Anecdotes

These articles relate funny or important stories gleaned from my travels

Rafting with the Wild Man of Borneo

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The Rafting Party, Borneo, Malaysia

Often, the term “Wild Man of Borneo” is in reference to the orangutan, which is native to the island of Borneo and whose human-like mannerisms and intelligence beg for such a comparison. In my own context, that term has an entirely different meaning, referring instead to a reckless whitewater rafting guide whose antics potentially jeopardized an otherwise fascinating visit to this amazing island. But before divulging that particular story, let me share a few important details.

Where is Borneo and how do you get there?

The island of Borneo is located approximately midway between Southeast Asia and the Australian continent, and just slightly southwest of the Philippine archipelago. The island is shared by three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, and the small nation of Brunei. Most tourists arrive via the coastal city of Kota Kinabalu, situated in the northern reaches of Malaysia’s Bornean real estate. Kota Kinabula – often shortened to just ‘KK’ is serviced by many Asian airlines, though to my knowledge there are no direct flights from either Europe or North America. Alternately, it is a port of call for various cruise itineraries – including my own which brought me to this primordial tropical paradise for just one day of exploration.

What is Borneo like?

Borneo is likely just as wild and exotic as you’ve heard it rumored to be. It is a rugged natural wonderland of ancient jungles and intriguing rock formations, as well as home to the tallest peak in Southeast Asia – Mount Kinabalu, where you can escape the steamy tropical weather via altitude. The city of KK has all the modern conveniences that have blurred the lines of culture, yet just outside the city you can find lovely islands  with turquoise beaches, trek into the jungle to watch the comically-endowed proboscis monkey or seek the humongous (and smelly) Rafflesia bloom – the world’s largest flower. You can also sample exciting whitewater rafting through ancient stands of rain forest, which was the option I chose for my limited sojourn, and which brought me face to face with my own version of the “Wild Man of Borneo”.

What can be expected on a whitewater rafting trip in Borneo?

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Rafting the Kiulu River, Borneo, Malaysia

I had arranged a whitewater rafting tour ahead of time with a reputable operator, who arranged for my party to be picked up at the port (though there was confusion as to where, but that’s another story) and taken about forty-five minutes into the foothills of Mount Kinabalu, clad in rugged swathes of thick rain forest only lightly bearing witness to the presence of man. We were brought to a secondary starting point due to high water levels during that time, at a tiny village on the Kiulu River, which is ominously pronounced similar to the Kill-You River. More on that in a second.

It was at this point that we met our guide, who told us his name was ‘Dude’. Unless his mother was a pot-smoking skateboarder totally taken aback by the act of giving birth to him, I’m inclined to believe that this was a self-appointed moniker. Along with his assistant – a Mr. Kudu (again likely a pseudonym) – we were given equipment and instructions on paddling, emergency procedures, and what to do if you fall out of the boat. Little did I know then that this was more of a preview than a preventative lesson.

We set out into the greenish-brown waters under an overcast sky. The river was rather wide, but the aforementioned water levels meant that it was moving swiftly – a good thing for those not looking to paddle the whole time. Inevitably, with bends in the river, there were moderate rapids, which were fun and sufficiently exciting for most. Apparently Dude and Mr. Kudu didn’t find them stimulating enough, and while the rest of us paddled furiously to avoid crashing the raft into the hefty boulders lining the riverbanks, they guided us with expert skill right into them, time and again.

I was the first one to fall out of the raft when we slipped vertically up the side of a boulder. I spun to face downriver as instructed but still wound up being pummeled by a few submerged rocks. On the next bend, while enjoying the rapids, we again found ourselves inexplicably up against the boulders, where this time it was my mother who was dumped into the frothing water. Fortunately she (and the rest of us) escaped serious injury, but it soon became clear that despite his enthusiastic shouts of where and how hard we should paddle, Dude was steering us right into the spots that would make the trip more ‘interesting’.

Now, let me just say that I am fully aware that rafting has an inherent level of risk, and if it weren’t exciting, no one would want to do it. However, it really annoyed me that we were being subjected to unnecessary risks, ones that would not only would jeopardize the rest of our vacation, but our health as well. So it was at this point, after rowing furiously away from the rocks and looking back at our guides doing just the opposite, that I shouted in no uncertain terms that we didn’t want to crash anymore, and would they please refrain from doing so. Considering that for the rest of the trip we managed to navigate the swirling vortexes of turbulence without any further upsets, this only served to prove that my earlier suspicions were correct.

