Brunei - misunderstood paradise or just unknown?

Day 2,108 since October 10th 2013: 185 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country  

(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross). 

What should be our focus?

pano

For more than five years I have been defending and highlighting the positive attributes of every country I have reached. It does not mean I do not see the dark sides. However who am I to focus on the bad when all I am is a guest? And doesn’t media already have the negative aspects covered?

Brunei Darussalam literally means: Brunei the abode of peace. And that is simply too much for some people as they went straight for the throat. I keep the Saga highly active across social media and I have for the past week been posting plenty of photos along with some information regarding Brunei. And in all fairness most people have reacted positively to all the information. However a few keyboard warriors immediately had to point out that Brunei was some unsafe hell on earth. And I suspect that those people have spent more time soaking up media input rather than actually experiencing Brunei first hand. Isn’t that always how it goes? Who could imagine that people live normal lives in North Korea? Most people have never been to that country and yet they have much to say about it. I am not advocating that every opinion should be based on first-hand experience. That would be silly. However if your opinions arise from second hand information then I sincerely hope your information stream is balanced and broad. From my time in Brunei I have seen, heard and experienced nothing which would make me think that this country is anything but pleasant. And here we go…

Joanna

In last week’s entrylast week’s entry I left you as I had just arrived to Brunei and met with Joanna, who introduced me to a lot of her friends and brought me along for the Hash run. Joanna is an expat in Brunei and works in connection with Brunei’s greatest source of income: oil. And as long as you are in the north west of the country it is hard to forget. The industry is visibly wherever you look. Oil derricks dot the landscape and jack up rigs are visible offshore. Workers in overalls and training centres are a part of the landscape too and the general outline of many expats living quarters resemble those of army barracks. Meanwhile Brunei is astonishing green and lush as you would expect of any tropical country. The coastline is a mere 161 km (100 mi) and you can drive from one side of the country to the other in 90 minutes without speeding.

Dinner

Having dinner with Joanna's friends and colleagues.

Joanna was just amazing. She took really good care of me and left me with the key to her apartment on the morning she flew to Singapore. In connection with the Sultan’s upcoming 73rd birthday Brunei had a long weekend and Joanna saw her chance to head across the pond and see her friend. On that same day I was meeting up with Azim who has been following the Saga since April 2019 and reached out to hear if I was planning on coming to Brunei. He offered the hospitality of his home and to show me around. I took Azim up on that not knowing exactly what I was getting into? Azim had written that his mother was looking forward to meeting me which had me wondering how old Azim might be? Azim arrived to pick me up and was cool right from the beginning. He is the youngest of four brothers and lives with his parents in Kuala Belait which is the second largest settlement in Brunei after the capital. We had the chance to talk about this and that and I was fortunate to meet a lot of his family along with friends who were all full of hospitality and delight.

KB

Kuala Belait is a small calm place and home to about 40,000 beating hearts.

The intention was originally that I would stay in their guestroom but it was taken so to my surprise I ended up in a hotel room. I did not need to pay anything as the hotel was owned by a friend of the family. That night I had dinner with Azim, his brother and his father who was a very kind and soft spoken man. His father, Musa, found it amusing that some people around the world would think Brunei was anything but peaceful. The main reason why some people now suddenly think Brunei is unsafe stems from the recently adapted Sharia Law which took effect in Brunei earlier this year. Sharia Law is rooted in Islam and is based off a variety of sources and interpretations. In my personal opinion most religion is intolerant of certain people, lifestyles or actions when you follow them to the letter. That is also why most people fall short of following every word of the Quran or Bible. Modern society all around the world adapts certain parts of religion into their lives and leave other elements out. In my opinion many people let religion guide them but still think for themselves.

beach

Is it getting lighter or darker? ;)

Sharia Law comprises of a great many things but what it is openly criticized for are the aspects which punish sexuality if the law does not agree with it. Personally I think it is wrong to punish anyone for love. However it is surely not my place to criticize a country which I am a guest within. And there is much more to the story than most people know. Same sex relationships could already be punished by law in Brunei even before Sharia Law was implemented in the country (it exists in 15 other countries). The most important thing to know is that capital punishment has not been practised in Brunei since it gained independence in 1984 and both the public as well as official statements from government voice that it is highly unlikely that it ever will. So what are we dealing with here? Well, the law is certainly in place but it is not being used. In other words it is theoretical at this point. Something which is not theoretical is the kindness I have been shown in Brunei. So why is the law there? Well anyone can speculate. Brunei has always been seen as the region’s most observant Islamic nation and as such the adaptation of Islamic law might just be a natural step. The official statement is that Sharia Law in Brunei is meant as a deterrent and will help guide people on the right path. Well…apart from a few online voices my experience of Brunei has been one of peace, kindness, beauty, hospitality, smiles and a REALLY easy going lifestyle…

Empire

That's Azim next to me and friends and family all around us. Great people. Thanks for everything!

Azim and his family decided to drive to Bandar Seri Begawan the next day. It is Brunei’s capital city and home to about 140,000 beating hearts. I managed to find a $9 USD hostel but Azim told me that his family had already booked a hotel room for me. They were heading to the capital to receive their mother who was returning from her travels. She loves to travel and has been to some really cool destinations such as the western part of China close to Kirgizstan and she is looking into visiting Uzbekistan next. She has something to look forward to!! However her flight wasn’t due to arrive until midnight so I wouldn’t meet her until the next day. We drove straight to The Empire which is a five star luxury resort in Bandar where the cheapest rooms go for about $200 USD. I joined Azim, Musa and everyone else for dinner before I headed to my hotel late at night.

savingPNG

Brunei has more cars than people. Not all look like this...but some do ;)

The next morning I got up, checked out of the hotel and headed out to meet with the Brunei Red Crescent Society (BRC). They were originally established in 1948 as a branch of the British Red Cross and became BRC in 1984 when Brunei gained its independence. I joined them at their General Assembly at Brunei Stadium and afterwards for a light lunch were I got to speak with Faizal who operates their Social Media. I also had the opportunity to shake hands with Hj. Muhammad Suhaimi Ibrahim, President of BRC, who said: “Our Movement here is very unique. We are totally 100% volunteer staff from the school cadet and even up to the council members. We do not even have any paid staff to run and manage our movement here”.

