Kampung Ayer or as the Bruneians call it “Venice of the East” is located in the center of Bandar Seri Begawan near the Sultan’s “Castle”
Earlier this day, Chris asked Amir to help him pick his 2 friends in the airport. After exploring the university, we went back to the flat and fetched Chris, who is having his afternoon coffee.
“So where did you meet the girls, Chris?”, I asked.
“Oh, I was with Vicky when I volunteered in the Philippines. Georgie is Vicky’s friend”, Chris answered.
“Are they also going to stay in the flat with us?”
“No. They are not couchsurfers. They already booked a hotel in the town proper.”
It was 5pm when we arrived at the Brunei International Airport. Amir went to the nearby ATM while Chris and I bonded for a while over Tagalog songs. Chris is a great linguist. He speaks really good Tagalog without the accent. He can sing a couple of Tagalog songs perfectly. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take a video of it when I was there.
At around 5:30pm, the 2 girls arrived. Vicky and Georgie are a couple of tall girls. They were both carrying two giant bags probably twice my bag’s size. Vicky is boyish and looks like she have traveled a lot. Georgie is a bit reserved. She told me that she’s new to traveling.
Chris hugged the girls and welcomed them to Brunei. Amir and I did the same thing to them. It feels like I am already a local because I myself welcomed them to a country I just met a night a ago (now that’s poetic). So after some short chats and after having their currencies exchanged, we went back to Amir’s car and dropped the girls in their hotel. Chris told them that we will pick them up again in a while for our dinner in Kampung Ayer–the Venice of the East.
After touring the mosque, Amir told me that we need to go back to the flat since the prayer hour will begin in a short while. So as planned, Amir and I took a 2-hour rest. This is Brunei’s typical Friday. In the Philippines, Friday is the best day since its nearing weekend and everyone is chilling out (and probably is the least productive day of the week). The difference is that there’s no weekend in Brunei. Friday is usually a day off for a typical Bruneian. Saturday is a work day while Sunday is another day off. I thought that it is something good except if you are planning for a travel. Long weekends usually give us those Monday Blues and weekend hangovers.
At 3pm, Amir woke up and told me that one university is having an open campus to attract potential students in the area. He told me that he can drive me there to be a “one day student” in Brunei. That’s a perfect thing for me because I really want to “be a local” when I travel.
Amir works for the media so his ID is a VIP ticket to practically anywhere. We entered the campus and suddenly felt the college air which I’ve been missing for almost 5 years now. They are having an organization fair and a mini-selling fair. It was a chaos but hey, its college! There’s also a band and they are playing Miley Cyrus’ We Can’t Stop.. It is funny because I expected that Brunei is a bit conservative with their music since the entertainment industry is controlled by the government. Starving artists in Brunei are everywhere and not difficult to find. In fact, the people in the flat where I am staying are artists. Angel is a scriptwriter and taking up film as a minor. Amir is a writer. Artists cannot stop being artists. What the government resists will eventually persist.
While exploring the campus, Amir saw a friend. Her name is Mimi and she’s really charming especially with her modern hijab. She is wearing a white shirt with “Dance Club” written on it.
“We are going to dance in a while”, Mimi told us.
“Wow. I am excited”, I said.
“I am a bit nervous. We are going to dance a 90s remix”, she said.
“Oh, Backstreet boys huh?”
I looked at Amir and smiled at him and said “We are 90s kids! We will surely love this!”
Then the host called the dance club and I wished Mimi some luck. She smiled at us.
…then, the dance started…
All the girls are charming. I think most of the Bruneians are. They really danced gracefully with the tune of Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and NSYNC. Not to mention that they were all wearing their Hijabs. The things happening around me that time made me smile. I had some paradigm shifts with our Muslim brothers and sisters. It was a good shift because I realized that we all have our own tastes and styles without compromising anything about our faith and beliefs. We are very much alike. We have so much in common.
*I will be using pseudo-names for the privacy of the people I met in Brunei*
Amir, one of my hosts in Brunei took me to a foodcourt in downtown Brunei. This is my first day here. It was a Friday. Fridays in Brunei are different. They close everything at exactly 12noon and will open at exactly 2pm for their prayer time. They take their religion seriously. I am not sure if this is an advantage for me or a disadvantage since I only have a day to travel Brunei and the prayer time will take away 2 hours from it. But I have decided to respect it and not do anything during that moment.
The food court is like a Singapore Hawker but less the noise. Brunei is a quiet country. We were there at around 10:30am so Amir and I must go back to the flat in one and a half hours. I ordered a Beef Soto (Beef Soup) and a Teh Tarik (Milk Tea) since I cannot eat any seafoods because of my allergies. You know how hard it is for me to be a traveler in Asia and cant eat 80% of their cuisines? The story of my life.