With the threat of imminent death or dismemberment removed, we were able to more fully enjoy the panoramas that unfolded around every turn; the massive tree limbs being strangled by hefty creepers that overhung the riverbanks; the occasional waterfalls trickling out of the jungle to add to the swollen river; the rickety rope bridges that connect one unseen village with another. At one particularly calm stretch , I was allowed to hop into the river and drift along freestyle, to serenely take in the scenery. And when we eventually arrived at our take-out point, the deafening chorus of insects and pungent smell of the wet jungle left me desperately wishing I had more time to spend in this primeval paradise – with or without a suicidal guide.

Would you recommend such a trip for a first-time visitor?

Yes, I absolutely would, though I would first explain a few caveats:

While you wouldn’t need to be in superb shape (such as would be required for those looking to summit Mount Kinabalu), there is a level of physical exertion inherent in the sport of whitewater rafting, and rafting Borneo is no exception. Be ready to paddle, either for your life or just to move forward more quickly.

If you’re afraid of nature, water, potential danger and/or being out in the sun, then perhaps this activity is not for you. But if you wear waterproof sunscreen, brace yourself for the possibility of a few bumps and bruises and embrace your inner sense of adventure, you’ll not only be just fine, but will have a great bucket-list item to casually boast about back home (“that reminds me of that time I was whitewater rafting back in Borneo…”).

How would you sum up a visit to Borneo?

I would say that a trip to Borneo is likely to be the highlight of one’s travels – provided said traveler has an appreciation for nature in the raw and at least a moderate sense of adventure. Just saying the name Borneo conjures images of untouched jungles and exotic flora and fauna. Visitors who venture into the interior will find all of that and more. I highly recommend putting Borneo on your list of future destinations, and even more highly recommend spending at least a week or more exploring the plethora of natural and soft-adventure options that the island offers.

And in the event that you do come, and run into my friend Dude, for your own sake, just tell him that you’ll be taking your next tour without him.

 

 

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An Apology to the 14 Countries I’ve Visited More Than Once Without Doing Them Justice

I’d like to start by apologizing to Mexico. I know it is a country with a rich cultural background, amazing natural scenery, and world-class architecture. It’s just that in the five times that I’ve been there, it was never my intended destination. I don’t mean that in a ‘kidnapped-and-left-for-dead-in-the-Sonoran-Desert’ sort of way. It’s just that my visits (3 times to Tijuana as a day trip from California + two stops in Cozumel via cruise ship where I literally spent 80% of my time underwater) were never about Mexico and I kind of feel bad about that. It also got me thinking about the other 13 countries where I’ve “visited” more than once and haven’t always given them the attention they deserve. So Mexico, and you other countries I’ve neglected, this one’s for you.

Germany

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Castles aplenty in the Rhine Valley, Germany

The first time I visited Germany it was for a few days on my whirlwind honeymoon road trip through Europe. Staying near the famous Neuschwanstein Castle, my visit was certainly deliberate. My return however was a matter of chance. My Lufthansa flight on my way to Zimbabwe had a ten hour layover in Frankfurt, giving me just enough time to rent a car, overcome some terrible directions and taste the flavor of the stunning Rhine Valley (for more on this adventure see the post The Rhine Valley Has All You Need, Unless You Need Directions). I know I haven’t truly gotten to explore this beautiful country as much as it deserves but am open to someday doing so.

Japan

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The neon glitter of Ginza, Tokyo

Few cultures are as dominant and distinct in Asia as Japan. My first trip there – a few day layover after a visit to China – got me to Tokyo, Mt. Fuji and of course, Disneyland. I happened to pass through a year to the day later, this time on my way to Thailand, but did little more than explore Narita Airport and try to get comfy on the floor while waiting for my continuing flight. My apologies to you as well, Nippon. I know you deserve better. Maybe next time…

Spain

This one-time seat of empire boasts far more World Heritage Sites than my own U.S.A. but other than a three day layover to explore the museums and plazas of Madrid on my first visit, my second visit was limited to traversing (with much grumbling I might add) the entire breadth of Barajas Airport for my connecting Iberian Airlines flight, which was inconveniently parked somewhere near the border with France. I know Spain deserves further time and exploration to it justice. Next time I just hope they park the plane a little closer.

