Jul/Aug 2010 Travel

Tourist Trap

by Sebastian Bitticks

Artwork by Costel Iarca

Having no money for a cab, I took the bus from Sepilok to Sandakan on Borneo's north-western coast. It's a terrible fate to be broke in a tourist zone—the price inflation, the obvious expectation for you to simply buy whatever you need with total ease. But Taipei's farewell handshake—a one-day fine for over-staying my visa—forced me to spend my whisky money and part of my travel stipend to get square with the immigration office.

I hadn't come on vacation. Working without a permit in Taiwan, I had to make bi-monthly visa runs until I figured out a way to keep my job at my friends' start-up English firm and still get a work license. This sort of thing is common enough for expats. Once I did the Hong Kong shuffle, a stop-and-go switching of flights that saw me spending around fifteen minutes in the airport before turning right around and flying back to Taiwan. This time, though, I'd wanted to make the most of the forced trip, to set foot someplace uncommon, new, a place perhaps I'd not otherwise have found myself in. I thought that I could use the trip as a topic to write an article and sell some writing, a welcome thing.

Online I'd chanced upon the orangutans of Sepilok, peering over their red shoulders from the rainforest, faces soulful, black eyes full of child-like near-understanding. That was something, I thought. That was travel. But like I already mentioned, things hadn't gone as planned, and I was skint. So when I inquired about getting into town at the guesthouse's front desk, the woman looked at me as if I were an idiot when I asked about the bus. "Just take taxi," she said, bored, and went back to the game of computer solitaire she'd try to hide whenever someone walked by.

This is part of why I prefer traveling to cities as opposed to tourist zones: no preparation is required. You slip into the crowd, barely register, could be anyone doing anything. No one thinks they have your number. Impersonal, you are free to fill in your own slate. It's in a tourist zone that you become truly faceless, just another in a long line of near-identical backpackers and honeymooners, fussy as a baby bird, your story uninteresting, your name immaterial.

The Sandakan tourist office, which can be found by following a canopied concrete stairway around to a back-end of a large, sick-looking office building, was blissfully air conditioned. Behind the long wooden counter, a middle-aged woman stood with a look on her face that said she'd ought to be doing something better than this. I just wanted her advice on a place to eat.

She started in with her own blunt questions first. "Where are you staying? Do you like it?" She seemed unhappy that I chose to mention the price-gouging on a plate of food at the guesthouse's canteen—twice what I pay in urban Taipei. What else was there to mention? The service? Shortly after arriving at the jungle-bound resort, chosen for it's walking distance to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, I remembered just how much the South East Asian sense of service resembled grabbing some random person off the street and asking them to get you something to eat.

She asked where I was from, and I told her America, though I'd been living in Taiwan for four years.

"I've been to Taipei. I've been to Hong Kong, too. Nihao. Neihho." She spat out a full sentence of Cantonese sourly and waited to see my reaction.

"What languages do you speak?" she asked pointedly.


"What else?" Han Chinese, over forty, she had an embattled look about her. I guessed she'd not held the job long. Something to keep busy, maybe.

"Well, English also."

"I speak Cantonese, Malay, English, French." After each she said that language's version of hello, as if to prove it.

"What do you do in Taiwan?"

The explanation I gave was vague. I'd recently stopped enjoying my work writing textbooks, and the old yarn I'd often used to craft my role into a thing of prestige failed to materialize. It had become like mumbling your way through a song you knew once but couldn't quite remember; I said something that ended with "I guess..."

"So you don't even know what your job is?" She laughed mirthlessly. I was the only one here to talk to. She still hadn't recommended a restaurant. Maybe this was some sort of survey, and a minute after I left she'd be scrawling answers on a sheet of paper or checking boxes. I thought about the notebook in my back pocket and the fact I would be writing this all down, too. I asked about directions and getting around the city.

"Sandakan's a simple town. It was made simple, simple for us to understand," she tapped her own temple rudely, a little too hard. "Simple streets. We like things simple."

