Borneo: How to Earn a Nap

We flew from Brunei to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, an easy on twenty-minute Royal Brunei Airlines flight, half-full of serene passengers enjoying their free newspaper and plastic cups of apple juice.

From the airport we took a “Grab”, which is the Asian equivalent of Uber, downtown to our hotel, a giant pink monstrosity of condos. The driver called our Airbnb host and waited with us until she found us in the parking lot and we were so grateful we almost hugged him.


Once we got inside our 3 bedroom air-conditioned apartment we took naps: deep, hard-earned power naps.

For dinner we ate Chinese food including fresh deep fried squid, at a sidewalk fish restaurant. A girl wearing a “Porland Orgon” t-shirt walked back and forth beside us while we ate declaring loudly, in English “I LOVE Chinese food!” and giggling.

When our three boys appear on the scene, teenage girls titter and stare. This is new. It’s disconcerting. I want to throw my body between my boys and those hungry female eyes.

Taxi drivers and storekeeperskeep asking Ramona if she is Chinese. They ask her in English. She thinks it might be because her skin has seen the sun. “No Japanese woman would let her face get this dark,” she says.

The next morning we flew to Sandakan, which was the airport that presented the clusterfuck of lines and confusion that I complained about earlier.


You’ve probably been aching for details about that experience.

Here you go:

The night before we left we checked into flight online, like savvy 21st century international travelers and caught a Grab cab to the airport. Traffic was thick and slow and our driver clenched his jaw while the boys chirped along to the 90’s pop on the radio.

“Five more minutes,” Ramona told him and he grimaced but rallied.

At the airport we waded through the crowds of busy travelers,  found the Asian Air “drop bags” line and smugly stepped in.

Minutes later we spotted a well-hidden sign ordering us to print our own baggage tags before we moved any closer.

We maneuvered out of line and across the crowd, deposited the boys and our bags at the row of massage chairs next to the McDonalds and took our places in the “print baggage tags line” which moved at the speed of glacial calving.

We prinpri our baggage tags, which only required one session of waving our hands in the air to get the attendant’s attention and assistance, stuck them on the bags and got back into the “drop bags line” which didn’t move any faster than the “print bag tag” line had. We aged, like fine wine.

At the counter we attempted to scan and check our own bags. It didn’t work. After waving our hands in the air to get the attendants attention and assistance, we learned that our bags were over 12 pounds and thus, we hadn’t bought the right sort of ticket to stand in this particular line.

We shoved our way into the line right next door. This was the longest line yet. The two hours airport slush time we’d given ourselves FOR A DOMESTIC FLIGHT was shrinking like cotton t-shirts in the dryer.

All around us, people of various shapes, sizes, nationalities and dress code were switching lines, too, except seemingly with more purpose than us. At least we had plenty of time to people watch, even if we couldn’t understand what most people were saying.

When I see a woman with a head covering, I react like she is a nun. I put on my pious face and I make eye contact and nod reverently. II offer her my seat, my place in line, my blessing and wait for her to let me into heaven.

In a country filled with women in various forms of non-Catholic head gear, this behavior is becoming exhausting. The teenage girls who are giggling into their cell phones probably think I’m strange and the mothers, grandmothers and small children do, too.

Anyway, at some point during this line, a small woman in a red shirt, polyester pants and n hysterics spun around us.

“When is your plane?” she shrieked. “MINE is at 12:30!” She whirled through our line and the next, looking for aid that no one could deliver.

“That woman is the voice inside my head every time I fly,” I told Ramona, who widened her eyes and took a step backwards, away from me.

Our plane was at 11:30. We didn’t think we were at crisis mode yet, but maybe the hysterical woman knew something we didn’t.

Probably every person in the packed airport knew something we didn’t.

An Air Asian attendant came strolling up to the crowd. She megaphoned her hands around her mouth.

“Anyone going to the Philippines?” she hollered. “You need to go to over there to the International Check-in Line!”

A few people exited our line, which made for some tantalizing forward movement.

At the front of the line, a braided, uniformed actual human attendant scanned our bags. We had to pay $25 for each 12 pounds of luggage. She said we could reshuffle and combine the contents of our five bags to save money, which explained why the line was moving so slowly, everyone was moving their heavy shoes into their spouse’s underwear bag.

We didn’t have time for that nonsense.

I said, in my airport voice, “Please, let me just pay,” and thrust my credit card at her. She looked disappointed. I wave my card at her. She shrugged and charged it. $50.

Free at last from our bags, we zig-zagged through the security line. It was the wrong one. Stop me here, if you’re surprised.

“Go to the stairs by the McDonalds,” the security man said, pointing.

We did.

Down the stairs by the McDonalds was another line to an Air Asia booth, which we obediently joined. From our place in the stagnant line we could see the conveyor belts and x-rays, manned by security officers, doing nothing. Just in front of the first belt was a big black sign:


We stood, motionless for a while. Time passed. Plants fossilized. The earth warmed.

A woman in an airport uniformed strolled by. We stopped her.

“Please,” we said. “How do we go through security?”

She pointed past the Do Not Enter sign. “Just walk through there.”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I muttered. (Sorry, but blogging is all about honesty.)

The forty-five minute flight deposited us in Sandakan which is a fishing port on the top eastern nose of Borneo. Sandakan is known for its turtles, its proximity to the jungle and a string of tourist kidnappings by angry Philippine pirates.

We were met at the airport by a man of few words who held a sign reading “Kristie Townwell” (I mentioned this in an earlier blog so don’t worry, it didn’t happen twice.)

“Five?” he asked. “Five?” and handed us off to two taxi drivers who loaded us into white taxis.

Sometimes it is a relief to have very little knowledge or control over your destiny. Sometimes you just stop asking questions and get into the car and let the man drive you. Especially if the car has air conditioning.

Our silent snaggle-toothed taxi driver drive us efficiently toward the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, then turned right and continued up the dirt road towards the “Sepilok Jungle Resort” sign. According to our itinerary, we had rooms and dinner booked at the Sepilok Jungle Resort.

I heaved a sigh of relief at reaching our destination because I was feeling somewhat rode hard and put away wet.

We drove right on past the Sepilok Jungle Resort.

“Hmmm,” I thought. Maybe there was another entrance.

We bounced and sizzled another few minutes up the dirt road to the “Forest Edge Sepilok Jungle Lodge.” The driver stopped. He spoke, finally:

“Here is your hotel.”

“Um.” I said. “I don’t think so?”

“Oh yes,” he said. “The tour company said.”

This is where a large amount of paper shuffling, email reading began.

Finally we asked the woman at the front desk, situated under a palm leafed hut, if she had a reservation for Kristie Towell and four other people.

She quirked an eyebrow and checked her computer. Sure enough, she did.

Our taxi driver swelled his skinny chest with pride. He beamed. He shook hands all around.

Ramona emerged from her taxi.

“My taxi driver would not stop talking,” she said. “He asked if I was Chinese. He said the Sepilok Jungle Resort is super deluxe. He said we’ll wish we had stayed there.”

So ok, whatever, the Forest Edge Resort was super nice, too. We ate lunch and drank fresh squeezed fruit juice and watched a lime feathered leaf bird camouflage itself in a tree then we climbed the hill to our cozy air-conditioned cabinas and took another nap. It might seem like a lot of naps. Tell me you don’t think we earned it.

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