Trekking through the jungles of Bako National Park, Borneo in a constant downpour of tropical rain left me feeling (and looking) like a nearly drowned cat. Although I had loved my two days exploring the rainforest in search of monkeys, I was more than ready to relax and dry out in the nearby town of Kuching.
The capital city of 325,000 people both pulsed with energy and maintained a laid back island vibe. And my favorite thing about it? It is a self proclaimed “cat city.” Kuching means “cat” in Malay, and while the history of the name is actually unrelated to any real life cats, the city has taken its name in stride and erected an array of rather creepy looking statues of giant fluffy felines. The cat lady in me screeched in delight. There is also a cat museum that sounds so ridiculous and strange that I’m incredibly bummed I missed it. But the first night I arrived I didn’t have time for much else because I was too busy getting stranded in a downpour.
Wandering down the road from my hostel, I stumbled upon a large global food fair. Vendors called out to me as I passed, advertising everything from dumplings to kebabs to sausages. I meandered from stall to stall, tasting samples and ordering small dishes, enveloped in the alluring smells wafting from the sizzling grills.
As I waited for my order of roti, I peeked into the nearby booth selling durian cream puffs. Durian, oh durian, that king of fruits that is so smelly it’s banned on public transportation and most other enclosed spaces. As I eyed the confections, the vendor asked if I had ever tried durian. When I shook my head no, a mischievous glimmer flitted across his eyes. He offered me a free durian cream puff and called over his entire team of staff. They crowded together to watch in eager anticipation as I gingerly lifted the bite to my mouth. I bit into the pastry and at first nodded that it wasn’t bad.
Then I gagged.
The durian was pungent. It was putrid. It was powerful. No amount of sweet cream or flaky crust could mask the foul flavor of that evil durian. My face screwed up in disgust and the group of people watching burst into laughter.
But the cream puff was huge and they they watched expectantly for me to continue eating. I choked down my first bite, offered a meek smile, and went in for the second round of oral battle with the cream puff. Strange expressions danced across my face I’m sure, for the onlookers howled in delight and buckled over in boisterous laughter. At least I provided some entertainment that night. I thanked them for the experience, grabbed my roti, and went on my way.
Out of nowhere, God turned on the great faucet in the sky and streams of water dumped down on us all. I ran for cover under a crepe vendor’s tent and ordered a crepe to eat while I waited out the storm. It took the man a good 10 minutes to make my crepe as he painstakingly placed each individual strawberry in a decorative pattern, and drizzled the sauce on top in geometric shapes. He was a strange, bumbling little man, but he took great pride in his crepes.
I struck up a conversation in hopes of waiting out the rain. A woman joined me under the crepe tent, followed by her husband and two teenaged children. They stood chatting with the man while he fretted over their crepes and I listened to them talk about their mutual friends and local events. I smiled; Kuching was clearly a close knit community with a small town mentality. I asked the crepe vendor if I would be able to catch a cab outside of the market, as it was still pouring and I didn’t have an umbrella. He shook his head apologetically, and with a sigh I accepted my fate of trudging home in the rain and set out.
A few steps later, the woman from the crepe tent chased after me. “Would you like a ride?” she offered. “My family is just about to leave.”
I was so dumbfounded I just stared at her. Alarm bells immediately rang in my head: you’re alone in a third world country; getting in a car with strangers is the dumbest thing you could possibly do. This is how people wind up dead in a ditch or kidnapped and held for ransom. Do this and you will wind up on the 5:00 news back home for sure! But the other side of my brain argued back, she’s with her whole family, including children. You heard them talk, they are just normal people. Trust your instincts, these people mean you no harm.
I stood there for so long debating internally that she finally asked again, “So, um, do you want a ride?” I smiled and nodded. “If you’re sure? It’s just down the road. That would be amazing.”
I sat in the backseat with her teenaged son and daughter. I asked them about their school and hobbies, and they shyly asked about my home. After telling them I was from California, the boy asked tentatively, “So what is LA like? Are the buildings tall?” We all crowded together for a selfie on the boy’s phone, and then they dropped me at my hostel and waved a warm goodbye.
Finally in the warmth of a bed, I smiled to myself at what an amazing experience the day had been. I had laughed and shared stories with locals; I had eaten specialty foods (even if I didn’t necessarily enjoy them all); I had caught a glimpse into the local’s lives; I had been shown unequivocal kindness, and I had done all this as a female traveling alone in a place often considered unsafe.
Thank you, Kuching, for reassuring me of the goodness in this world and reminding me why I love to travel.
The next day I visited the awe-inspiring Fairy Caves. Check out my post about that adventure! The Magical and Mysterious Fairy Caves of Borneo