Landing in Kuching, he quickly learned the Malay language and involved himself in projects which includes orangutan rehabilitation and research about the famed naturalist, Alfred Wallace, whose thunder was stolen by Charles Darwin.
The advent of cheap air travel to many destinations in Southeast Asia transported him to many adventures. From dancing naked in an earthquake in Sumatra, to getting lost in a warren of World War II Japanese caves to walking the rim of a volcano with poisonous gas, he has jumped with foolhardiness into everything wild and wonderful, all related in his book Borneo Tom.
Reuniting with his Peace Corps family of thirty five years ago, sharing adventures with one daughter, then reconciling with another after a divorce, marriage with full kampung ceremony and then taking both daughters on his honeymoon to Bali are a few of the highlights of his remarkable personal life. Oh, but we can’t forget? His vasectomy coupled with a wife diagnosed as barren has reproduced a son, Dzul Patrick, now a few months old.
Tom teaches at the Lodge International School in Kuching, Malaysian Borneo while writing about his adventures as a US expat living in Borneo.
You can find him at:
Q: Thank you for this interview, Tom McLaughlin. Can you tell us what your latest book, Borneo Tom, is all about?
A: A retired American science teacher packs up and moves to Borneo and experiences orangutans, dances naked in an earthquake, swims with jellyfish and falls in love. These are just a few of his many adventures.
Q: How did you come up with the idea?
A: My personal experiences became so bizarre and unusual they cried out for a book!
Q: What kind of research did you do before and during the writing of your book?
A: For the essay on pandas I flew to Chengdu, China and met with Dr. Tang, the Director of the research center; I interviewed survivors (I speak Malay and Indonesian) of the tsunami in Banda Ache; Cannon worship was explained to me by the mother of the pretender to the Sultanate of Sambas; customs (adat) of the Malay marriage ceremony where I was the groom were divulged by my wife; Sarawak Forest Rangers informed about the life cycle of the Raflesia, largest flower in the world; the section on naturalist Alfred Wallace came from the world expert, Dr. George Beccaloni, Natural History Museum, London, who stayed with me in my condo for two weeks; orangutan rehabilitation came from visits to Sumatra Indonesia and my friendship with the Director of the Matang Rehab center Kuching; love and forgiveness came from my parents.
Q: If a reader can come away from reading your book with one valuable message, what would that be?
A: Follow your dreams! I did and ended up with a wonderful life in Borneo.
Q: Can you give us a short excerpt?
A: On my last day, before the 3pm feeding session, I went to the comfort station. I witnessed Delima, a female orangutan, and family reaching in through the bars of the cleaning closet to extract a deep blue gallon jug of Dettol, a disinfectant used to scrub floors.
She then climbed high into the tree tops, opened the jug and poured it over herself. I ran down to the park station and they immediately radioed for help. I watched as she emptied the jug and then began banging on it like a drum. She moved through the trees carrying the deep blue container with her daughter Selima behind, with me following down the path telling the park rangers where she was.
She eventually went to the feeding station, smelling like Lysol, much better than her original odour. The park rangers told me she would not drink it, but everyone seemed to be relieved she was eating the fruit, looking a bit sorry for herself.
Looking down from on high, it must have looked hilarious; me yelling in my Americanized Malay that the apes had the Dettol, me chasing them while they were high in the trees, Delima beating on the deep blue gallon jug, and Selima wondering what on earth was going on.
Q: In your own experience, is it hard to get a nonfiction book published today? How did you do it?
A: No; Instead of going through the agony of seeking a publisher and then an agent, I went to the local printer here in Kuching and had them printed up myself. I plan to sell them on the Internet.
Q: What’s a typical day like for you?
A: My vasectomy born son now is too young to travel. I am now Teaching English as a Second Language and English Literature a far cry from the biology and chemistry background. I had planned to read the classics but I never thought I would be teaching them!
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I am writing a follow up to my first book Borneo Tom which will now include tales about being an older father. More travels are in the offering with a trip planned to Komodo Island to view the dragons.
Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Tom. We wish you much success!
A: Thank you!