Sitting with homeless people in Kota Kinabalu

by The Longest Way Home ~ January 31st, 2011. Published in: Travel blog » Discover World Culture » Sabah (Malaysian Borneo).
Violin Player on the streets of Kota Kinabalu Malaysia

As a traveler you can help the homeless without spending a cent ...

Tourism vs reality in Kota Kinabalu Malaysia

It took me a while to figure something out I walked the streets of Kota Kinabalu. The tourist office denied the existence of the homeless anywhere in the city.

It’s not in their training to deal with some asking about this. They only point out touristy thing they were trained to memorize. So, when I started asking about illegal immigrants in Kota Kinabalu, they completely froze up. Yea, I need a better information source for these entries …

The homeless in Kota Kinabalu

The fact is there are plenty of homeless on the streets in Kota Kinabalu’s clean streets. I took a photo of a homeless person along a busy main street, much to the shock and horror of a local person walking by. But, they watched from a distance as I photographed the man, then shared a bag of dried Chinese beef with him.

“Whatever happened, it moved the local Malaysian to smile and then drop something in his cup”

Homeless people in touristy Kota Kinabalu

Homeless people do exist in touristy Kota Kinabalu Malaysia

The homeless & poor in Kota Kinabalu were not something I particularly noticed at first I must admit. Not until I has in my room at the hostel and staring at my bloated backpack. I was carrying too much again.

Reflecting on your own needs, to realize your surroundings

Two unread books. A heavy medical bag, and chargers. A weeks worth of clothes and not much else. Well, apart from a jacket and a jacket vest. Both were remnants from my overland journey that had kept me warm on cold icy nights in Pakistan, Nepal and Tibet. I’d hung on to them more for sentimental value than anything else.

But I was now in South East Asia. What use was my pocket filled jacket. I was sweating like a preverbal walking sprinkler system and was wishing for lighter “everything“.

In search of the homeless in Kota Kinabalu

People walking by a man asking for money on the streets of Kota Kinabalu

People walking by a man asking for money

Some time ago I took a  mornings walk and finally found a man in need. Sitting on a footpath hand outstretched.

People passed by and took swerves to stay clear like they do in so many countries around the world. But still he’d always look up and raise his hand in a plea for help.

He saw me coming and naturally enough raised his hand. I waved at him and couldn’t help but smile as he waved back. It was then that I saw the tell tale signs of leprosy from his fingerless hand.

A happy man in need gives a thumbs up on receiving a coat

A man in need gives a thumbs up on receiving my coat

I’d visited leprosy clinics in Africa and wondered if there was also a paranoia about it in Asia? Maybe that’s why no one approached him.

“I am in need, but so is he”

He looked up at me and smiled again while waving his good hand. I knelt down as he mentioned the word dollar. Giving him a pat on the shoulder I handed my jacket to him.

“The man’s eyes widened as if in skeptical disbelief.”

I stood up and nodded confirmation. With that he let loose a childlike “Yahoo!”

Before breaking into the biggest toothless grin I’d seen in long time.

I stood back and was touched by this man’s overwhelming joy at receiving my jacket. He held it open and examined it with such pride of happiness it was almost as if he was holding a new born baby for the first time.

Then once I had stepped back he waved more thank you’s at me and started to call out to various passerby’s. I couldn’t work out what he was saying but he was making sure everyone heard about it.

It’s not all about Mount Kinabalu you know?

Man smiles in pride of his new coat

I was smiling more than this man when I saw how genuinely happy he was with his new coat

Some people slowed down and looked at him, before looking over at me as he continued to shout the praises of something. A few people smiled in return. Moreover a few people looked to the ground and then turned back to place a few coins on his lap.

I smiled again at both the old man and people passing by.

With hunger biting at me I walked to a local waffle store before leaving the street. One last wave at the old man and before I knew it I was also sharing my chocolate waffle with him.

Looking into the cold mirror of homelessness

Then sitting there with him, I began to realize why I’ve been having this fascination with immigrants and the homeless. I am one too.