RC

The BRC were in the final preparations for the parade which was to take place for the Sultans 73rd birthday the following day. Counting BRC I have now had the pleasure of linking up with the Red Cross or Red Crescent in 181 countries around the world. The RC movement began in 1863 and has spread all around the world to nearly every country (191) and I encourage you to donate, volunteer or in other ways support the humanitarian efforts and alleviate the suffering of the most vulnerable people. You matter and so do your actions.

RC2

Faizal taking a selfie with me. Great guy! :)

Afterwards I reached my hostel which was a nice little place with a few guests apart from me. I barely had time to drop my bags before I was picked up to go and have a late lunch with Azim’s family where I finally got to meet his mother. She was a delight however understandably very tired and looking forward to heading home and sleep in her own bed. That is a luxury I have yet to come. Suddenly the rain hammered down and we all had to seek cover inside the café we were seated at. Once the rain calmed down we all headed out in separate directions. Azim and his brothers were about to challenge themselves with the allegedly hardest escape room in Bandar. I was invited but was frankly too tired and needed to rest up. So we said farewell :)

Azim

Azim is a really cool, calm and collected student. Thanks for inviting me into your home :)

Back at the hostel I ran into Kristina from Germany who had just arrived on her way to the western part of Borneo where I had just come from. We clicked and decided to get up the next morning at 06:00am in order to see the parade and celebrations for the Sultan’s 73rd birthday. His birthday is celebrated publically every year and is a national holiday. We were told to get there early as there would be many people present. All branches of the military had suited up as well as the fire department, officials, scouts, the Red Crescent and more. It got hot as the sun rose higher into the sky but fortunately free cold chocolate milk was handed out to those who wanted it. A true birthday party! ;) We got there around 07:00am and the Sultan arrived around 08:25am. Canons were fired, a brass band played, people in uniforms marched and we took some photos.

BD1

BD2

Afterwards Kristina and I headed out to Kampong Ayer which is a historical settlement area in Bandar. It literally means ‘water village’ and consists of a large cluster of traditional stilt villages built on the Brunei River near the city centre. We only had to stand at the riverside for a minute before a smiling man in a boat appeared to ask if we wanted to purchase a river tour. He offered it at $14 USD and we joined him for half of that. It was well worth while it! Great value for our money as our smiling new friend took us all over the settlement and pointed out various buildings for us. Schools, clinics, fire department, hotels, markets etc. Everything you would expect of a village. When we asked where the sewerage from the estimated 15,000 villagers went our friend gestured that it drops into the river. Alrighty then! I’m not going swimming near the village ;)

WaterVill

Kristina

Kristina was good fun to be around! Thanks for hanging out with me! :)

Kristina and I kept exploring throughout the day. Bandar is more like a large town than a small city. It is easy to walk about and explore. Traffic isn’t too dense and people are ridiculously friendly. A lot of people of all ages would smile at us, wave and ask us where we were from. When I replied “Denmark” Kristina would quickly say “not me, I’m from Germany”. Yeah Kristina…you wish you were from Denmark ;) We had to do a selfie with three elderly men who were decorated with medals in connection with the Sultans birthday. Or who knows – maybe they always wear them? ;) ‘Bandar’ just means ‘city’ in Malay but I really can’t be bothered writing Bandar Seri Begawan all the time. I hope you will bear with me. Abbreviations are pretty big around this part of the world. Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia becomes KL, Kuala Belait is mainly just KB and Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia is simply KK. However I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say BSB? It just becomes ‘Bandar’ for most.

BSB

Bandar Seri Begawan possesses a lot of beauty.

That evening Kristina and I set out to explore a night market and we had some great food at low costs. I was heading east to KK the next day and Kristina was heading west. She was intent on hitchhiking if possible and I happened to know Saiful who works for Brunei Shell Petroleum (BSP). Saiful is Bruneian and offered me a ride from KB to Bandar a few days earlier but I ended up staying with Azim and his family instead. I still had his contact details though so I asked if he would be willing to bring Kristina from Bandar to KB? He was happy to! That is the Bruneian spirit in a nutshell! Always kind, accommodating and helpful. Saiful lives more than 30 minutes from the hostel but volunteered to drive to the hostel in order to pick Kristina up. I would not have done that no matter how nice Kristina is :) But you get that in some cultures and so definitely in Brunei. On the evening Kristina and I were looking for the night market we stopped at a café to ask for directions. The guy at the café just left his customers and walked us a couple of minutes on our way to ensure we got there.

NightMarket

Night market.

In my opinion Brunei possesses a strong kind of “Caribbean laidback lifestyle”. Maybe it is the tropics but Singapore is far more orderly in comparison and not so far away. Having met with so many Bruneians and long term expats I find it hard to imagine that harsh laws would ever be strictly enforced. I would certainly be surprised if Brunei would discontinue its current path of tolerance and hospitality, which I have experienced. I mean…some women here show plenty of skin while others cover up. Alcohol and tobacco is not sold in Brunei but it is accepted and legal. You will often see someone smoking a cigarette in public. What I have really been pondering a lot about lately is what the essence of a country is? Is it the laws which govern it or the people who live in it? It is probably a bit of both and far more than that. But what I am getting at is that quite a few keyboard warriors have been willing to condemn Brunei, which consists of about 430,000 beating hearts, based off the government’s choice to implement certain laws. It would be healthy to keep in mind that the people, and the way they chose to live, is far more powerful than the laws which they are governed by. After all…people are just people.

