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Finding Myself in Borneo: Sojourns in Sabah

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An honest and buoyant chronicle of a young Canadian man’s adventures during 1968 –70, while teaching secondary school as a CUSO volunteer in Sabah, Malaysia (North Borneo). Neill McKee learns the craft of teaching, the Malay language and local customs, and gains many friends in his small community. He climbs the highest peak in Southeast Asia—Mount Kinabalu, has a love affair, and navigates Borneo’s backwaters to make his first of many documentary films. McKee travels by freighter to Indonesia, where he discovers the scars of that country’s recent genocide, a contrast to his hilarious motorcycle journeys in Sabah with his American Peace Corps buddy. They make a hallucinogenic discovery—North Borneo is, indeed, J. R. R. Tolkien’s famed Middle-Earth of The Lord of the Rings ! The enterprising duo establish the North Borneo Frodo Society, an organization Tolkien joins.

260 pages, Paperback

Published January 8, 2019

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About the author

Neill McKee

9 books17 followers
Neill McKee is a creative nonfiction writer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His first travel memoir, Finding Myself in Borneo, won a bronze medal in the Independent Publishers Book Awards, 2020, as well as other awards. McKee holds a Bachelor's Degree, from the University of Calgary and a Master's Degree in Communication from Florida State University. He worked internationally for 45 years, becoming an expert in the field of communication for social change. He directed and produced a number of award-winning documentary films/videos and multimedia initiatives, and has written numerous articles and books in the field of development communication. During his international career, McKee worked for Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO); Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC); UNICEF; Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland; Academy for Educational Development and FHI 360, Washington, DC. He worked and lived in Malaysia, Bangladesh, Kenya, Uganda, and Russia for a total of 18 years and traveled to over 80 countries on short-term assignments. In 2015, he settled in New Mexico, using his varied experiences, memories, and imagination in creative writing.

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Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews
1 review2 followers
January 18, 2019
My daughter Sylvia and I very much enjoyed this book, although reading it gave us the impression that we “have not done much!” The book exudes a tremendous picture of youthful energy. The emphasis is always on the adventure, and is not merely a chronicle of the problems which the author inevitably encountered. And it is all told with such humour! We felt that we had learned a lot about the cultures and complexities of the world there and, by extension, in all the other areas which we think that we understand, but don’t. The author’s research added a lot to the book.

We were both very amused by Neill McKee’s ability to give a sense of the way the characters speak, and we had a wonderful sense of place: the animals, birds, plants, and the rains. The photos added a lot, and my daughter particularly found the Tolkien references interesting.

Above all, it is such an honest picture of finding yourself – and of a desire to see life as a whole, as well as an account of the author’s growing wisdom.

Bill Exley

Profile Image for Anthony.
Author 30 books109 followers
February 26, 2019
I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.

A journey of self discovery leads to fascinating discoveries in author Neil McKee’s “Finding Myself in Borneo: Sojourns in Sabah. Here is the synopsis.

The Synopsis
Finding Myself in Borneo is an honest and buoyant chronicle of a young Canadian man’s adventures during 1968-70, while teaching secondary school as a CUSO volunteer in Sabah, Malaysia (North Borneo). Travel with Neill McKee on his unique journey through vibrant Asian cultures as he learns the craft of teaching, the Malay language and local customs, and gains many friends in his small community. He climbs the highest peak in Southeast Asia–Mount Kinabalu, has a love affair, and navigates Borneo’s backwaters to make his first of many documentary films. McKee travels by freighter to Indonesia, where he discovers the scars of that country’s recent genocide, a contrast to his hilarious motorcycle journeys in Sabah with his American Peace Corps buddy. They make a hallucinogenic discovery–North Borneo is, indeed, J. R. R. Tolkien’s famed Middle-Earth of The Lord of the Rings! The enterprising duo establish the North Borneo Frodo Society, an organization Tolkien joins.

McKee’s second Sabah sojourn and other return trips offer the reader the opportunity to match the early anecdotes to what in fact happened to the land and people who touched his life, and he theirs.