South Africa

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Members of the infamous Big 5, Timbavati Reserve, South Africa

My first visit to South Africa was a delightful week in 2009 where we explored the northeast’s animal reserves and traveled the awe-inspiring Panorama Route. My second time didn’t take me to any such places. Instead, I was connecting for my flight to Harare in Johannesburg’s massive airport, shopping at the same airport shops as I did 5 years earlier. Amazingly, it was all the same stuff. Next time Cape Town is calling, even if the souvenirs are the same.

Costa Rica

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Tabacon Hot Springs, Costa Rica

While my trip of 2006 was exclusively to this Central American jewel, my return was for just one day when my cruise ship docked at the shady Pacific town of Puntarenas. At least this time I was able to see something else, taking our rental car down to Quepos and the idyllic Manuel Antonio National Park. It wasn’t the two weeks in the jungle I would love to do, but at least it was better than nothing.

Jamaica

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Dunn’s River Falls, Jamaica

 
My first trip to Jamaica was on a FAM (familiarization trip) trip through Sandals resorts. For $50 agents were flown down from a snowy NY to Montego Bay, so as to experience firsthand a Sandals Resort before being flown back home later that afternoon. I took the occasion to lose my group, sit at the bar, eat like a pig, drink like a fish and nap on the beach before it was time to go home. I’m proud to say that my second visit- this time via cruise ship – allowed me even more time to visit amazing Dunn’s River Falls and drift the White River before I was again compelled to leave the country after less than 24 hours. One of these days I’ll stay longer Jamaica – I promise.

As for you, Italy, Canada, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, US Virgin Islands, Greece & Vatican City, I’ve had my reasons for coming and going and was not disappointed by my experiences there. Keep an eye out for me, as I just may return. And to you Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, get ready for my return in November 2016. I will try to do you justice, but just in case, I apologize to you in advance, as I have for these countries here.


Have you traveled to the same country more than once – perhaps just passing through? Share your thoughts by commenting below.

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2015 Trip Accomplice Year in Review

Well, another year has passed. Another chance to look back and see what we’ve done with the time available to us. Here at the Trip Accomplice blog, I’ve used that time to produce 32 posts dedicated to locations in 8 countries on four continents, along with quite a bit of information about various travel tips and philosophies. In case you’ve missed anything, here’s a recap of the year’s journeys….

The Book is Here!

ebook You can Keep Your AdventureFor me, the highlight of the year was the release of my witty travel guide You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper. If you haven’t yet bought a copy, c’mon already…where else can you tour the world for under five bucks – and have some laughs along the way? It’s available on all major online book retailers. Click here for links.

The U.S. of A

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I can’t shake the feeling I’m not remembering something. That’s right: the basement!

More than any other period in this blog’s history, I focused on quite a number of U.S. destinations. Having moved from Long Island to Texas early in the year, I paid tribute to my former hometown in the post Reflections on Shirley (And Don’t Call Us Shirley) before a series of posts about my adopted state. In Houston as the Center of the Spacefaring Universe I talked about the main attraction (NASA’s Johnson Space Center) of my new home base. I also shared insights on nearby locales in The Alamo Has No Basement & Other San Antonio Facts and my most viewed post thus far Dude, Where’s My Ranch? Review of Rancho Cortez, Bandera, Texas.

I paid tribute to the Windy City & 1980’s in the post (Insert Your Name Here)’s Day Off in Chicago. I also reviewed the somewhat out-of-the-way destinations of Southwestern Arkansas in Crater of Diamonds State Park – a.k.a. the Arkansas State Lottery and Hot Springs Will Melt Your Heart (& Your Fingers).

South America

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A cable car ride to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain is a rite of passage and great place for city views

Though I had already covered some of my favorite places in Brazil in earlier posts, I finally got around to covering my favorite foreign city in the post In Rio de Janeiro Save the Drama for the Scenery. I also covered the intangibly cool Argentinian capital  in the post If You Suffer from Low Self-Esteem, Don’t Go to Buenos Aires.

Asia

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Seeing Red at Agra Fort

I didn’t focus a lot of direct attention on Asian countries this past year, though I did mention them in other context. My sole post was about the other attraction in the Indian city of Agra in Second Fiddle in Agra is Still A Show Worth Seeing.