KK1

The next day it was time for me to leave. I originally had thought I would have left much earlier but it proved hard to schedule a meeting with the Red Crescent and I decided to wait for it. As such I also got to experience more. Last Tuesday I got up at 05:45am and left the hostel. A bus brought me to the terminal where I ran into Clement from France. He was heading to KK too so we teamed up and caught a bus to Muara where we had the world’s fastest lunch before hopping onboard another bus to the jetty. We arrived just as the ferry was about to leave and quickly managed to secure to tickets and board seconds before it left. It begs the question about what is better: to prepare well or to just go with the flow? It seems intuitive to me that getting up early, making arrangements and preparing in advance is the best way to ensure success. But how often have I by now found that things just seem to work out. It would be interesting to see a ratio between the success rates of the two. Where do we encounter the highest success rate: when we prepare and take our precautions or when we just “wing it”. I would still think that preparation provides for more success but the gap between the successes of the two methods might not be as great as one would think.

KK2

Reaching KK with Clemens :)

Anyway, Clemens has been traveling without flying for ten months and intended on reaching Australia completely without flying but recently boarded and airplane from Jakarta to Pontianak. I could sense that it really annoyed him that he had to do that. We had a good time together going through immigration and buying tickets. It is far more tolerable when you are two than by yourself. The ferry brought us to an island known as Labuan Federal Territory. It is a Malaysian island from where we needed to board another ferry in order of reaching Kota Kinabalu (KK). All in all it took three buses, two ferries and nine hours for me to reach KK. I could have taken a bus from Bandar to KK but if you take a look at the map then Brunei actually consists of two small pieces of land which are separated by a little stretch of Malaysia. Those borders are remnants of colonialism in the region and Brunei will finish a bridge this year which connects their two territories. But for now you need to leave Brunei and enter Malaysia in order to enter the “lonely state” of Brunei which is called Temburong. As a traveller going between Bandar and KK this means you will leave Brunei, enter Malaysia, leave Malaysia, enter Brunei, leave Brunei and enter Malaysia again. That is a lot of stamps in your passport not to speak of the potential queues which can occur at borders. It however takes about the same time to go by ferry or by land. Once Brunei finishes the bridge later this year it will be the longest in South Eastern Asia.

final

One of my rooms at Mercure on the 23rd floor ;)

Clemens and I reached KK and said farewell to each other. Traveller’s meet and traveller’s part. Such is the life. I headed straight for Hotel Mercure where I had been offered a complimentary stay in four start luxury. Just perfect as the location of the hotel was within a few minutes walking from the ferry. Within the confinement of my quiet luxury I got a lot of work done and set up arrangements for reaching the top of Mount Kinabalu. I really NEED that mountain right now!! I need to walk. I need to be physical. I need the fresh air. I need the calmness. I need to leave the Saga for a few days…I can’t really describe it. However this Saga has been living and breathing for five years and nine months now and I can’t escape it. It is like swimming in an ocean and taking a break does not make me any less wet. 18 countries left…let’s keep on keeping on people…

 

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Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - Sharing niceness. 
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

 

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Once Upon A Saga

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Reaching Brunei, the Abode of Peace – 18 countries left

Day 2,101 since October 10th 2013: 185 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country  

(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross). 

Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace

pano

Visiting countries is what I do. You could say that it is my business. My profession. I regularly debate countries and often find myself defending countries. I have something nice to say about every country. How many countries are there? Well that debate remains open. Interestingly enough I have come across several countries throughout the Saga which I had never before heard about. Brunei used to be such a country.

I’ve written about this before: there are famous countries and less known countries. Anyone who has never heard about the USA, Russia, France or China must be living securely underneath some rock somewhere. However when countries such as Equatorial Guinea, San Marino or Nauru are mentioned then it appears to me that far more people say: “what?” And of course your home on this planet also has a lot to say about which countries you might never before have heard of. If you are from Singapore then you would definitely have heard about Brunei. And if you are from Italy then you would certainly know San Marino. But if you are from Denmark then the majority of the Pacific islands are probably one huge question mark to you. And don’t get me started on the 54 countries which make up Africa…the world’s ignorance regarding that continent is astonishing. Can you list the seven countries that end on “stan”? Or maybe just a few of them ;)

Africa

 

Do not miss this video!! :) It has been two years since we completed Africa! THIS unique video took TWO YEARS and THREE MONTHS to film. Enjoy ;)

People assume all sorts of things about me. It is interesting at times to meet new people and hear what they assume I am or what I am doing with the Saga. I guess it is generally hard to comprehend and as such it’s easier to imagine that I’m free as a bird and having the time of my life. Well one misconception is certainly that I have all the time in the world and only move when I feel like it. Generally the only things that keep the Saga from moving forward are: logistics (e.g. waiting for a boat), bureaucrazy (e.g. waiting for a visa), obligations (e.g. waiting for a meeting) and my health. Apart from that we move when we can. Last Friday I boarded the ferry from Jakarta in Indonesia and began the two day voyage to Pontianak on Borneo. Borneo is the world’s third largest island and it is shared by Indonesia (south), Malaysia (north) and Brunei which is just a tiny country on the northern shores surrounded by Malaysia.

shipcabin

My cabin - thank you Pelni :)