While sipping my hot soup, Amir saw his Uncle. He said hi and offered our spare seats for his Uncle’s family to join us. Amir introduced his Uncle Ali. Uncle Ali is one funny guy. He is married with a Filipino girl. In fact, he is good in Tagalog which made me appreciate Uncle Ali more. He interviewed me and asked the usual “What are you doing here?” , “Why are you travelling alone?”, “How long are you going to stay here” questions. But he asked me a question which i did not expected:”Are you a Christian?”
“Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you if you say YES!”, he added. I grew up in a community where we fear people with religion other than ours. That is one of the reasons why I have started traveling and exploring the world–to get the right perspective and away from the limited thinking of my community back home. The moment Uncle Ali asked me that question, I took it as an opportunity to learn from a faith system which is really controversial from my Christian-based beliefs.
“I was born and raised as a Christian, but I am now searching for truth”, I answered. Amir and Uncle Ali, both Muslims smiled at me.
“You know why we don’t eat pork right?”, Uncle Ali asked.
“Yes, because pork is unhealthy and dirty”, I answered.
“You are right. So why do you keep on eating pork?”, he asked. I was speechless because Uncle Ali was right. I know what pigs eat in our country and it’s really nasty. How they slaughter pigs is another problem. Back home in the Philippines, we eat everything, all the nasty things sold in the streets. Uncle Ali challenged me without any intentions. And then he asked me another question.
“Do you know why we Muslims can marry 4 times?”
“No. Tell me about it”
Uncle Ali explained to me everything. I will not write the explanations now because this same question was asked to me by another Muslim I met in Malaysia. I will be writing about it soon.
It was 11:30am when Amir and I parted ways with his Uncle Ali because we need to rush to the mosque. I took a picture with him then he hugged me and gave me some advises about my travels and how to get from Brunei to Kota Kinabalu.
It’s a bit sad to leave Uncle Ali because that short conversation I had with him is life changing. In fact, I already stopped eating pork.
*I will be using pseudo-names for the privacy of the people I met in Brunei*
My cellphone alarm started screaming at me around 6am. I still can’t believe I am in Brunei crashing my first ever foreign couch. Although I am still terribly sleepy after a midnight flight, I really need to get up. I don’t want to look like a lazy head in front of Angel (my host) and her flat-mates which are all couchsurfers.
The moment I woke up, I took a cold shower and dressed up for travel. I only have a day to explore the country so I need to maximize my time. After a couple of minutes, a German guy went out of his room. It feels awkward at first because I am not sure if Angel told them that she’ll be hosting a couchsurfer for the night. What am I going to say? Do they know I am here? Are they expecting me too? But the ice was broken so quickly as Christian smiled at me and introduced himself.
“Hey! You must be Darby. I am Christian.”
“Hello Christian. Nice to meet you. I’m sorry for crashing your couch”
“No problem! I am a couchsurfer myself. Just feel at home and pretend that everything here is yours” he said while slicing a German bread and spreading jam on it.
“That’s awesome. So, what are you doing in Brunei?”
“I am studying Islamic Studies”
“Wow. So are you a Muslim?
“No. But it is very relevant for me since there are lots of Muslims in Germany”
“I see. So how long have you been here in Brunei?”
“6 months. You want some bread?”
“No. I am all set”, I lied. I am hungry that moment.
“Actually, I stayed in the Philippines for quite some time”, he said while munching his breakfast.
“Yes. I stayed in Samar but that was before the great typhoon. I volunteered there. The typhoon was terrible!”
“It is terrible. The rehabilitation is till on going. Unfortunately I haven’t been in that part of Visayas. I’d love to volunteer someday”
“Yes you should. There are loads of volunteer opportunities there, be it long term or short term.”
While we were talking, another guy went out of his room. I said hi, shook his hands and introduced myself. But the guy is still rubbing his eyes, still having a sleep hangover or probably hallucinating after a long sleep. You know those days.
“What are you doing here?” he asked with a bit of confusion. Then he realized I am Angel’s couchsurfer. “Oh I am sorry. I thought you are my other friend. You really look like him. I am Amir.”
“Its ok Amir! Your couch is awesome”, I said.
“Darby, Angel have work today. She cant take you around. Fortunately, today is my day off so I can drive you around the city”, Amir said.
“You are in good hands, Darby” said Christian.
“Oh stop it Chris!” Amir said while trying to kick Christian.
“Oh by the way, I am not bringing an extra pants, is it ok if I enter the mosques with my shorts?”, I asked.
“Ooops. I’m sorry. You cant. You have a tattoo on your ankle”,said Amir while thinking a way on how to go about it. Amir is Muslim.
“I have a Pajama though”, I said. Both of the guys laughed. I wondered why. In fact, I have brought a Pajama in order for me to travel comfortably.
