Bali, Borneo and Beyond, part 4 |

Bali, Borneo and Beyond, part 4

Jay Cowan
Majestic Mount Kinabalu at sunset. (Jay Cowan)

For our last day in Sulawesi, our host Tika and a new driver named Jan accompany us for a hike up Mahawu Volcano. The drive there takes us through the city of Manado again and then continues slightly south and east, climbing through the pretty little hill town of Tomohon where they grow flowers commercially and the streets are lined with orchid stands, as if in a vision of Eden.

A humid 45-minute hike takes us up about 800 vertical feet to the summit of Mahawu at just over 4,000 feet, where a medium-sized crater is venting steam into the gray, cloud-slabbed sky. Given the sulfurous odor and famous comments at the United Nations by Hugo Chavez, I mention to Tika that it smells like George Bush has just been here. We’ve noticed that Indonesians in general seem very politically aware, and she laughs knowledgeably, but as if she’s not entirely sure what to make of our attitude.

I hike alone around part of the rim through tall, heavy razor grass, then return and go part way down into the steep-walled crater with Jan. Our departure coincides with the arrival of a hard rain. Part of the return hike is under thick canopy, yet we still arrive back at the van soaked to the bone. But what always amazes me about rain in the tropics is how warm it is, as opposed to in the mountains around Aspen, where it always seems to verge on snow.

With all the clouds hanging in really low, it’s not one of our most picturesque days of the trip, but Tika insists on extending the drive to include large nearby Lake Tonado, where we stop for another outstanding, and ridiculously reasonable, lunch of fresh grouper with rice and sambal.We had really wanted to get back to the resort early, and Tika knew that, but there is now no way that can happen. And our drive back includes a detour through Manado to show us the waterfront we’ve already seen, and then the Manado dump.

The latter is an eye-opener. It’s not only vast, but fully inhabited and rife with vendor stands. Scores of people, mostly children, are picking through it as we pass by, shelters of tarps and cardboard tilt here and there on hills of refuse, and spot fires burn everywhere, shrouding the whole tableau in contaminated smoke like some post-apocalyptic landscape. But it’s happening right now in thousands of places like this all over the globe.

Strangely, right around the dump on bluffs where they catch all the smoke and where their only views are of the dump, are some of Manado’s nicest homes. Tika points them out as we drive.

With Harriet’s prompting, a faint light begins to come on inside my dull skull that not everything we do with our drivers is necessarily happenstance. As our primary contacts, beyond the hotels, with the places we’re visiting, they can have many motives. Usually it’s nothing more than business, trying to provide a good service and hopefully hooking you up with some restaurants and gift shops where they get a commission. But sometimes I think we are viewed as more than that. Sometimes it may seem to them that we actually want, or need, to know more and see more, and they try to accommodate.

On the other hand, it’s hard to tell that Tika has any motivations at all sometimes, since her talking points for filling the drive time aren’t always well considered. She has, for example, gone on at far too great a length during both our drives about her terrible luck being a passenger in any kind of car or bus. Vivid detail about two grisly accidents she’s experienced serve as her way of telling us that Indonesia has a very high rate of traffic fatalities. This would be bleak material anytime, but while we’re riding in a car with her it seems especially ill-timed.

At last, as it’s getting dark, she drifts on to a different topic, telling us about all the uses for coco palms. These include highly prized palm oil, for which they are desiccating much of Indonesia, razing existing rainforests and planting palm plantations. A nasty, homemade beer called tuac is also brewed from palm oil, as well as a high-octane, white-lightninglike distilled liquor. Both, she informs us, are drunk regularly by those driving around this part of Sulawesi at night, figuring prominently in the wrecks she keeps describing. Nice.

On a brighter note, we learn that the husks of the coconuts from the palm trees are burned for barbecues the same way we use mesquite. At our last-night barbecue they do just that, lending everything a unique, almost nutty flavor. Since our second day at Kima Bajo we’ve known that we were literally their only guests. For our final evening they’ve staged a private two-person barbecue by the pool. The chef, clear out here on the far edge of remote, is fantastic and has prepared some of our best meals of the trip.