The Review
What a fantastic read! The honest, personal and intellectual journey of a young man in the late 60’s, early 70’s leaving behind his life in Canada to travel to a lifelong dream location of Borneo was so unique and wonderful to read. The author does a marvelous job of painting a picture of the experience, from the first weeks and the personal experiences that came with it, to the students and teachers who he got to know in his teaching role within the country.

Political upheavals, spiritual melting pots and cultural barriers all play a central role in both the author’s life and the novel. Even book lovers and fantasy fans will love the psychedelic discovery of Tolkien’s real world Middle Earth. Rarely do fans of the genre get to experience moments like that, making this memoir feel personal to both the author and reader.

The Verdict
This is a fantastic read everyone can enjoy. Filled with a wonderful blend of history, various cultures and languages and a great story of self discovery, the author has created a reading experience like no other. If you haven’t yet be sure to get your copy of Finding Myself in Borneo by Neil McKee today!
Profile Image for Rachel.
86 reviews
March 31, 2019
Neill McKee’s honest and thought-provoking memoir, "Finding Myself in Borneo: Sojourns in Sabah", is the telling of his time overseas while working with the Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO), mainly from 1968-1970. After college, McKee had the option to work in the family business, but opted for more of a life of adventure. As soon as he stepped foot on the foreign soil, he became immersed in its culture and past-times and developed a love for his students and the area all around him in North Borneo. One such example of his experience there is partnering with his friend Peter Ragan and their creation of the North Borneo Frodo Society (NBFS). While exploring the land, they had a revelation that the map of North Borneo is very similar to that of Middle Earth in J.R.R. Tolkien’s "The Lord of the Rings". NBFS was endorsed and included Tolkien as a member himself and is still a living community of lovers of both Borneo and Tolkien’s beloved “imaginary” world. "Borneo" is full of stories of how McKee’s life was lived during the two years he was “volunteering;” stories of love, uneasiness, and pure joy. Sent over as a teacher, after half-way through his term he discovered his love for film- making. This second-love of his, along with his first love (Sabah), brought him back to Borneo not even two and a half years after his departure to explore more of the land while making (future) award-winning films and meeting his real-life love. Amazingly, McKee lived and worked overseas for a total of 45 years promoting social change.
The stories from McKee provide great insight into both how life was lived back in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, as well as how it was lived overseas among those who abide by different cultural and religious guidelines. McKee’s writing is very personable and any age or gender would easily be able to follow, but especially the generation that grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The issues that McKee addresses would be most relatable to an older reader as well. McKee makes known his reasoning for writing his memoirs, and this makes the overall story more sentimental to both author and reader. I would read more by McKee and want to learn more about him, like if his kids followed in his footsteps and were able to make social and personal connections abroad just like their father.
Profile Image for Fiona Ingram.
Author 13 books739 followers
February 1, 2019
Finding Myself In Borneo is a colorful memoir with a difference! The book is described as author Neill McKee's honest and buoyant chronicle of a young Canadian man's adventures during 1968-70, while teaching secondary school as a CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas) volunteer in Sabah, Malaysia (North Borneo). But it is much more than that for any reader. Neill relates with detailed, vivid descriptions his ups and down with the various cultural, social, and political markers of the era that readers will recognize.

However, for me, this is less a memoir and more of an immersive adventure for the reader who might be interested in memoirs but is also bitten by the travel bug and the desire to explore foreign climes and cultures. Neill has a descriptive style of writing that is quite wonderful. He is able to insert into the narrative an enormous amount of information about the country, the climate, the cuisine, the culture, and the mindset of the people without overwhelming the reader. The writing could be described as cinematic as I certainly found myself absorbed in the narrative and was able to visualize the colorful details especially with the inclusion of photos in the text.

Neill is totally honest about his experiences, ranging from learning to teach in a totally foreign environment to learning about life in general and indeed learning about love in particular. His interpretations of the people and religion, politics and culture come from a positive and open mind, and a willingness to embrace a new ethos. The years of his stay in the region were punctuated with disruption and danger at times, clashes between various groups and political rumblings. This was the dark side of the seemingly paradisiac environment in which he felt he’d initially arrived. Interestingly, his time in Borneo sparked his enthusiasm for movie making and an adventure taken as a young man resulted in a career and a life of travel and exploration.

