Letters From Borneo: To Home from Abroad
Dear Zach & Pax,
I’m nearing three months in Borneo. You may not know a lot about this place (most people don’t), so I’ll give you some quick information from my own research since arriving.
Borneo is the third largest island in the world behind Greenland and New Guinea (and Australia, if you count it as an island). The land is comprised of three nations; Malaysia, Indonesia, and a small little bit which is Brunei.
It is home to some of the vast exotic ecosystems left in our world. In one area the size of ten football fields, the Borneo rainforest can have up to 770 different species of trees. Just to understand how great that is, compare it to the 700 species (total) that can be found throughout the entire North American continent.
It is a good thing Borneo can pack a punch in such little space because the rainforest here is quickly being depleted. In three decades between 1980-2010, over 50% of the Borneo rainforest was lost. This was mostly due to our own species. Giant palm oil plantations, over-logging, and forest fires were three of the major causes of the loss. We were taking from the forest as a fat kid takes from the candy store without considering the ramifications of our actions.
Borneo was home to many animal species that have now been lost to extinction because their ecosystems were destroyed. It is sad, but luckily moves are finally being made to save what we have left of this rare gem of the natural world. Since 2012, things have been looking up. New protected areas of the forest have sprung new life to a slow-beating heart.
Now, the issue is illegal plantations and loggers. As long as we can stop those guys, the great Borneo forest can start to replenish itself just as it has been able to do for millions of years before humans came around and ruined things.
I’m living in a city in the north called Kota Kinabalu on the Malaysian coast between the South China Sea and Mount Kinabalu (one of the tallest peaks in Southeast Asia). It’s in the Sabah state which is a region split between three main ethnicities and cultures; Kadazan (the indigenous people in Sabah), Chinese, and Indian.
Because there is a need for these three cultures to communicate, everyone in Sabah speaks English – and for a lot of people, it has become their first language. This has made it unbelievably easy to make friends and meet new people. It amazes me how well the three ethnicities (as well as all the other minor ethnicities in the state) are able to get along. It makes the controversy at the southern border in our own country seem that much more unnecessary.
As for me, I’ve stayed busy with my time here. I moved into an AirBnB in mid-January which was the perfect fit for me. I can’t imagine how many friends I’ve made through this AirBnB and through my friend/host, Hannah.
And, then, there are the friends I’ve made outside of the AirBnB. For the sake of storytelling, I’ll tell you how I met my friend, Mahany.
Three months ago, I was in the Philippines planning to move to Borneo. Grandad was quick to let me know he had an old buddy who he used to play golf with in Pittsburg – a friend native to Borneo. That was exactly thirty years ago in 1989. Grandad had since lost touch after his friend finished studying at Pittsburg State and returned home. They used to play golf together every day and became quite good friends, however, communication across the world wasn’t as simple thirty years ago.
Grandad gave me his name and urged me to find him through the internet. I never tried. Maybe Grandad didn’t realize how big Borneo actually is, but it’d be nearly impossible to find this guy. There was no way I’d find him with the limited information Grandad could give me.
Fast forward three months, I planned to head to the rainforest and had done some deforestation research to better educate myself. “You know, my friend would be a great person to get in touch with about this stuff. He knew everything that was going on in the forest before anyone else did,” Grandad told me in one of our conversations before I took off for the forest.
So, I asked for his name again just to appease my Grandad.
“Mahany Sawal,” Grandad said.
I looked him up on Facebook and, by God, he was the only Mahany Sawal in the world and he happened to be living in Kota Kinabalu not more than ten minutes from my AirBnB. I sent him a message over Facebook that Mahany probably received out of the blue in amazement.
I’m not sure if I’m contacting the right person, but I believe you and my grandfather used to play golf together in Pittsburg, Kansas thirty years ago. I’ve been living in KK for three months and if you’re here, I would love to meet and I think my Grandad would love it, too. Maybe we can get lunch.
If this is not the right person, I’m sorry, please ignore this.
I sent the message at one o’clock in the morning fully prepared to never hear back. But when I woke up the next morning, there was an unread message waiting for me. It was Mahany. He was thrilled and urgently requested we hang out.
“I’ll pick you up for lunch at noon,” he said. This was hours after I messaged him, and, I kid you not, Mahany was at my door an hour early at 11, full of enthusiasm and energy. He could hardly sit down to speak.
I was equally amazed by him, who was nearly 70 years old, recalling every detail about his time in Pittsburg and telling me stories he shared with my Grandad. He remembered names of places, names of people, and small details about the city I couldn’t even recall three years after graduating.
He took me out to lunch, took me home to introduce me to his wife, and then to his son’s house to introduce me to his other family. Before he dropped me off later in the afternoon, he was already chomping at the bit to make plans for the next day.
The next morning, he picked me up and took me to an animal reserve where I saw my first orangutan (which Borneo is known for). Then, we went for lunch at a beachside resort before heading back to his house to watch YouTube videos.
I couldn’t fathom how quickly we had met and now so casually just watched YouTube videos in his living room. Mahany is young at heart and a true pleasure to be around. Though we just met, I can tell I will see him quite often and, now, my Grandad is even entertaining the idea of a summer in Borneo which would be fantastic.
Mahany is just one of so many good people I’ve met in Borneo. Before I came, I told myself I needed to do my best to grow some roots here. Traveling from place to place (even staying a month at a time in each city) is so wonderful and I create so many memories. However, it still gets lonely without a solid foundation of consistent friends around you. So, that was what I wanted out of Borneo and it’s exactly what I got.
By the time you receive this, I will be in Bali – one of my long-time bucket list destinations – on a visa run so that I can come back to Borneo for the summer.
I plan to return to Kansas City for a few months in August and I hope we can manage some time for the three of us. It feels weird knowing it won’t be as easy to get together as it has been ever since we were two-years-old. I have faith we will manage.
Hope you two are saving some bucks for a visit at some point somewhere in this world. Looking forward to hearing about your mad lives.