There is far more food than we can eat, once again all of it only hours old from the sea and presented in a variety of cunning ways. James and Fresh and the kitchen staff party on our leftovers after we adjourn. It seems unlikely that we will ever again have quite such the exclusive run of a resort as we’ve enjoyed here, and the thought of leaving tomorrow is difficult. Hopefully we’ll make it back one day.

Despite everything we’ve seen and done, we’ve barely scratched the surface of Sulawesi. Part of that stems from the fact that large portions of it aren’t currently recommended for travel by anyone, especially Americans. Less than a day south of Manado, where there are several remarkable parks with rare indigenous life forms, the sectarian violence that rocks Indonesia and Southeast Asia has recently been marked by the gruesome slaughter of a Christian minister and two young girls. And not long after we return home, an airliner flying from Java to Manado disappears with nearly 200 passengers and isn’t located for almost two weeks, having crashed into a region of the sea so off the charts it’s probably lucky they found it at all. Needless to say, all were lost.

Such accidents aren’t so rare here, something that it is good we don’t know during either of our flights. Especially since, when we leave the next day, the smoke from the fires in Kalimantan, Borneo, hundreds of miles to the west of us, is so fierce we wonder if we’ll even be able to take off. We haven’t been able to see Manado Tua, the prominent volcano only 10 miles away, for the last three days. Now, we’re highly dubious they’ll be able to fly us into Sabah, Malaysia, today, since it’s in northern Borneo, near the worst of the fires.

What’s more, we’ve just read a Jakarta Post story about what is apparently a well-known rift between Indonesian President SBY (short for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) and his veep, Jusuf Kalla. Apparently politics here works much as it does in America, occasionally saddling a president with a vice president not of his choice or even liking. SBY seems to be of a more egalitarian and reformist caste, while Kalla is the representative of Indonesia’s powerful business interests. Antagonism between the two is so substantial that apparently while Kalla has been in Sulawesi, SBY has been maneuvering to reduce the restive Kalla’s influence in the government.

It strikes me that this might also have been accomplished by an unfortunate airplane accident, but I’ll let that go since it didn’t happen. At least our flight back to Denpasar comes off without a hitch. But our Royal Brunei departure to Borneo is delayed by 45 minutes. Then we fly into heavy smoke for two hours, over massive plumes rising from Kalimantan, to the capitol of Brunei, where we can barely see the plane at the gate closest to ours.

One of the richest nations on earth, per capita, Brunei is home to a beautiful airport and several spectacular mosques partially visible from our landing pattern, as well as the Sultan’s famous palace that covers many acres and something on the order of 100,000 square feet. That is the sum total of our Brunei experience.

Since Kota Kinabalu, the principal city of the province of Sabah, Malaysia, is only a 35-minute hop, we’re both deeply skeptical about what conditions will be like there. We’re already thinking about having to leave Sabah earlier than planned. This will be a major disappointment, since I’ve wanted to come to Borneo for more than 30 years. When I first heard from so many Aussies about the wonders of Bali and Indonesia, I also learned, from a much more select group of them, about Kota Kinabalu, and the nearby mountain for which it is named. Almost 14,000 feet, Mount Kinabalu vaults from sea level up to a rocky, Alps-looking crown and is the highest mountain between the Himalayas and Papua, New Guinea. Because it is quite near the equator, its flanks are covered with orchids, rafflesia and other exotic flora, and its summit hasn’t known snow since the last ice age.

Other than that, I’m not as thoroughly steeped in knowledge of Sabah as I should be, and we’re really surprised that Kota Kinabalu is as populous (600,000) and modern as it proves to be during the ride to our hotel. Malaysia already seems clearly more prosperous than Indonesia, or at least the parts of Indonesia we’ve seen. We’re booked into the oceanfront Shangri-La Rasa Ria resort outside the city and delighted to discover that there hardly seems to be any smoke at all. “Has it been bad?” we ask the driver.

