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  • Writer's pictureNeill Mckee

Travel Notes: Ontario to Singapore

Updated: Mar 8, 2022

On my last day of work at my father’s factory in Elmira, Ontario, Canada, I stood behind its rear wall where I could look down upon the valley and creek flowing past the town’s chemical and fertilizer factories. I had a vivid memory of playing in the creek as a kid and coming upon strange mutations—fish with only one bulging eye and frogs with two heads. Were these creatures just imagined? I don’t think so. The creek was terribly contaminated. People had few concerns about such issues back then.

Despite this toxic playground, I recall an ideal childhood, a loving family, and—as I grew older—increasing freedom to explore farther and farther from home. I believe my love of travel and discovery started here. While I stood there, I remembered that in the early 1950s, I climbed the pear tree in our backyard, which served as a ladder to the roof of our garage. From that height, I could see a hill to the east, beyond the chemical factory. On that hill, there were large wooden shapes which, in my imagination, looked like elephants, rhinos, and other wild beasts. I had a clear view of what I called “Africa.”

As the sun rose in the morning, the figures appeared as dark silhouettes outlined in beads of orange and pink. By midday, I could see the beasts happily grazing on long green and brown grasses that waved in the wind. On rainy days, they were shrouded in mist. But when the clouds cleared and the sun began to set, they would be spotlighted in brilliant gold. On moonlit nights, although a little scary, I would sneak up to our attic to peer out the east window at these wondrous shapes before retreating to the safety of my bed, where they would dance through the night in my dreams, beckoning me to more verdant and sun-filled lands. Little did I know then that I was actually seeing into my future life in Borneo.

I only wanted to quickly peel away from this continent to a region where, I thought, my life’s course might be revealed.

July 5, 1968: Finally realizing my childhood dreams. A few months before, as a graduating student at the University of Calgary, I had applied to join Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO), a non-governmental volunteer organization that recruits people to work for two years in developing countries, (Canada’s version of Britain’s Voluntary Service Overseas [VSO] and the American government’s Peace Corps). In April, during my final semester at Calgary, I received an acceptance letter that confirmed I would be going to Asia.

After classes and exams ended, I returned home to Ontario, almost 2,000 miles (3,219 km) away. There, in early June, I received another letter from CUSO that stated I would be posted to a small town, Kota Belud, in the state of Sabah, Malaysia, formerly British North Borneo.

CUSO advised new recruits to keep a diary from the beginning of their adventures, and I began writing notes a few days before my departure. (These words are constructed from those I wrote in 1968, letters home, memories, and more recent reflections on my experiences.) CUSO also provided a reading list, and that’s when I drove to the largest library in the nearby City of Kitchener to learn all I could about Borneo and Southeast Asia.

I discovered that Borneo had been divided among three countries: to the north, the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, and the independent Sultanate of Brunei; to the south, the largest chunk of land (75 percent) making up Indonesia’s Kalimantan. On our family’s globe, I could see that the equator cuts right through Borneo, ensuring high temperatures and humidity—a perpetual summer for the flora and fauna, and for the human populations living along its coasts and scattered throughout its interior.

I also read that all of Borneo lies south of Asia’s dangerous typhoon belt—an area of storms that hits the Philippines, Taiwan, Southern Japan, China’s coast, and Vietnam almost every year. At a bookstore, I ordered a recommended title, Land Below the Wind, to take with me. The memoir, set in the 1930s during British times, was by an American, Agnes Newton Keith, a colonial officer’s wife.

Besides wanting to spend time with my family before departing, I had returned home to Ontario because I needed to earn some money for my upcoming sojourn in Sabah. I chose the easiest means of acquiring some fast cash by working at my father’s farm equipment manufacturing company. Elmira was, by then, a town of about 5,000 people with many factories—a beneficiary of the post-war boom. My father and his twin brother were successful businessmen, farm boys who had started from scratch. At the time, they employed over a hundred people at their factory and even more through sales dealerships across Canada and the US. Their achievements were impressive, but a few years earlier, I had made the decision not to join the family business. I wanted to follow a different path.

