Risk is a Relative Thing

IMG_5950“Loosen your vice grip on the steering wheel,” I willed myself, as I scanned the ever-twisting mountain road ahead for pot holes (countless potholes), as well as other potential dangers, like oncoming drivers who seemed to get a thrill out of passing on blind spots. I averted my eyes occasionally to check the speedometer. Don’t drive faster than 70km/hour on a spare tire? That was the rule, right? Or was it 50? We weren’t sure.

Is there a worse place to blow a tire than in the middle of the mountain passes just east of Mount Kinabalu, South Asia’s largest mountain? No phone. Sweltering hot. Limited water. Five hours of driving ahead. No backups left.


Thankfully Karl (our hero!) was able to change the tire in less than ideal conditions: Picture a narrow, uneven gravel roadside, with the occasional car or truck blasting through. As (bad) luck would have it, the tire in question was facing the road, requiring Karl to be in harm’s way while he worked on the swap (and causing my grey hair count to increase exponentially).


We set up our emergency road sign, and the kids took on the job of signalling traffic away from their bent over father (more grey hair, though I assure you they were standing well off the road). A few vehicles slowed down a tad, enough to smile and wave encouragingly at this odd assortment of sweaty humans. None stopped, until Karl had finished the job. The man couldn’t really do anything for us at that point… other than restore our faith in humanity, of course.



So there we were. Hours of driving ahead. No phone. Limited water. No backups left. Fingers clutching the steering wheel. At least we now had air con.

The chance of another tire blowing was pretty low, but we weren’t sure that the sad-excuse-for-a-spare was up for the shoddy roads lying in wait. Now I know why they call them “donuts.”

Every time I saw an “Awas” sign (caution) my heart would race, as it signaled even worse conditions ahead. There were many Awas signs. At one point, the roads improved, as did our panic-to-optimism ratio. It was short-lived.

There wasn’t much warning about the washed out section of road. No flag people directing traffic. Every man to himself. “Hang in there, my little donut, hang in there I thought,” as I crossed the centre line and accelerated.

When we got to the other side, we breathed a sigh of relief. Until we hit the next washed out section. And the next. And the next. Obviously road repair is not high on the infrastructure priority list here in Sabah.

In moments such as these, you question a lot of things, like how you found yourself in this position in the first place. But as the kilometres passed, it occurred to me that perhaps it seemed so dramatic because our day-to-day lives are cushioned by a fall sense of security. Many people do not have the luxury.

Throughout the journey, I kept thinking back to the human interest story I had watched earlier that morning on BBC News. It featured a Vietnamese woman who made her living unearthing bombs that had failed to detonate during the Vietnam War, selling them to scrap metal dealers once they had been neutralized. She took over the job after her husband was killed (yes, by an exploding bomb). Her income for risking her life? $4 US per day.

I knew that by sunset, we would more than likely arrive at our destination, safe and sound. Her risk would return with the next morning’s sunrise. And so it was.

And now a lighter word from Cate

Steven Seagal was looking pretty good right about now.

We had been driving through the mountains, in No-Man’s-Land, Cen and I moaning about needing to get to a washroom and Mom and Dad loudly reminding us of the several hours of driving to come.

That’s when it happened.

We heard the screeching, groaning sounds coming from our rented car and parked on the side of the road, all panicking and picturing the catastrophe to come. A flat tire awaited us. The words Mom and Dad muttered under their breath would have been censored had this been a reality show about a crazy family with their three kids backpacking around the world. Thank God that Dad knew how to change a tire (Mom said that she would have been rendered helpless if he wasn’t there, on account of the fact that she has NO experience with tires, especially FLAT ones).

Mom, Meskie, Cen and I tried to make ourselves useful while Dad fixed the car (and sweated, sweated, sweated). At first, the kids maintained jobs as car traffic controllers, making sure that vehicles moved to the other side of the road, so as not to hit Dad (whose butt was sticking out on the road as he bent down to change the tire). Mom, already freaking out about the fact that Dad could be this close to getting hit, was not too happy about this.

Then Mom discovered something which, at the moment, was as precious as a diamond ring. A foldable hazard sign, a big pop-up bright red triangle, which we set in the middle of the road.

Drivers grinned, waved and honked good-naturedly as they passed by us while we cursed tires and rentals. We weakly smiled back (at least I did), but inside we were thinking, “Seriously, do we look like we’re having fun here? Oh, we’re having a blast, of course! It’s fantastic that our car broke down. Woo -hoo! Let’s celebrate!”

Dad was almost finished changing the tire when something pretty unexpected occurred. A small red car stopped at the emergency sign, due to traffic blazing past him on the opposite lane, crossed the center line once the cars passed, returned to his lane and…….. parked on the side of the road!

We were pleasantly surprised. We didn’t think anyone would stop to help us. Here in Malaysia, there have been scams where people pretend to need help but really just want your money. Travel guides specifically tell you NOT TO STOP TO HELP SOMEONE ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD. Taxi drivers have told us this as well. But Mom guessed that the man kindly stopped because we were foreigners; perhaps he supposed that travelers wouldn’t try to pull off a scam.

He asked how we were, what happened, and if we needed any help, but Dad told him that he had fixed the tire and that everything should be okay. We thanked him for stopping to help us, he smiled and left.

We continued on our merry way, Mom driving slower than a scared 75-year-old just awarded her driver’s license in a hailstorm.  Hours of driving followed. We were bored, Mom and Dad were scared and annoyed, everything was not going as planned. All we had were tons of bags, a small bottle of water, iPads and a radio blaring Demi Lovato music.

We made it though! To Sepilok! To our resort, with two fearful, exhausted parents, a boy making angry animal sounds and a girl shrieking about her bathroom needs.

After much discussion, the car rental people agreed to pay for a new tire to replace the spare. We were overjoyed, because we had assumed WE would be on the hook for the new tire.

Our resort provided little help, but we found a Sabah Tire Service Centre a couple minutes away from our place. They changed the tire, and we’re back to sunshine and rainbows! Dad says that if you ever need tires in Sepilok, stop by and see Karlina and the staff at Sabah Tires.

Categories: Borneo, Kids Only, Malaysia | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Risk is a Relative Thing

  1. Pingback: A 100 days on the road! | The Fab 5 on the Road

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