The good ship “Lawit” is a ferry in Pelayaran Nasional Indonesia’s (Pelni) fleet and it safely brought me across to Pontianak in West Kalimantan which is what Indonesia calls their part of Borneo. I was treated royally on my voyage across the calm sea. Passengers travel on various classes and I was given the very best. Mr Sarwin was on board as the ships steward and took care of my every need. He arranged for my cabin, all my meals and provided me with a guided tour around the ship. Mr Sarwin has ten years of experience from working at a four star hotel and another twenty years of experience on board Pelni’s fleet. He also has a wife, five children and a good sense of humour. “Lawit” was originally built to carry 1,000 passengers however we had 1,800 on board. That means that I literally had to step over some people on my way to lunch which was served on a white table cloth in a spacious hall. The contrast of having my own cabin vs. some people just sleeping wherever they could find some space had me thinking about the Titanic movie where Jack brought Rose down to the lower decks after saying: “do you want to go to a real party?” Albeit there was no party on the hallways of “Lawit”. People were simply waiting it out. Some would get seasick and throw up. Most would just occupy space.

shipcrowd

I've slept like this many times before. But it was nice not too ;)

Shipmultiple

Mr. Sarwin and I :)

As I mentioned in last week’s entry Pelni is among the last large ferry companies which still operate with budget tickets. It is hard to compete against the low fare flights which are all too common today. However now airplane fares are getting more expensive within Indonesia which shifts many passengers to go by sea again. Pelni has been around since 1952 and are today a fundamental part of Indonesia’s network. They connect all the main islands and I will be on board again within a few weeks. Thank you for bringing me safely across this leg of the Saga.

shipisland

It was dark when we reached Pontianak and I headed straight for a hotel I had picked. It was raining which I liked. I had seen no rain during my stay in Jakarta. Once I got online I received a message from my mother who had heard about tsunami warnings for Indonesia. I was fine. The warnings were in relation to Sulawesi which is one of Indonesia’s more than 17,000 islands. It is hard to comprehend the size of Indonesia. It spreads across 1/8 of the planets diameter. It is a large country! The lady at my hostel was super helpful. I managed to book a bus online which departed the next morning. I was still kind of sick so really needed a good night’s sleep and the hostel gave me that. It has been ridiculously hard to shake this cold?

green

The beauty of Borneo is mind-boggling! There is lots of wilderness and adventure left on this island.

I made it to the bus terminal the following morning and away we went across the border to Malaysia. Back to Malaysia. Only a few weeks earlier the Saga crossed the peninsular part of Malaysia which is below Thailand and above Singapore. Now after five hours on the bus I was in Serian. I originally thought that I might sleep there and catch a bus onward the next day. But I managed to secure another bus ticket and only had to wait a few hours before it arrived. That was an eighteen hour bus ride up to Miri near the border of Brunei. And that was a looooong bus ride. One might have dreamed of a four lane highway but what I got was a winding, bumpy road and a bus driver who would do his best to hit every bump as hard as possible. He did a good job of that! The seats were comfortable and the bus had free wifi. However the air condition was set to penguin and I will never understand why that is so often the case for coaches? And then the loud music too? It was not a comfortable bus ride and my cold had turned to the worse before we reached Miri.

cinema

I was smiling less after 120 minutes of sitting in a well air-conditioned cinema!!

In Miri I quickly found a local restaurant and enjoyed a near perfect laksa! Man I love those! And that nearly healed me. Sometimes I think I’d rather have a broken leg than a cold!! I cold is so useless!! No sympathy and since you’re not “really sick” you can continue with your day but it’s more of a hassle. It’s like: be yourself 100% but with 70% of the resources. Who needs that? Since I hadn’t slept much I headed for the nearest Starbucks and had a huge cup of coffee and logged on to their wifi. I notified my contact in Brunei that I had reached Miri and she (Joanna) said that she was planning on driving across the border after work to do some shopping in Malaysia – so she could pick me up on her way back to Brunei. Good stuff. It was early morning in Miri and the Starbucks team agreed to guard my bags while I went out for a walk. In fact I wasn’t too interested in walking about for a full day. I was interested in heading straight for the cinema to watch “Yesterday”. And since I had plenty of time I came out after watching “Yesterday”, bought a ticket for the new Spider-Man movie and headed right back in again. Each movie costs $2.5 USD which is a steal if you’re from Denmark where the same movie costs DKK 110 ($16.6 USD). So here are my reviews: “Yesterday” is a must see for anyone who likes the Beetles!! But also for people who generally enjoys a good movie. I would see it again today! “Spider-Man – far from home”, well if you’ve seen the other Marvel movies then you kind of need to see this one too. It is not ground-breaking but it is a good action movie and provides entertainment for two hours and nine minutes. Now the big takeaway for me after watching “Yesterday” was the tear felt reality of how great a loss to humanity it would have been, if the world had never been given the lyrics and text from the Beatles.

sunset 

Joanna showed up in the evening to pick me up. Along with her she had two friends: Patricia and Christo. Good stuff! The four of us headed out for dinner at a superb Chinese restaurant and then drove the 60 minutes across the border to Panaga in the west of Brunei. Joanna works as a completion engineer for Brunei Shell Petroleum (BSP) which is a joint venture between the Dutch owned Shell Company and the Government of Brunei. Exploration started in 1899 with the first recorded well and Brunei produced its billionth barrel of crude oil in July 1991. Brunei is a first world country with a tiny population of less than 500,000 beating hearts and with the steady income from the sale of fossil fuels the standard of living is relatively high. Much can be said about Brunei and much has. I’ve had a few nights in this the Saga’s 185th country and I’m loving it so far.

Brunei

We've got 18 countries left. See the list here: remaining countries.

