerned that we have a great time in Kuching and Borneo in general, making sure to point out places we shouldn’t venture at night and other safety precautions. Meanwhile, Joosep was hell-bent on crushing as many beers as possible. We hadn’t wanted to impose, so we initially said “just one.” But just one, as so often is the case, never remains just one. Warm beer after warm beer were cracked open and doled out among all of our glasses; no sooner did we drink a quarter of our glass than Joosep had topped it off again.
There were many “last calls” and “just one more rounds.” We talked about food, life, Borneo, schools, Sabah, pirates, and more. We were finally able to excuse ourselves from the fountain of beer, which they refused to allow us to pay for. Before we left, they insisted that I stop by Joosep’s noodle stall the next morning to try his noodles, and that we join the three of them for drinks and dinner the following night. I had asked about the homemade local rice wine, so they promised they would bring a large (demonstrated by many hand gestures) jug of it the following day, as well as a large (again, many hand gestures) chunk of wild crocodile meat to cook. One doesn’t say no to proffering’s of homemade booze and chunks of wild game.