“Oh, yes,” he replies gravely. “Summer very bad. Even few weeks ago. But not so much now. Wind has change.” Indeed. Good news for us, if not for Sulawesi and others to the east.

Having arisen at 4 a.m. to begin the day, and spent most of it in four different airports on three islands, we’re exhausted and punchy by the time we arrive at our hotel at 9 p.m. So I’m not sure if I’m hallucinating as we get out of the van or really hearing the house band doing a clanky Malaysian cover of “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and following it up with “Country Roads.” Serendipity is a perverse thing. What are the odds of coming halfway around the world to a hotel catering primarily to Japanese and other Asians, to be welcomed by renditions of a couple of Aspen’s most famous singer’s hits? Our 19-hour day finally ends with a more expected note as we’re lulled to sleep by the surf of the South China Sea, about a hundred yards from our deck.

Borneo. For as long as I can remember, that name has represented everything remote and exotic for me. The second largest island in the world (just shy of qualifying as a continent), it has been a land of headhunters and man-eating plants, of cannibals and impenetrable jungles, throughout travel literature for centuries. Asquirm with venomous snakes. Leeches the size of garden hoses. Trackless and infamous.

Or so it has always seemed. And while there are parts that are undoubtedly still some of the wildest places on Earth, it is no longer of a piece, having in the last several decades been lopped up into rapidly developing chunks belonging to three different nations.

At just under 5,800 square miles, Brunei is the tiniest part, little larger than Bali. Malaysia comes next, and its two portions, called Sarawak and Sabah, are actually split on either side of Brunei. All of these are arranged along the South China Sea on the northwestern coast of the island, with little Sabah occupying the entire northern tip. The remainder of Borneo, by far the largest portion, belongs to Indonesia. And right now all its neighbors are very upset with it for failing to put out the disastrous fires in Kalimantan, as well as nearby Sumatra.

When we awaken in our top-floor room gazing out across a broad white sand beach at a big rolling sea with the sun just beginning to light it, we seem a world away from any of that, instead of right next door.

Our hotel is extremely comfortable and jumping. Jet skis and parasailing await. Several fine golf courses are available in the area and Kota Kinabalu offers all kinds of thoroughly modern diversions. It’s pleasant and disappointing all at once, much more modern than I imagined. So we set out to see what excursions we should plan in the hopes of still finding some of the less-polished Borneo.

Not that modern is totally bad. The hotel is very nice and its splendid beach is 3 kilometers long and made of the silkiest, most floury sand either of us has ever encountered, and almost artificially clean. It extends far out into a bathtub-warm ocean where we swim for the first time ever in the South China Sea, marking the fifth such body of water in which we’ve gotten wet on this trip. Not counting the rafting.

Both the ocean and the beach are eerily deserted. Maybe because once again we’re out in the heat of the day. Plenty of people are lounging by the pool and tanning themselves while facing the sea, though they’re often reading or dozing, completely escaping a view of or contact with the water ” almost as if it were a local person.

We take the day for relaxing, beachcombing, enjoying the facilities and getting caught up with writing, e-mail and phone calls. A 7 a.m. tee time the next day at the Dalit Bay Golf Club, very near the hotel, makes us once again some of the first people out. Well-kept, resorty and fairly busy, the course announces that it’s something different right away when we spend several minutes waiting for a Komodo dragon dining on a snake to clear the second tee. This reaffirms that golf courses are prime snake habitat. Maybe I shouldn’t be chasing so deep into the jungle after my wayward shots.

The course is beautiful, lush and tight. At least it isn’t that long, and my rental clubs are newer than the antiques in Manado. With them, strangely for someone who doesn’t normally hit it very straight, suddenly I do. This is good since there’s water everywhere, including the South China Sea when we turn onto the backside for several lovely oceanside holes with more large lizards.

Slowly shifting flocks of white egrets, like windblown dunes, occupy nearly every fairway, and one huge vulture keeps an eye on us for two holes on the front. That isn’t usually regarded as a good omen, but it doesn’t hurt today. The course is routinely gorgeous ” full of flowers, lakes and jungle ” and somehow I keep the ball in play the entire round, racking up my best score of the trip while still missing four or five makable putts. An hour-long complimentary massage at the club afterward, I now believe, is the perfect way to end any round.