One of the most charming features of this book was the discovery that North Borneo is, indeed, J.R.R. Tolkien's famed Middle-Earth of The Lord of the Rings! He and his American Peace Corps buddy, Peter Ragan, established the North Borneo Frodo Society, an organization Tolkien joined. What an honor! Interestingly, Neill was able to match up various elements of the story with the landscape, including the discovery of Mount Doom! A history of the NBFS is found at the end of the book. I liked the references at the close of the book for readers interested in learning more about the region and its history. There is also a detailed bibliography. A brief history of North Borneo as an end note puts the location into historical and political context. A glossary of Malay words and expressions is also included.
1 review
September 12, 2019
In Finding Myself in Borneo by Neill McKee takes the readers on a time travel of Borneo of the late1960s when he landed there on a teaching assignment in a secondary school as a CUSO volunteer. With adventure in his blood, McKee dared himself to explore the remote and inaccessible places while he had a break from teaching. He learnt the Malay language soon enough so that he could communicate with the people and get familiar with the local customs. He thus had an insider’s knowledge of the culture and customs of Borneo (and Sabah) which he recounts with amazing lucidity and directness. As he takes the reader through his journeys stretching from the whitewater rapids to Mount Kinabalu -- the highest peak of Southeast Asia-- he offers a series of stories and anecdotes which are revealing as much of the landscapes and cultural uniqueness of the place as of the writer himself, as the young man from Canada falls in love with everything Southeast Asian (including, literally, a young woman!) and describes them with honesty and insight. McKee had another mission in Borneo – to make a documentary which allowed him to combine his passion for travelling with film making. McKee has a sharp eye for detail and a flair for recounting the unusual and uncommon. His travels gave him a profound understanding of the lives of the people and made him a co-sharer of their hardships and pleasures, their losses and jubilations. It is the strength of McKee’s narration that holds the reader’s attention and interest till the last page. For young readers it will certainly be an inspiring read as they enter a world which still remains unknown to many, and discovers its charms and challenges. The writer’s enthusiasm and humanity are simply catching.
My experience of reading the book verged on the magical. I felt so close to the places, the people, their day to day life, I can say that I know the place without ever being there. Indeed, after first reading it a few weeks earlier, I have looked it up quite a few times, feeling like renewing my associations with the people and places McKee describes. There is always something new to explore. The wit and humor description alongside the seriousness of issues including political turmoil makes the book so much more enthralling. It is a page turner of a rare kind.
I look forward to another book by McKee similarly enthralling and down to earth. If Borneo has claimed him, McKee too has claimed the loyalty of his readers. I know I’ll be one of his captive readers, always.

May 26, 2019
Borneo is one of those places that immediately evokes a sense of exocitism, adventure, mystery. No matter that now Kota Kinabalu is filled with malls and expressways. Neill McKee captures a period of time in Sabah that was ripe in promise and hope five years after achieving independence by becoming one of the constituent members of the nation of Malaysia. For volunteers it was the best of times; post colonial and pre tourist. 1968 was the year of student sit ins, riots outside the Democratic Party Convention, the escalating Viet Nam war and social revolution. Times were a changin'. While some advocated change on the streets others were on the ground. CUSO, VSO, Peace Corps were sending thousands of young people to far away lands. Finding Myself in Borneo is a wonderful account of one volunteer's experience. "Finding Myself In Borneo" is a title that carries two meanings. There is at one level a sense of happenstance as if Neill accidently found himself in Borneo. This is in fact true because in those days volunteers had their postings chosen for them. At a second level there is the deeper meaning of discovering who you are as an adult. McKee writes with sensitivity, good humour and insight into this period of his life.
McKee had the good fortune to be posted to a small community and despite its reputation for being "simpit" narrow, he embraced its narrowness, engaging in all the small town practises, like sitting in a coffee shop, and by doing so, it became "lebar" a widening experience. One can never begin to understand another culture without learning the language and this the author did through the friendships he forged.
This book will appeal to those who like adventure travel and especially to those who have travelled and lived in other countries with a sense of deeper purpose beyond adventure.
Profile Image for Detlef.
5 reviews
March 13, 2021
This is a refreshing autobiography of the author´s intrepid youth. Based on diary entries and letters of the author to his family, the book written at retirement takes us on a journey from a Canadian province town to a sleepy place on Borneo, where the author works as a teacher in a local school. His growing knowledge of Malay greatly assists in his integration.