My first encounters were all with expats. Joanna is a sweetheart from Texas, USA, and showed me all the southern hospitality in the world. We got to know each other through Marleen whom I know from my ski instructor days nearly two decades ago. Marleen is from the Netherlands and also lives in Brunei now but she is unfortunately out of the country so I won’t get to see her. But I did get to meet Joanna and that was a huge win! Joanna is leaving Brunei for a while and needs to empty out her refrigerator. Joanna: I’m your man! ;) Patricia is from Malaysia and also works for BSP and Christo is the odd one out working as a teacher for a Bruneian school. Christo is from South Africa so the four of us were from each our continent. How about that? :) Good people all around. I have been very pleased with my entry to Brunei Darussalam (Brunei, the Abode of Peace) as it is formally known. If you do not know what “abode” means and you are too lazy to Google it then you are in luck! I have done it for you. Abode means: a place of residence; a house or home.

beach

I was given my own room and the apartment Joanna has is a short walk from the beach. So on my first day in Brunei I headed down to the beach and walked towards the Billionth Barrel Monument. Brunei’s coastline is 161 km (100 mi) and I have already managed to walk 2% of it ;) In fact my first day in Brunei offered my legs more than 18 km (11 mi) as Joanna invited me to join the Kuala Belait Hash, which is a branch of the Hash House Harriers (HHH). The HHH is a non-competitive running social club and I often hear it described as a “drinking club with a running problem”.

forest

We met up at 5:15pm and shortly after set out on an adventurous trail which led through the dense jungle. The trail was clearly marked and those who wanted to run could run while others would walk. Afterwards we followed up by socializing over a potluck dinner and some hydrating. The “Hashers” have all sorts of rituals and it’s definitely good fun!! Expats and locals were mixed together and it was a great way for me to see a really fun and friendly side of Brunei.

Joanna

Joanna ran the entire trail! She's a trooper :)

The “Hashers” are an international community and I first ran into them in Khartoum (Sudan). I’ve got no idea how widespread they are but I would say very. It originated in 1938 among British officers in what is now Malaysia.

HHHnight

A few of the "Hashers" and I :)

So what can I say about Brunei so far? Well it feels like a really safe and friendly country. On my walk during the first day I had to cross a creek and didn’t want to walk the extra distance to the nearest bridge since there was a dam which could offer me passage. I had to get a bit adventurous to cross the dam but it was possible. It looked like a government installation and there was plenty of fence and barbwire. I also spotted a uniformed man “guarding the facility”. Before crossing the dam I tried to signal the guard by waving. He immediately appeared friendly and forthcoming so I embarked on my small adventure. And as I passed him he simply smiled and then continued starring into his phone. So how do I interpret that? I figure the authorities are generally friendly and laidback. Coming across the border from Malaysia was also super easy. I’ve met some people by now and I get a clear “island vibe” from Brunei. Brunei is considered to be the most observant Islamic nation in South East Asia and hearing that can sometimes scare people. I generally blame the media for that. I have been treated no less kind by any person of any specific religion across the planet. Some of my best friends are Muslim but in general I think I have friends from every main religion at this point. Non-religious friends too. People are truly just people and in the words of Reza Aslan, a scholar of religious studies, when he replied to “Does Islam promote violence?” Reza said: “It's not as simple as that. Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it. If you’re a violent person, your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism, is going to be violent."

sky

And here’s what I can bring to that topic: I have reached 185 countries while crossing paths with nearly every religion I’ve ever heard about. And for me people are truly just people! I have been ignored, I’ve been cared for, I have been assisted and I have been loved. I have never been stabbed, shot, choked or punched by anyone throughout this now 277,000 km (172,000 mi) journey. What I have seen are people who care about family, sports, entertainment, food and all the other things we have in common. And those people represented every religion. If you’re a peaceful person, your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism, is going to be peaceful.

supermarked

The difference between supermarkets globally can be eyeopening.

This is a short entry. I’ve mostly been in transport during the past week and we have added more than 1,840 km (1,143 mi) to the Saga. I feel stronger after a few nights in a comfortable bed. I’m considering adding a hike to the top of Mt. Kinabalu to the itinerary. We are going to travel right past it anyway and I do have a calling for reaching peaks. It is the highest mountain in South East Asia and can be scaled in less than two days. Mt. Kinabalu is in Malaysia and we still have some time in Brunei before heading back through Malaysia and taking the ferry to the Philippines. Let’s keep on keeping on.

 

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Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - 2,100 days later... 
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

 

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Once Upon A Saga

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Wonderful Indonesia – 19 countries left

Day 2,094 since October 10th 2013: 184 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country  

(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross). 

It is a strange thought; but I have seen more than most.

Pano

“Wonderful Indonesia” is the official tourist slogan for this extraordinary large country. I would say it is quite fitting. I haven’t felt this vibe among the population since I visited Uganda. And it could certainly be paradise on earth. However it is often the subject of natural disasters – well, depending on where you go. It is a very large country.

I’m quite taken with the idea of which adventures lie and wait for me in Indonesia!! They will in any case have to wait as I’m not here for that within the Saga. I reached Jakarta a week ago and set foot on dry land last Saturday. I would have been on my way again by Wednesday if there would have been a ferry. But the first ferry onward leaves today (Friday). Am I going to Bali? No people…I am not a tourist. However you who read the blog already know this. The many thousands who follow online have no idea. Or I’m sure that many actually know but I certainly do get a lot of comments from people suggesting all sorts of touristy stuff I should head out and do or which “I MUST DO!!” I’m sure Bali is nice and I have no doubt that seeing an Orang-utan in the wild would be a memorable experience. However who has the time? Who has the money? Who has the energy?