Europe

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Walking the trails above Flåm

2015 saw my return to Europe, with a whirlwind tour of Scandinavia and Italy. I shared my brief impressions of Sweden in the post The Swedish Chef Was Asian & Other Surprises from Gothenburg. I next proceeded to gush over the magnificent sites of Norway in the post Norway Beyond “the Nutshell” before zeroing-in on specific sites such as incredible Flåm in Take A Ride on the Flåmsbana. Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect $200, and the surprisingly charming city of Bergen in Bryggen of Bergen – Character & Charm That is Way Off the Level.

I documented the mixed feelings I had about my return to the magical Italian Island of Ponza in the posts Ponza Revisited Parts I & II. From there I went on to wax poetic about the stunning Amalfi Coast in Have Your Cannoli & Eat it Too in Positano, raving about this heavily-touristed but still worthy Italian destination. Lastly, I recounted my impressions and insights about Holland’s premier city in Amsterdam: Advice Without the Vice.

The Miscellany

This year saw a lot of posts touching on my own travel goals and philosophies. I continued my streak of made-up terminology in Tranticipation: Defining the Joys of Trip Anticipation, revealed my personal travel goals in Snapshot of My Bucket List: Where and Why, and reminisced about my favorite travel experiences in Been There, Done That (But Would Do It Again). I also took aim at reluctant cruisers with my posts Cruising Advice For People Who Don’t Like Cruising – Tip #1 and Tip #2. To round things out I outlined my ideal traveling digs in A Wanderlust Wardrobe for the XL Seasoned Traveler.

2016 Preview

So what can you expect to see on the Trip Accomplice blog in 2016? Beats me! I have no firm plans for the year to come, and that’s all part of the excitement. But you can be sure that I will continue sharing the wonders of world travel with you, my faithful followers (I mean that in the least cult-leader-like way) in a way to make you marvel and smile. See you next year!


Is there anything you want to see more of in the year ahead? Leave a comment and I’ll be glad to take it under consideration.

 

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Ponza Revisited Part I – A Mixed Bag of Changes on Land

The charming port of Ponza

The charming port of Ponza

With so many places left on earth that I’ve yet to see once, I normally chafe at the idea of returning to somewhere that I’ve already been. The idea of visiting the same place multiple times would normally leave me cringing at the thought of missed opportunities. But when it comes to the Italian island of Ponza, which I’ve visited not twice, not three times, but a personal record four times, all such reluctance goes out the window. In fact, it was no burden at all.

If you’d like to read my earlier post about the island of Ponza, click here.

Before re-visiting the island in July 2015, it had been a good eight years since I had last seen these lovely and familiar shores. Back then, I had not yet begun my Trip Accomplice travel blog, nor did I see the need to document my experience there so extensively. This time around I was armed with determination and an idea of what story I wished to tell. The following – divided into two parts covering activities by land and sea – is the result of those endeavors. Here’s my take on the developments on land.

The Port

Get lost in the back streets of the port.

Get lost in the back streets of the port.

If there could be considered a signature scene on the island, it would likely go to the historic port that greets visitors arriving via ferry or aliscafo (hydrofoil). In the interim between my visits, the island has gone to great lengths to improve and expand the appearance and infrastructure of this gateway. Basically a tiered crescent of shops, bars and restaurants, the port has been somewhat gentrified, with upscale boutiques and trendy eateries that belie the simple lifestyle of the year-round residents.

The increase and amelioration of the port area has resulted in greater traffic than ever before. In fact, the entrance to the ancient tunnel built by the Romans now features a traffic light – something once unheard of in this remote outpost. This increase in visitors is not without its benefits. Businesses catering to tourists seemed to be thriving, with many small hotels and pensions dotting the village above the harbor. Increased revenues are not doubt a factor in the renovations along the waterfront which now extend nearly all the way to the tunnel and boast a paved piazza, playground and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks. For day-trippers, the port is now more charming than ever, and for those who stick around to dine al fresco in the many outdoor cafés, the scene is among the most captivating I’ve ever seen.

