After almost two weeks in Kuala Lumpur, on October 28th I book a flight and on the 29th I leave for Borneo, on the spur of the moment. Staying in KL was good, almost too good. Borneo was always in my mind but, busy as I were hanging out with new friends, it was easy to procrastinate.
I will leave tomorrow, or maybe the day after… At some point Leon, one of Dzaemon’s colleagues at the TRCRC, teased me: “at this pace, I’ll be surprised if you’ll make it to Borneo at all, let alone walking across it”. He was right, it was time to hit the road.
So here I am, in Kota Kinabalu (KK), on the west coast of Sabah. The sky is blue, the sun hits hard, there is a nice breeze coming from the sea and the air smells of saltwater. They call this region “the land below the wind” for a reason. A nice change after the hazy, moist, sticky air of KL.
So, KK. I’ve been here a few times on my first trip, two years ago. Upon arrival I knew where to look for a room, where to get a good drink at the local expat bar and where to eat fresh fish at the local fish market. But in my previous visits I was always on my way from somewhere to somewhere else. This time I am going to stay a few days, to meet some friends and sort out my park visit permits. It is the first time I actually have some time to explore. Funnily enough, I would rather not. After the time in KL I feel restless, I’d like to go, see new places, and not ‘waste time’ in a place I think I know already.
Then I look at the horizon. The bay where Kota Kinabalu is set is protected by an archipelago of five islands. I have a couple of days before my friends arrive and before my permits are issued. Let’s go and explore, then. That is why I came here, after all.
I set my eyes on the largest Island, Palau Gaya (literally the island of style), but the boatmen somehow manage to reroute me to Palau Manukan (the way less pompous “poultry yard island”). They promise there are good jungle walks there as well.
I find myself being delivered to the island on a tourist boat. So much for exploration, I think. But most people land on other islands, and the few that reach Manukan with me don’t go beyond the beach. I find myself alone in the trees. It is a small patch of forest, maybe two km long and a few hundred meters wide. The track is thin but visible, the forest is lush but seemingly tamed. I even stop to look for internet signal. And that is when I hear a noise in the trees. I see a fallen trunk and I think a small bird must be walking around it. But as I lean over, the ‘trunk’ moves. It turns out that the trunk was a 1.5 meter long monitor lizard. We scare each other, but by the time I realize all this the lizard has already disappeared. So much for being a tamed forest. I carry on walking with much more respect. Eventually I reach the rocky tip of the island, where I make another unexpected encounter. It is fellow humans, this time. A local family is here collecting fruit that they call “mata kucing”, cat eyes. We try to communicate on our shared vocabulary of 20 words between English and Malay. They say they are Filipinos living on a village on Palau Gaya. I had a glimpse of it on my way to the island, it is rather big and all built on stilts. So what does an entire Filipino village on the west coast of Borneo? I know what is my next destination.
I have read that the water village of Palau Gaya is inhabited by people from the Filipino ethnies Suluk and Bajau, but its origin is unclear. Some say it is an illegal settlement of actual Filipino nationals, others that these people belong to ethnies of water nomads that are widespread in the nearby Philippines but have also always inhabited these lands. The name of the island itself gives a hint. Gay a in Malay means “style”, but the name seems to derive from a corruption of the Bajau “gayu” that means “big”. I hope that a closer view to the village will shed some light on this, so the next day I hire a boat to pay a visit. My guides speak almost no english, so they cannot add much information to what I know. They tell me that the village has been there for “very long”, and they remember the time when Palau Gaya was a prison camp for Japanese prisoners (or prisoners of the Japanese?) during the second World War. If so, the village predates the birth of Malaysia as an independent country (in the Sixties).