A week ago, I flew to Kota Kinabalu heading a delegation of eight students with the Science Coordinator on a cultural exchange visit with De La Salle Secondary School that started in 2009. Not knowing what to expect and ever hopeful to gain a very good experience from the trip, I eagerly waited for the delegates to arrive at the airport reading a book. We were told that we shall be welcomed by Mr. Safri and Mr. Jong but never expected they will be accompanied by a fleet of alumni and students.
Kota Kinabalu is an urbanized city that belongs to Sabah, the western part of Malaysia. Formerly known as Jesselton, the name Kota Kinabalu comes from the Dusun words Kota for city or fort and Kinabalu, a compound word that joins Ki meaning to have or exist and Nabalu for spirit of the dead. The term spirit of the dead, as eerie as it might sound, may no longer be appropriate for the city is bustling and very much alive.
Having been to Kuala Lumpur on two occasions, it has always been a wonder to me how three ethnicities, Chinese, Malay and Indians, can live peacefully together only to find out that Kota is populated by even more than a number of different ethnicities other than the three. These include Bajaus, Kadazan-Dusun, Bruneian Malays, Bumiputras, and Muruts, to name a few. It is quite a wonder how these people, in spite of their difference in lineage, culture and religion, have learned to live together in peace under one flag and one nation.
Kota Kinabalu is a land that is so close and yet so far from home in so many levels – geography, history, culture, and so much more. In terms of geography, Kota is so near to the Philippines that it will take only a few hours by boat either from Palawan or down south of Mindanao to get to it. About 1 and 45 minutes by plane from Manila to its airport, Kota Kinabalu is by far the closest to us geographically. As such, it is no surprise that our ancestors arrived in our land via boats from these shores and Indonesia. This being the case, there are several words shared by both languages albeit some deviations. Masuk, for example, is the same as the Tagalog word pasok for enter. Manuk is the same as our manok for chicken, nasi, although such is only true for the Kapampangans, who use the same word for rice. Bawang, on the other hand is onion to them while it is garlic to us. Of course, make that bawang putih and it would mean garlic, too. There are other words which a Fillipino can pick-up as being the same but sometimes could mean another that one can chuckle thinking that our ancestors might have messed the words up thus evolving to come up with another meaning.
In terms of history, there exists a parallelism between our two countries. While our country has experienced long periods of colonization, first by the Spaniards, to be followed by the Americans, Kota Kinabalu, once called Jesselton, named after Sir Charles Jesselton, the Vice Chairman of the British North Borneo Company, thereafter forcing the Sultanate of Brunei to cede the land to the British. As is with our country, the British saw revolt and destruction by the Bajaus, then inhabitants of the place. The greatest similarity being that our countries having been both occupied by the Japanese during World War II with both experiencing the wrath and destruction that war brings. What is even more interesting is that said parallelisms starts an even more interesting history between Sabah and the Philippines.
As was stated earlier, Sabah was once under the Bruneian Empire. The story goes that the Sultan of Brunei gifted the northern part of Sabah to the Sultan of Sulu in 1658, in appreciation for its help in settling a civil war in Brunei, hence, the source of the disputed Sabah claim of the Philippines that lingered till the 70’s until this was abandoned completely under the Marcos regime, after a planned attack backfired into what is now called the Jabidah massacre where Moro soldiers were supposedly being trained to infiltrate the Sabah government but were massacred for reasons we will never know and a part of a sordid history that is best forgotten.
On a personal level, coming to Kota Kinabalu seems like I have never left home. First of all, we share the same climate as it is also located in the tropics. Secondly, just like in Thailand, Indonesia or any of our Asean neighbors in the Far East, the faces of its inhabitants are so close to home that one does not have that feeling of unease with total strangers having set on its soil for the first time. Their faces are the same as the ones we see in the streets of Manila or any other province in the country -the same sparkle in their eyes as they greet you with pleasant, grinning faces are the same faces you see in your friendly neighborhood as you step out of your house in Manila. The same brown skin, albeit the difference in costumes, although this difference is only because they are different in Manila but such is a common site in Mindanao.