In fact in my increasing failure to find a place call home I think I can easily envisage myself like that old man one day. Though I am fighting not to be …

Maybe, I did not give something to him. But am subconsciously hoping in vain that if my journey fails. That someday someone will give me something; just to make things a little bit better for a day.

Not a sympathy vote, but a reality vote

Smiling homeless man with a new coat in Malaysia

I was laughing with him too much to take the next photograph; smiling widely he rose his fist up to passerby's in a jest that there is still some good will in the world

Maybe I am feeling sorry for myself. Maybe it’s my subconscious. But, I actually think it’s a part of me that’s very firmly fixed on the ground. A good part.

It’s not a kick in the butt, but a slap in the face of reality. Not a time for panic, but a time for stepping up to the plate.

If you don’t feel this slap, then something is wrong. Travel does this. It holds a sense of “non- responsibility” so many enjoy. I must shake free of this feeling.

My jacket was full of sentimental value to me. Maybe it’s worth even more now

Meanwhile, if you are traveling with something that’s weighing you down, my suggestion is simple. Instead of throwing it in a hotel bin. Give it as a gift directly into the hands of person with a lot less than you.

It might just become something far more valuable to you both!

Coming Soon:

A girl called Emma, a street market and a place called home?

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45 Great responses to Sitting with homeless people in Kota Kinabalu

  1. wow brother, a nice read to start my day. to see that smile is the best i hope a lot will take your lead.

  2. iamthewitch says:

    I love this story! It’s really provoking and touching.. I’m sure the man will remember your kind deed for a long long time to come!

  3. Anna's World says:

    Great post. We really need to look at giving more to others. I know I often travel too much. Giving something out that you don’t need anymore is so much better than handing out money.

  4. I was touch, can’t help the tears… saw him and his toothless smile while roaming the streets of KK and I can’t help but to smile back.

  5. el buen samaratin says:

    I mean no offense, but I am beginning to “wonder” about you.

  6. LeslieTravel says:

    Kudos for stopping to “speak” (or, gesture, anyway) with this homeless man and for giving him one of your prized possessions. It seemed like you made his day

    • Your comments always tell me you’ve read the whole post! Always so perceptive, it means a lot, thank you :) In a way, I think he made my day too. At the start it was just seeing him shake his fist at the people walking by after he had the coat. And, then see their reactions. But later it changed just to see him happy. A two way thing :)

  7. Good on ya, Dave. I, too, always help out like this … From drinking beer (my shout) with beggars in Calcutta, to a box of pizza in Mexico for a little girl playing violin, to $1 every time for the limbless guy here in Tai’an, China (where am presently hanging); and yeah, the jackets, sandals, shirts & coins … In my travels, I have always found it impossible to walk by without an acknowledgement and/or a small offering to those less fortunate. Too often, it is a heartless world out there.

    the candy trail … a nomad across the planet, since 1988

    • Hey Michael,

      Glad you came across this post. Sharing pizza in Mexico for a violin player, sounds great. Were you able to get a photo?

      I agree about the heartless world. What made me stop here, more than just the old mans smile. Were the amount of people walking by and ignoring him. I probably over did it with sharing a waffle with him. But still, two people on that day were happy. And maybe someone walking by might do something the next day.

      • I’ve just searched my massive digital archive – mostly unpublished and offline, still – and I found not an image but a video.

        It was in Oaxaca … 2009 with Brenda, my Mexican love. It was in the afternoon and B. gave some money to the young girl – holding out a paper cup – as her older sister sat on the pavement, playing the accordion (not, a violin). People walking by, oblivious.

        But later at night, with them still sitting there in the now quiet street I gave them our take-out (as we had already eaten: they got a huge half Hawaiian & half Pepperoni pizza in the box). But no images of that; it was a spontaneous moment … But I remember them thankful – and really tucking into it !

        PS: I have no issue with giving money, either. What can help, can help. NGOs, etc, say it creates poverty, makes it worse; tell that theory to those in need …

        Regards – MRP (presently poor in China; could do a pizza, now !)

