1992: the recession.
After 14 years of enjoyable workaholism in the design industry, I found myself floundering in unoccupied time. I was soon to be found stuffing envelopes for Raleigh International and was later promoted to volunteer for the extensive and mouth-watering slide library. The seed was sown. Thinking myself too much of a wimp to apply for a Raleigh expedition, I started to plan my own journey.
By this time I was working again, keeping one day for work with Raleigh, and so it took about six months to prepare for takeoff. This included finishing off the million and one half-completed projects around my house and preparing it for rental. I had little time to read more than a cursory amount of information, buy my ticket, contact friends I intended to visit and sit through the agonies of the required vaccinations. I tried to fill in the gaps by joining Globetrotters and religiously attending the monthly meetings, as well as attending the Independent Travellers Seminar at the RGS (Royal Geographical Society).
I answered an add in Mutual Aid as I needed my hand held for the big jump. Caroline was well ahead of me in planning and helped me focus on what I was doing. She was to set out a month ahead of me and we arranged to meet for tea at Raffles, Singapore, on July 2nd 1992. She arrived a day early.
Having someone to go through the teething problems of travel is not essential. We had great times together and we irritated the hell out of each other, parting two weeks earlier than planned, with feelings of sadness and relief. Twice we bumped into each other over the next few months. It was great to chat but we were both selfishly enjoying the benefits of single travel.
Our journey took us into Java, Jakarta to Bogor and on to Yoyakarta where we spent a week at a batik school. Java is relatively easy to travel through. There are plenty of other travellers and the Lonely Planet books are reasonably up to date and with worthwhile information.
From Java we flew to southern Borneo, Kalimantan, in order to visit the orang-utan rehabilitation centre at Camp Leaky. Prices quoted in US$ should have warned us that this was no longer intrepid jungle travel. Borneo itself is going through massive changes relating to eco-tourism. It’s now a recognised industry and whilst some enjoy the relative protection it can offer to both the indigenous population and to the tourist, it is squeezing out the independent traveller.
We were lucky, and after the arbitrary cuddle with an orang-utan left to an incredible adventure up river from Pangkalanbun. We bumped into a guide at our hotel who had worked with Raleigh in Indonesia and had spotted my T-shirt. Sadly, he was working so couldn’t take us up river, but knew the son of a headman who could.
Our party consisted of Caroline and myself plus a Canadian woman and her 4-year old daughter. Pun, our guide, took us up river to dance with the Kebahan (dyak) at Karang Besi, climb a small mountain, complete with tuak hangover the next day, and propose marriage just before heading off for a jungle trek to see one of the few remaining moving plantations.
I didn’t marry Pun, but the romance of the jungle was to catch up with me again a few months later. From Pangkalanbun we headed east and landed in Sulawesi after an arduous bus journey lasting 33 hours, along the finger of northern Sulawesi, four punctures later we arrived in Gorontalo. Indonesians are notoriously bad travellers and the relief bus drivers keep a supply of plastic bags for you to vomit into the bags are then ejected from the window. Mountain roads are therefore strewn with sick-filled bags, but don’t let that put you off. Two weeks of snorkelling and lazing around Madado’s island, Bunaka, made up for the horrors of that journey.
Caroline and I were to have one more adventure together in southern Sulawesi Tan Torajar. Very touristy, but if you escape to the hills around Rantapeo you can enjoy the beauty of the clean air, cool days and incredible architecture. The rice barns of the Torajan people are incredible feats of constructive and decorative skill I came across one in Japan at Fukuoka. A plaque beneath said these barns were similar in construction to those once built by the indigenous people of Japan, whose ancestors may come from the same root as the Torajans.
After two months in Indonesia our visas were close to expiring. I decided to head for the Malaysian northern part of Borneo, and Caroline went back to Singapore. Quite inadvertently, I chose to go round Borneo the wrong way. My luck was out. The plane had an aborted takeoff and left several hours later, this meant I missed my connection into Malaysia from Tarakan, Indonesia.
Not only that, but the planes were not regular and I arrived on a public holiday, with no Indonesian money, as I had expected to be in Malaysia. It was time for Immigration to have some fun and make me sweat. This they did, very successfully. Gone was the idea to contact the airline to pay for a hotel room ~ it didn’t even occur to me until afterwards.
My first priority was survival! Rarakan is a booming oil town on an island in East Borneo. If you take a boat to another island, Nunakan, you can get your passport stamped with no problem and carry on by boat into Malaysia. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. I must have been the only visitor in the Tarakan Plaza who stayed the night. It seemed at the time that all the hotels were brothels and this was just a more expensive one than the others were. Shortly after I had checked in the desk clerk rang to tell me what time he would be up for a quickie.
The three days I stayed there were all pretty much the same, with the final piece de resistance coming from the immigration officer, who uninvited came to my room in order to sign a paper he was originally intending to sign the next day. I doubt very much whether it is a traditional Indonesian custom to hand over a document whilst trying to shove one’s tongue down the throat of the recipient.
It is at times like this when any anti-male feelings have to be shelved to allow the sweetest, most grateful smile to appear upon my apparently flattered face. I told him that it was more appropriate to separate business from pleasure and that this was official business. Fortunately for me, he took the hint.
Being a single white female is bad enough in your own country at times, but whilst travelling it can be quite hazardous. I am glad to say that this was the worst incident I had in nearly three years of travelling. I reached Malaysia and bumped into Raleigh again, joining them briefly as an artist in a remote part of Sabah.
Whilst waiting for the OK from England, I climbed Mt. Kinabalu, where I met the man I was later to marry. My stay in Sabah was short, as I intended to continue my travels around Indonesia. I returned (via Tarakan) to Sulawesi, visited the most beautiful white beaches where the Bugis schooners are built, flew over to Flores just a few weeks before a massive tidal wave devastated the main town and then went on to Bali to prepare myself for the contrast of Japan.
I found that the budget of £15 a day for Indonesia rose to £70 in Japan and this was youth hostelling and staying with members of the peace organisation, Servas. I arrived just as the pound dropped from 250 yen to 180 in October 1992. This was the first time during my travels that I felt lonely. The Japanese either completely ostracise you or overpower you with kindness and interest.
I received an amazing invitation to visit a longhouse in Sarawak and how could I resist? My visit to Hong Kong was cut short and my onward journey for Christmas in New Zealand delayed so that I could spend three weeks in Sarawak. I had no idea whether I would meet up with my invitee but I was prepared to try.
Warnings of inhospitable people from a traveller in Hong Kong did not put me off. By a series of amazing flukes and coincidences I bumped into Joseph, getting off the boat I was about to get on to go to his longhouse. He was off to an Iban wedding and invited me along. I went.
We kept up a correspondence all during my further travels to New Zealand, where I worked for a year before going on to Mauritius, Zimbabwe and home to England.
It’s now 2½ years later and I’m sitting in Miri married to that young man.