Le Forne and the North End

Sun and scenery await at Le Forne

Sun and scenery await at Le Forne

Located midway along the curved spine of the island is an area called Le Forne. Essentially a pair of coves carved out of the soft rock, this is a popular destination for those looking for a little time in the sun. At Cala Feola, one can take a dip in the natural pools, ancient stone pools filled with seawater, or the turquoise cove itself. Sunbathers will be draped all over the broad skirt of rock located at the shore, and a pair of sandals and/or aqua shoes wouldn’t be a bad idea if you wish to walk around or grab a beer in the literal hole-in-the-wall bar set off to one side.

The north end of the island is still relatively tourist-free, if you don’t count all the rental cars and scooters that clog up the one and only primary road on this end of the island. While there are no real tourist attractions to speak of, it does offer visitors a glimpse at the rather agrarian roots of the island’s inhabitants as well as some fantastic views. I wouldn’t say a trip to the northern end is a must-see, but if you’ve got a few hours (and a few thousand calories) to burn, it’s a nice place for an authentic look at island living.

You Shall Not Pass

The (currently) unreachable lighthouse - but not for lack of trying.

The (currently) unreachable lighthouse – but not for lack of trying.

On this, my fourth visit to the island, I had set the goal of both walking its entire length (approximately 5.5 miles in length) and finding my way to the lighthouse that is perched on a promontory at the southernmost tip. I was able to cross off the former (even if my calves and glutes still haven’t forgiven me) but was alas thwarted in my repeated attempts at the latter.

My first attempt involved my following a back-road above the gorgeous cove of Chiaia di Luna, which due to the threat of rock slides was closed at the time of my visit (it is currently permanently closed at the time of writing, but efforts are being made to reopen it along with the ancient tunnel that leads there). I made it midway up Monte della Guardia – the highest point on the island and the backdrop for the port – when a local directed me to take a certain side road then make a right. All this did was lead me back to the port and (exasperated sigh) back to sea level.

Undeterred, I got directions from a shop owner whose face and tone indicated that only a weirdo would want to go all the way to the lighthouse. I followed his proposed route and stumbled across another improvement – illustrated signs noting historical and archaeological points of interest along with background information. As interesting as it was, it’s hard to get excited about the location of an ancient necropolis when you’re struggling to breathe after climbing an unending chain of sun-baked staircases. I had nearly made it three-quarters up the mountain when I was told by a man troweling cement that yes, there is a road that would take me there, but as they say in New England, “You can’t get there from here.” Demoralized, I glumly accepted that I’d have to go down again, only to make my way up.

On my third attempt I completely ignored the quaint houses and gardens that rose in elevation with my every step and kept my head down until I was almost at the top. I stopped a young kid playing in the street who in turn called for his grandmother. She instructed me to keep on going until a fork in the road, where at last there was a glazed tile sign indicating the way to the lighthouse. With my hopes buoyed and a stretch of semi-level ground in front of me, I felt a stirring of triumph in my chest. Unfortunately, such feelings were short-lived as I turned a corner only to come face to face with a sign prohibiting passage on a very long and sketchy-looking staircase leading along the edge of a steep cliff toward the distant lighthouse. The reason given was the same as Chiaia di Luna and a few other places on the island – the danger of falling rocks, mostly due to age and disrepair.

After all the effort and energy I had expended to get there, it felt like one of those falling rocks came down on my spirit. And as I trudged my way back downhill through a warren of whitewashed lanes, I couldn’t help but notice that despite the improvements to the tourist infrastructure, many parts of the island were quite literally falling apart. Nowhere was this more noticeable than in the region called I Conti, where the hereditary plots of terraced hillside – once well-cultivated and in full bloom – were more often than not, now overgrown and wilting from neglect or the limitations of older residents who have not been replaced by a younger generation. It made me sad to think of how that generation will –  for many families – be the last, and the legacy of the hearty, self-sufficient year-round islanders is something passing tourists will likely never know. I was also really tired and sweaty, so maybe I was just feeling sorry for myself.

The Recap

This visit to Ponza was a mixed bag for me. I lamented the paradigm shift from the island known by self-contained older residents, to the emerging tourist destination it seems destined to become. At the same time, the areas that received the necessary upkeep and attention appeared to be coming into their own, and I feel glad that so many new visitors get to experience the wonder of this island gem for the first time. Whether this turns out to be good, bad or a little of both remains to be seen – which would only be, I suppose, on an unprecedented fifth visit. Well, there are certainly worse things in life.

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