Monday, September 19, 2011

The Road to Brunei

"Ugh. Rain."

My alarm woke me up at six. I hit the snooze. I hit it again about four more times, and by the end, the rain in Borneo's Mulu National Park had stopped.

But I hadn't gotten up early enough to pack, clean up, go on the 0700 canopy tour, and still make the 0900 taxi to the airport. Or maybe I did. But after yesterday's 20+km total trekking, I didn't feel inspired to go up to the canopy, as I had in Ghana. I felt inspired to go to the national park lodge and get my free pancakes that came with my room.

I pulled on my clothes and dragged myself over to the meeting spot at 0700. There was Silvia, the park ranger that had led the night walk my first evening here.

"I can't make it. Sorry," I mumbled.

"That's okay," she said. "You know it's too late to get a refund?"

"No problem." I hadn't expected to get one, notifying them at the last possible minute as I was.

I went back to Racer Cave (my room) and packed up, showered, stopped by the lodge for my pancakes and Nescafe (you pay extra for real coffee), then got my bag and left my key at park headquarters. I walked over the suspended bridge, over the river and out of Mulu National Park.

What a pleasant place.

"You need taxi?" A few women were hanging around over the bridge.


One of the women drove me straight to the airport, which took about five minutes. I checked in for my 10:15 flight and then had loads of time.

I could have, I realized, had my pancakes, packed, AND walked in the canopy.

The MASWings flight wasn't full and only took 25 minutes. At Miri, I plonked my luggage onto a cart and approached the taxi desk.

"Do you know how I get to Brunei?"

"You must go to the bus station."

"Yes," I'd researched this as best I could—it's only about 74 miles from Miri to Brunei's capital city of Bandar Seri Begewan so there had to be a way—but information had been contradictory and sketchy. "But I'm wondering if I can get a shared car to the border, then get a bus on the other side."

She shrugged. "Try Airport Information."

A sweet, bored woman in a headscarf sat behind the desk labeled Airport Information.

"Hello. Can you tell me how to get to Brunei?"

"You must take the bus," she said. She reached to her left and grabbed a huge binder full of transparent plastic sleeves, each with several well-organized sheets of paper in the pocket.

She paged patiently through, scanning each page until she got to the "International Buses" one.

"The next bus is at 3:15," she announced.

"Yes…but that is a long time from now. I had read it is possible to take a bus or car to the border."

She paged through some more, eventually hitting a different page about buses.

"This bus leaves at 1 o'clock for the border. But…" Her voice trailed off, and she raced through more pages until finding a phone number. She telephoned the bus, spoke to someone, nodded, and hung up.

"I am sorry but this bus no longer runs. You will have to go on the 3:15 bus with PHLS from the bus terminal."

Okay, then. I bought my taxi coupon—26 ringgit to the bus terminal—and went to download my mail and eat a muffin at Starbucks. I knew I should eat lunch but it was only 11 and I'd just had all those pancakes. I knew I'd regret it later.

"Excuse me, how do you say this?"

I looked up to find a Malaysian man standing in front of three Starbucks employees. They were all giggling and looking at me attentively. The man may have been the manager or maybe just a regular customer. He was pointing at the word "Lattice" which was the label on a baked good.

"Laa-tess," I said. "But I think that's just in's probably la-Tiss or la-Teese in UK English."

Satisfied, they all laughed and let me go back to my muffin and planning.

At noon, I headed to the bus terminal on the off-chance that there really WAS a 1 p.m. bus.

There wasn't. And I regretted come to the bus terminal early as soon as I got out of the air-conditioned taxi.

This is Borneo. It's hot and humid in Borneo.

I scanned the bus company offices, looking for evidence of anyone going anywhere near the border. It's only 20 minutes away. Surely there must be a way.

I found the PHLS ticket seller. The bus left at 3:45, not 3:15. 40 ringgit.

A bus tout approached me, and I explained that I'd like to take a share car to the border. He motioned me across the parking lot to a covered bench.

"Wait there. Someone will come."

Someone did. He offered me a lift to the border for 50 ringgit, but for once I thought it through.

There was no guarantee that I'd find a lift after the border. I could end up sitting there for hours waiting on the very bus that left here at 3:45.

I declined the ride, walked back to the bus offices, bought my ticket, left my luggage in the PHLS office, and sat down in the shade with my phone and my Kindle.

I ran out my phone minutes doing nothing worthwhile online. Then I started in on this week's New Yorker.

Three hours to wait. Fortunately, full Kindle.

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