        • “Massive Digital Archive” Now that sound impressive. How are you archiving your photos? It’s taken me a long time to get around to anything other than a mental map. Am finally doing it. ACDSee is quite good for this. I don’t like lightroom – we don’t click :)

          Good story though. Spontaneous moments are often hard to capture beyond the minds eye. So long as our memories hold up, there will be more in that archive than any photographic one.

          True about the NGO’s, not my favorite subject. So many are self righteous about things. Yet go ahead and change things the way they see fit. Never mind sustainability and the core aspects of local community.

          Hoping a pizza comes your way

  8. Ivy says:

    Are you homeless …? again? ;)

  9. Jason says:

    Great post Dave. Pulled at the heart stings a bit. Your photo of the Violin player is a classic, and although I’ve been guilty of walking by many people in need during my travels (I doubt there would be many that haven’t.) In general I don’t like to give money, but I always lend a helping hand where I can with either food or sometimes as you did with belongings. I remember vividly many years ago, the faces on our team of porters in Nepal after they received some quality gear from us for their future employment. These guys weren’t homeless, but were working well below the poverty line and struggling to feed their families.

    • Thanks Jason. I’ll also admit to walking by a lot. Especially to those running up and asking. Like I mentioned to Michael, it’s often the people walking by and ignoring “that” person that makes me stop to help.

      That point you mentioned about the Nepalese porters made me smile. I remember a girl paying a porter by giving him a live chicken. He was so happy he showed it to everyone. The amazing thing is, if she’d given him money as a tip, he might have drank it away. Instead he had a live chicken to take home to his family. It’s great you gave you porter some quality gear, there’s so much fake stuff over there that never lasts. Especially footwear. I’m sure it’s helped them out a lot more than a few dollars would have, well done to you!

  10. Glamiva says:

    Awwww touching!

  11. Cristine says:

    How touching Dave!

  12. Thanks for sharing your experience Dave. It’s always a tough situation when you see homelessness, especially on the streets of a prosperous city. I still haven’t found the best way to deal with it myself.

    • Cheers Dustin. I tell you what would make me curious, Sweden, big cities, homelessness and other things that don’t get mentioned in “tourist land”. I know it’s not everyone’s thing. But it opens a new perspective in life, and photography. Homeless shelters can be found in many places. It might be easier to visit one first, rather than just take to the streets. Just an idea! ;)

  13. Ivy says:

    Sorry Dave, those stupid comments of mine are going to cost me my life, once … it’s just that i’m getting so angry when i see poverty …

  14. Lois says:

    Thanks for the reminder Dave. I hope we also get this kind of opportunity in our future travels. This was really an eye opener.

  15. Marsha says:

    So refreshing to hear & how enriching life can be with people like you. All the best !

  16. Gretchen says:

    Agreed – great story! You may appear to have a crusty outside once in a great while but you definitely have a soft spot inside all of the time. ;)

    I regularly go through the closets and donate to the St. Vincent de Paul charity. Recently, I have begun purchasing grocery bags of food that the clerks at the local grocery put together for the homeless and families in need. They are designed to feed a family of four and only cost the purchaser $5.00 – $6.00. (Store covers the remainder.) They are also delivered directly to those people. My first purchase was 4 bags. Thought the clerk was about to faint. Most customers buy 1 and usually only at holiday time. Sorry, people are hungry everyday, not just at Christmas or Easter. I buy 2 each time I shop. If I can afford to buy my own groceries, I can afford to help out someone who can’t.

    Anyway, you’ll be remembered by that man long after the jacket has given up the ghost. Random acts of kindness are wonderful things- large or small.

    • Who’s crusty?? ;)

      A great thing you do there with your groceries. I like it when people like the clerks get a shock. I am always hoping it’s a sign that they are waking up!

      And yes, people are hungry everyday, not just at Christmas. I vaguely remember someone once telling me few people go hungry then, it’s the rest of the year that’s the problem. Proud to know someone like you who sees this, and acts upon it!

      Much like the man here, I am sure people are aware that someone’s feeding them at your end too. If not, then at least you know. And now, some more people too :) Well done!

