Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Borneo: Visions and Reality

When I was a kid, I collected stamps for a while. I'd inherited a collection from my mother, and there were stamps in there that went back to the 1930s.

Among them were stamps from a place called Sarawak. I had no idea where in the world it was, but by crikey it sounded exotic.

Sarawak was still around when I was growing up in the 1970s, but by then it had stopped issuing its own stamps. In the 1960s, Sarawak became part of Malaysia. And Sarawak, I later found out, is in the north of Borneo.

And Borneo is where I'm writing this. Even better, I'm in Sarawak; so that stamp collection has come full circle.

There's something alluring about the word 'Borneo' - a suggestion of dense jungles, headhunters, curious animals and hidden mysteries (Kong! Kong!). It's made me ponder how some locations (Easter Island is another) pick up this allure. And about what happens when you finally set foot on the exotic land you've dreamed of.

Common sense would suggest disappointment would follow. After all, what place, no matter how wonderful, can compete with your imagination? No matter how exotic, even the most far-flung locale will have reality TV shows and Coca-Cola, won't it?

Well, yes it will. And in my experience, the reality of a place is often very different from what you idly imagined it to be. However, it's not a case of smashed illusions; more that the illusions fade into nothing and are replaced by a new, vibrant picture of what the place is really like.

With Borneo, I only had an imprecise impression of jungles within a mysterious interior (and yes, some vague thoughts of King Kong - wasn't it set there?).

But yesterday, I saw orangutans swinging through the forest above my head; saw peppercorns drying in the sun at a local village; went kayaking for the first time in my life down the Sarawak Kiri River through mountainous green landscape; and met an amusingly over-the top cat statue dressed up for Chinese New Year in the state capital Kuching (which means 'cat' in Malay).

There was even a traffic jam on the way out of the city - you don't find those in visions of the exotic. But I didn't care. Borneo the hypothetical had been replaced by Borneo the real, and it was infinitely more interesting.

In letting go of your preconceived vision of a place through travelling there, you lose its perfection - but you gain a complex, vibrant reality in its place. I call that a bargain.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Tourism Malaysia and Malaysia Airlines.