A two-hour tour of the hotel’s on-premises nature reserve, rained-out yesterday, is rescheduled for today at 3:30, and the weather is fine, if sultry, as we march off with a guide named Dary and four Danes. The trail is a little muddy and slick and leads straight up a hillside equipped with only occasional rope rails and raggedy steps.

Some of the fauna is old hat by now ” bamboo, rattan, 200-year-old strangler figs, invasive acacias and so on. But there are also surprises: small protected patches of ebony (penalties for cutting it down are five years in prison and $15,000), wild termite nests, stingless bees and fish-stunning sap. The latter might sound like some people you meet fly-fishing in Aspen. But instead it’s the excretion of a certain plant and natives use it the way the Colorado Division of Wildlife employs electricity to shock rivers. Only here they eat the fish.

Ultimately we ascend 90 meters from sea level to a tall tower on a ridge with views across a big swath of northern Borneo. To the south is our hotel and beach immediately below, and past them in the distance are a huge refinery and a mosque, somehow poetic in combination. Inland, Mount Kinabalu and the Crocker Range are banked in clouds, while to the north is another long sweep of beach lying between the golf course and the ocean, completely deserted.

Dary, our guide, has done a great job and then, near the end of the descent, spots a very rare, large and usually nocturnal civet cat about 50 feet up, on top of a tree. We’re able to observe him fairly well through our binoculars, though he’s mostly still, with only his large snout stuck out over a branch. It’s nice to know that non-introduced animals have happily taken up residence in the hotel’s little preserve. Next time we’ll visit the orangutans.

The following day we get up at 6:30 a.m. and head to Kinabalu Park and Poring Hot Springs. It’s not a short drive, and I get really anxious when our driver, Faizal, shows signs of going the whole way at about 30 mph on good roads with speed limits double that. “Perfect. We’ll just get there and have to turn around,” I mutter to Harriet. But eventually, after some gentle inquiries on my part, the pace picks up and he seems happier, too.

For all the years that I’ve wanted to come to Mount Kinabalu, I’ve always thought I’d climb it. It isn’t difficult, just time-consuming, and you need to plan around the inevitable clouds and rain on top. A Shangri-La Resorts P.R. person named Judy Reeves in America snippily assured me that, no matter how much hiking and climbing I might do in Colorado, I would need at least two days to make the climb, and to plan on spending one night on the mountain. “I’ve never heard of anyone climbing it in one day,” she wrote me in an e-mail.

Once at the park, we read that there is actually a contest every year where alpinists from all over the world come to speed-climb Kinabalu, and the record is under three hours. As we’re driving back down, Faizal tells us he’s climbed the mountain many times, and it can be done comfortably in eight hours, round trip. All of which is fairly dismaying. If I’d gotten an earlier start, I could have climbed the mountain today.

Instead we visit the park’s exhibition hall and then go on a hugely disappointing guided trail walk. One of the remarkable things I’ve always heard about this area is that it contains more varieties of orchids than anywhere on Earth. Information in the exhibition hall refers to several hundred different species that have been recorded here, in the world’s most famous and singular orchid zone. And our guide for the truncated walk tells our group that we’re really lucky to be here while all the orchids are blooming. Then she shows us exactly one. Very tiny. We have more in our house in Snowmass.

The guide turns out to be even stupider than I am, if possible, and lectures us, tortuously and incorrectly, on rattan, bamboo and cicadas, which we’ve seen everywhere so far. After finishing with her, we trudge during a hard rain through the Mountain Botanical Garden in the hopes of actually witnessing more wild orchids as well as rhododendron and the notorious and carnivorous pitcher plants (of which Venus’ flytrap is perhaps the best-known) that flourish here. But the garden is a shabby joke as well.

Kinabalu Park was Malaysia’s first World Heritage site when it was dedicated in 1990, and it is wonderful to see it protected. But the facilities so far are very poor, and the people who work here seem largely indifferent to the park and to visitors. It would be nice to view at least some of the things that made it a World Heritage site to begin with.