July 8, 1968, morning: My notations began again on a Canadian Pacific Railway trans-Canada train, The Canadian, which I boarded in Toronto after bidding my parents goodbye. I asked myself, why was I leaving Canada? It was an exciting time. “Trudeaumania” was at its height. Pierre Elliott Trudeau, of mixed French and Scottish descent, had become Canada’s 15th Prime Minister—and just in time. Starting back in 1963, the Quebec separatist group, Front de libération du Québec, had carried out a series of violent acts, including bombings, kidnappings, and murders. I hoped that Trudeau might be able to persuade Quebec not to separate from the rest of our country.

On the other hand, America’s cities were burning. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated in the past few months. Protesters in the US, Canada, and Europe marched against the Vietnam War. Why was I so attracted to Borneo and Southeast Asia during the time of that horrific conflict? Would Borneo not be just as wild and dangerous for a naïve young man who had never left North America?

At the library, I had looked up the familiar phrase, “The wild men of Borneo,” and discovered that the original “wild men” actually refers to two American brothers, Hiram and Barney Davis, who were born in the 1820s and died in the first years of the twentieth century. They only measured about 40 inches tall but could lift heavy weights and beat audience members in wrestling. I learned that they were introduced to P. T. Barnum, the famous entertainer, who put them in the sideshow of his traveling circus, billing them as “The Wild Men of Borneo,” a pejorative phrase for the people of the island’s densely forested interior. The brothers’ handlers and promoters concocted the tale that they had been rescued off the coast of Borneo in a struggle with pirates. However, the truth is that these men were mentally challenged “little people” raised on a farm in Ohio.

A few decades later, the American film, The Wild Man of Borneo (1941) would appear. This farcical comedy offensively depicted the natives of Borneo, including a medicine-show con man in leopard suit and “blackface,” supposedly a voodoo doctor from the heart of Borneo.

Years before, when I first heard the word “Borneo,” it evoked no such crass images of exploitation by carnival barkers or Hollywood moguls. I rather thought of an unknown island somewhere in the southern seas. Through my readings, I discovered that Borneo lies in the heart of maritime Southeast Asia and that it is, after Greenland and New Guinea, the third largest island in the world. I examined a place populated by exotic plants and some of those animals I imagined as a child; a land of diverse peoples with rich cultures, who lived in small cities and towns or in longhouses along wide rivers, where some still sported bold body tattoos and elongated pierced ears. I studied photos of fog-shrouded mountain peaks, fishing villages, coastal rice paddies, beautiful beaches, winding roads leading to inland kampongs (villages or communities), and dense rainforests with plenty of vines to swing on.

July 8, 1968, mid-afternoon: Our train labored northwest over the rocky shore of Lake Superior and through the Ontario bush. I restlessly passed my time, waiting until we would cross the Canadian Rockies and reach the Pacific Ocean. I saw almost no young people on board, and most of the adults appeared well-dressed and carried fancy hand luggage, which contrasted with my canvas bag. I thought of my cheap metal trunk in the luggage compartment beside their stately Samsonite suitcases.

I put away my large writing pad and tried to be more inconspicuous, jotting down some observations in a small spiral notebook, starting with this strange, gray-haired man across the aisle. He sang to himself, staring into the passing forest and rocks, his lips moving ever so slightly. I assumed he didn’t want to disturb anyone, but he also gave me the impression of someone trying to look profound. He seemed a little self-conscious, as if wondering what I though of him. I felt a sudden urge to tell him it made no difference to me, but we remained in our separate solitudes.

Another man, perhaps in his 50s, wearing a gray suit, drank liquor from a small flask and read a book about US involvement in World War II. Probably a military man, I thought. An American? I wondered if he had a role in that disastrous war in Vietnam.

