Over the Mountains and through the Woods

Guest article by Janna Babad
State University of New York, Geneseo, NY
If you live in Kota Belud, Sabah, there are a few unspoken things that everyone knows: that all one way streets turn into two way streets after sundown, that the G-Mart only sells Parmesan cheese on Mondays, so you better get there first, and to find the best murtabak sayur, you go to the night market stall with the longest line. Aside from these characteristics about KB, I was delighted to learn that it is also known for its love of hiking (a trendy activity according to my students), and peaceful relations between the Sabahan indigenous groups that live here. Kota Belud is a small town in Northwest Sabah with beautiful beaches and tall mountains. There are three mountains that people like to climb in Kota Belud: Bukit Bongol, Bukit Tinjau, and Bukit Tunggul. Bukit Bongol has the highest peak, which I accidentally summited one day after school after being told I’d be going on a “short hike.”
The View on the way down Bukit Bongol

Bukit Tunggul is a smaller mountain with a beautiful view, and is, to me, the
perfect height because it is smaller than Bongol and taller than Tinjau. Although it is great for my out of shape, asthmatic body, and the views are wonderful, what really makes that mountain so special is the people.

Hiking trails in Kota Belud are all incredibly new, with Bukit Bongol being the oldest (about two years old), and Bukit Tunggul being the newest (just a couple months old). Hiking trails in KB are created by the landowners, not for profit but for pleasure. In talking to the brother of one of the Bukit Tunggul land owners, I learned that he and his brother carved out the trail themselves, and that every week they add new elements such as ropes for steep areas and stairs carved into the dirt. They even cut down some of the shrubbery and trees at the peak to give visitors a nicer view. The trail is becoming an ecotourism site, with inspirational signs about hiking scattered around and plastic bottles that they’ve turned into flower pots.
Some of the recycling efforts made by the Tunggul community
A few months ago, I visited Bukit Tunggul with my roommate Jessi and her friend Grace. We were supposed to meet some of my students to hike it at 3:30 (which in Malaysian time may mean 4:30, 5:30, or never, a sentiment I am still getting used to), but they never showed up. Lucky for us, the start of the trail, tucked back in the jungle, is always feathered with oodles of young Bajau children, ages 4-11, gleaming with excitement.

New friends that kept us company before the hike
While waiting around for my students, we started chatting up the children using the little Bahasa Malaysia that we knew, such as “how are you?,” “how old are you,” and “what is your favorite color?” (the latter being the most important of all). As we waited and waited, we walked around the base of the mountain, gnawing on peanuts and watching monkeys run through the jungle. With every step we took I heard rubber sandals slamming against the dirt and I’d turn around to see our new friends behind us. No words were exchanged, only muffled giggles, as laughter was the only thing that was understood across all languages.


We finally gave up on waiting for my students and instead began the hike with our new squad. Ranging in age from 6-11 we were quite the site as we began our assent. One of the four kids and I share a name and so it was wordlessly decided that she was sticking with me for the walk. Jessi raced up the hill with one of the girls as I wheezed my way up, legs shaking and asthma in full throttle. As I struggled, I was awfully jealous of these spry young kids running up in sandals, not a drip of sweat on their foreheads. My kawan Katie in Papar, Sabah once said something about hiking that really resonated with me. She said, “I love to hike but I have never claimed to be an effortless hiker.” My sentiments exactly. Although I love to hike and was enjoying every second of it, the trip was not without its pit stops. With every stop I would look ahead to see my new kawan running ahead of me, and look behind to see Janna standing right behind me waiting for my ok to go. Janna followed me unconditionally and rightfully looked at me like I was crazy while I yelled “good! bagus!” each time we made it to another peak. Janna and I finally reached the summit, far behind Jessi and co., but she did not seem to mind losing pace with her friends.

My Malaysian twin, Janna, and I at the summit
After an inevitable photo session, We gave Janna and crew the cue to head back down. At Bukit Tunggul, it is an unspoken rule that you run down the mountain when you are finished, so you bet Janna and I sprinted down that hill, falling a few times but mostly laughing along the way. At the bottom, Jessi proceeded to lead a stretching session with our kawan before we said goodbye.
Jessi and Grace leading a stretching session 

The family at the bottom of the hill told us, in so many words to come back soon, and we surely will.

Before I left, Janna poked me and whispered “good,” which was the first and only word I heard from her mouth the whole day, let alone in English, and was probably a result of me yelling “good! bagus!” the whole way up. In that moment I smiled because I realized that in the two hours that we spent together, I had never heard other Janna speak. But we didn’t need to speak, because around here, some things are better left unspoken.

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