There are many unpaved roads in Borneo, but something about this one felt wrong.
This had less to do with the incessant jolting of our taxi van striking potholes, and more to do with the fact that this road was never a part of the plan.
My wife and I, along with nine other travelers from Finland and France whom we’d met on Mt. Kinabalu, had pooled a fistful of Malaysian ringgits to hire the private van. With muscles aching from the two-day ascent of the 13,000 ft. mountain, it was our hope that the van could get us to Sandakan—and a hot meal and a shower—faster than the public Malaysian bus that may or may not be coming.
Sweaty and exhausted from the 1am wakeup to reach the summit by sunrise, we enlisted the driver of this rusty old van to simply get us there safely. When we veered off of the highway, however, and bounced ever deeper into the vine-laden jungle without the slightest explanation as to why, my mind began to drift to a place that something just wasn’t right. As five minutes turned to ten, and then a physically uncomfortable fifteen, it became apparent that what we swore wouldn’t happen, now appeared to be happening:
We had been kidnapped by a group of Islamic extremists, and there was nothing that we could do.
On April 23, 2000, the Filipino militant group Abu Sayyaf abducted 20 people from a luxury dive resort on the Malaysian island of Sipadan. Among those taken were 10 Western tourists and 10 Malaysian resort staff, who, while eating dinner at their restaurant over the water, were robbed of their money, stripped of their jewelry, and ordered at gunpoint into the Celebes Sea. The group was transferred by speedboat to Jolo, a militant-controlled island in the Philippines, and nearly five months would pass before the Libyan leader, Moammar Ghaddaffi, would broker a release with Abu Sayyaf that was rumored to be millions of dollars.
Though the Sipadan kidnappings happened nine years prior to this particular Malaysian excursion, online searches of scuba diving Sipadan still dominated the first page headlines. We were headed to Sipadan after Sandakan, and this isolated event managed to taint my research and burrow in the recesses of my mind. For every image of walls of coral I envisioned when I closed my eyes, images of assault weapons and militant chaos would make brief—but potent—appearances.
The geopolitical landscape of the time was also of very little help. With the wars in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan occupying much of the American media, a shallow blanket of fear mongering and distrust had been cast over the Islamic world. Though portions of Malaysian Borneo are Christian, large parts along the eastern seaboard border on Sharia law, and as the Western media was quick to point out, some might not see American visitors as particularly welcome guests.
Even with the inflated distrust, however, over years of traveling I’d gained a knowledge that people are inherently good; that it’s only the extreme, outspoken minority who tend to make the news. Through rooftop tea sessions with Moroccan carpet merchants and coffees in Istanbul’s bazaar, to homemade rice wine with Nepalese sherpas and pints from Dubrovnik to Dublin, even the act of sharing a drink with someone had taught me that, ultimately, at the end of the day, we mostly just want a place of security to raise our families in peace. By crossing borders and making lasting connections with people from across the globe, I’d become immune to media sensationalism that gripped those who rarely left home.
But I was wrong. I hadn’t. And it was naïve to think that I had.
A seed of fear had been planted in my mind that I had never consciously sown, and like an insidious cancer poisoning my thoughts, with every refresh of the Google page, and every news story I would invariably read, and every headline that would grab nightly news about a beheading, a burqa, or bomb, the fear was fertilized and encouraged to grow into a malignant paranoia.
Bouncing down that muddy dirt road, crammed into a van full of high-priced Westerners, in a corner of the world that the interwebs had told me was potentially housing extremists, the smiling, cordial, missing-toothed man who I had employed back at Kinabalu, had changed in my mind to a ruthless terrorist with zero regard for my life.
All because of a road.
We traveled deeper into the Malaysian jungle—where chickens roamed around one-room houses constructed piecemeal from scraps of wood—before finally stopping the mud-splattered van in front of what looked like a compound.
With a heavy creak of the driver’s side door and a sigh from three hours of driving, our smiling-turned-sinister taxi van driver strolled casually out of our view. Within the van, silence reigned, although there seemed to be a collective confusion about the unscheduled detour to nowhere.
Finally, from behind the wall of a crumbling structure that sagged heavily in the humid forest, our driver could be heard raising his voice as he argued with someone out of view. Appearing again in the narrow entranceway that faced the potholed road, he shot a quick glance at the muddy van to see if anyone had moved. Then, with hands stretched out in an attempt to grab something, my mind flipped through the Rolodex of terror that might emerge with his hands.
Would it be a gun? A knife? Something painfully rudimentary? Or maybe just a rope to bind our hands as they discussed the best course for ransom?
Or would it be a . . .
A grinning, gum-mouthed, infant child wrapped peacefully in a bright pink cloth.
We had driven here to this jungle compound to pick up the driver’s family, where his pajama-clad wife and newborn daughter had spent the day with relatives. Like many taxi drivers in rural Malaysia it had been three days since he’d had a fare, sleeping in his van in the Kinabalu parking lot in the hope of getting a job. Now, as he safely shuttled us to Sandakan and our awaiting showers and meals, a 15-minute detour was all it required so he could do the same for them.
This scenario had happened many times before when I’d arranged transport while traveling, and my level of shame for letting my thoughts take over stretched higher than Kinabalu itself. This man had given me zero reason to be distrustful of his motives or character, and for the first time in a long time, my media-driven insecurity had conquered my intrinsic trust.
For a moment there, in that Borneo jungle, I had forgotten all that travel had taught me about our collective, unifying good; that in this world where borders really shouldn’t matter, we so often are exactly the same.
This isn’t to say that traveler security isn’t a real and important issue—that there aren’t pockets of ill-willed people who don’t have our best interests in mind—but there is a wide gap between due diligence and paranoia when researching places you travel.
The lesson learned from this particular event was to never relinquish my trust, or to allow the media or outside influences to paint colors on humanity’s canvas. One of the greatest gifts we gain as travelers is the way our experiences give us tools to knock down the walls of division; how our daily interactions on a human level tell a story of goodness and peace-loving sameness that often goes untold.
Upon arrival in Sandakan, I paid the man a few extra ringgits and wished his family well. He smiled that happy, missing tooth smile and appreciatively nodded goodbye, and we proceeded to go our separate ways most likely to never meet again. I successfully continued from there to Semporna and dove the waters of Sipadan, and though Abu Sayyaf, even today, continues to occasionally make headlines, it was only my mind that was tragically hijacked on that mud splattered Borneo road.