We share the same staple - rice! Naturally, we almost do the same thing with it. We cook rice the same way, steam or fry it. Yet, they do more with it. We both eat rice as early as breakfast. While we fry rice and eat it with dried fish or canned sardines with fried or scrambled eggs, their traditional breakfast, nasi lemak, combines rice cooked in coconut milk, boiled eggs, anchovies (dilis) coupled with peanuts and sambal sauce which harmonizes everything together. Our palettes and taste buds are different in that they use curry and chilis all the time. They also have delicacies which are not meant for the faint of heart. We have balut and tamilok, they do have butod, which turns out to also be called sago grub or sago worm which is actually the larva of a beetle. I never had the guts to eat it and was amazed that two of my students mustered enough courage to. That made me look like and feel like chicken.
During our week-long stay, we experienced their culture, enjoyed the sceneries but most of all, felt the warmth and friendly hospitality of our hosts. Anywhere we went, we were greeted with aplomb that nothing can harm us along the way, even that treacherous trek up and down the hills of Kokol where rubber tapping is being done. We tasted their cuisine and prepared roti. We learned to drink water that was not cooled in the fridge and being told this is healthier, observed how they held classes, saw how the government worked during the Parliament session, learned about the history of DLSSSKK through its archives, gave small speeches about Jose Rizal which they take up and history in general and how this subject is taught in our school. We were taken to Tambunan, a valley some 80 kilometers away from Kota and experienced rural living although we were billeted in a brand new hostel. We saw the fantastic sceneries the land has to offer most especially the view from the mountain and the Mahua falls, though not as majestic as, say Pagsanjan falls or the Maria Cristina, is as equaly breath taking as well. We were always afraid that we could be in a place where only the traditional toilets were present and feared we could never learn how to use such. To our relief, they always have what is now standard toilets with a bidet to boot. We were taken to several dinners, both Malay and Chinese ones by our hosts, Mr. Safri, Sir Jong and Sir Adrian and the alumni and students of DLSSSKK who we cannot thank enough. Or even the gracious Br. Peter, the Principal and Administration and teachers, the President of the PTA and the members of the Board of Trustees.
On a more personal level, I enjoyed Kota Kinabalu because of the company I had. I may have gone to Aspen, Colorado or the beaches of Amalfi Coast or Maldives but I would not have enjoyed it as much as I have Kota Kinabalu. I may have stayed in a five-star hotel or even the Al Burj Khalifa in Dubai but none of its amenities could have matched the Benildus, ancient as it is, simply because I was with my students playing card games and telling benign jokes about anything under the sun with them. They who turned out to be my children for seven days and now my friends forever. I would not have enjoyed the 7 days as much if it were not Milet who was with me as we ventured this new land. I could not have enjoyed Kota if I were not seeing it with the glowing eyes of Christine, Bea, Toni, Jemil, Maui, Gerard, Adolf, and Kester. I will never forget the adventurous Bea and Maui who braved trying everything they put on our plates, the simple but genuine contentment in the eyes of the boys as we practiced our songs which we had to perform or when they had to give short lectures on short notice, the sweet retorts one gets from the ever articulate Toni or that ever dulcet Christine smiles as she willingly gave out snippets of that cute lips that had the boys swooning over her. Or Adolf's and Maui's cute grins that the girls of St. Martin's or Stella Maris could ever forget. And that ever so sweet gesture of the boys to buy the girls their favorite stuff toys, hiding these from them all throughout the shopping spree and over thinking how these can be kept from them until they presented the same in their room. I am so proud of these guys for they delivered more than what was expected of them. They were true ambassadors of their school and I was so fortunate to have witnessed and be part of all this. Such was the experience I had and I have never been happier coming to an unknown land for the first time - a land that is so close and yet so far from who or what I really am.