Into the Heart of Borneo

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Three days ago I was in Kapit, a frontier town as far into the interior of Borneo as a foreigner can go without a permit. Just a generation or two ago the inhabitants of this region were pirates and headhunters. I was walking down the street early in the evening and there was a family walking in front of me – parents and two daughters, maybe 12 and 14. The younger daughter looks back, sees me, gets a look of terror on her face, gives a little scream, and runs and hides behind her mother, proving that all things are relative to one’s frame of reference.

I arrived in Kuching, the largest city on Borneo, on Wednesday. It seemed pretty exotic, with a city center that looks like it hasn’t changed much since the days of the White Rajahs. There is a tourist infrastructure and you see a decent number of tourists around town.

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On Thursday I took an express boat to Sibu, and I didn’t see another tourist until I got back to Kuching a few days later. Things go from exotic to primitive pretty quickly once you get away from the coast in Borneo. The trip to Sibu takes 5 hours to travel 200 miles through the South China Sea then up various rivers. The Batang Rajang is several miles wide at its mouth and maybe a mile wide at Sibu. The flow is tremendous – the water is brown for several mile out to sea at it’s mouth.

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Mostly there is just jungle down to the riverbank, but every few miles there is a long building that looks like a motel or strip mall. These are the modern versions of the long houses that the Iban live in.

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I stayed overnight in Sibu and in the morning took a ‘Flying Coffin’ (so named because of their shape and speed, not their safety record) upriver 80 miles to Kapit.
Kapit is literally off the map – Google Maps shows it miles from its actual location. The only way into Kapit is by boat or helicopter. Once you reach the edge of town the only way to go further is to cut a path through the jungle.

The only problem I’ve had on this trip was when I went to leave Kapit there were no seats available on any of the Flying Coffins that day. After I pleaded and told them I had to leave that day they let me on one of the boats, but I had to ride on the roof with the luggage. It’s good I took this trip now – next year I may be too old for this sort of thing.

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Tacloban and Back

Last week I went to Tacloban and it was quite an experience. A van was recommended for the trip because they are safe and comfortable. I went to the bus station and selected a van company whos drivers wore shirts that said “Our passenger’s safety is our top priority.” Someone apparently forgot to include the word ‘not’, because it was a hair raising trip.

The damage from the typhoon is unbelievable. Where the eye of the storm passed through – a path across the island about 2 miles wide – everything is sheared off about 10 feet above the ground – trees, power poles, steel roofs, and even reinforced concrete buildings. In the areas of Tacloban hit by the storm surge the ground was pretty much scraped clean – there are just piles of debris left by the receding water.

But what is really amazing is how vibrant everything is so soon after the devastation. The people here are very resilient and have taken the initiative to rebuild on their own. There is an appalling amount of poverty and much of the population lives in wretched slums. But when you walk through the slums every home has some sort of business – weaving mats, sewing, repair shops, machining. It’s a little frightening to see how dynamic things are here in contrast to what one sees in the US. We’re much better off, but for how much longer?

The transportation system here is interesting. There is no public transportation – everything is privately owned and operated. The cheapest transportation is by trishaw (pedicab) and motorized rickshaw (motorcycle with sidecar). For just a few cents these will take you short distances. There are thousands of these on the streets, so one is almost always available. Hence you don’t see many pedestrians.

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Jeepneys are similar to city buses. They are lengthened WW II Jeeps or modified vans that travel a specific route. They also cost just a few cents.

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There are also thousands of taxis. For $2 you can take a taxi almost anywhere within a small city. Because labor is so cheap, when you rent a car here it includes a driver. This is a good thing because the traffic is terrible and driving is completely different than in the US.

Because there are so many islands there are also many ferries and boat taxis.

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A ferry to a nearby island costs a few cents. Oddly, there is a port tax of about 2 cents that you pay separately from the ticket – I doubt if it even covers the salary for the person collecting ths tax.

I’ve never thought of the Philippines as tropical Pacific islands, but they are.

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There are beautiful white sand beaches, palm trees, turquoise water, and coral reefs full of tropical fish. However, the pollution is abysmal. I wouldn’t swim in the water within 5 miles of a populated area, and the population density is such that one is always within 5 miles of a village.

Cebu City

I arrived in Cebu Friday afternoon and spent yesterday looking around town. The weather is pleasant – mid 80s and not too humid – and the people are friendly. English seems to be the primary language – signs, local TV programs, most of the books in the bookstores are all in English.

