I have lived across two worlds all of my life – Britain and Borneo – two islands on opposite sides of the globe that have shaped each other. Equally, they have shaped me, with a British father who came to Borneo in 1954 searching for a new life, only to find a local Eurasian wife – Chinese mixed with Scottish over three generations. Her European great-grandfather had come as the second General Manager of the Borneo Company, the only overseas company allowed to operate in Sarawak in the 1860s, and my father would prove to be the last in the newly made Malaysia of the 1970s.
READ MORE Although born in Kuching, I grew up in Kota Kinabalu in the life of an expatriate before my father’s retirement sent us winging across the world to a grey UK which we hardly knew. But the UK made me – ten years in a forbidding boarding school, ten years in London – my education, my attitude, my way of thinking is unmistakably English, even my accent. I loved it, I lived it, I get it. Then suddenly, at the age of 35, with the same longing for a new life which presumably drove my father, we relocated back to the Borneo of my birth. Except, in so many ways, it wasn’t. So much has changed that even my mother, born and bred here, was taken aback. The last decade has been a long period of adjustment, a learning process about my alien, Western ways and equally my inherent Asian access and insight. This blog is an attempt to reconcile them. CLOSE
Although born in Kuching, I grew up in Kota Kinabalu in the life of an expatriate before my father’s retirement sent us winging across the world to a grey UK which we hardly knew. But the UK made me – ten years in a forbidding boarding school, ten years in London – my education, my attitude, my way of thinking is unmistakably English, even my accent. I loved it, I lived it, I get it. Then suddenly, at the age of 35, with the same longing for a new life which presumably drove my father, we relocated back to the Borneo of my birth. Except, in so many ways, it wasn’t. So much has changed that even my mother, born and bred here, was taken aback. The last decade has been a long period of adjustment, a learning process about my alien, Western ways and equally my inherent Asian access and insight. This blog is an attempt to reconcile them. CLOSE
The marketing for the Spartan Race is truly terrifying. It consists of video after video of elite athletes leaping, striding, fording and climbing every obstacle imaginable. The race sign up comes with a waiver and a warning of impending death and ‘catastrophic injury’; there are clearly times when the word ‘serious’ simply won’t convey the correct level of catastrophe and those times are simply Spartan. Back in the UK, I would simply have never signed up. But suddenly, in October 2019, the Spartan race was having its debut in Sarawak and, in a sudden rush of blood to the head, my name was on the list.
The Spartan Race started in Vermont, USA, and it really is very American – big talk, big branding, big sponsors, big results. An obstacle race, it has several distances of trail run, ranging from the forbidding Ultra at 50km and 60 obstacles to the (relatively) manageable Sprint at 5km and a mere 20 obstacles. It has become a massive machine, transported around the world to put up their signature activities, all Spartan-branded, in strange places. And aspiring Spartans will travel. For the Kuching debut, close to 2,000 international participants signed up and flew in, filling hotels and other establishments across the city.
In fact, Sarawak seems to be a good fit. Famous for rainforest, mountains, rivers and mud, the trails ran through the orangutan sanctuary at Semenggoh, though naturally any great apes made themselves immediately scarce as the sound of several thousand feet pounded through their natural habitat! The 3,000 participants, from Brunei, from Denmark, from the UK, from West Malaysia, from all over and, of course, from Sarawak, were ready for the wild and that is definitely what they got – knee-deep mud, even at the first hurdle, slippery jungle trails and mountainous bucket climbs, all under the blazing tropical sun.
Unfortunately, my own Spartan trail had been anything but straight. When the event was announced back in June, I had signed up with a friend for the Beast (21km and 30 obstacles) in a fit of sheer bravado and incipient madness. With five months to train, I fully felt like I could make it. But July and August flew by in Kuching’s famous flurry of festivals and festivities and my courage waned. Undeterred, I signed up again for the statelier Sprint. But still the training schedule went off track with yet more dinners, events and activities. My Spartan buddy was derailed by a speaking engagement in Jakarta and suddenly, a week before the event, I was on the verge of chickening out. In reality, I’ve never before seen myself as a Spartan. Back in the UK, as previously mentioned, I would simply never have signed up.
Back in the UK, I had my own tribe – bit arty, bit party – more bar, a bit of yoga and impractical footwear than primary jungle and practical trail gear. Back in the UK, everyone seems to have a ‘scene’, be it creative, sporty, crafty, foodie, or whatever you choose to define you. But a move to Sarawak required a seismic shift and a more open-minded experience. It’s a big place with a full schedule but there is never enough to really go niche. For me, the great joy of Sarawak, with its small population, is not a narrow field of the best on offer but rather a gigantic, open expanse of endless possibilities. In the last 10 years, I have found myself hiking, drinking, dancing, emceeing, diving, leading, following, teaching, learning in a diversity of activities I might never have had time for in my old life. It is a giant jungle of events, in which every experience is fair game. If the Spartan comes to Sarawak, it is on my home turf.
So here I was, middle-aged, marginally overweight, with a Spartan Sprint sign up in one hand and a can of tiger in the other. But suddenly, a bit of Sarawak spirit came to me. Any idea that this simply ‘wasn’t me’ went out the window. A commonly expressed sentiment in Sarawak goes like this: if she thinks she can, let her try. It is born out of a Sarawakian spirit of adventure and possibility, of berjalai – the indigenous tradition of journeying for new experiences, of bringing new ideas home, of testing and trying the unknown. But equally, it is made possible by a total absence of judgment of the amateur attempt. If you think you can, then try, and if you can’t, every Sarawakian in the room will give you a great round of applause regardless, even if the attempt almost kills you.
It is an attitude that has allowed me to recite my decidedly pedestrian poetry to a roomful of supportive Sarawak people, despite years of attending poetry slams in a basement in Brixton at which I would never once have considered the stage. It has allowed me to grab hold of a microphone and emcee at the Rainforest World Music Festival, a major international event. It has allowed me to represent Sarawak in a show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, certainly not a venue I would ever have thought my talents worthy of. It is the idea that anything in the service of Sarawak is possible and that, when the world comes to Borneo, a place it often bypasses, then it automatically belongs to all of us.
On race day, it became apparent that I was not the only one infected by this Sarawak fever. As the heats commenced, the frontrunners sprinted past, trailed by a huge group of people who could barely make it over the first hurdle. They were hoisted over by fellow participants, a huge jam of flailing legs and hurtling bodies, all helping each other out. Apparently, there is a certain level of Spartan camaraderie, but this was more of a community effort. Just before the fourth obstacle, the barbed wire crawl, the viscous mud literally sucked the soles off my sneakers. To the rescue came a group behind me who produced a tube of glue out of a backpack and attempted to stick my shoes back together, almost sticking them to my feet in the process – impossibly friendly but ultimately futile. In the end, I hobbled on through the rest of the race without soles, the sea of mud itself cushioning my feet.
Did I cover myself in glory? I must admit that I did not. I completed most of the obstacles, did most of my requisite burpees, met masses of interesting people, encountered several old friends along the way and enjoyed myself immensely, emerging in more mud than glory. But I made it and I have a finisher’s T-shirt and Spartan medal to prove it. Am I Spartan? Perhaps not yet! But I have definitely become a little bit more Sarawak. At least now, if I think I can, then I just let myself try.
Kuching buzzes in the early morning with seven am school runs that require six am…