Posted by: facetothewind | December 15, 2015

My Poor Liver

Our holiday in Langkawi Island, Malaysia…or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bottle.

If you’re in recovery for alcoholism, don’t read this.

While Christians all over the world are contemplating the true meaning of shopping, I find myself in this Muslim country considering the true meaning of defeat. Chuan and his 2 friends Hao Yen, Wai Tuck and I took a few days breather from the ugh factor of Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi Island in the Andaman Sea (just at the border of Thailand). It promised to be our year end tropical island vacation with beautiful beaches, swaying palms, gentle ocean breezes and fresh seafood. I imagined myself sitting on the beach with my book sipping a cheap cocktail and listening to the waves lapping at the shore. In the end it delivered only the cheap alcohol part.

Cenang beach Langkawi

What do you do when your tropical beach holiday turns out to look like a flood plain in the kampung?

After our humbling sunset walk on the beach shared with a few thousand other Malaysians with their jet skis, helicopters, cars and screaming babies, I felt that ‘pan-Malaysian ugh’ coming on…the same ugh I left behind in KL…the same ugh of Borneo. It’s the ugh-ony of defeat — that I as the sole outpost of civility and decency amongst the teeming masses of ill-behaved (said in a most haughty tone), have overstayed myself in a place I should long ago have left. Everything about this country has worked my last nerve: from nearly being run over daily, to Muslims singing Christmas music in malls; from screaming kids tearing up a restaurant while their parents pay no mind to the endless loops through parking garages; from the people blowing their snot into the pool to dropping their trash from their balconies…this country has defeated me. But lucky for me, duty-free shopping in Langkawi came to my rescue in liquid form, like a bubbly, golden goddess arriving each afternoon with a distinct pop and fizz.

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Oh Langkawi.

You see, I discovered the night of the big Thanksgiving dinner with the expat Americans here that after 4 glasses of Moët & Chandon champagne (thank you Cynthia and Scott) and a couple big glasses of red wine, Malaysia is a hell of a lot more palatable. My ride home on the subway was so much easier as Kuala Lumpur as seen through drunken eyes takes on a surreal cast — all that’s normally objectionable is now seen through the detachment of an observer — as if watching it on YouTube. The pushing people on the subway are magically transformed into a freeform frottage of human bumper cars. The creepy “uncle” who sits next to you on the train platform and fondles himself through his pants seems somehow flattering. Really, you think I’m cute, do you? No one even looks at me in my own country. Thank you for noticing me. Thank you so much.

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How do you cope with the crushing crowds of Asia? A little sip’ll do ya.

Perhaps I am situationally alcoholic, which I think is a bit more tenable than being chronically so. All I have to do is change my situation — when I get on the plane, I’m on the wagon. I have a general commitment to live more joyfully which, as Allah is my witness, is damn hard here stone cold sober. But in the greater Malaysia, the Muslim based ‘sin tax’ placed on alcohol and chocolate (what is wrong with these people?) makes that foggy mind that is necessary to keep your joy on, too costly to indulge in. And so I mostly don’t indulge, or I under-indulge sitting in my apartment avoiding the fully-sober onslaught of Malaysia. That is until we arrived in Langkawi and hit the duty-free stores to find that a bottle of champagne is 1/2 to 1/4 the price of KL (but still twice the price of the US). Champagne, good beer, wine, cordials and spirits were all once again within my greedy grasp.

Regalia KL

When this is the only pedestrian path to my apartment, who is there to greet me and comfort me when I return home but my good friend Jim. Jim Beam.

In the end we found out there wasn’t much else to do in Langkawi except go duty-free shopping and uncorking the spoils back in the hotel room. And so Langkawi, while kind of disappointing in the tropical paradise and swaying palms department, packed a nice alcoholic punch that soothed our woes. Hao Yen and Wai Tuck packed two suitcases full of chocolate and helped us with our daily sipping. Chuan and I shared a bottle of prosecco every day and then followed that up with some sparkling hard cider or Jägermeister taken as a ‘traveler,’ sipping the 56-herb goodness indiscreetly from Chuan’s bag as the evening worn on (and our buzzes wore off).