A hundred years ago, Sandakan was one of the most prosperous ports in the crown's colonial holdings. The British had made it capital for their great deforestation of Borneo's interior, and at the time the density of lumber barons gave it a reputation as home to the most millionaires in the world. Decades before that, a Scottish gun smuggler convinced the Sultan of Sulu to let him establish a trading post on an under-developed patch of coast. So Sandakan got its start, named in Sulu "the place that was pawned." Today, the city is just a narrow urban strip running between the ocean and all that aggressive jungle growth and looks truly forgotten. More like a collection of back-alleys and oil-blacked curbs, its long four-story apartment blocks are lined with blackened window cages and failing tile.

"I'd like to visit a complicated place for a change," the tourist officer said, eyes steely as if daring me to say something about it.

At length, she circled a spot of the map for dimsum and I readied to leave. "You should take some Mandarin pamphlets with you—let me give you them." Still embarrassed about how stupid I'd sounded describing my own job, for some reason I said I would.

She got them, simplified Chinese versions of the same eco-tourism fliers I'd picked up at the airport. Before she was willing to give them to me, though, she wanted to make sure I could read them.

I ran my finger down the line, sounding out each single-syllable character gracelessly, muttering "something" in Mandarin when I hit one I didn't know. She looked skeptically at me. "Wait, I'm not sure what this one means," I said and passed the pamphlet back to her.

"Pssh," she said looking away disdainfully. "I lied. I can't speak Cantonese. I don't know what that says."

World War 2 all but flattened the place that was pawned. For sixty years it had been the area's major port, but after the destruction of the Allied bombings and the Japanese retreat, rather than rebuild, the British simply moved the capitol to Kota Kinabalu (where it remains). The city seems now to exist only as a commons for the citizens who live on large plots of land further inland down leviathan highways. The shops repeat with a strange regularity: sporting goods, yellow gold necklaces, cell phones. Conspicuous consumption for the developing world. It was basically the same sort of stuff you'd find in Asia's great capitals, differing in grade but not kind.

At the airport, I'd noticed a packed shelf of Sponge Bob plush toys, and thought something about this global world and the new meaning of ubiquity. I'd thought it said something meaningful about Sponge Bob's success, too, but then realized that probably wasn't true. More likely, it was just manufacturing overspill. That's the real force behind this homogenizing wave, I thought, all the spillage of products meant for export elsewhere, bound for a place where they make more sense.

A half hour out of Sandakan, the bus speakers snapped on mid-song, and suddenly everyone on the bus had the same realization that this entire time music had been playing. Crackling A-KON's over-produced, digitized voice through the bus' failing speakers sounded like a performance piece, as if offering up a commentary on reproduction and synthesizing. His crooning faded in and out, convulsing with dance-club sex and bling and Cristal-sipping while school girls in headscarfs sat and stared idly through the open windows, hands on their laps stiffly.

The DJ was the skinny boy, perhaps sixteen, who hung with half his body out of the open bus door and collected fares for the driver. In Liverpool football shirt, he wore also a hip-hop cap decorated with marker faux-graffiti and smiled at everyone, joking with the regulars, face shining with the confidence of youth, shaking my hand even.

I wondered if Northern Borneo had a strong sense of identity to begin with, or if the centuries as a backwater of some empire or another prevented one. Was it that the West has simply become so good at capturing their own fevered dreams of opulence and success, that all people were just as susceptible to it? I guessed no one on the bus had been to a night club or knew that the music for what it was: sweetly subconscious titillation designed to sell more drinks, excuse everyone their own unglamorous desires, a fantasy you opted into for a night but never took seriously.

Under the British, there had been a rebellion here, but the reasons cited were the Colonial government's move to abolish slavery and institute gun and boat licenses—hardly principles to be proud of today. Both of these were likely more about the taxes levied by the British North Borneo Company than whatever dubious principles, even. The rebellion and the British took turns burning the other side's homes and forts down until the right people had earned the right concessions, then stopped. No glorious anthem, no rockets' red glare.

