Trust: A Backpacker's Life
Malaysia, © 14.Oct.2002 gM
Photos of Malaysia
Introduction to Malaysia
Trust: A Backpacker's Life
In the Jungles of Malaysian Borneo
Malaysian Borneo's Nature: Still There - Accessible, Effort Involved!
Backpacking. This magic word that stands for new experiences, making friends in foreign places, marveling at the wonders of the world, and getting closer to understanding the horrors of this same world. For some, it just means getting drunk and/or high in a different place with different people. For most, it is about broadening horizons. Finding yourself and your principles, and testing them anew everyday - backpacking is synonymous with youth and energy. Above all, backpacking is about trust, more precisely about learning who and when to trust. Whether you ask a fellow backpacker to watch your belongings at the bus station while you are buying the bottle of water you will need for the long bus ride or at the beach while you plunge into the cooling waters, whether you hand over your moneybelt to be put into the hotel's safe or your backpack to be put on the roof of a bus, whether you leave your shoes unattended outside a mosque or Buddhist temple, whether you drop off your rolls of slide film first to be processed and then again to get prints or digital scans, whether you change money on the black market or give your credit card to a merchant to pay for your purchase, it is about trust. We all have heard the stories and met the people of these stories - stories which never seem to happen at home: stolen backpacks, missing traveler's cheques and shoes, mysterious credit card transactions appearing on your statement back home, blatant rip-offs and lies about precious stones, comfortable accommodation, or special offers of any kind. The list goes on and on.

Backpackers build a community, and as with any community, there are unwritten rules upon which one can rely: it is ok to leave your backpack in a dormitory, it is ok to lend your travel guide overnight to a backpacker you have just met, and it is ok to pay the bus fare for all and to get the money back later. It is when these basic rules are violated that one gets the most angry and becomes the most vulnerable. This, however, is also the time when the backpackers' community is at its best, helping each other unconditionally.

It is morning and we have just entered the common kitchen area of the backpackers' hostel in Kuching, Malaysian Borneo. Maurice 1) looks at us and asks, "You have no idea what happened here last night?" The previous night in the dormitory across the hall from our room, one of the backpackers offered orange juice and cookies infused with a powerful sleeping drug, knocking the other backpackers in the room all but completely out. The individually sized juice cartons and cookies were all still in their original packaging, giving no indication that they had been tampered with. Jonathan, Patrique, and Paul did not have enough clues to anticipate the drugging and subsequent robbery. Neither did Maurice, who was only spared because he had Malay lessons at the hostel's office during the evening. The couple of times he walked in and out of the dormitory, he realized that something was going on, but could not pinpoint exactly what. Only when Patrique managed, mustering his last strengths, to tell Maurice very slowly, "I need a coooffeeee. Something ... in the juice.", did everything become clear. Unfortunately, the thief overheard this conversation and got away with Jonathan's passport, traveler's cheques, and credit card, and Paul's cash and debit card. Patrique, luckily, had locked his valuables inside his backpack. Just after the thief escaped, Maurice, the hostel staff, and other backpackers tried to establish the extent of the theft, but could not get much out of Jonathan, Patrique, and Paul, even when holding them under cold showers. The next morning, the three were hardly able to walk straight, felt shaky and nauseous, and could not remember anything after drinking orange juice. They wanted and needed to sleep.

In lieu of a photo of the thief, here is Patrique's pit viper
In lieu of a photo of the thief, here is Patrique's pit viper / © gM
The loss of money and documents and the subsequent replacement of them, as annoying and inconveniently time-consuming as it is, in the end is nothing more than a nuisance. What is really upsetting, and earth-shatteringly so, is the violation of trust because the drugging and theft happened in the sanctuary of the dormitory, not on some bus, train, or at a market, and was committed by one of us, a backpacker. And even worse, the thief did not shy away from physically harming people. Jonathan, Patrique, and Paul were out for at least 60 hours, were incredibly slow, sleepy, and unable to make new memories. Jonathan went to the police three times: he lost his first police report on the way back to the hostel and then forgot that he had already obtained a second report (which, by the way, was much shorter than the first). Three days after the incident, Patrique could not remember that he had bought a return ticket from Kuching to Bako National Park two days after the incident. At Bako National Park, he tried to find out if a Wagler's pit viper sleeping on a branch was real by tapping it with his camera case. Luckily, the viper was deep asleep. Even though the ability to remember new things was initially lost and then returned gradually to Jonathan, Patrique, and Paul, any memories from before the drugging remained unaffected. The speed at which such memories could be recalled, however, suffered heavily. Even the simplest things took minutes. Paul only eventually managed to log into his email account to access emergency contact information. The far greater difficulty was getting to and from the Internet cafe for which he needed the hand of a couple of people. The trip exerted him so much that he collapsed on the way to the Internet cafe, had to lie down on the sidewalk for a few minutes, and on the way back to the hostel, had to stop to throw up. Just imagine what could have happened if someone of a smaller size than Jonathan, Patrique, or Paul had been given the same dose of sleeping drug.

Immediately after the incident I strictly refused food or beverages offered by anybody, no matter what, except maybe for Maurice's previously tested peanut butter from Canada. We were all left to ponder, "Would I have taken the juice and cookies, if it were me in the dormitory?" For weeks, the question and events were kept fresh in our minds because the "Story from Kuching" popped up in conversations with other travelers who had heard more or less true accounts from someone who met someone who ... Eventually, we stopped hearing the story. It, however, will always be in our pool of experiences, ready to be used for when we have to decide who and when to trust.

1) All names changed

Introduction to Malaysia  /  Trust: A Backpacker's Life  /  In the Jungles of Malaysian Borneo  /  Malaysian Borneo's Nature: Still There - Accessible, Effort Involved!