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The entrance to the refugee school where I teach. Sometimes they rev the engines during class and the kids and I get to inhale a few cubic yards of vehicular emissions. If I had not been nearly run down by a car on the way to school, as is the routine, the sight of tires blocking the entrance alone is enough to drive me to drink. Looks like West Virginia, Malaysia.

The drinking was fairly contained in the first three days of the trip in the company of Chuan’s friends. But when they left a day before we did, the two of us left to our own devices…Hit. The. Sauce. It started with a post-nap German hefeweizen, then a little hard pear cider in the hotel room with a prosecco chaser. I took delight in shooting off the cork into an empty lot, adding my small biodegradable contribution of rubbish to the accumulating pile. After the prosecco it was the Jäggermeister shots and then we hit the road…almost literally. Oddly and perhaps as some sort of omen of sobriety we ran into Chuan’s boss at a restaurant. He was a painfully sexy Chinese man in his 40s wearing a singlet and I was terribly “in my cups” so I tried to keep cool. Don’t drool, don’t teeter and jerk myself from the edge of collapse, eyes above the waste, be dignified lest get my boyfriend fired.

After a little booze charged office chitchat we set off for some food and ended up at a place called Champor Champor which, in the state I was in, became known to me as Shampoo Shampoo, which in the state I was in seemed to be hilariously funny to me. And only me. “Shampoo Shampoo! Ruck ruck ruck quack quack quack,” with lots of slapping my thighs. I will now give you the long form text to describe the emoticon that I should place here: it would be the one of a little round face with the teeth gritting and the eyes rolled skyward in disgust at someone who has lost his title as outpost of decency.

Shampoo Shampoo is a place with fantastic curries, green ones, yellow ones, Indian ones, Thai ones, and the best one: the shrimpy one. Chuan read about it online and read that the proprietor is a feisty Indian woman who was to be avoided. I of course love a good strong woman on the verge of a meltdown. I like to nuzzle right up to them, put my fuzzy head in their bosom and get them to purr like kittens. It’s like sport for me to tame a feisty woman which usually has to begin with letting them know I’m gay.

champor-champor-restaurant

We ordered our curries and were astounded by the extraordinary yumminess of her cooking. She caught our wandering eyes and came to the table, all feist and fury but with a sparkle and a big toothy smile appearing from her 85% cacao skin. She’d told us in perfect English she’d been cooking for 22 years. We praised her braise and off she went. Afterward I stumbled into the kitchen and thanked her for her culinary genius declaring her with histrionic gesture, the “Grand Dame of spice!” Oh dear god, did I really say that? I did. I’m still flush with embarrassment.

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The nicest moment in Langkawi was at a place called Fat Cupid whose slogan is “Eat Play Love.” We ordered pineapple mint drinks and shared a mattress under a big shade tree. After a drink or two I stopped feeling like goofy grandpa. Perhaps this is the great beauty of inebriation — it breaks down barriers and lubricates social intercourse. Ew. Major General will now make yet another major generalization: it can be very hard to get to know Asians on a deeper level so a little assistance of the libation kind can be quite useful. Americans after a drink or two start dropping flattery and fluffy declarations of friendship and love in your lap…and then you never hear from them again. Here in Asia they skip the flattery and florid declarations…and then you never hear from them again.  :/

In all fairness, there are some nice things about Langkawi other than the cheap alcohol and chocolate. We did have a nice-ish afternoon at a beach playing with sea creatures. Well, it was me watching the Chinese play with the sea creatures in a slightly torturous way. I don’t really like to disturb animals in their natural habitats but these boys seemed to enjoy playing with them, pulling an octopus and a crab out of the water and toying with them until the octopus bit Hao Yen and drew blood. In the end they released the little animals unharmed. I got to see the tiny octopus change colors instantly from clear to black and then shoot a blast of ink as it bolted for cover.

I went off for a deep water swim, bobbing amid the plastic waste contemplating the end of the planet as I so often do in Asia. While I was out there I saw some eagles and great hornbills nesting in the trees. I wondered how they survived the tour boats that throw them chicken fat — not something they should be eating. But I was grateful for seeing them.