One of my books for the trip was McPhee's The Pine Barrens, a book so steeped in the iron-laden, brown waters that flowed just under the Barren's carpet of needles and sand that the pages felt waterlogged. That book was a tribute to the love and effort that goes into a real work of nonfiction, and McPhee didn't so much as visit the barrens than become enamored with them. Each chapter had all the quirks of a lover rattling off the most minor of details. But, I wondered, could he have done it if the Barrens had been a tourist zone?

The walk back to the resort was three kilometers long. All around me the dry banana trees sweltered, their giant leaves whipped to strips by the wind and hanging limply. I had just passed a brick bunker recently repainted and emblazoned with the slogan "Working Harder for Better Power." It was such a strange thing to contemplate, the power company deciding the best message to give was, "We'll try harder from now on." It sounded like something a deadbeat dad would say.

The same site was repeating itself: towering green, weeds tall and confused as a wall of smoke, the air heavy with the smell of baking grass. Borneo in August.

I had come to see the apes of the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, but that morning found instead an observation deck packed with sunburned shoulders and expensive cameras on tripods. Ecotourism is huge on Borneo, a fact I'd not known. Another fact unknown to me was how well-known the Centre is in the UK, where a high-profile charity secures the pounds and pence that keep Sepilok open. I watched two apes fish chunks of banana from a plastic drum far out on a feeding platform, the crowd gasping whenever one of them slipped into a lazy swing to fetch a fallen morsel.

I thought of this as I walked back from the highway that connects this forested back road with Sabah's vast plots of seemingly unpopulated farms and light industry.

Around a bend, I could see a long building. Wall-less on one side, I could make out low tables in its shadowy interior and someone seated. The sign said in English, "Ming Ho Industries," but the Chinese lettering underneath included the word for "store." Coming up the driveway, I could see shelves of goods inside—a chance to buy something at an uninflated price! As I walked in, I interrupted the conversation of the man I'd seen seated and the woman behind the counter. Passing by, I noticed another man had laid himself across the line of benches, napping. They were all Asian, which I didn't notice until later, but something of which in Malaysia I should have immediately taken note.

I walked to the cooler at the back of the store, and they resumed talking. I heard the woman say in Mandarin, "How could he be so sweaty!" Bringing a cold bottle of Plus100, a curiously carbonated energy drink, to the counter, I asked her in Mandarin, "Do I really look that sweaty?"

Thin, tan, just over the hill, and hair pulled in a tight pony tail, she gaped at me. "Huh?" She didn't seem to want to choose any language to answer with, so just said a second time, "Huh?!?"

I repeated the question, and the man at the table started shaking his head animatedly, "TingBuDong, TingBuDong"—"I don't understand what you're saying."

"I'm sorry, I must have an accent because I live in Taiwan," I said, giving them a chance to save face by changing the topic. They started asking questions: How long have I been in Taiwan, why could I speak Mandarin so well, the usual barrage I could expect from everyone, from taxi cabs to call girls. We started conversing comfortably, all of us shaky at times, chancing occasionally upon a gap in our Mandarin. It was none of our native tongues.

When the seated man praised my Chinese, I said any average Malaysian is far more impressive with the variety of languages they can speak.

"I want you to listen to what I'm about to tell you," the woman said, leaning her narrow torso over the counter to stare at me. "The Malay, you know, people from Malaysia, aren't like that. They can just speak Malay and a little English. Some can't even speak that! It's the immigrants that are really multilingual."

"Sounds like America," I laughed, trying not to look uncomfortable at the subject of ethnic differences. "Or anywhere, really."

"You're right!" she said, "The Chinese are no better. They only speak huayu," the term Malaysian Chinese use for Mandarin. The word Mandarin speakers use for the language is different everywhere you go. In Taiwan, we call it guoyu, the national language, and in Hong Kong it's called putonghua, common speak. On the mainland, I hear it sometimes called baihua, or white words. The word she chose, huayu, is harder to translate. It references China's formal republican name. It brings exile to mind.