The drive on to the Poring Hot Springs section of the park is another hour and a half, but well worth it. Beautiful mountain and valley countryside rolls by on the way to this newest portal to the park that is much more thoughtfully laid out. While the man-made pools of the hot springs are undergoing extensive construction and renovations, they aren’t what interest us anyway.

What does is a spectacular canopy walk along three suspension bridges situated more than 100 feet above the jungle floor. If we could catch it when it was less crowded we’d be able to linger awhile and witness some of the rare birds that frequent the area. Instead, our fellow tourists seem extremely nervous and insist on hurrying everyone along all the bridges. They don’t really look at anything, they just want to be able to say they did it.

Harriet isn’t totally comfortable either on suspension bridges. Colorado’s Royal Gorge car bridge makes her queasy, let alone these high, narrow, swaying catwalks. Which is silly, really. I mean, what could go wrong? It’s just steel cables, planks and netting of who knows what Third World quality, strung with who knows how much expertise between trees of questionable tensile strength, with no one monitoring how many people are on them at once. A sure recipe for one of those fillers on CNN, where a dozen perish on a tourist attraction in Borneo, and everyone who sees it says, “Borneo? What the hell were they thinking?”

But she braves it very well, and we get to see things from a whole new perspective, including some incredibly tall trees straining toward the sunlight, more than 200 feet high.

Apparently it’s leech season here (it may always be leech season here, for all I know), and a guide shows us one on his hand. This isn’t the bloodsucking version that requires a flame to pry it off, like one one I experienced in Nepal ” a big plus as far as leeches go.

The nearby Butterfly Farm is as stunning as the canopy walk, and we’re the only ones there besides one of the resident scientists. She takes an interest in my camera and shows us a number of rare specimens we might have otherwise missed. In addition to orchids and meat-eating plants, this part of Borneo is also known for its absurd number of butterflies, and unlike Kinabalu’s other wonders, we actually get to see them.

On the way back to our hotel, it finally clears for some beautiful sunset views of Mount Kinabalu. So we’re batting about .500 for the day. For the preponderance of its bulk, Kinabalu looks very much like the other big volcanoes of the region, green-flanked and jungle-clad with the perfect conical symmetry that distinguishes the species. Only the last several hundred meters of the summit turn into ragged dark stone, jutting up like some anvil-hammered crown.

In many ways this peak represents the summit of our trip for me, since I’ve wanted for so long to be here, and it comes so near the end of our journey. I could cancel tomorrow’s plans and make the climb. Instead, I weenie out with the potentially illusory excuse that leaving Kinabalu unclimbed will provide me with a good excuse to return.

It’s also hard to blow off playing the Borneo Golf Club for the name alone, but especially because it’s designed by Jack Nicklaus. The club is two hours to the south, and the round-trip drive lets us see a lot of city, coastal and rural life and a fair chunk of the relatively small colony of Sabah as our ride takes us halfway to Brunei.

The coast seems to consist mainly of vast sandy shoals that reach far out into the ocean, lending it a degree of protection that’s almost too much, as if it was excessively landscaped for children and geriatrics. It’s not a huge leap to view the whole northern tip of Borneo as little more than a glorified, ancient sandbar, slowly but constantly accreting into the South China Sea. Hopefully it won’t just slough off while we’re here.

Our round of golf starts on the back nine, sitting handsomely and hard against the sea most of the way. The distinct lack of waves and normal oceanic action across all of that sand seems to make the golf even hotter than other courses we’ve played, with no cooling breezes or sea spray and not even much vegetation. As usual with a Nicklaus course, there are a lot of bunkers, here full of a talcum-powder sand, beautiful to behold and evil to play, the look of it echoing the empty beaches just steps away.

At the turn, we head inland to the front side and gaze at the fabled Crocker Range, then away toward Sarawak and down to Kalimantan and deepest Borneo. It fairly screams off-the-map and untrammeled, the stuff of legend, yet here we stand on the edge of it, playing golf.