The reader gets a thorough background of both, the target area in Southeast Asia as well as the reasons for a young man´s wish to go overseas during the time of the Vietnam War, with the draft looming over American youth. After two years as a teacher volunteer, he serves a second stint as a local director with his employer CUSO. Spotlights give a vivid impression of his Asian travels as a film maker and later of his family life. Finally, he visits Borneo again many years later and starts writing.

Two reasons for recommending the book: Anybody with an overseas service past, beginning as a volunteer will find parallels of one´s own: isolation, hardship, a sense of social injustice, inevitably siding with the disadvantaged. For sure no one completing a stint returns as an indifferent person.
Second, the keen observations, the descriptions of local customs, the attention to detail are a treasure for any student of ethnology. A few international volunteers from all continents lead a peaceful life with a population of diverse composition and origin.

The middle part gives a sobering insight into the political turmoil, when groups turn onto each other. Anybody with anthropological interest can get some background and read about the various groups living together on Borneo`s various parts, both in the Malayan and Indonesian part.
1 review
February 13, 2019
I really enjoyed Finding Myself in Borneo. It was an enthralling memoir. Neill McKee is very descriptive, and goes into background details, talking about the history of Borneo. You can tell he’s passionate about his experience, and wishes to share it with others.

Finding Myself in Borneo has inspired me!.
As I read, I thought:,

“I would like to try teaching in an underdeveloped country”.

My favorite parts of the story were:

• McKee’s relationships with the natives of Borneo.

• The descriptions of his Canadian home.

• The fond memories of it both Canada and Borneo.

The memories Neill McKee shared in Finding Myself in Borneo were so heartfelt. I feel a bit like I found a spark in myself in Sabah. McKee’s love and fondness for his fellow human really spoke to me.

I loved the childhood memories of “Africa,” or the place McKee called Africa; it is clearly close to his heart as well as being close to his house. The way he describes everything made me want to walk in his shoes, especially those descriptions of the people. The travel was clearly more about the path than the destination. Overall, I found this to be a good read, and feel Finding Myself in Borneo should be read by all - travel lovers as well as those who only travel through lovely memoirs such as this!
1 review
February 8, 2019
Finding Myself In Borneo
By Neill McKee

What a delightful read! I was hooked at the front cover, showing Mt Kinabalu and the young volunteer on the Norton motorcycle. I have a similar picture of my wife and me on our Norton taken at about the same time, only on the other side of the mountain.

From the front cover onward, the memories came flooding back. Our experiences and observations were very much the same, (except for the sex, drugs, rock & roll..... and Frodo). McKee has done us a great service in articulating this wonderful shared adventure. He have done all of the hard work for me. We can now simply pass his words on as a summary of our own experience as volunteers in Borneo.

McKee’s descriptions are crisp, clear and colorful like the rich tropical Borneo landscape, but the tone and manner tell the story too. Those were happy and care-free times in our lives and his words exude that. The language re-training was helpful to this old brain of mine too, as so many words in Bahasa Melayu came back to me. We will be buying three more copies of the book, one for each of our children so that they can know more about our Borneo experience without us having to drone on about it when they are held captive.

Ron and Mary Hunt
Charleston, SC
Profile Image for Jerry.
Author 7 books16 followers
February 21, 2019
When Neill McKee was trying to grow up he traveled from his home in Canada to a comparatively primitive place, the island of Borneo. Trying to grow up is hard enough, but he chose to do it in a foreign land. He does not portray himself as a swashbuckling debonair James Bond type of hero. On the contrary he was a bit of a nerd, whose greatest pleasure was fantasizing that JRR Tolkien had modeled the geography of Lord of the Rings on this very island.

Out of the exotic scenes and foreign encounters, emerges the universal story of a young person trying to figure out how to become the adult version of themselves.

