Somewhere in my bag I must have a hidden rabbit foot, or four leaf clover stuck in my shoe because I’ve had a lot of good luck while on the road. I’ve been traveling for over a year and a half now and have had some insanely good fortune, somehow avoiding most of the typical annoyances of travel: food poisoning, missed flights, and stolen wallets. I’m actually nervous to write about how fortunate I’ve been so I’m knocking wood with my left hand as I hen peck the keyboard with the right to avoid any karmic backlash.
That being said, for the countless amount of good things that have happened over the past 18 months of travel I have had a few setbacks that I’ve encountered, which for me is miraculous. An afternoon that I thought I contracted rabies in Borneo would be one of those “count on one hand bad experiences.”
An American Who Writes
Borneo is a spectacular place and I enjoyed everything about my visit there. I had a couple of days in Sandakan, Malaysia before heading to Turtle Island for the weekend to release baby turtles into the sea (I couldn’t even make up a sentence like that if I tried) so I decided to explore the city before leaving for the island. Sandakan is a historic port town on the northeast part of Malaysian Borneo. Although it’s the second largest city in the state of Sabah it’s relatively small compared to any major American city and you can easily see the town and get a lay of the land in a few days.
I decided to take the day and follow the Sandakan Heritage Trail stopping for lunch at the top of the 100 steps and finishing the afternoon at the Agnes Keith House, a museum dedicated to an American writer who lived in Borneo around WWII. I knew very little of the author before I came to Borneo and I was happy to stumble upon the heritage house to find more information about her life and her work.
Agnes Keith had quite the life. Born in Illinois, studied in Berkley then became a journalist for the San Francisco Examiner where she was attacked by a disturbed reader outside of her office. She sustained several severe injuries that effected her throughout her life. In the early 30’s she married Henry Keith, the Director of Forestry for the North Borneo government. Theirs was a whirlwind romance, meeting first at eight years old, they married three days after reconnecting as adults then moved to Borneo only a few months into their marriage.
Keith wrote several books about her experiences in “The Land Below the Wind” including their time living as prisoners in a Japanese internment camp towards the end of WWII. Her works are poetic and are as brave as they are inspiring and she seemed like an amazing woman.
The Keith House is a beautifully preserved building that showcases a glimpse of life in Borneo throughout colonization, the war and into the 50’s. The original house was destroyed in a fire during the war and the current replica was rebuilt by the Keiths in 1946 and nicknamed “Newlands”. After leaving in the early 50’s, the house became a home for several other ministers of forestry until it was abandoned in the early 90’s because of rumors that it was haunted. Agnes herself had made similar comments about the property, so be sure to read about her haunting experiences and see if you sense any ghostly presences when you visit. I had the opportunity to tour the house alone with no other visitors around and it’s hard to escape the peacefully haunting feeling that surrounds the property, in particular the office on the second floor of the house.
In 2001 the government’s Department of Museums and Antiquities appropriated the property and it has been restored to it’s original charm. The home is full of antiques and artifacts that will paint the visitor a picture for what life was like in Northern Borneo. Be sure to check out the timeline on the second floor of the building to get the whole interesting story of Agnes and the Keith family.
A Dog That Bites
I was feeling so inspired after leaving the Agnes Keith house. The stories she told, recounting what must have been such a hard but adventurous life, I was in awe of her journey not just as a writer myself, but also as a woman. Her courageous spirit is energetic and as the sun started setting into the sea, I began my afternoon trek back down into town oblivious to my own Borneo adventure that awaited me. I decided to take another route home so I could explore the other side of the walking tour and as I walked down the road I had my head buried in the map, establishing my location and learning my route. My long cotton sundress rustled the leaves that had fallen onto the path and I quickly felt a sharp thwack on my leg. I whipped my head from my map and glanced to my left side, startled I jumped back realizing there was a stray dog right at my feet that I hadn’t noticed until now. Her sandy colored body lunged toward me slowly and she bared her teeth as I shouted in response. In a second I dropped the map, as it floated to the ground I shifted my weight towards the street, and like a dance she moved forward as I retreated back.
The commotion caught the attention of a couple of road workers and after seeing them in the corner of my eye I immediately ran down the rest of the hill hoping the dog wouldn’t follow. Thankfully she stayed, guarding her little patch of land and barking from a distance. Shakily I went over towards the workers, examining my ankle to find only a small scratch with a little pooling of blood. The men scared the dog off and told me she is a “bad dog” and I should go down to town to get my wound looked at. What the hell does “bad dog” mean I wondered Does she not obey her owners or is she some kind of crazy rabid dog running around terrorizing Agnes Keith enthusiasts? Either way I decided they were right and I should go find medical attention, the dog however had run in the direction of the short way back to town so I was left taking the long route along the hilly road, my mind racing with thoughts of what horrible treatments awaited me at the clinic.
I had no idea where a doctor’s office or the hospital was so I decided to make my way towards my hostel where I knew I had seen a pharmacy and I thought it would be a good place to start. I walked in and when I told her the story I immediately started crying. I’m alone and injured in a foreign country and the realization just hit me as I retold the events of the afternoon. The woman there was so sweet and closed the shop to take me to the clinic across the street where she knew of a doctor who spoke fluent english. We walked up the clinic steps and I took a seat in the waiting room as the pharmacist spoke Malay to the receptionist and filled her in on my problem. They saw me right away, cleaned up my wound and gave me antiseptic wash and antibiotic ointment (which I later lovingly dubbed my “asian sauces”).
Because I was wearing a long dress with thick strapped sandals AND I wasn’t looking when it happened we couldn’t determine if the dog nipped at me or scratched at me so she recommended just keeping the superficial wound clean and following up if any issues arose. I left feeling relieved but still totally paranoid that I had contracted rabies. Later after I completely freaked myself out with online research I came to find out that Sabah and Sarawak are rabies-free states so my hypochondriac rabid symptoms were all self inflicted. The whole scenario was scary but it gave me the opportunity to see first hand how kind and caring the Malaysian people are to strangers and when unpredictable things happen while traveling, in the end I can still take care of myself and I have a cute little scar to prove it.
Lesson learned: look for the location of medical professionals when arriving to a new location and stay up to date on all shots & vaccines to avoid any complicated issues!
Things To Do In Sandakan When Not Getting Bitten By Dogs
Check out a great view of the city below while enjoying a scone and feeling like a British Colonist at the English Tea House & Restaurant. You can even enjoy a game of croquet on the lawn.
Follow the Sandakan Heritage Trail, giving you a glimpse of the city while allowing you to stop and learn about all of the historical spots in town. Make sure while on the walking tour to visit St. Michael’s and All Angels church, the only building that wasn’t destroyed during the war and one of the only all stone buildings in Borneo.
A sad but important piece of history is the Sandakan death marches and POW camp, now commemorated by the Sandakan Memorial Park. A beautiful and serene green space memorializing the thousands of British and Australian soldiers who lost there lives on the property, the park offers a chance to learn more about the history of WWII.
Experience the flora and fauna of the jungle by checking out the Rainforest Discovery Center. Borneo is home to some of the most unique and rare birds, and a festival for bird watchers is held here yearly. It’s a unique perspective to explore high above the trees in the canopy walkway or along their many hiking trails.