Malaysia, like Indonesia, seems dangerously poised between these two very different worlds, and hell-bent on destroying the old one. Clear-cutting and mining are occurring on a wholesale level with little or no oversight. They also generate substantial income, everyone notes. But so does an increasing level of tourism that focuses on the beaches, the golf and the romantic aura of wild Borneo. The latter won’t remain for long at this rate, and with it goes some of the tourist appeal. Of course, tourism isn’t without a toll either, but it’s not as dear as that of the extraction industries functioning unchecked.

Where they aren’t being aerated, the fairways are in excellent shape, as are the greens, though several on the front nine are ankle-deep in top dressing. In stark contrast to the almost desertlike, beachfront back nine, the front reflects more of the interior Borneo, its overgrown lushness, humid and almost deserted, with brightly plumed birds gliding by and occasional thumps and screeches emanating from the jungle.

Two Swedish guys we meet later are here on a southeast Asian golfing odyssey, just beginning and a little flabbergasted at how reasonably priced everything is. “Flying in Malaysia is almost free,” says one of them with a puzzled look. Of course, if you live in Sweden even Aspen would probably seem reasonable, but they’re right.

After we finish our very reasonably priced lunch, we head back into Kota Kinabalu to the Museum of Sabah, which is a huge step up from the one in Manado. As big as the new mall in Glenwood Springs, very modern and complete, the Museum of Sabah could occupy multiple visits depending on your interests. Occupying most of our time are beautiful ancient ceramics, stuffed versions of Borneo’s animal kingdom, an impressive weapons hall, and an ethnography section full of vividly dressed mannequins in the traditional garb of the numerous tribes of Sabah.

Several of the latter bear striking resemblances to some of the hill tribes of Laos and northern Thailand, while others have similarities with American Navajo and Hopis, and all seem related to Tibetans. It is hard to deny the land-bridge theories of our species distribution when you see it demonstrated so persuasively time and again.

Probably the most impressive exhibit is an outdoor collection of full-sized traditional homes for each of Sabah’s indigenous tribes, from the seashore-dwelling, gypsy Bajau to the fearsome Kadazan Dusun. Replete with its own real river, large suspension bridge, ponds and even sculpted pygmy rhinos, it should be particularly popular with children ” which probably explains why we like it so much.

On the way back to the hotel we’re tired and feeling the trip winding down, like nearing the end of a long dive and finding your air gauge is down to just a few pounds of pressure.

Our last full day in Borneo starts with a morning visit to the orangutan section of the hotel’s preserve, where they have a tribe of seven orphans, aged 2 to 6, being cycled through in efforts to return them to the wild. Their feeding area has two viewing platforms that visitors are not allowed to leave, and the orangutans are gently discouraged from coming too near us. More for their protection than ours, I think.

During more than an hour there with a couple of dozen other people, we shoot pictures constantly, like deranged voyeurs. As one of the rangers has explained, the orangutans look like everything from little kids to sad old men, even though all of them are quite young. They don’t start to reach sexual maturity until the age of 7, and before reaching maturity they are taken to Sepilok, another reserve on the other side of Sabah, where they can be slowly reintroduced to their native jungles. Several have such red hair that it shines brilliantly when they’re backlit against the sky, reminding me of the old children’s song with the line, “And the big baboon, by the light of the moon, was combing his auburn hair.”

We’re completely smitten, so back at the office we pony up for contributions to financially adopt several of the tribe (Genji, Siti, Hope, Alan and Juwi) in the hotel’s “Foster a Wild Animal of Borneo” conservation program. Alan, for example, is the youngest, at just over 2 and a half, and he attempted to get the closest to us while we were there. He is a flood survivor rescued by villagers and handed over to the Sepilok Sanctuary in March 2006. Newly arrived at Rasa Ria, he is said to be shy and withdrawn but slowly and surely coming out of his “hairs.” Whatever that means.

