As my soaked, freezing-cold hands held onto a rope for dear life, I pulled myself up a large granite slab of rock in utter darkness and started to question what I had gotten myself into. It was 2:00 a.m. and I was headed up to the mountain summit of Borneo’s Mt. Kinabalu, the second tallest mountain in Southeast Asia.
If you search “Borneo” on Google Images, you’ll find dreamy photos of tropical jungles, white sand beaches, and floating food markets. So why was I wearing a headlamp, a fleece jacket, a windbreaker, wet hiking boots, and wool socks?
I was a few days into a trip of a lifetime to Borneo on Intrepid Travel’s Sabah Adventure Tour. When I signed up for the trip, I didn’t know much about the region—I assumed it was just a part of Malaysia, but it’s actually the world’s third largest island, divided among three different countries. When people asked why I was going, I didn’t have a straight answer; I just knew it was a trip I needed to take.
Once I decided to take this trip, which I knew would be a little out of my comfort zone, I needed to prepare. And while travelers need to do certain things in advance to prepare for most trips—applying for visas, notifying the bank, packing—not many people talk about getting ready for the emotional, mental, and physical challenges that inevitably come with traveling to a far-off country.
Every trip has its highs and lows, but no trip of a lifetime is perfect. And that’s OK. Part of the reason people travel is to get uncomfortable, take new things for what they are, and shift perspectives. Here are six of the most important lessons I learned during this trip of a lifetime.
Lesson #1: Realizing What’s Really Important
I thought I was doing everything right preparing for my trip: I went to a travel clinic well in advance (thank goodness, because I had to go back twice more for rabies shots), read all the information provided about my group tour, bought travel insurance, and did my cultural research so I knew to expect the daily early morning Muslim call to prayer. I knew which adapter to bring, to pack conservative clothing, and even a few typical food dishes that I’d like.
One of the biggest challenges I faced in preparation for this trip was packing the right clothing and gear for activities I’d never done before—for instance, mountain climbing and jungle trekking. I didn’t own leech socks, a rain cover for my backpack, a headlamp, or clothing that would dry in a super humid climate. For help, I looked up the exact locations on Instagram to see what people were wearing—and was thankful I did because some of the experiences would have been even more challenging without the right gear. I was happy to be prepared, but I also got a first-hand look at how preparation can only get you so far, and how sometimes you just have to wing it.
Since I was a solo traveler on a group trip, I sometimes shared a room with another traveler. On the first day, my roommate stumbled into the room exhausted after a long flight from Europe. She was also panicked: Her luggage hadn’t made the connecting flight. She was without key essentials including a headlamp, hiking pack, and phone charger. The airline assured her she’d have her bags before we left to summit the mountain. As I handed her my phone charger and she made a plan to head to a local store for necessities, I realized that even the perfect packing list can only get you so far.
Being prepared for your trip helps you stay sane, but this was an important reminder that things can and will go wrong, and you just have to let some stuff go.
Lesson #2: Dealing with the Mental and Emotional Sh*t
Sometimes after being in a foreign country for a while, you just want Pizza Hut (or any other chain restaurant of your choice). Lack of Wi-Fi, not being able to rely on Google Maps, time differences, and funky food options—like sago grub, similar to woodworms—are only the beginning of a foreign traveler’s challenges. And when you’re traveling without a friend or companion, these feelings can be intensified.
Things like arranging an airport transfer before you arrive, giving yourself a buffer day, and booking short excursions ahead of time can help when you’re feeling overwhelmed in a new place. I made sure to do this with Borneo since I was flying for 28 hours (you can read more about that journey here) and would arrive a day before the rest of the group. I also arranged for a short city tour on Viator (SmarterTravel’s sister site) for my first day so I could easily explore the city. When I landed and was so exhausted I could barely stand, I was happy to not have to think about too many practicalities.
And that’s just the logistics. You may also find yourself feeling lonely and uncomfortable, but remember, there’s a reason (even if you’re not yet sure what it is) that you’re pushing your boundaries, and this is your chance to embrace it. There are few times that we have to rely on our natural instincts anymore, and traveling is a rare space in which you can react and think freely without the influence of social media, friends, family, or coworkers. Travel shakes you out of your daily routine and offers a fresh perspective. Know that you’ll have your Pizza Hut-craving moments, but don’t dwell on them. After all, there’s something to be said for not having your best friend to turn to after using a squat toilet for the first time … and it will make a great story when you get to tell them later.