“Aha! I have an idea”, Chris said while running to his room. After a couple of seconds, he was bringing a pair of pants and a belt. “Here. You can use this for today”
“This is awesome Chris!”, I said. I am a bit worried at first because my legs are too small for a German guy’s pants. But I am glad it was a perfect fit. I still consider it a mystery.
After the stress about the shorts, pajamas and pants, Amir excused himself for a shower while Chris went to his room to finish his breakfast. I went back to the couch and prepared myself for my travel with Amir.
*I will be using pseudo-names for the privacy of the people I met in Brunei*
Midnight in Brunei during February is windy making it really cold. I waited outside the airport for my host while hugging my backpack to manage the cold air. A couple of taxis were parked there. Some drivers are asleep, forgetting about the crowd approaching. The other is reading yesterday’s paper while drinking a cup of coffee.
After a couple of minutes, a black car arrived. It was Angel, my host in Brunei. She stepped out of the car and I got starstruck because she has this sweet and charming personality which is really fantastic.
“Hello Darby, I am Angel”, she said enthusiastically.
“Hi Angel. Nice to meet you.”
“So lets get inside the car and go to our flat, Ok?”
I opened the right door and saw that the driving seat was there.
“Oops. Sorry. I’m not used to right-hand cars. It’s different in the Philippines.”
“Oh, really? I didn’t know that. That’s funny to know.”
So I sat next to Angel while she drove the car.
“Welcome to Brunei, Darby.” Aside from her charm, Angel’s voice is really sweet, with a flawless American accent. I assumed that this girl is really special. You know how it is when you travel to a foreign land. You have no idea what to expect. You have no idea about how locals deal with foreigners. But Angel is different. I never felt that I was a foreigner and she never really cared about the fact that we just met each other. I felt comfortable right away.
“Hey Darby. Is it ok if my team is still there? We are actually making a short-film.”
“Of course! That’s so awesome. I didn’t know you make films.”
“Yes we do. It’s actually a school project. We survived the preliminaries and eliminations,so next month, we will be joining the film festival.”
“So what is the story all about?”, I asked.
“It’s about Tanya… a researcher……………” She told me about the whole story which I think I cannot write here YET.
“That’s a pretty cool story, with all the twists and turns.”
“You think so?”, she asked.
“Of course it is. I am actually happy that you are into these kind of things. It feels more like home. Back in the Philippines I have friends who are actually hungry for these kind of projects. They are theatre actors, singers, dancers and painters who are thirsty for expression.We are starving artists”, I explained.
“Starving artists! I like the term. In this country, the entertainment industry is controlled by the government. But we artists just need to express ourselves”, she said.
“What you resist will persist, huh?”
“You are right”, she confirmed.
“Angel, by the way, your accent is perfect for a person in Asia..”, I asked.
Angel smiled and looked at me. “Well thank you. I studied in a private school and I grew up watching American TV shows.”
“Of course, the TV shows. I have learned my English from TV shows as well”, I said.
We both laughed until we arrived at the building where her flat is located. Her flat is near the beach so you will see palm trees swaying because of the strong Brunei winds. She parked the car and we both walked in the building. I closed my eyes, smelled the air and sighed “The Bruneian air”
Angel laughed at me and said, “You look like you are a happy person, Darby”
“You look like one too,” I returned the compliment.
“I’m sure we will get along”, she said. I smiled and said to myself, “This person really is special”
At the door of her flat, there’s this sign that says “Shooting in progress” written in blue marker. Angel asked me to take a picture of it. My heart is beating because I am excited.
“So are you ready to meet the team?”, she asked while touching the door knob.
I took a deep a breath and said yes. Angel opened the door and asked me to enter the flat. Then I saw Angel’s film making team. She introduced me to each one of them and told me about their roles in the film. Unfortunately, its already 3am when we arrived the flat so they have decided to call it a day since everybody is tired. I am tired as well but not yet sleepy. I am still overwhelmed and still can’t believe that I am actually in Brunei with some “starving artists”.
After everyone has left, Angel prepared the couch where I will take my rest. It is a comfortable black couch. In fact, everything in the flat is comfortable and posh. Flats in the Philippines doesn’t usually look like 5-star hotels. Well, Brunei is a rich country so no wonder that student flats look like a Presidential Suite. She also told me about her flat-mates which are all asleep during that hour. She mentioned that most of her flatmates are Couchsurfers so I just need to relax and feel at home.
“So let us sleep now Darby. I hope you are ok with the couch. I am sharing my room with another flat-mate”, she said after I finished settling down.
“Oh, I am ok with this. In fact, I can sleep anywhere. Thank you Angel. Thank you for picking me up in the airport and introducing me to your team.”
“Awwww. That’s nothing sweetie. Goodnight!”
And then Angel hugged me before she went to her room.