July 9, 1968: As the Manitoba forest turned to prairie, I tried to read the book I had brought along, Land Below the Wind. In truth, I found its stories to be about a quaint colonial era. The rasping voice of an old woman sitting across from me frequently interrupted my reading. She seemed to be reciting a series of directions to herself as she gathered her woolen shawl tighter around her shoulders and puckered up dry lips to ask, “Are you going to Regina?” I assumed this Saskatchewan city was her home.

“No ma’am, I’m just passing through. I’m going to the East.”

“But we are going west.”

“The Far East, ma’am.”

Again, she insisted that I was headed in the wrong direction. She pointed to the position of the sun and the hour on the large face of her old wristwatch. She continued giving me advice until, finally, I thanked her and moved to the dining car to avoid further miscommunication. Perhaps I had been reading too many existentialist novels and absurdist plays, but all the passengers appeared to be trapped in individual bubbles. We spoke the same language, but I couldn’t really understand them.

Relieved, I sipped coffee. Suddenly, another old woman seated across from me uttered, “God can’t see God, we can!” A young woman snickered, but nobody else in the car reacted to this statement. The old woman smiled like an empress dowager, satisfied with herself and her realm, waiting for the next great thought to spring from her lips. I wondered if my relatively young country was going senile before its time. Once again, I buried my face in the book.

July 10, 1968: After midnight, we passed through Calgary, where I had finished university two months before. I hadn’t attended my graduation ceremony in June because I’d returned to Ontario. I loved my time in this city with its big sky, sun, and view of the Rocky Mountains on the horizon. It contrasted greatly with the University of Western Ontario in London, where I completed my first year. I found that place suffocating—full of fraternities, sororities, and upwardly mobile competition. At the University of Calgary, I had majored in psychology, with a minor in philosophy, but decided not to pursue either field. I thought I would become a clinical psychologist but grew disinterested due to an uninspiring stint as an orderly in a mental hospital the summer before. Besides, it would have taken years of graduate work, and then repaying student loans, and I didn’t want to be tied down.

At Calgary, I had joined the drama group, acted in some plays, and taken a scriptwriting course. But drama wasn’t a serious option for me either. I knew I was a wooden actor, and my professor of playwrighting called my pretentious scripts “Presbyterian.” I needed a break from studies, not more excursions into disciplines I might or might not want to pursue. I decided to leave university with a B.A. Degree in Psychology, rather than wasting more time and money.

I hadn’t made much progress on the romantic side either, probably due to the limits I had imposed on myself. I had dated the same girl throughout the first three years of high school, but I always followed my father’s advice: “Keep your pecker in your pants.” The thought of getting a girl pregnant petrified me. Who wanted to be tied down with an early marriage? Young people found it difficult to access contraceptives in those days.

I had formed a very close relationship with a girl named Ruth in senior high school. She meant a great deal to me, but we agreed we shouldn’t restrict ourselves—to go our separate ways and see what happens in the future. I dated a number of girls at university, but I didn’t want to become involved with anyone too seriously. I wanted freedom to explore the world by myself. And so, I remained a virgin at age 22.

On the other hand, at university, I had started to learn about other cultures. In fact, the first day I arrived in Calgary, when the university residence administrator asked me if I had any preference for a roommate, I looked down the list and saw his name and country of origin: “Wasfi Youssef, Egypt.” When we met later that day, I learned Wasfi was a Ph.D. student in Civil Engineering.

Wasfi was a Copt and very proud of his heritage, one of the oldest Christian cultures in the world. He spoke English and Arabic. We went for meals together and became good friends. We listened to his 1957 album by a popular female Arabic singer, Fairuz, titled An Evening in Beirut. For the first time, my mind danced with the sounds and images of the Middle East. Through Wasfi, I got to know other foreign students from Egypt and around the world.

But that night on The Canadian, even with the announcement of Calgary over the PA system, I barely stirred from sleep in my compartment. I had resolved never to look backwards and easily fell asleep again. As we pulled out of Calgary, I woke momentarily, then, once more, my dreams synchronized with the rhythm of the track.

