One of the best parts of backpacking, despite its anti-immersive nature, is the camaraderie that occurs in crunched buses, hammock-slung hostel gardens, and around the old grub-time table. Other travelers often provide the most lucrative tips, funniest tales of woe, as well as the most inspirational conversations you can find on the trail. However, there is often that one, despite the ubiquitous drive to experience the great unknown, who deems all other tourists shams, unworthy of the setting, a foul stench upon the un-trodden corners of earth. Her name was Joanne.
As we were weaving through the streets of Kuala Lampur, she’d flagged down our passenger van, knowing full well, as the logos stenciled on side panels indicated, that tourists might be aboard. Nevertheless, negotiating her six feet of limbs and legs into the most spacious of bench seats, the front one, she was already a full paragraph into explaining to the driver her hatred for other foreigners. Finishing her speech, she turned to us, my girlfriend Emma, me, and a nice English couple, two scientists, Elliot and Simone, we’d just made friends with. She let us know she’d normally never accept such a ride.
We were going to Taman Negara, the famed oldest jungle in the world, home to some of the last remaining wild tigers and elephants in Southeast Asia. As one might expect, reaching such an untouched nature reserve, more or less, required taking a rather established route. After all, your average traveler isn’t skilled in the subtleties of hunting and gathering, navigating dense jungles, or hollowing tree trunks to float rabid rivers. Emma and I, who appreciate bi-weekly cold showers or eating three meals of canned beans directly from the tin, had accepted that this one wasn’t an off-the-beaten track mission.
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Joanne did not so easily forego the posturing. She looked like us, pasty in comparison to our Malay driver (save for Simone, who was of Indian heritage); she talked like us, scarce a word of the local, let alone any indigenous language; but she spent the next four hours explaining how she hated people … like us. When we stopped at a gas station, she hated our Lonely Planet guides. When we reached the boat landing, Taman Negara requiring a two-hour up-current prop-canoe trip, she reasserted that, though she’d agreed to sign up for the full package tour, she would have much preferred to do it on her own, as she did in Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos, tourist dead zones where she single-handedly stamped the outer world’s presence on the natives.
All of us were to some degree a version of experienced backpacker. Joanna, however, was the version that wanted to leave little doubt who was the best: She’d been everywhere, would eat anything. Every story offered, she readily topped it with a more heroic act of travel: Someone says, I went to the Floating Village on the outskirts of Siem Reap, Cambodia, and subsisted on a stew made of turtle claw and river mud, sleeping on a conifer branch with a pine cone for a pillow—awesome, and Joanna replies, Yes, maybe, but I’ve just been steering clear of rivers since alligator-wrangling in the boiling tar pits of Zimbabwe; I nearly lost an eye, miracle I wasn’t scarred.
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The trip into the heart of the jungle could not have rung more authentic, our shared boat sitting precariously low in the water as we splashed through rapids, nothing but sandy embankments and rainforest at our sides. As we entered the park, the guide stalled the boat in front of a former settlement of one of the jungle’s remaining indigenous tribes, truly nomadic people who follow the hunt, which by law they were still allowed to do but only with traditional tools, spears and/or an extremely long blowpipe. This settlement had been abandoned due to a death, after which the body is left in a tree to rot, the group relocating to avoid the smell and spirits.
I tried to imagine Joanne in the midst of these proceedings, her lumbering length flinging on her fat backpack of market-bought local wear, falling in line with a teary-eyed group of indigenous Malay, pitching a tent next to their fast-fixed thatches. I began composing a list of backpacker don’ts: 1.Don’t alienate your fellow travelers, else they’ll resent you into their mocking imaginings and 2. don’t confuse being an “intrepid” nomad with being an actual nomad or a card-carrying member of any community you find yourself in. I may have lived in eight countries, exchanged Christmas gifts with shopkeepers, hiked mountains as the only white man in sight, but I’ve never been Russian, Kurdish, Korean, or Guatemalan.
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We tied off to a half-sunken pier, and everyone pitched in transferring the bags to their rightful owners. The jungle had been cleared enough to host about three hotels, one which was a first class joint across the river. Our little group trekked to the edge of the clearing, to a small building that held two rooms of six dorm beds, an accommodating porch to give us outdoor shelter from the increasingly ominous rain. We all, including Joanne, had signed up for a nighttime Creepy Crawlers insect walk after dark. Until then, we were left to our own devices: hand-rolled cigarettes and Koh Chang beer under the safe and dry confines of our portico.
Our collection of entomologists included about ten, a family with a couple of excited kids that dashed from one spot to the next, a guide, and the canoe troop we’d come in with. The night had failed to deliver any scenes from The Temple of Doom, but we’d spotted a couple fuzzy spiders, a scorpion, a long line of massive termites at work, as well as some fine specimens of leeches, little half-inch ground dwellers that work their way up socks onto your ankles. I loathed the thought of them, but Emma, ever emerging from arachnophobia, was worried about the tarantulas. When she was the one to discover a stark white eight-legger in the middle of our path, her incumbent desire for a photo helped her continue along the road to recovery.
Joanne, to form, was beside herself, incessantly insisting that the group’s noise had ruined any chance of us seeing anything. She proclaimed this at length in un-secretive whispers, still bending the guide’s ear as we approached the tour’s crescendo: a hide, or raised jungle look-out, which oversaw a large break in the forest, a place where tour operators had set out salt licks to attract wildlife. Shining his spotlight into the mist, the guide found a deer congregated at the tree line. He flashed the beam upward to expose the glowing eyes of slow lorises. Most of us felt pretty magical about the experience, though one of us was certain that a herd of elephants had just dispersed due to everyone else’s blabbering. 3. Don’t scare off big game by complaining that everyone else has.
We’d paid for three days in the jungle, during which time we’d seen monitor lizards stretched out on branches overhanging the river, bull-headed water buffaloes, a swimming viper, stood on a beach dotted with fresh leopard tracks, watched a family of otters paddling along the river bank, took an amazing canopy tour, hiked, and drank plenty in the evenings on our porch. In the meantime, Joanne had photocopied our guidebook by taking digital photos of the entire Borneo section, her next port of call. It turned out that, as long as the travel tips, bus schedules, and useful local phrases were in picture form, all was well.
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On our last evening, we’d taken a splashtastic rapids ride in one of the motorized tree canoes. At the end of it, we dropped Joanne off at a nearby village that housed one of the more remote hides. An elephant had rampaged through the village the week before and piqued the interest of many the wildlife enthusiast. Due to the high price of staying in the hide, our dwindling funds at the end of six weeks in Southeast Asia, Emma and I begrudged Joanne’s opportunity to chance a sighting. Where had such a shoestring-er found the sixty dollars to sleep outside? I found myself ashamed of hexing her adventure, perhaps even imagining her fellow hide’s people might throw her into the flats as bait. She was never seen from again, at least not in Taman Negara.
About two days later, wondering through a museum in Melaka, Emma and I spotted Joanne bent over a glass case, studying the write-up on one of the ten thousand Portuguese artifacts used to overrun coastal Malaysia some hundreds of years ago. We glued our backs to the wall of a nearby stairwell, eyes darting to find an alternative route of exit, one less traveled, not so tourist-ed, the opposite direction of Joanne. We didn’t want to know. 4. Don’t visit tourist museums if you don’t want to see tourists. 5.Don’t take your fellow travelers for granted: We aren’t all traveling to admire your list of solo conquests. All stories need an audience.