      • Gretchen says:

        Thank you! The “weak-kneed” clerk and I are going to talk to the manager to request adding some of the non-food items people also need – toothpaste/brushes, unscented soap (don’t want your rice smelling like Irish Spring), toilet paper, etc. The charity who collects the bags delivers them directly to the families and homeless who have asked to be part of the program. If there are extra bags on any given day (rarely are), they are given to the local soup kitchens. Hopefully, tonight’s predicted blizzard won’t interfere with my buying two more on Friday. :-0

  17. another amazing story. i don’t see so much of this when we travel, since i am almost always in a car bc of my disabilities. i know i miss out on so much – you remind me that there’s so very much to see.

    • I hope what I write here can help fill in the gaps Jessie. I remember thinking that a person can live in a country all their lives, and never see every square inch, or experience everything. I think this is still very true. Just like you at Wandering Educators are publishing things many other people might never get to see. Together it all adds up, and hopefully many more people can see and learn :)

      • dave, you do bring the world home, more than you ever know. you are one of my most important windows to the world, since you write so compellingly, honestly, and as a thinking global citizen. thank you!

  18. Nicole says:

    I love this story. Not only do your photos tell so much about the man but your words say so much about you and your life. Very personal, these are the stories worth telling. :)

  19. Ciki says:

    you are a good person dave with a heart of gold.. but then I always knew that about u, even behind that sarky tongue of urs:P What a great gesture of generosity, but more so of love. love for a brother. I have a feeling you will never end up like that man on the road because God loves you too much for that! in this world of fakes and materialistic people, you are the antihero!

    • Shhhh, don’t tell people things like this, ha ha :) This guy was as much doing me a favor as I to him. Am sure he’s making more use of my coat than I would have up until now.

      Hmmm Antihero – New tag line?!

  20. Hi friend.
    Most of the homeless people that you meet in this post are foreigner (Philippines), that come to Sabah illegally. They work as beggars and roam our busy street. Some of them earn two thousands ringgit a months by just begging for money on the street.

    • Hello and welcome. Thanks for your legitimate points. However, both of these men, according to locals, were from Malaysia. And, although many, many people will argue the problems associated with illegal immigration, we live in a world where everyone is trying to survive, and not many people helping.

  21. Ricky Ferdon says:

    Great post! Thanx for taking the time to be a part of this man’s day. Thanx for getting dirty instead of just writing about getting dirty. Jesus said, “I was naked and you didn’t clothe me, Hungry and you didn’t feed me”…the people were shocked. “Lord, they said, when were you naked and we didn’t clothe you? Hungry, and we didn’t feed you?” Jesus replied, “When you failed to do it to the least of these, you refused to do it to me.”

  22. Borneoboy says:

    I know this man. I see him begging every day. I think he is one of the few “officially approved” beggars in the city, as the police seem to leave him alone to sit in the prime spot between Sinsuran and the Post Office.

    • Maglin Jolly says:

      As Sabahans, I’m ashamed of this situation. Yes, we take pity on them but the more we give the more beggars come out of no where in KK area. Some of them fingerless (like this very popular toothless old man in the picture). There is another one, going around KK and Luyang area; old and handless. According to the trusted source (locals in Pulau Gaya, they became like that because of their fish bombing activities.) These people are so “brave”, roaming around KK without any documents. We send them home to Philippines, they come back in few weeks time….as if this is out of control already…. The Philippines in other way round does nothing for their people in Sabah. The consul is located in Kuala Lumpur which makes it difficult for their people in Sabah to get valid travel documents. Pity all of us Sabahans, getting the “stamp on foreheads” without our consent… the homeless children, the homeless people…. Just a little bit of advice, don’t easily get cheated by their pitiful looks…. As Borneoboy said; “officially approved” beggars in the city….. what can we do? We’re just ordinary people who can do nothing to prevent this…The least we can do is not giving anything which will attract the whole neighbouring country to Sabah …. They are just taking advantages from the foreigners…Be careful guys…. However, what you did is something good but it’s not wrong to know the real story right? Peace…..