IndoMap

Indonesia is large in many ways! Some 17,000 islands make up this country however that number varies a little depending on which source you trust. There are in any case a lot of islands here!! Just imagine the logistics of managing them all. That is where a future adventure could be lurking. There are thousands of islands which have never seen the pale feet of a European. And the diversity across all these islands is rampant!! It is hard to put a finger on what it means to be Indonesian as it could literally be anything depending on which island you point towards. The length of Indonesia from east to west stretches across 5,150 km (3,200 mi) which is just mind-boggling. That means that while the capital region of Jakarta currently is undergoing a kind of drought the southeast of Sulawesi is currently dealing with a flood disaster. Equator runs through Indonesia and the entirety of this 264 million strong population lives across some sort of tropical paradise. There are however only few countries that can rival the amount of natural disasters which come in the shape of earthquakes, flash floods, forest fires, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, cyclones, tropical storms etc. And yet I have found this to be a country full of life and smiles.

Capt

Captain Manuel Nistorescu of the good ship "Jackson Bay".

I reached Indonesia from Singapore on board the good ship “Jackson Bay” and last Friday as the ship came along side in Jakarta the ships agent came on board to take care of formalities. The agent was Mr Fenly who was curious to meet the man who travels as a passenger on board container ships. He appeared friendly and was selling sim-cards to the seamen at $10 USD. I was ready to buy one but Mr Fenly said: “no – you do not pay. Welcome to Indonesia” and handed me one for free. That was already my first encounter with the rampant hospitality of Indonesians. The next day Mr Fenly picked me up and took me through the port. I needn’t worry about immigration as that had already been handled. Mr Fenly drove me to a Starbucks café near my hostel and dropped me off there. On the way we had the chance to talk about this and that and he was truly a very pleasant man and great ambassador for Indonesia. When he is not being friendly to strangers or working hard as an agent, then he is spending time with his four children and wife. Before I left the car Mr Fenly gave me his contact details and told me to reach out if there was anything I needed. Then he gave me 200,000 Indonesian Rupiah ($14 USD) and told me that was for a good start. And hence forward Mr Fenly shall be known as Mr Friendly ;)

Friend

I checked into my hostel which was a cool and friendly place called Stay Inn Hostel. The beds were comfortable, the hostel was clean but really the staff was what made the place special! The owners are a married couple who have a passion for traveling and for people. I mostly spoke with Marta who helped me out in a big way. Her husband Edwin had been looking into how I could buy a ferry ticket between Jakarta and Kalimantan. Okay – I figure you might be as illiterate in Indonesian place names as I was a few weeks ago. So here we go: out of the many, many, many islands there are seven major islands. Those are: Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Sulawesi, Timor, New Guinea and the Maluku Islands. Timor is shared with the country East Timor. New Guinea is shared with the country Papua New Guinea (PNG). And Borneo is shared with two other countries: Brunei and Malaysia. The Indonesian part of Borneo is called Kalimantan and that’s one of the places you can find Orang-utans. Fun fact: Orang-utan means “person of the forest”. Anyway, we’ve been to both Indonesia now and Malaysia as well. However the logistics of a flightless journey to every country now demands that we reach Kalimantan and continue across the part of Malaysia on Borneo until we reach Brunei in the very north of the island. We are talking about some great distance here and I’m very curious to see what form of transportation I can expect and what the road conditions are like? However it is not going to be anything we haven’t seen before – that is for sure. According to three prominent websites I am now among the 300 most traveled people on earth. My eyes have seen much, my ears have heard it, I have sensed many smells and I have shaken a great many hands. Nineteen more to go.

MSK

My 104th talk and 48th Maersk office across the world. Great crowd!! :)

It turned out that the national shipping company (Pelni), which interconnects Indonesia with a great deal of ferries, just so happened to have an office near the hostel!! Good stuff. However the office was open between 9am – 3pm and I was set to meet Maersk at their office from 10am – 2pm with an hour of transportation in each direction. So I had to postpone the ticket. And yes…we did try online but didn’t have success. No worries. I met up with Maersk who just so happened to launch their new branding campaign: “All The Way”. That sentence obviously speaks to me as I am so definitely going all the way. 274,000 km (170,000 mi) across land and sea at this point. We had a good time as I spoke for the 104th time since the Saga began in 2013. I have incidentally seen a Maersk container in 180 countries now.

Padang

Padang is from west Sumatra and you only pay for the dishes you touch. Good stuff! Great company! :)

Afterwards I was invited to hang out at the office for a while before we headed out for a few drinks and dinner. On a side note I felt something in my sinus above my left eye just before embarking “Jackson Bay” in Singapore. I didn’t pay much attention to it but I did feel rather tired once on board the ship. Also not out of the ordinary as I work 50-100 hours a week and deal with constant stress. However once in Jakarta I felt that my airways were not completely clear and that it took some effort to take a deep breath. I felt a little low on energy. Sort of like if I was running at 70%. I figured it could have been the transition between the hot climate and air conditioned rooms. Who knows? But then I began losing my voice. That has never happened before. The night before meeting up with Maersk I wondered if I should cancel. But the next day it wasn’t worse so I pushed through. Well, well – a 70 minute speaking session followed by an evening of socializing might not have been the smartest move. Because as the evening progressed my voice nearly disappeared completely.

Forgot

Can you believe it?!? I forgot my vaccination cards in Singapore!! And then some! Fortunately Bjarke (my host and friend) managed to drop it off at Maersk in Singapore. They have someone who is heading to Manila where I will pick it up. Logistics, logistics, logistics. Thank you all! :)