I woke up in the Rockies, gray towers jutting into the clouds all around us. Our train snaked through passages built by thousands of Chinese laborers in the 1880s. Many died in the process. How easy for us to speed through these walls of rock because of their backbreaking and dangerous labor for a dollar a day. I went to the observation car to witness our hurdle over the Continental Divide. After passing through a five-mile tunnel, we began our downward glide towards the Pacific. For a moment, I lost my much-practiced detachment and shivered with excitement.

August 2, 1968: We were coming to the end of our short CUSO orientation at Fort Camp on the campus of the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver. We had been engaged in a few weeks of drills on Malay language with an animated teacher, Fauzi Halim. He added fascinating cultural insights. I especially liked the expression tidak apa, which literally means “no what” or “it doesn’t matter.” It’s a traditional Malay philosophical statement that life is too short to become hung up on details and time frames.

I learned that a general Malay greeting for neighbors and friends is datang rumah—the literal meaning of which is “come to my house.” One answer is sudah makan, “already eaten.” I came to understand that there is no real intention of actually inviting a friend or neighbor to your house by such a greeting, and the answer, while negative, acknowledges the generosity and cultural necessity of offering food, should he or she actually appear.

I also discovered this relaxed attitude in the Malay approach to verb tenses; for example, the simple placement, in front of the present tense, of the word akan for the future and sudah for the past. Everything else depends on context—no conjugation of verbs, no classification of nouns by gender, and, unlike many Asian languages, no variation in meaning by the tone of pronunciation. To pluralize nouns, you simply had to say them twice, orang for “man” and orang-orang for “men.” Unlike my struggle with French, Malay seemed to be a language I could learn and use immediately.

Returned volunteers gave talks on what to expect. I can only remember Barbara, who offered entertaining anecdotes and wise advice on how to adapt and prosper in Malaysia. Fortunately, she deemphasized trying to save the world, a goal which was never my intention. I just wanted to go to the Far East. Malaysia is predominantly Muslim, and I would have preferred a Buddhist country because I had been reading books on Buddhism throughout my university days. But the more I learned about Malaysia’s multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and religious mix, the more interested I became.

During orientation, I returned to writing some notes on my larger pad. I judged some of the volunteers to be a bit pretentious, holding forth on things about which they probably knew very little, since, I assumed, they had never been to Asia. I mainly listened and asked questions. I observed a group of trainees who laughed and joked a lot. I suspected that they were stoned on marijuana sometimes, but I didn’t ask. I had no experience with drugs. I thought of them as kind of crazy but “cool” for taking the chance of being deselected and sent home—the adventure overseas just a lark to them?

August 9 and 10, 1968: My final days in Canada were spent with my high school girlfriend, Ruth. She was volunteering that summer at a First Nation reservation on Vancouver Island. We visited the Japanese garden my uncle, Dr. John Neill, a horticulture professor, had founded on UBC’s campus. We drove to an estate in the hills and talked and talked, right where we’d left off the last time we met. We strolled along the beach at sunset and sat by the water’s edge. I think I said something dumb, like, “So, I guess we’ll get married when I get back if we don’t meet someone else.” This sounded pompous and unfeeling, but I knew my world was about to change, unpredictably, and hers could too. We’d both seen too many stupid movies in which promises were made before departures and never kept.

August 11, 1968: We were finally off in the afternoon—a group of sixty or so young Canadians headed for India, Thailand, and Malaysia on Canadian Pacific Airlines. I witnessed the expectant camaraderie as we stood around at Vancouver Airport, waiting to board. I said very little. I remembered the comment I received near the end of orientation, that I seem to keep to myself quite a lot. But I told myself I didn’t care what others thought about me. I only wanted to quickly peel away from this continent to a region where, I thought, my life’s course might be revealed.


Excerpt from Finding Myself in Borneo: Sojourns in Sabah.

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