By Asha Kurien
I said, "Brunei."
The lady looked at me blankly.
Then I repeated, "The Sultanate of Brunei..."
To my surprise, she replied "I am asking you the name of the country".
This time I answered slowly and as clearly as I could, "It's in Southeast Asia. Near Singapore. Next to Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo".
She nodded hesitantly when I showed her my visa documents. I sensed soon enough that she had never heard of this country before.
A phrase I had heard on a Discovery channel programme came to my mind. It said the island of Borneo was "one of Asia's best kept secrets".
While I stood there, amused at the immigration officer's lack of knowledge, I also felt truly blessed to be able to travel to one of the world's least travelled destinations. Soon enough the officer returned from a room and ushered me in, apologising for the delay.
Earlier, passport and boarding pass in hand, travel magazines under my arm, I had approached the Bangalore International Airport wearing a warm smile. Fresh out of school, I was thrilled at the prospect of visiting my parents who had moved from a verdant hill station in India to the Sultanate of Brunei.
Boarding the plane to Singapore, I couldn't help but wonder whether my parents had gone through a similar experience with the airport officials before they left for Brunei.
However, these thoughts were soon replaced by the excitement of travelling to the land of rainforests and palaces and in a few hours, I walked out of the Brunei airport and into the warmth of the tropical sunlight.
Little did I know that travelling on the clean highways teeming with a variety of new cars (which I had previously seen only on the Need for Speed games) was only the beginning of a volley of new experiences that awaited me.
However, to a 17-year-old brimming with wanderlust, the poor connectivity of the public transport was a letdown.
The taxis were too expensive and the purple public buses were a rare sight. As I was determined not to let the geographically small country swell in my mind into a place too large to explore, I tried to hire a bicycle. Upon realising soon that those efforts were futile, I decided to start exploring the country by walking around Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital.
The scarce pedestrian population in the city came as a shock after being used to jostling through heavy traffic to cross roads in India. The friendliness of the local people permeated through their dashboards every time they stopped to let me cross the road accompanied by a grin and a wave.
Also, the roads seemed strangely quiet even during rush hours. Soon I realised that unlike in India where every driver has a finger on the car horn, here, no one was noisily honking their way through the traffic.
Even before I finished exploring Bandar, the women in the country struck me as industrious and independent. After all, I saw them driving cars, working at the airport, the immigration, the post office, the supermarkets, and even on the purple public buses.
Another detail that soon caught my attention was that I never heard raised voices whether I was strolling through the wooden walkways of Kampong Ayer, the numerous picturesque homes on stilts on the Brunei River, or the narrow spaces between the buildings in Bandar. Often the soft tones of the people forced me to ask them to repeat the price of a certain dish or directions to a building.
That's when I thought to myself, the mellow tones of Bruneians match so perfectly with the manner in which they give directions, always using the thumb instead of the index finger to point.
The tranquility one experiences in this country is not disturbed even when one pours over local newspapers. Whether the stories featured international tensions or local car accidents, natural disasters or murder, never did I have to stare at gruesome photographs of blood and gore or read articles that made my insides churn.
Walking through the wooden walkways of the water village (Kampong Ayer) is a truly unique experience. While exploring this close-knit community I learned to my surprise that residents of this sprawling village enjoy all modern amenities. Often I saw air-conditioners and television antennae peeping out of these houses. What appears to be an area of derelict houses when viewed from the Yayasan mall, is in fact interspersed with schools, mosques, shops, health clinics and even a fire station all built on wooden or concrete stilts over the winding Brunei river.
It was during one of those reflective summer evenings that I walked out of the public library (glad that the afternoon rain had stopped) to behold two rainbows shimmering above Jubilee Hotel. This breathtaking sight made me realise that one reason I began looking forward to my daily strolls was the simple joy of seeing the colours of the sky and myriad cloud formations wherever I was. After all, this was the first city that did not make me feel as though I was trapped in a concrete jungle. Bright light and air flooded everywhere as the buildings are not so tall that they cut out the sky.
As the days rolled into the month of July, I began to sense an air or festivity dawning. Soon pasar malams (nightly food stalls) were sprouting on the roads and coloured lights sequenced the highways. The photographs of the face I saw in every office and shop soon emerged, life size, on the streets.
The country was celebrating its ruler the Sultan's birthday. This benevolent monarch is seen leading walkathons, paying surprise visits to his subjects and personally involving himself with the affairs of his land and people.
The men and women who I usually saw retreating to the comfort of their houses every evening, began appearing on the streets in colourful garbs. I witnessed the warm greetings they exchanged by lightly touching each other's hands and bringing the hand back to their chests.
Unfortunately, I was leaving Brunei on the birthday of the much loved and revered monarch. However, I celebrated it by choosing Nasi Lemak over continental cuisine for lunch aboard Silk Air.
Reflecting on the days I spent in Brunei, I realised that it is truly unique that a typical Bruneian's lifestyle is shaped not only by the religion or the tranquility he grew up in.
Being a country with a sizeable migrant population, the residents have grown to be tolerant of different people, their clothes, cultures and cuisines.
Courtesy of Borneo Bulletin Weekend