After 4 months of travel we started to get a little itch: travel is great, we’re seeing and learning so much and the sense of freedom is amazing, but we wanted to ‘do’ something again. At the same time we were looking forward to stay in one place for a longer period. Both these wishes were granted at Sea View backpackers & budget hotel where we stayed for 2 weeks.
While we were enjoying the rice fields in Luzon we came across this ad on Helpx to which we replied on January 23rd. We were on the bus to Semporna on our way to Sipadan island (allegedly one of the best diving spots in the world) when Mark called back a missed call on his phone: Nabistul, the lady that placed the ad was very interested in getting us over (well…she was mainly interested in Lucia and her ‘online’ skills, but Mark was welcome to come as well :-)) and the sooner the better. Could we come now? The guesthouse was in Sandakan – the second-largest city in Sabah – and Nabistul’s timing was amazing: we were about 40km away from the turn to Sandakan which otherwise we would have passed on our way to Semporna. This is were our corporate experience finally came in handy in the ‘real world’: Mark sent out a quick meeting-request to Lucia by waking her up and also volunteered to take notes of the meeting. We challenged each other on various points to ensure we were on the right path and within a few minutes we made the decision we could change our plans (no bookings were paid for yet anyway so no sunk costs). After a call to verify the conditions under which we would work at the guesthouse, we agreed to proceed immediately as this would help the guesthouse and we were flexible. We got off the bus 20 minutes later at ‘mile 32’ junction and changed our fast and comfortable aircon regional bus for an open-windowed, 20km/h, smelling-of-durian local bus. 2 hours later we were shaking hands with Nabistul, our new boss. To stick to Kimberly-Clark lingo: That is what decision-making and thinking customer looks like to me! (are you reading Ingrid? :-)).
Just to emphasise that it was really Lucia that was the object of interest, here’s the reply that we saw Nabistul had sent while we were on the bus :-):
Hello Mark and Lucy,
I just arrived Sandakan last nite and just read your email now. I called your digi line immediately but no reply. Please phone me on either number (mobile or landline as appeared in your missed call). I am really interested in Lucia expertise. Hope Mark can assist in driving guests around and cafe.
Looking forward to see you soon
Before we continue the corporate practice of discussing the hard facts of our achievements during this time we are very keen to share the ‘softer’ part: the people we met, the things we saw and how nice it was to have a ‘home’ for two weeks.
Nabistul, the owner/manager, has made us feel welcome from the moment we arrived. She is a great cook (we have learned a recipe for yummy pumpkin curry) and a very friendly person that helps her to make her guests feel like at home. This is enormously making-up for the slightly run-down facilities of the hostel. Nabistul is muslim and we would often find her covered in white fabric reading the koran out loud. The timing of our stay was a bit unfortunate in terms of staff situation. 1 employee just left and another one left while we were there. Only Amy – Filipina – stayed loyal and although hesitating she decided to keep her night job at the hostel.
During the 2 weeks we got a chance to see a lot of people come and go. We had a chat with all of them and it was amazing to meet people of so many different backgrounds and stories:
2 Dutch girls who couldn’t walk down the stairs after climbing Mt Kinabalu 3 days before. French-Canadian Yves from Kuala Lumpur who is a chocolate-maker. We plan to visit him in KL for a day for an evening course. Swedish Niklas the painter. Danish couple Peter and Ida who were the same age as us and also taking a long break. The English and Belgian ladies Kate and Elizabeth travelling slowly towards Melbourne to find a job and stay there. These two kept on popping up: first on the plane from Manila to Kota Kinabalu and later on the bus station in Sandakan when Mark went to pick them up. The young english couple aiming for an English-teaching job in Hong Kong after their 4-month travel was over. Australian Bob who was spending a few weeks with his brother in Borneo before travelling onwards to who knows where…The Dutch couple who joined us on an exploratory tour to the Sandakan mangroves 5 minutes after they checked in. The Japanese gentleman who fell on his ass at the waterfront. The two Swedish girls who had no clue :-) They were aiming for Semporna but somehow ended up in Sandakan where they found out there is no beach, expensive diving and only things to do they had already done. The Chinese families that just cooked and cooked and cooked. The walk-in Malaysians that always started to walk away when they heard we didn’t speak Malay. The Malay-German couple that wanted to share a bed in the dorm… budget travel at it’s best? English pub-manager John who didn’t like fish. The Czech girl who was sooooo happy to speak Czech with us and just kept on talking and talking. Australian Craig who travelled around with his foldable bike. The Italian girl with the-a typical-a accent-a.