This morning (Sunday) I took a boat to Ormoc and am staying at what is left of a beach front hotel. There is a lot of typhoon damage, everything from uprooted trees and missing roofs to leveled buildings. But life goes on. The port is busy, many businesses have reopened (although with some deficiencies), and the streets are buzzing with traffic.

Tomorrow I will go to the other side of the island and see how things are in Tacloban, then decide what I’ll do next.

Ready to Go

Tomorrow morning I’ll take BART to the San Francisco Airport and 32 hours later I’ll arrive on the island of Cebu in the Philippines. The island of Leyte, which was hit hard by Typhoon Haiyan, is just 3 hours away from Cebu by boat. I plan to spend two nights in Cebu getting acclimated and figuring out the logistics of transportation and accommodation – there isn’t much information available on current conditions.

I’ll spend 11 days on the islands of Cebu, Leyte, and possibly Bohol, then fly to Kuching, Borneo. From there I will take a boat to the town of Sibu then on up the Batang Rajang into the interior of Borneo. After six days in Borneo seeing how James Brooke and Lord Jim lived, I’ll head to Singapore, then home on 15 March.

I’ve made a map for my trip that can be accessed by selecting “Borneo Map” from the header bar. Select the link “Map of my travels in the Philippines & Borneo” above the map to see the map full screen.

I’ll update the map and this web page whenever I have the opportunity and internet access.

Southern Sun

I’ve spent the last two weeks relaxing on the Costa del Sol. The first few days were spent in Marbella, a generic beach resort. Then I made a loop through Malaga, Sevilla, and Cordoba. Malaga is my favorite city in this area, with a big port, nice beaches, and a compact but interesting city center. There are Roman ruins, the Alcazaba – a Moorish castle, and it is the birthplace of Pablo Picasso.

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Sevilla is a large flat city that I did not find particularly interesting. Every university in the U.S. must have a study abroad program in Sevilla as there are thousands of American students there. It’s the only place in Spain I’ve seen Starbucks, and there are 3 within a few blocks near the university.

Cordoba has one thing I wanted to see – its Roman bridge.

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It was built in the first century B.C., and is one of six bridges in Cordoba. But for over 2000 years, until a second bridge was built in 1952, it was the only bridge in Cordoba. And it is still in use today. When they say they don’t build them like they used to, this is what they must mean.

Astorga to Santiago

After leaving Astorga it was about a 27 km walk to the summit of Cruz de Ferro (1500m).

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I continued another 9 km down to the village of Acebo where I stopped for the night.

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The next morning the Camino continued to descend to the village of Molinaseca where I had breakfast, then continued on to Ponferrada. Ponferrada is a beautiful city.

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I wish I had stopped there for a day, but I wanted to get over the final mountain of the walk before it began to rain. I completed 40 km of walking for the day in Villafranca del Bierzo. It is in the center of the Bierzo wine region, known for Mencia wines that are aged for as little as two months. I did learn that there are 3 reasons the Mencia grape is grown exclusively in this region, but my Spanish gave out on me before I learned what the 3 reasons are.

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The next day was a 30 km climb to the summit of O Cebreiro (1330 m).

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Friday night was very stormy with fierce winds and heavy rain, but by morning there were just occasional showers. I walked 43 km through thick mud to Sarria, just over 100 km from Santiago.

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The quality of the food had plummeted after Astorga, and Saturday night I got food poisoning. Sunday my whole body ached and I struggled to drag myself 21 km to the next village, Portomarin. The number of pilgrims also increased drastically after Sarria – I saw more pilgrims on Sunday than I had seen previously in the entire month. In order to get the Compostela, the certificate that one has walked to Santiago, one must walk 100 km. Therefore many people start walking in Sarria because it is 100 km away.

I had 7-Up and ice cream for lunch on Sunday, then slept for 16 hours. I felt much better Monday morning, and after a breakfast of bananas I did an easy 22 km. to Palas de Rei. Tuesday I took it easy again and walked 25 km to Arzua through occasional rain showers.

Tuesday night there was heavy rain, but once again by morning there were just light showers. I thought I was going to walk into Santiago having never been rained on. But after about an hour it began to pour, and it poured on and off all day. In places the mud and water was calf deep, and since my shoes were only ankle high they were soon filled with mud and water. Wednesday turned into a 39 km slog into Santiago – I didn’t want to stop because I didn’t want to have to put on wet and muddy shoes the next day.

I was planning to leave today (Friday) for Finisterre, but my shoes are still wet, so I’ll leave in the morning. It is 90 km to Finisterre, and when I reach there I will have walked to what was the end of the earth for most of European history.