She gestured to the man at the table and told me he was Cantonese. Before he could add anything more on the subject of how different we all are, a tall white man, tank-top soaked with sweat, hurried to the counter and began speaking to the owner in fluent Malay. As she busied herself collecting his order, he told me his name was Colin and that he was working at the Rainforest Research Center across the road. He was in Sabah studying a specific species of tree that's been all but wiped out, save patches of protected land around Borneo. He pointed out one of his trees in the distance for me, its spindly trunk rising far above the canopy, alone in the blue sky. Its branches stretched out unevenly, sparse like dry-brush clouds in a Chinese ink painting.

"We work on ecology, replanting the sections of forest that have all been logged out, and on the Heart of Borneo project."

"The what?"

"The Heart of Borneo project is where Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei are working to link the protected areas in central Borneo together in one continuous ecological zone." The effort would ensure 200,000 square kilometers of forest would remain safe. The WWF website boasts that it is the "only place remaining in Southeast Asia where tropical rainforests can still be conserved on a grand scale."

"Sounds difficult, politically." I wondered what the shop owner thought of Indonesians or the Bruneian.

"Right now they're just mapping the territory, so that's a ways away still." He was impatient for his change, and I could tell he wanted to leave, but I kept asking questions to keep him. I told him I was here working on a story about the Orangutan refuge, and he responded with the same unimpressed air I'd gotten the whole of my trip.

We talked about the shop, and the owner (whom Colin had introduced to me as Ms. Zhu) interrupted occasionally in either Mandarin or Malay to ask what'd just been said, grasping at the thread of the conversation. Colin mentioned his dad spoke Mandarin and would sit out here drinking beer and talking to Ms. Zhu all night.

"Does your father work at the rainforest research center as well?"

"No. Occasionally I need to go back to England to do part of my research at my university, and at those times my parents come to take care of my wife and daughter." I looked at him skeptically. "My wife is a non-citizen, even though she was born right near here in Sabah."

"Huh?" I said, and Ms. Zhu laughed.

"Well, you know that citizenship in Malaysia is traced by the bloodline..." I shook my head. In my research online, the closest thing I found to a discussion of citizenship was a note never to bring it up. "Right, well, the way it works is, if your parent is a citizen, then you're a citizen, too. But if your parents aren't, then even if you are born here and spend your whole life here, you aren't one, either. This can go on for generations, obviously."

"What about your ancestor's countries?"

"That's what makes it really complicated. See, my wife's parents are Filipino, but since the Philippines still claim Sabah legally belongs to them, they have no embassy here. So, there's no way for her to get a passport to leave and come back or even register as a citizen. She can't go anywhere."

"So, wait, she just falls through the cracks?"

"Not just her. There are 1.4 million other people, actually. None of them can leave Sabah. They have no nationality. It's a big issue. Of course, there are many people who say they can get them citizenship, papers, a passport. Mostly they just take your money and then nothing happens."

"So they're non-citizens, or, what, citizens of no-where?"

"They're citizens of here, obviously." Colin prickles at my comment, and in that moment I can see in him the trace of long, frustrating debates in humid wood-paneled rooms.

I finally let up long enough for him to excuse himself. He grabbed two large, sweating bottles of Plus100, jumped into a worn-looking blue pickup and drove clamorously away.

I turned back to Ms. Zhu. We talked about the place, Colin's father, the weather. I finished my drink and bid them good day.

As I walked, I imagined how Ms. Zhu would explain the situation Colin finds his family in. I should have asked about her passport, and the Catonese man, too. But the next morning, I flew out, back to my own life in Asia.

The concept of foreign nationality never much mattered to me, nor does it seem to matter to most of the expats and travelers I've known. But I can't even imagine the strangeness of being born into expatriation, affiliated with a people you've never known, kin to a country you've never seen. How impersonal identity can become.

In smoky bars, I have a habit of telling a quote from the movie Casablanca. Rick's just been bidden by the French police captain to sit and drink with the two SS officers that arrived in Morocco that morning. In the background, foreign nationals of a dozen countries are drinking, gambling, hooking up, and getting grifted. Everyone is stuck in the same burning desert limbo. The Nazi, removing a note pad, says sharply, "And what, Mr. Rick, is your nationality?"