On my way back to the hostel I stopped at a supermarket to buy some honey. Honey has properties which can sometimes help a cough or sore throat go away. However not if you put it in tea as the boiling water makes the healing properties vanish. I chugged half the bottle that night. The next day my voice was nearly gone and it took a lot of effort to speak. And my energy might have dropped to 60%. However I didn’t have a broken leg or anything so it was more of an inconvenience and not something which had to keep me in bed. Marta from the hostel had agreed to visit Pelni with me and together we headed out into Jakarta’s hectic traffic. It was a short walk to Pelni where we were asked to wait. All I wanted was a ticket but after meeting with Anita and Titi from marketing I was told that they would be happy to upgrade my “regular” ticket to a business class ticket. All I wanted was a ticket so that was great – especially if they could help me get a ticket? And that was no problem! They operate twenty-six passenger ships and an additional fifty-three vessels, which create a web across the main islands and connect Indonesia by sea. The company was founded sixty-seven years ago and plays an important role in Indonesia’s transport system. They are also one of the world’s last remaining economy class long distance passenger ship operators. Historically most of the world’s well known passenger ship companies have stopped their low budget passenger since the 1960s due to shifting trends towards airplane transport. Before I knew of it Titi was offering me the ticket and upgrade complimentary!! WOW! All I wanted was a ticket! ;)

Pelni

Thank you Pelni! Looking forward to coming on board! :)

Before I lost my voice I went for a walk around the neighborhood where I was staying. Within walking distance I could reach “Monas” which is a national monument built 1961 to commemorate the struggle for Indonesian Independence. “Monas” points high into the sky and is surrounded by a large fenced open area where people enjoy hanging out. It’s a great place to go and people watch but I was being watched too. Quite often students are asked to seek out foreigners for short interviews with questions such as: “what is your name? Where are you from? Why did you pick Indonesia for your holiday? What do you think about this place?” etc. A group of students approached me and I was open to answering questions. They were really kind and open. Indonesians smile a lot! It’s hard to walk down the street without encountering a smiling face and a waving hand to the line of” “HELLO MISTER”. It is quite frequent which is out of the usual for a city with about eleven million beating hearts. Yeah – I know – I’ve only been to Jakarta so far but Jakarta is a big city! It is if anything supposed to be the “scary” part of Indonesia. It really isn’t! People have just been amazing everywhere I’ve gone. I have been in the neat part of Jakarta and I’ve found my way to where the less fortunate live their lives. I’ve felt this amazing energy and utmost life confirming vibe all over the place. Sure, not everyone has as much in their pocket as they might want or need. But the kindness and helpfulness has been very apparent.

Monas

The National Monument (Monas).

Selfie

At “Monas” the group of students asked me the exact questions I mentioned above. But they were taken by surprise when my answer to one of them was that I was not in Jakarta for holiday. As the conversation continued the conclusion was: “TRAVELING is your JOB?!?” Well I would argue that my job is a lot of things: not to give up, to promote the Red Cross Red Crescent, to promote the good in the world, to manage social media, to raise funds, to create history, to reach every country…however as mentioned before it does involve a great deal of traveling. So in simplified terms: yes, to travel is my job. Once the short school interview was over we did a few selfies and they carried on. I had already been approached for a few selfies with random people and did a few more before I eloped to buy a ticket so that I could enter “Monas”. You can go all the way to the top but those were sold out. So I got to go to the “terrace” which was much lower but still offered a view. At the bottom underneath the monument I found a rather comprehensive display of Indonesia’s history from ancient times to the first kingdoms and then mostly in relation to colonialism and especially the struggle against the Dutch. Then also the horrible years under the Japanese during WW2 and finally the struggle for independence. Most of the information praised Indonesia in terms of how they won this or that battle. No tales about defeat. The overall picture I got about Indonesia’s history is that it has been one very long struggle for peace. First the kingdoms, then colonialism, the Japanese, independence and finally and always: the struggle against nature. And yet they smile. I eventually made it through all the displays having read all the information. Then I headed up on the “terrace” and then a million people wanted to take selfies with me!!! I never said no to anyone but it was quite hectic. I am by no means famous and nobody who wanted a selfies knew who I was. It was merely because I was a foreigner. What an odd thing? I would never ask anyone I had no relation to for a photo? But these Indonesia’s are in my experience very open and social people. Having delivered a great amount of selfies I couldn’t help realizing the horror it must be for those who are properly famous and recognized everywhere. It was sort of fun for me…for a while…but the fun was quickly wearing off. Imagine a life sentence of that?

Bike

Dutch colonialism...looks rather nice and is a window into a part of Indonesia's history.

old house

There are some remarkable buildings to be found and in some cases renovated across Jakarta!

The day after speaking at Maersk I wanted to meet the Indonesian Red Cross aka Palang Merah Indonesia aka PMI. While most Islamic countries use the Red Crescent as their emblem and most Christian nations use the Red Cross it is always worth mentioning that the emblems do not represent religion. They are as neutral as the movement behind it which was founded in 1863 and has come to spread out across 191 nations today. And what demonstrates the neutrality of the emblem more than a predominantly Islamic nation using the Red Cross as their emblem. Well granted…it is one of the exceptions but it is nice to mention given that Indonesia is always mentioned as having the world’s largest Muslim population. Did you know that Indonesia is officially a republic with a compromise made between the ideas of an Islamic state and a secular state? You also have large populations of Catholics, Protestants, and Hindus…it all depends on which islands you go too. You are in fact required to have a religion in Indonesia as they officially do not recognize agnosticism or atheism. However they are super laid back with this topic and no one has shown any interest in what I might or might not believe in. And on another note: I have been to 184 countries which worship all sorts of religions and denominations. Some of those nations were vaguely religious while others were more pious. However the point I’ll make here is that people across the world have shown me the same kindness regardless of their religious beliefs. Anyway, I wasn’t feeling well and my contact at PMI had not replied to the latest emails regarding my visit so I more or less stayed in bed and postponed my visit.