Astorga

I’ve stopped in Astorga for a couple of days because of a forecast of heavy rain which hasn’t materialized. Astorga has turned out to be a great great place to be stuck in the rain. There is the Gaudi Palace, designed to be the bishop’s residence, which is now a museum. I usually refuse to pay admission to anything owned by the catholic church on moral grounds, but in this case I made an exception and it was worth it.

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The last photo is the basement, which gives you an idea of the attention to detail throughout the building.

Astorga was an important Roman city in northern Spain, and there are many Roman ruins including a bridge that is still in use and several thermal baths. There are several spas in town because of the natural hot springs in the area. And best of all, Astorga is Spain’s ‘City of Chocolate’. There are more chocolate and pastry shops per capita than I’ve seen anywhere.

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Most of the people I know from the first few days of walking are several days behind me. Almost everyone has had terrible blisters or injuries that have slowed them down. I’ve been fortunate not to have had any problems so far, and there are several other people who are moving along at a steady clip that I run into almost daily.

This morning while I was having breakfast Marco from Liguria walked into town. His wife has to run their hotel alone while he is walking, so he walks 30 km per day so he can finish on schedule. His feet are in such bad condition that he can’t put shoes on, so he swathes his feet in gauze and walks in sandals. When he gets home his wife is going on a beach holiday to the Philippines. She’s much more sensible than he is.

Next through town was Christophe, a Frenchman who started walking from Geneva two months ago. He doesn’t speak much English so I don’t know much about him, but he leaves late and walks fast like me so I see him more often than anyone else.

There were also two French ladies I saw often, Natasha and Camille, who went home from Leon and will return next year to walk the rest of the way. Neither of them speaks much English but they still manage to be hilarious. They can’t understand how the Spanish, even the Basques who live near France and therefore should know better, can be so uncivilized as to drink red wine chilled. They are almost as bad as the Americans, although certainly not as barbaric as the Germans who drink beer and eat sausage even when they visit France. Sometimes they would make me laugh so hard I was afraid chilled red wine would come out of my nose.

There are many interesting people you meet once and never see again. There was a guy from Brussels I met the day before walking into Burgos with whom I spent hours talking about Graham Greene, the reconquest of Spain, and the many used of the word ‘log’, among other things. A history professor from Oxford who told me all about the history of the Romans in Spain, then showed me her tattoos of some American pop band I’ve never heard of. And Paco (short for Francisco) a retired engineer from Madrid who spent the day showing me around Leon. He explained what all the different types of cured meats are (unfortunately the very tasty ‘ham’ I’ve had for breakfast a couple of times is horse meat), told me about the regional wines, and ordered me some regional delicacies for lunch. He belongs to a club that helps to maintain the Camino, and walks it often so he can practice his English now that he is retired.

Most of the people walking aren’t doing it for religious reasons. The exceptions include the conventional – I think Marco is religious, there is a priest I met the first week – and unconventional – a guy from Chile who is walking barefoot.

There are also a number of people who are at an inflection point in their lives and are walking in order to contemplate what comes next. Alene from Geneva was fired by the company where she has worked since graduating from school at 14 and she has problems with her family. She started walking from Le Puy, France about 6 weeks ago. The last time I saw her a few days ago she sampling at a snails pace – I think she doesn’t know what to do after reaching Santiago so she is trying to prolong the journey.

Some people continually walk the Camino, either because they didn’t find what they were searching for when they reached Santiago, or for economic reasons.

Of course, what we all want to see but no one has spotted yet is a pilgrim with a donkey. Walking the Camino and not seeing a pilgrim with a donkey is like going to Australia and not seeing a kangaroo.

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Leon

I left Castrojeriz at 9:30 in the morning but still got stuck in rush hour traffic.

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The next 3 days were spent crossing the meseta, one of the two large plateaus in Spain. It is about 75 miles wide and almost perfectly flat.

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There are buildings that are very similar in construction to the California missions, which I’ve never seen anywhere else in Europe.

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These underground houses are a common sight and made me glad I wasn’t walking here in the summer – it must be very hot.

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It is interesting that in Spain there are no buildings outside of the villages. All of the farmers live in the villages and even their barns and equipment sheds are in the villages, so one can walk for miles between villages without seeing a building. It is also rare to see a tractor in Spain that isn’t a John Deere.

This morning I arrived in Leon, the last major city until Santiago. It is about 2/3 of the way across. It has a massive Gothic cathedral that was built when Leon had only 5000 residents. It is hard to believe that a town with the population of Durham could build something so impressive. Like many buildings in Europe it incorporates materials from Roman buildings that were on the site previously. If you look closely at some of the columns I’m pretty sure you can see depictions of the Pagan gods Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, and Aphrodite.