April 2008 (corresponding photo album here)

(Continued from Part 1) After Ranau, I tried to catch a bus to the coastal town of Sandakan, but since no bus arrived, I ended up hitchhiking 3 hours with a bunch of carousing Muslim Filipino guys from Zamboanga City (Mindanao) instead. This was probably not a wise decision, because whenever you read about terrorists or kidnappings in the Philippines, the reporters always write about it from Zamboanga. It’s only a stone’s throw away from Basilan, which is considered the island base of the terrorist “Abu Sayyaf” group. Nevertheless, I had a great time chatting with them in Tagalog, and they never bothered me except asking for a few ringgits for gas and constantly pressuring me to visit a nightclub with them when we got to Sandakan, which I politely declined. Interestingly, they listened to a mixture of loud heavy metal music, Van Halen, and something that sounded like an Indonesian version of the Backstreet Boys on the radio. It was a lot of fun.

In Sandakan, I stayed in a hostel and joined an extremely friendly guy named Gordon to visit the Sepilok Orangutan observatory (did you know orang-utang is Malay for “Man of the forest”? Similarly, “orang-laut” means “man of the sea”. I guess we are all orangs somehow), where I was equally mesmerized by the massive number of British and German tourists as the orange, fuzzy, and definitely cute Orangutan babies swinging through the trees to get a banana. Predictably, for every five bananas set out on the platform for the orangutans, probably four of them were stolen by sneaky Macaques, possibly the same species Macaca fascicularis that the Aytas had to chase from their farms in the Philippines. Later that night, I met up with a new friend from the hostel named Zaity and joined her and her friends to go out dancing. She taught me a popular dance similar to the electric slide that is apparently the rage in Indonesia called “Poco-Poco“. It was a ton of fun, and I was the only non-Asian in the place, but when a heavily make-upped individual of ambiguous gender approached me asking for a dance, we decided to head home.

The next day, I walked around Sandakan and stumbled across a large Mosque on the outskirts of town that was under construction. I was surprised to find out that the laborers spoke no Malay nor English, but were actually Muslim Filipino migrants from Jolo (an extremely impoverished and dangerous island in the Sulu Archipelago). They invited me to visit their home, which turned out to be in an enormous slum constructed with rickety wooden planks suspended over a wide mud flat along the coast. Apparently almost everyone there was from the Philippines, and even though they have the same ethnicity and religion as the locals, the relatively wealthier Malaysian government won’t grant them any legal rights, and they survive as day laborers, essentially invisible to the rest of society. My new friend explained to me that he would rather face the discrimination and bleak employment outlook in Sabah than go back to Jolo, which is constantly ravaged by pirates, gangsters, and territory disputes between terrorist groups and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Furthermore, the largely Catholic Philippines government in Manila was not necessarily a better friend to his family than the Malaysian authorities. I found out later that an ancient border dispute exists between Malaysia and the Philippines over Sabah and Sulu, dating to pre-colonial times when a Sultan ruled over the area, and President Marcos even planned at one point to invade Sabah and take it from Malaysia. This historical animosity has so far prevented the Philippines from establishing a much-needed consulate in Sabah, because it would effectively end the Philippines’ claim on Sabah. Stepping tentatively across a gap in the wooden planks, below which all manner of trash and human waste floated in shallow water, I reflected with bewilderment at how ordinary people could suffer so much through no fault of their own, just because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Furthermore, despite the fact that I was completely vulnerable in the slum, no one tried to rob me or even ask for money. They all just smiled and asked how my day was going.

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