Lesson #3: You Don’t Have to Go Alone
Traveling in a foreign country with a large group of strangers may not seem like a great way to travel, but—surprisingly—it turned out to be one of my favorite parts of my trip.
As a group of like-minded travelers, we bonded about small things—how to politely decline rice wine, for example—as well as bigger issues such as how to help promote trash clean-up on one of the islands we visited. Being on a trip with a group leader eliminated issues like language barriers, and it allowed us to do things like participate in one of the government’s homestay programs during which we had a meal with a local village family and learned about the tribes indigenous to Borneo. The group mentality also helped when people lost their luggage or were struggling to make it up the challenging mountain climb.
Lesson #4: Push Your Limits
After coming down from Mt. Kinabalu, the people in my group looked at each other in disbelief. “We consider this to be the highlight of the trip but it is extremely challenging,” says the itinerary. Even though we had all read the itinerary, gone to the safety briefings, and packed accordingly, nothing could have prepared us for the physical and mental challenge of the mountain summit. And once the soreness abated, I was able to reflect on the positives from the experience: getting to know our mountain guide, who lost his son in the 2015 earthquake but still climbs the mountain almost every day; learning about the porters who compete once a year to climb up and down the mountain in under three hours (normally the entire mountain summit spans over two days); and, of course, the epic sunrise views. The itinerary was right—it was the highlight of the trip—but I wouldn’t have gone so far out of my comfort zone if I had known how hard it was.
I learned that ignorance truly is bliss—it can help you climb the mountain, taste the woodworms, and learn what you can from your trip of a lifetime. While you might question it while you’re doing it, you likely won’t regret it after.
Lesson #5: Take a History Lesson
Since I didn’t know much about Borneo before my trip, I was eager to learn everything I could once I arrived. A few days into my trip I asked my tour leader, Jeffry, if he had more of a connection to Borneo, his island, or Malaysia, his country. “Borneo first, Malaysia second” was his response. And once I understood the political history of the region, his answer made total sense.
Sabah, the state I was in, located in Northern Borneo, was previously a British colony and then under Japanese occupation in World War II. It didn’t become part of Malaysia until 1963 when it gained its independence from British rule. During WWII, it was home to Japanese POW camps and the location of many death marches. Hundreds of prisoners—mainly Australian and British soldiers—marched long distances, resulting in close to 2,000 deaths, with only six survivals.
Three books by Agnes Keith—Land Below the Wind, Three Came Home, and White Man Returns—now sit on my bookshelf. Keith was the wife of a colonial settler, and her trilogy illustrates what North Borneo was like pre-, during, and post-WWII. Her accounts and illustrations were a welcome complement to my time in Borneo and made me wish I had taken this history lesson before my trip.
Every destination tells a story, and I now have a better understanding of Borneo from not just physically experiencing it, but also learning about the political, cultural, and environmental issues it faces. No matter what genre or form of entertainment you like—there are endless books, movies, TV shows, podcasts, and documentaries inspired by every country in the world—getting deeper into the story of your destination before, during, and after your trip can enrich your trip of a lifetime.
Lesson #6: It’s OK If It Doesn’t Live Up to Your Expectations
As my trip progressed, my group learned about both the good and the bad in the region. We saw wild orangutans, but they were swinging on downed telephone wires; we spotted pygmy elephants, but they were feeding on a cut-down palm oil plantation; we watched a beautiful red sky sunset, but plastic bottles were ebbing on and off the shore with the tides.
The region’s tourism is heavily reliant on wildlife and nature, but like many other developing states, Sabah is experiencing environmental problems, including trash pollution in the ocean, deforestation, and bird nest collecting.
Because I was on a group tour with a responsible tour operator, we could learn about these environmental issues and ask questions about what more could be done to reduce tourists’ impact. We came up with ideas on Turtle Island—a small island with a conservation program for sea turtles that allows just 45 people to stay per night—like banning sunscreens that are damaging to coral reefs and supplying each guest with a bag to collect trash.
Seeing the imperfect realities of an exceptional destination reminded me that that it’s OK if not everything lives up to expectations. Yes, I got to see wild orangutans, but now I can also advocate for more responsible tourism to the region.
If you can mentally and physically prepare yourself to accept the challenges that come with traveling to remote and developing countries, it will likely be worth the investment, even long after you return home.
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