While in Kota Kinabalu, I went to the Sabah Museum at my friend’s urging. She said it was the best place to buy souvenirs, the giving of which is an integral part of the culture in Yogya, so I am told. She said I’d have to take a taxi to get there, and though I didn’t like that idea, I went anyway. My rule of thumb for the next two years is: if it’s something you’re hesitating to do, you should probably do it.
Of course I had no problem taking a taxi. I’ve performed the same act enough times in Yogya that, even though the Malay accent is hard for me to understand, saying a destination and confirming the price to get to said destination were not difficult tasks.
The taxi dropped me at the museum parking lot. There were some cars and a few people around, mostly seated, looking like they probably worked for the museum. Unfortunately, there was no one who was entering at the same time as me, so there was no one whose actions I could follow.
Furtively, I glanced around. There was a large building to my right—I assumed it was the museum—and the gift shop to my left. My friend had said that I might have to pay admission but that students could get in for free. I was all prepared to say I was a student, but saw no one who looked like they wanted to charge me money.
After standing there for a minute or two feeling confused, I decided to do what would make me uncomfortable and walked into the main building. Again, I looked around, and again no one—including the large skeleton of a whale directly in front of me—seemed to want to charge me money. I went back outside, feeling vaguely uncomfortable, and decided to explore the science museum first. According to the signs, it was located in a different building.
This different building turned out to be much further into the museum’s grounds. I passed a sign for some sort of heritage village as well as a medicinal plants walking trail before finally coming upon the building. There were two women inside watching TV who (surprised?) didn’t try to charge me money. Besides them, the building seemed empty.
The first exhibit I visited featured several set-ups of gears and levers. Looking at them, I was reminded with stunning clarity of one of my first days interning at the science museum. My supervisor told me to take my time going through all the exhibits and reading all the signs. I started on the mezzanine, going through all the exhibits with moving parts and shining lights, paying attention in a way that I hadn’t all the times I’d been through the museum before.
The second exhibit was on the solar system, with posters in Malay describing all the planets. Pluto, I noted, was present, but paired with Charon. If I wanted to be rational about the situation, I’d say this was a good compromise—at least Pluto was present. But I don’t want to be rational. Pluto will always be a planet in my heart.
And that was about it for the science museum part of the building. The next section was the technology museum, comprised of two exhibits: the history of broadcasting and the railroad. The broadcasting exhibit featured a tour through the history of some radio and video broadcasting equipment. The railway exhibit featured a model train and an extensive history with photos chronicling the railway that passes through Kota Kinabalu. I confess that I did not pay close attention to these exhibits, although I did spend a long time looking at the model train. It, unfortunately, did not move, but the setup did include a rather large statue of Buddha, laughing happily up at me.
The final section of the building was an art museum, located upstairs. This also was comprised of two exhibits, one of paintings by various modern-day artists and one featuring photos from the collection of a British man who lived before World War II. Apparently photos of Kota Kinabalu from before the war are very rare because the Allies razed the city twice, once when they were sweeping down through Malaya and once when they were moving back out, this time to encourage the Japanese to retreat faster.
That building complete, I planned to go back to the main building. I was lured away, though, by a path that appeared to lead off into a semi-forested area. One thing that I really miss while living in a city is green space. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to commune with trees.
The path began with a set of stairs, snaked around through the trees, and then moved back down the hill with more stairs. My footwear was very inappropriate for the walk but, as I said, the trees were worth it.
Since coming to the museum, I’d seen maybe three people who looked like they were visitors and not employees. I had quickly became used to the silence, which made the sound of voices as I neared the end of the path even more jarring. I looked to my right through the trees. There, still a ways down the slope, sat the heritage village. I had actually planned on skipping it in favor of eating an earlier lunch, but since it was right there in front of me, I went.
The first thing I came upon was not a person but a scarecrow, and it certainly scared me as my confused brain oscillated back and forth between Is that a person? and Is that an object? After taking some deep breaths and a photo, I moved on to exploring the village. It consisted of several different houses representing Sabah’s various ethnic groups all clustered around a pond.
The first house I came to was the Chinese house, which was exciting for numerous reasons, the main one being that here I saw not one, but two other human beings: a man sleeping inside and a young man who came to the front of the house at about the same time as me. He and I eyed each other but said nothing. He entered the house. I, dissuaded by the sign saying I’d have to take off my shoes, moved on.
Many of the houses, I found, were similar in design: raised on stilts with floors made of crisscrossing bamboo sticks that made me worry about how much I’d been eating. The houses were also sparsely furnished, as was only to be expected, but the resulting effect, especially give the lack of people, was akin to that in a ghost town. The presence of some rather odd objects in the houses only added to my slight feeling of unease and confusion. One house’s main room had nothing but a photograph of a Malay man hanging on the wall. There was no explanation of who the man was or why his photo was in this particular room in this particular house.
The other inexplicable thing I found in the heritage village appeared directly after I’d passed what looked like an outdoor cooking area. There, with a fallen tree resting on its back, was a cement rhinoceros. Once I’d walked a little farther along the path, his companion came into view: an elephant of a comparable size, also cement.
Again, no explanation.
But I’ve learned not to let that bother me. Much of my experience in Indonesia thus far has been realizing that I won’t understand everything and not letting that bother me. And besides, after the statues I found the best part of the museum (with the possible exception of the whale skeleton): a raised bridge over the pond, limit ten persons at a time.
I was the only person on the bridge when I crossed, luckily. It jostled enough just from my footsteps; I think the addition of more people would have made the experience much more about holding on and much less about enjoying the pretty vegetation.
The heritage village exhausted, I returned to the main museum building. Unfortunately, the natural history exhibit—which looked very interesting when I peered into it—was closed for renovations. Instead, accompanied by a school group that had just arrived, I explored the traditional dress and ceramics exhibits and spent a long time looking at the whale. There was an explanation, possibly about the skeleton’s origins, playing on a small screen in front of the whale, but of course the explanation was in Malay and I didn’t bother to try to decipher it.
After accidentally waking someone taking a nap in the ceramics exhibit and checking out the gift shop, the only thing left for me to do was catch a taxi back to my friend’s apartment. Luckily, despite the lack of people at the museum, there were several taxis just waiting in the parking lot.
During the taxi ride back, I had the opportunity to witness firsthand some of the differences between Indonesian and Malay. But that’s another story.