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Does anyone else get annoyed with all the selfie-making? These girls were at it for a whole hour just doing one wefie after the other. People have become so self-obsessed. They completely missed out on the beauty around them as they rack up photo after photo of themselves. What do they do with all those photos?

On another day at a tragically polluted beach strewn with bottles, fishing nets, and diapers, I noticed a colony of monkeys at the end. I had been sitting in the shade next to a group of girls (above) doing endless selfies and wefies. It was comical if not pathetic. But it surely was not relaxing. Then an Arab couple sat down next to me blowing smoke in my direction and dropping cigarette butts in the sand. I contemplated how hard it has become anymore to get away from people. The empty part of the beach with the monkeys was starting to look better. Chuan had warned me about the vicious monkeys but BAH, I’ve been around monkeys-a-plenty. In Krabi they shake your hand and jump on your shoulders. In KL they keep a safe distance. But here I heard it was a different story and I was curious. So I walked over to a peaceful little monkey and talked a bit to him while filming him. His girlfriend came over and then all of a sudden they attacked me. I learned the meaning of “ape shit” which is exactly what they went on me hissing and chasing me with fangs exposed. Chuan was not pleased to see his boyfriend screaming and running from the monkeys. You’ll have to watch the video below. It’s one more example of how I’ve lost my title of outpost of dignity.

It’s time to go. It was time to go last April. I just want to get out of here without being bitten by a monkey, run over by a car, getting an antibiotic resistant bacteria, or getting snagged in the burgeoning dictatorship which are all plausible perils here in Malaysia.

In the end Chuan and I picked up as much trash as we could carry and with a stick I carried some diapers to a trash bin. I didn’t just carry them. I paraded them up the beach like a trophy. There’s nothing like the site of a tourist carrying diapers on a stick. Even the selfie girls would look away from themselves in shock. And I went up to the Arabs and handed their tiny daughter her father’s cigarette butts and said, “Your daddy lost these. Would you give them to him, please?” They all looked at me in silent disbelief. And the little girl took the butts to the rubbish bin.

Sadly the rubbish bin is very likely to get burned by the locals. You do what you can do, but in the end this is their country and there’s only so much an outsider can do. I once heard the Dalia Lama speak at UC Berkeley and someone in the crowd asked him what can we do about the poor planet. His answer was simple: “Look in your own backyard.” Starting February 1, that’s exactly where I will be, doing exactly that.

And as for the evil monkeys…I think they would be a good solution to ISIS. Air drop a nice big cage full of evil monkeys with a note: “From Malaysia with love.”

Here’s the video recap of Langkawi and a few domestic moments back in KL. Wai Tuck receives a very special birthday present, a visit to the American expat rock and roll Thanksgiving, a harmonica quartet at the local jazz club, Chuan reveals his real reason for loving horses and plays the world’s largest piano, and there’s a lovely cinematic moment at 17:30. Enjoy…

I have 45 days left…minus 5 in Bali for New Year’s.

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Responses

  1. Oh my I laughed so many times at your descriptions and the way the country is wearing on you. Your adventures are rich with small moments and intense encounters…glad to see you escaped without a monkey bite!

  2. Very funny, David! I missed the monkey part in the video, though.

  3. Fascinating, and very humorous at the same time. Makes one appreciate the desert at home in a way, right? Some specific points that I identified with: the endless selfies (yes, people are no longer even aware of their surroundings, just continuous taking thousands of photos of themselves as they ignore other people or historic sites). Then there’s the duty free shop noted. Really? I thought to shop in a duty free one must show one’s boarding pass and then collect one’s items on-board. Apparently there’s a new type of duty free shop. And then, oh my, that curved bridge. Well, I’ve jumped out of planes before, and you won’t not catch me walking on that bridge. And I was fascinated by those sky cabs. Sounds like a quick, airborne way to avoid street traffic and get uphill fast; this is something we need to build here in the States, and I mean right away! And thanks for the humor, I can especially visualize Muslims singing Christmas songs. That made me chuckle.


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