Things we saw
Apart from working, eating and sleeping we also managed to see a lot of the local points of interest. Part of our Mark’s responsibilities was being the hostel’s tour-guide and if he was driving a guest to an attraction, Lucia could come along to see the sights with Mark as well. Also we had a day off (we worked weekends) in which we could borrow the car and drive around. The sights included:
The Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sepilok: Here young orang-utans that have lost their mum in the wild are given another chance and are raised in their natural environment.
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre: Similar story to the Orangutans, but instead of human-like apes, these are the smallest bears in the world who can climb up very high trees.
The Rainforest Discovery Centre in Sepilok: Main attraction is a 10m high canopy-walk that takes you along the tree-tops.
The Proboscis Monkey sanctuary in Labuk Bay: After having cut most of the rainforest on their land the local palmoil plantation owners decided they would save a small strip of rainforest and mangroves to let these funny nose-apes live on. A bit too late in our opinion, but it’s very funny to see these monkeys with big noses and north-pointing red pencil-like ….. well have a look at the pics in the gallery.
The Sandakan War Memorial: During WWII the Japanese were very active in Asia trying to create their own ‘Reich’. In Sandakan around 2500 Australians and Brits were held prisoner and made to work. When defeat for the Japanese was getting close they decide to make all prisoners carry supplies and ammunition over 260km through the jungle. These 3 tours were named death-marches as eventually out of the 2500 only 6 prisoners (all Australians) survived.
The Puu Jih Shih buddhist temple: Pretty cool temple, but what makes it great is the fantastic view from the top of the hill over Sandakan and the sea.
The boat trip in mangroves: On the last day Nabistul took us for a research trip. She found a boatman to take us island hopping – a potential package tour for her guests. The highlight of the trip was a ride trough mangroves searching for monkeys which ended up with a visit of the boatman’s family. His small ‘village’ in between mangroves consisted of 4-5 houses on the water. The families make their living catching and selling crabs. We were treated to a cup of tea and 3 huge freshly caught crabs. While we were struggling to get some meat from the animal, small children not more than 2 years old were chewing on crab legs, probably something they have been doing ever since they switched from their mom’s milk. A wonderful experience with these lovely people.
People are supposed to be creatures of habit and travelling often is in direct conflict with a lot of habits. We therefore welcomed these two weeks in one place and we the accompanying routines. We would get up between 7.30 and 8.00am (nearly) every day and it even came to the point that we sometimes woke up just before the alarm-clock. Homemade pancakes for breakfast, usually with palm syrup or the delicious peanut butter/banana combo (something Mark picked up from a street-vendor in El Nido – Palawan. Across the street from the hostel there was a big market and we’d have a fresh coconut for breakfast most mornings. Either as a mid-morning snack or as part of lunch we’d go downstairs to a family-run restaurant and have a 1 Ringit (20 eurocents) Roti Chennai. Also for the change we didn’t have to go out to restaurants all the time as Nabistul was a great cook and we would have home cooked meals every day (usually lunch and dinner). Finally there was the Dexter-routine: we managed to get through the final two seasons (7 and 8) by watching two episodes most evenings. All in all nothing spectacular, but pretty pleasant for a while.
Ok, here goes, besides all the fun stuff we already described, we did do some work as well:
We’ve updated the various booking portals (Booking.com, Agoda, HostelWorld, HostelBookers) and the hostel’s website with new pictures, info and prices. We’ve created new tour-packages and captured this in new tour-catalogues and online.
We completely re-designed the main info-board in the reception area so it now shows clearly to guests what services they can expect from the staff, what they can see in the area and what the guesthouse can organise for them.
We designed new modernised logos for both the hostel (SeaView) and its restaurant (Lemongrass) and used this on wooden signages that cut, designed and painted ourselves. Also new designs were made for outdoor signs (which we hope will be up soon and we will be able to show you a picture at least).
We introduced a new reservation portal (simple Excel sheet :-)) to improve the visibility of available rooms and bookings. We did general housekeeping which included indoor painting, help fixing bathroom doors and repairing towel-bars.
Besides all these activities most of our time was spent with reception work and tour-guiding. Reception gave us a chance to meet all the people described earlier. The tours was mainly a favourite part for Mark as he could drive around in his little automatic Proton and show people around (if you look left, you can’t see anything on the right).
We had a lot of fun and learned a lot too. We might do it again soon, but now, after 2 weeks we are ready to travel again! Check-out all our top pictures rom the 2 weeks in Sandakan here.