On the way down from the feeding area, when there are only a few of us left, someone spots some long-tailed macaques at a distance, and the ranger says they are part of a group of 20 that has moved in from outside, and that they’re pretty common in the local jungles. When we mention that we’ve just seen some of tailless black macaques in Sulawesi, he says they’re quite rare and he has never seen them.

The afternoon and next morning are spent doing our last beach walk, our last dip in the South China Sea, our last few circuits of the big pool, our last room-service dinner, view from the deck, unbelievable breakfast buffet, and so on. All those “lasts” you do at any place you hate to leave. Especially when you have to get up at 4:30 a.m. because Royal Brunei’s only flight for five days leaves so early it makes you almost physically ill.

Our driver says it has been very wet and rainy here since last January, especially in July and August, but even so they had lots of haze from the Kalimantan fires, depending on the winds. That side of the island was dry when Sabah and the northwest coast got all the rain.

When we ask about wages and other basic facts of life in Sabah, he responds that the middle-class people (like him, he says) make 10,000 to 20,000 Ringitts a year (roughly $2,800-$5,700). The popular and tiny Kancil cars can be purchased with payments of 200 RM or so per month. Motorbikes, which aren’t nearly so numerous here as in Bali, can be had for 3,000 to 4,000 Ringitts, no down payment and 50 RM per month. “So lots of kids buy them, race them at night and wreck,” says the driver, shaking his head.

Sabah’s architecture is really impressive along a route we now have traveled several times: a big, eye-catching new Polyteknik school in post-cubist style; the striking state capitol building of Sabah, looking like Persia gone Aztec; a perfectly round, silver office tower fronting the ocean; and several spectacular mosques.

The most famous of the latter, the state mosque, sits right on the edge of a coastal waterway fronted with the stilted shacks of the Bajau people. This somewhat contaminated water supplies a moat for the magnificent, towering white mosque and its intricately blue-tiled and gilded minarets sitting directly alongside the highway.

The highways we’ve driven have all been good, and this one is a full-on four-lane in fine fettle and would normally be humming with traffic at this hour, we are assured, but today is Saturday. Our driver tells us what everyone has, that the traffic here is horrendous at rush hours. That’s one reason they’ve gotten us up in the middle of the night for the drive to the airport, apparently forgetting it’s Saturday. So we get there about 45 minutes faster than they thought. Combined with Royal Brunei’s hour-late departure, this gives us plenty of time to kill in a really crappy airport. Royal Brunei’s excuse is they are waiting for a late, connecting flight from Bangkok. I’d be very appreciative if I was on that flight. But I’m not.

Instead we sit in moldering massage chairs in a hallway of the airport next to the door for our flight, listening to an apparently endless loop of the long version of Cat Steven’s “Baby, It’s a Wild World.” I know he’s a Muslim now, and I suspect that may be why they’ve chosen him for their theme song, or whatever it is. But it still doesn’t make this hideous song any more tolerable. “Oh, baby, baby it’s a wild world, and it’s hard to get by with just a smile, girl,” over and over and over until I think I’ve gone mad and must be imagining things. Why would anyone believe this was a good idea? They must be paying us back for torturing Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo with Barry Manilow, and the extra couple of hours drag by like 20.

Ultimately I’m not sure which is more bizarre: The endless and oddly irrelevant tape of Cat Stevens at Royal Brunei or what greets us as we board Singapore airlines 48 hours later to depart from Denpasar to Singapore and then home. As we lurch down the gangway toward our Singapore Airlines flight, there to greet us are green-jacketed airlines personnel, six or seven of them, beaming maniacally and belting out a disturbing rendition of “You’ve Got a Ticket to Ride.” I’m horrified, thinking we could be trapped in some kind of horrible, airborne dinner theater for the next 14 hours.

Believing we’ve dodged the last potential danger of our trip, we’re rudely brought to our senses by having to rent a car in Denver because a big blizzard has parked itself over Aspen, closing the airport. So after flying 14,000 miles, we have to drive the remaining, treacherously snowy 200, and then only after an unplanned night in one of the last motel rooms available in all of Denver. It’s a sure cure for homesickness and I wish we were back in Bali.