StayInn

Stay Inn Hostel, Jakarta, has some super cool pods for the guests. All included with lights, fan, curtains and electrical outlets :)

The next day I headed out to PMI who as you might expect play a massive role across Indonesia. Do you remember the long list of natural disasters I listed earlier? Well human lives get caught when Mother Nature shows her strength. You can count on PMI in such situations as they respond nationwide and almost all the time. There is ALWAYS something going on in Indonesia which demands the attention of PMI. That was the very reason why I had not had a reply by mail the day before. Tia who runs the logistics of PMI had to respond to the flood in Sulawesi. He was now back in the office and greeted me with all the kindness in the world. We had a conversation about how the Red Cross or Red Crescent is often falsely synonymous to the observer for one or two things in particular. In Denmark I doubt most people are aware of all the work the Danish Red Cross (DRC) does in Denmark. Most would probably just assume that the DRC raises funds to help the most vulnerable people in foreign countries. Especially in those hotspots highlighted by media. The DRC is highly active within Denmark in a great many areas but somehow that eludes public attention. The reason could of course be connected to a social media feed and website which overwhelmingly portraits foreign disasters and those affected by it or Red Cross staff raising money/attention for same disasters. That is evidently the media strategy of the DRC as far as I can tell. PMI is for many Indonesians synonymous with blood donations. And it is a vital part of the work PMI carries out. However they are doing an overwhelming large amount of humanitarian activities across the many islands that make up the country. I could list them all but how about this: you can try to think about ANY form of humanitarian aid and ask if they do that? The answer is likely yes.

RC PMI

We had lunch together and chowed down some more of Indonesia’s delicious cuisine which is as varied as it is tasteful. A couple of PhD students from France and Poland joined us for lunch. So did Ilham (also from logistics) and various representatives from dispatch and field assessment. Afterwards it was time to say goodbye and I was given a ride back to my hostel. Thankfully this was a rather short and simple visit at a National Society because I was still under the weather and fell asleep as soon as I was back.

RC pin

Tia handed me a pin from Myanmar Red Cross which Susanne from DRC had given her. I lost mine along with my polo-shirt in a bus in Thailand. You cannot believe how many pins the Saga has collected. Still pondering what should happen to them at the end? Thanks Tia and Susanne. Logistics, logistics, logistics ;)

Meeting up with PMI became my 180th visit at the Red Cross or Red Crescent in a country. I estimate that I spend approximately two days on each National Society as it is demanding to set up the meetings, it takes time to reach them, the meeting themselves take time and so does the research and promotion I do for social media. Some visits are from morning to evening while others have involved several days. As such a two day average seems reasonable when I do the math. That also means that within my almost five years and nine months away from home my work as a goodwill ambassador of the Danish Red Cross has accumulated to a full year at this point. Keep in mind that the DRC does not fund this project in any way and I receive no logistical support or other type of support apart from the tittle I have been given. It is a lot of work!! And the main reason why I don’t stop it is because I feel that doing it is right. I also get motivated to continue when I think about the many amazing people I have met with the movement across the world. Probably many more than most would expect. My address book counts 709 contacts. There are those of you who have been reading enough of my entries to know that I am somewhat disgruntled with how little attention my efforts are given. However it is important to understand that I have seen far more of what the movement does, likely more than any living person, and I can vouch 100% for the enormous impact the movement has across the world. Few would be able to imagine the incredible reach of millions of volunteers and staff reaching the lives of even more millions of people in need. Is it always efficient? No. It is a big machine. Is it always worth it? Yes! Absolutely. I could not imagine a world without the Red Cross Red Crescent. From the remaining 19 countries the movement is present in 18. Now that does not add up to the 191 countries. But that’s because I also visited the movement in countries which are not recognized as countries by the movement.

swim

Jakarta is so life confirming in so many ways! So full of smiles and kindness.

Yeah, so I’m getting ready to leave Jakarta. Pelni’s ferry will take two days to reach Kalimantan and then I will need a few days to cross Indonesia, Malaysia and reach Brunei. We are talking some serious distance. With that we are moving closer and closer to the Pacific and I’m really excited about the upcoming cooperation with both Swire Shipping. A part of the China Navigation Company, and PIL (Pacific International Lines). The final phase of the Saga is both complicated and demanding. No one has ever done this before so it is hard to look for answers anywhere to the complex questions. However if you break down the remaining part of the Saga into smaller pieces then there are answers to be found. That is how any complex task can be simplified. And yet there are too many variables left out in the open for me to plan anything on a strict timeline. My wonderful mother would like to visit me and I struggle to say where and when I will be anywhere. Certainly not to the certainty of a narrow window in time. If you all just had some idea how much of a puzzle it has been for my fiancée and I to meet up throughout the years. No small task.

traffic

Traffic in Jakarta can get heavy. But public transportation works quite well and skips traffic.

Indonesia, I can’t say I haven’t seen the best of you. Because I have met with so many amazing people and even the most beautiful beaches would not be able to rival that. However this is not farewell. I will get to see some of Kalimantan as well as more of this wonderful country as I head from the Philippines towards East Timor. My voice is nearly back to normal for those of you who might wonder and I am quite frankly more motivated to keep on keeping on than I have been for a long while. Sure, I’m nearly always tired but who wouldn’t be. However nothing great was ever done by those who said: “it’s too hard – I can’t do it”. When we give up in life nothing changes. When we keep moving forward we see results. And having moved forward every single day, in one form or the other, for more than five years, without a break…I can now see light!!

photo

Indonesia has thousands of years of history. But also a present and a future ;)

 

So in the words Pacific International Lines: “Our Promise, Your Satisfaction”.

And in the words of Swire Shipping: “To be, rather than to seem” (Esse quam videri).

And let’s not forget Maersk: “All the way”.

Heck, let’s include Salomon: “Time to play”.

 

And of course the Saga: “A stranger is a friend you’ve never met before”. So let’s keep on keeping on people ;)

Nasi Goreng

Late night Nasi Goreng from the street, Jakarta.

 

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Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - we've got this people! ;) 
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

 

Thor emblem

Once Upon A Saga

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