Rick responds with a total deadpan. "I'm a drunkard."

Captain Renault speaks quickly, trying to smooth over Rick's unflinching response. "That makes Rick a citizen of the world. "

We're quickly reaching the point where having been someplace won't really matter—almost anyplace will be accessible to almost anybody. Borneo growing up had been the wildest place imaginable, a hyperbole instead of a knowable thing. Waiting to leave at the guest house's canteen, I took coffee with the other tourists spread across slab-like, patinated tables. They had sophisticated-looked cameras resting on their ample bellies, the men in leather sandals, the well-fed women in flowing sundresses and sarongs. Underneath the wooden platform that kept us about a story above the ground, someone was jamming noisily on a drum set, doubtlessly dreaming of floodlights and fame. Perhaps he'll be the next American Idol.

Two people loaded their gear into a pickup idling in the guesthouse's gravel lot, and their guide rounded his truck's nose to confirm the day's schedule. I imagined the track he took, the same roads and rivers, the same clearings where they might spot some illusive jungle denizen. For him, I expect, though the features of this green world don't change, his clients were what were always the same.

I never got any face time with the staff at Sepilok. I'd misunderstood the nature of this place, their work. More publicity was nothing for them—they daily saw about as many tourists as they could handle. And it's impossible to get upset about this: the Centre does good work, necessary work, and though some doubt that the majority of the apes in their care ever become renaturalized, it's impossible to imagine a better scenario for the refugee animals. Like everything in a tourist zone, they become mimics of themselves, part of a public facade that preserves their real flesh and blood just underneath.

On my way back from the Centre's viewing platform, with its great cluster of pink-fleshed bodies and sweat-darkened Tilley hats, I did get my moment, face to face, with one of the apes. She had descended from the canopy surrounding the raised wooden walkway and was hanging just above the banister, looking at me uncertainly with only a few feet of empty space between us. There's no such thing as observing an animal that close up. It was an interaction. A British couple, honeymooning, joined me, and the four of us stood gaping, nobody making a move.

What was it about her face that looked at me, neither knowing or unknowing? The dumb animal intelligence so close to our own, pain adverse, unable to think of anything other than what she was there on the banister doing. I saw myself reflected there in the instant where she waited to see if she was recognized, if an event that she could understand was about to occur. Would one of us step forward, make a familar gesture, lead her back to a known place, or was this again just another patternless canopy scene, leaves and trees, people, yet more baffling things? She slowly mounted the nearest tree to leave, exposing herself briefly as she did. She looked back toward us, and I realized what made her seem the most human was her waffling. After all, what trait is more human than the gift of just enough intelligence to see your surroundings but not fully grasp your place in them?

My writing project failed when, later that day, I was turned away from an interview with... well, basically anyone. So what I left Borneo with was instead the sense of Sandakan and Sepilok as outposts nearly consumed by jungle. My notes described that crushing weight of growing life all around me, the weight of the thick-stemmed leaves, the weight of the dark, muddy water. All that life felt so much like death, so close to the borderline of decay that all life seemed to be in a great looping race to flee from and then return to. The seams of the great telescoping fronds oozing blackly, fresh life tearing its way out from itself, leaving clumps to slowly drop away and rot.

On a rain forest walk I chanced upon real death, the great hull of a once colossal tree, its sides shattered into huge splinters where its dead weight finally broke it. Slowly crumbling, brown, the sort of death and decay that to me was proper, divided clearly and cleanly from life. That might explain this entire thing, this resort and people, these apes, this trip. The rainforest cannot be groomed. It will not be manicured. From every filed edge, thick tar and sap will pour and streak your landscaped lawn. So, why try? There is a narrow strip on the cusp of all this life, and space enough for you, but never will these humid, languid days give up the reigns of master. Here, we are all servants.


Previous Piece Next Piece