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Losing Autofocus: A Fraction of a Second in Borneo

By Dave Fox
Batu Puteh, Borneo, Malaysia

It’s hard being a travel writer when the jungle technology gods are against you.

The day before Kattina and I leave Singapore on our trip to Borneo, I dash out to buy two needed items: hiking shoes, and a camera lens to replace my lens that’s been malfunctioning since our trip to Burma last October. I find a zoom lens at a great price, and Gore-Tex shoes that cost more than I normally spend on shoes, but good shoes are important when you’re anticipating scary jungle blisters.  I’m pleased with my purchases.

SONY DSCOne week later, we’re motoring down a river a longboat, headed to Clearwater Cave in Mulu National Park. The riverbed is lined with large, round stones. There’s no pier when we reach the cave because, hey, it’s the jungle. Getting out of the boat will require stepping into three inches of water.

This is bad. Several kilometers of hiking, plus wet feet, equal blisters. I should have brought my flip-flops.

But I devise a clever plan to avoid getting my feet wet. There’s one stone bigger than the other stones. It comes up almost to the water’s surface. If I step just right and stretch my leg a little farther than normal, I can land on that stone and make a quick hop to shore.

So I step toward my special, big, round rock, which, it turns out, is a special, big, round, slimy rock. My new hiking shoes are no match for the slippery slime. As my right foot flies out from under me, I manage to land on my left foot – albeit in three inches of water.

Phew!” I think. “Close one!”

Then I think, “Damn. I got my feet wet.”

Then I realize I have not regained my balance.

Then I crash face-down into the river.

This all happens in less than a second. I land on my right palm, attempting, with my left hand, to keep my camera above water.

“Are you okay?” Kattina gasps from the boat.

“I’m all right,” I shout back as I lay in the river, though I’m not sure that’s true. My hand is throbbing and my backpack is filling with river water. But I’m thinking, “At least I saved my camera.”

Kattina jumps from the boat to help me up. As I get to my feet, 97 gallons of river water spill from my lens.

I don’t know at what point my camera got dunked. Did I submerge it when I landed? In my dazed state, did I land okay, but let go of it as I was standing up? It doesn’t matter. The lens drips for the next hour, and condensation forms on several layers of glass.

Kattina has heard that when you drop electronic gadgets in water, putting them in a bag of uncooked rice will pull out the moisture.

We try this. Fortunately, rice is a staple food in Malaysia. Alas, two days later, the condensation is still there.

So I leave the lens in the sun for several hours. That night, I’m thrilled to discover the condensation is gone. But my camera never recovers. It still takes pictures; however, the auto-focus function no longer works, nor does  the viewfinder. At random moments, the words, “Camera Malfunction,” appear on the screen.

Then, on day 11, as I’m attempting to photograph a hornbill, my camera gasps its last gasp. It shuts down and will not turn on again.

On the banks of the Kinabatangan River, Kattina and I hold a quiet memorial service.

My trusty DSLR, just over a year old, is my second most important tool as a travel writer. My most important tool is my laptop. And my laptop does not take the loss of my camera well.

That happens sometimes. When a person dies, their partner just can’t go on. That night, as I’m working on an article, the computer crashes.

Then it crashes again.

And again, and again.

It takes me many hours of tinkering and swearing, over the course of several days, before I get my laptop to work again.  I do resurrect it in the end, however, and am typing this story on it now.

Sometimes, when we’re out of our element, foreign surroundings distract us from logical thinking. It can take just a split-second misjudgment for something to get smashed, injured, lost, or stolen.

These are frustrating travel moments. I spent several days sulking about my camera, and I’ll confess, I don’t know if I’m done yet. But the best thing we can do when these things happen is adjust, keep going, and avoid the urge to beat ourselves up.

I am pleased to say that although I have trashed the most expensive camera I’ve ever owned, and will be needing a new computer soon too, I did achieve my primary goal in the moment I leaped from the boat: I never developed the blisters I feared; in fact, despite my fall in the river, my feet stayed totally dry.

Gore-Tex, I had momentarily forgotten, is waterproof.


Travelers’ Therapy: What was your most mindless travel mishap? What went wrong and how did you get over it? Share your story in the comments area below. (Come on! Tell us about it! You’ll feel better!)

Published on Thursday, June 27, 2013

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