Travel allows us to reinvent ourselves over and over again. We merely open our eyes and hearts and change happens. When you travel with your eyes and your mind open, you realize that you are not the same person you were when you left home. I realized some time ago that travel had changed me. The scenery, the adventures, the people I met, the places I stayed at all changed me; all for the better.
This idea of being changed by travel stuck with me and last year I decided to develop the idea further. I began writing down the funny things that happened while I traveled. As an ecotourism development specialist I get to visit some very cool places, often before they are discovered or ready for tourists. The results can be hilarious, like the time I stayed at a retirement home as the local hotel was not suitable for tourists! Or the time I had the chance to work on my perceptions of what is pleasant or constitutes a real tourism attraction, when I was given the chance to visit the Gomantong Cave in northeast Borneo with large numbers of birds and bats.
Caves like Gomantong are home to thousands of small birds known as swiftlets. Their nests are made from saliva mixed with feathers and other nest materials, and are highly prized as ingredients in birds-nest soup. A nest can be worth over $500US per kilogram so it is important to regulate collection so that over harvesting does not occur. The Gomantong Cave has been described by the World Wildlife Fund as one of the best managed edible birds-nest cave in the world.
The Gomantong Cave is also a popular tourist attraction. It is a unique chance to see how the bird’s nest industry works, and to observe the delicate ecosystem of the cavern. I have always enjoyed seeing new bird species and I like bats, so it was not hard to convince me to add a visit to Gomantong Cave to my itinerary.
A stop at the visitor centre explained the intricacies of nest harvesting and the risks people take in climbing the fragile-looking rattan ladders and ropes to the cave’s highest reaches. After a quick stop, we were off to see the Sumud Hitam, or the Black Nest Cave. It is a large cavern, 30 metres wide and 100 metres high, with raised boardwalks to make walking easier. I soon realized I underestimated the challenge in this adventure. The short walk to see the cave would turn out to be one of the longest walks of my life.
I entered the cave, gagging on the ammonia-fumes of bat guano permeating the stale air and feeling my feet sliding on the accumulated droppings of thousands of bats and birds. Wearing open-toe sport sandals may have been a good fashion choice in the morning, but made for precarious footing in the cave. In the corner of my eye, I caught the flash of red on the ground. Closer inspection with a flashlight showed the ground was alive with hundreds of cockroaches. I wished I had not looked.
Saat, our guide from Borneo EcoTours, pointed out there would be rats around who would eat the insects and snakes who would eat the rats. A very healthy ecosystem, but not exactly what I had anticipated when entering one of Borneo’s newest ecotourism attractions. “It is interesting, but slightly unpleasant,” Saat said as he tightened his shirt around his neck, “If you look up, keep your mouth closed.” Wise words I figured, knowing that the cave is home to hundreds of busy swiftlets who flew back and forth in their daily search for food.
When I entered the cave, I had not counted on almost falling on my rear end in bat droppings and enough cockroaches to keep me in therapy for years. Saat gallantly offered his hand to keep me upright; probably figuring, somewhat correctly, that the trip would be cut short if I fell down. We proceeded further into the cave to a sight that would have taken your breath away if you were not already holding it.
The cave’s walls sweep up over 100 metres (300 feet) with sunlight streaming in from openings at the top; it looked like a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Swiftlets darted back and forth from their nests to the forest in their ongoing search for food. Bats moved about in darkened corners of the cave. Ladders and ropes lying idle, waiting for the next nesting season when skilled collectors would risk their lives to gather their bounty. In all, it was a stunning sight and one I am glad I did not miss despite the perils of getting there.
I figured there was a life lesson in this experience. Like my trip to the Gomantong Cave, it may be necessary to endure a little unpleasantness, keep your mouth shut, risk falling on your rear and wade through some droppings. However, if you hold true to your vision, you will be rewarded.
So I kept to my vision and collected my best stories in a book which was published recently by Trafford Publishing of Victoria, B.C. I did not want to write lists of sights to see or restaurants to visit. Travel can transform people and the communities they live in. By sharing stories like the visit to Gomantong Cave, one can learn that if you travel with an open mind and an open heart, change is inevitable.
Many people feel they have left some of their dreams behind in their quest to manage work and family obligations. People seeking the impetus to dust off their childhood dreams and undertake a new direction can often create the spark they need though a travel adventure. I found a new direction in life from travel and I think others can too!