I love the way his youthful mission kept evolving in parallel with his personhood – the intertwining of this development of self through the adventure of traveling is as old as civilization – heroes throughout the ages have “gone forth to the land of adventure” in order to find their deeper truths. McKee has kept this tradition alive thus updating the Hero’s Journey for our times.
February 12, 2019

What a great story! One can’t help but become engaged in McKee’s adventures and experiences in such an unusual locale. He recognized the importance of staying out of local politics and feuds and focused instead on the lively and rich panorama of Sabah culture and setting. His founding of the North Borneo Frodo Society is, of course, a highlight, but there are many others, like his motorcycle rides through the countryside, his encounters with a confused school headmaster, and his initial frustrations in becoming a filmmaker. His comments and musings about return visits to Kota Belud were especially thoughtful and meaningful to everyone who makes such a journey to an earlier home.
Monika Ghattas
Profile Image for Erik McManus.
302 reviews291 followers
February 19, 2019
This book was very interesting. It was very cool to feel like you were a part of this man's travels in Borneo as he discovered new cultures. He is also a Canadian traveler which makes it that much more awesome.

He tells the story in a very enriching way and it is probably because he makes documentary films. He just has that vision to bring a story to life and make it personal at the same time. Did I mention that he writes with such humor you will be laughing while reading (pretty sure I snorted a couple times)!

Neill is quite the adventurous fellow and I would love to sit down with him and discuss his travels over a hot cup of tea but since I can't, reading his book was the next best thing.

If you have a craving for adventure, go get this book!
1 review
January 27, 2019
In Finding Myself in Borneo, Neill McKee mixes his memories of teaching in Sabah in the late 60’s with historical, geographical and political anecdotes about the area. He traverses the region on a motorcycle, climbs Mount Kinabalu, and finds his passion for film making. His love for Sabah and its very diverse population shines through in his writing. Returning years later he meets with a number of his students and confirms that, indeed, his years of teaching in Kota Belud made a difference. I look forward to reading about the next adventures in his extraordinary career.
Profile Image for Sara Dehaan.
4 reviews
February 13, 2019
McKee shares his service volunteer adventure as a secondary school teacher he began shortly after he graduated from college, as well as his return trips. He is so open to learning from an unfamiliar culture and his descriptions of his experiences are cinematic (He is a filmmaker). He includes historical background and cultural details about Borneo, and there is a Malay glossary in the back. If you have interest in service learning or living abroad, planning a trip to Borneo and Malaysia, or ready for some arm-chair travel, it’s a fun read.
Profile Image for Sreevarsha Sreejith.
33 reviews12 followers
February 13, 2019
Finding Myself in Borneo; Sojourns in Sabah is more a travelogue than a memoir. They detail a young man's adventures in the remote and exotic wilderness of the South Asia of the 60's and 70's. It manages to take you from the delight of discovery to the toils of travel to humorous anecdotes all while sitting on your sofa, sipping a cup of tea.

For a more detailed review, please visit my blog at https://sreevarshasreejith.blogspot.c....
Author 12 books29 followers
August 24, 2019
A fascinating account of the authors experiences as a member of the Canadian equivalent of the Peace Corps, the CUSO in the late 1960’s. He taught in Sabah, Malaysia (North Borneo), and explored southeast Asia. The people he met, the sights he saw and the events he experienced make for a great read. He does an excellent job of conveying his happiness with what he learned, and what he brought to his students and the residents of Sabah.
1 review
June 20, 2019
Documentation of an interesting time the author enjoyed as a young man serving in Borneo as a teacher for the Canadian equivalent of the Peace Corps. His cultural observations of the diverse people of the time (1968-70), his youthful experiences there, and his retelling of travel episodes make it a
thoughtful picture of a time and place 50 years ago.
Profile Image for Andy.
Author 2 books59 followers
September 13, 2019
An absolutely wonderful memoir. McKee's book is far more than a look back at lessons learned as a young man (although it certainly is that) and a reflection on how we (and places) change. The work is filled with adventure, humor, sadness, and joy. I hope you'll join Neill's adventure.
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