Posted by: facetothewind | June 2, 2016

Finally the Proposal

Here in agonizing sentimentality is the performance piece that Chuan and I co-wrote and performed at the Generate Gathering at Saratoga Springs, California. The end of the piece has an unscripted proposal of marriage.

And so the wedding is August 9 in San Francisco.

Posted by: facetothewind | June 2, 2016

Chuan Arrives in America

He arrived April 11, and hit the ground pedaling. I paced the house nervously the day of his arrival. I put a stew in the SunOven, mopped, dusted, washed the sheets while listening to 40’s housewifey music like Doris Day. I awaited news from of his arrival at the Dallas airport. And then it arrived. He landed and sailed through Customs.

Housemate Trish and I met Chuan at the airport and waited for him to come down the stairs. He arrived and I waved my little American flag and welcomed him into my arms. I kept having to poke at him to make sure this was real. Could this be the little guy I left behind in Malaysia, finally here in the flesh? I handed him the bouquet of flowers I got for him. I felt the need to text my boyfriend in Malaysia to tell him that I met this great guy at the airport. But wait.

His first day ever out of Asia, I had him cycling 7 miles downtown (and 7 miles back) for a great Mexican meal at The Little Cafe Poca Cosa for some chicken molé. Then it was a sunny, colorful, and sometimes agonizing wild ride through the desert city to take as much in as possible in our 5 weeks in Tucson. We went to as many concerts at the University and ate as much great pizza and Mexican food as possible in that short time period. He hated my spare bike and then miraculously it was stolen and so we had the opportunity to outfit him with a bike to suit his taste.

And then it was off to California by train for 30 hours of eye-popping scenery, shake, rattle, and rail on America’s embarrassingly inefficient train system: Amtrak. We arrived 2 hours late and slightly agitated…but hey, when you’re taking the train in America, punctuality is not paramount. And when traveling a thousand miles, what’s a couple of hours?

Here’s a video recap of the trip so far…

Chuan really liked Tucson. He found the people extraordinarily warm and welcoming, the town full of cheap eats and ear candy at the University’s music school. He found the desert both beautiful and forbidding…as one should…because it is both. He thought the natural air conditioning was fascinating — the cool desert nights and hot days. He liked how many PhD’s he met in Tucson and how receptive the U was to him getting a music degree there should he want to pursue that. He likes the clean air and the orderliness on the streets. He’s astonished by how big the country is and comforted by how ethnically diverse it is. He has mixed feelings about the desert dryness and is somewhat mystified by how lazy and self-absorbed some Americans can be — especially the young people. He’s shocked by how ubiquitous the smell of marijuana smoke is in San Francisco.

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Mostly I think what he likes about America is the social freedom to be himself, to be in love and be public about it. He doesn’t miss his government and dirty public places and the corrupt police. (Nor do I, Chuan!)

Thanks to Trish and our lovely friends for embracing him so warmly. Here’s a photo collage of our Tucson time (again, apologies for all the selfies and wefies — there’s a reason for this other than unchecked narcissism)…

And what does he miss the most? His best friends, warm sea water, and noodles.

Posted by: facetothewind | February 19, 2016

Full Circle

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I walked in the door of my house in Tucson, Arizona, after being away for the better part of 2 years and got my first whiff of the old house. The smell was familiar and comforting — a combination of wool rugs, oil paintings, and linseed oil on teak furniture. My house seemed like a museum of my life — as if all had been put on hold while I was traveling the world.

The first thing I said to my housemate Jon, after I hauled my suitcases over the threshold and clicked the door behind me was, “Where does one begin the task of repatriation?” The profundity of the moment was lost on him as he didn’t get up from the TV. But it wasn’t lost on me. I had, after all, turned my back on this place, this house, this everything. I had walked away in disgust of the 4G’s of America. The greed. The god. The gluttony. The guns. None of that changed in my absence and yet here I am happy to be back where I started. What had changed was me. And this return was significant. I was returning to my old life with a new twist — a changed man. A loved man. A man.

How did you know when you were finally a grown-up or perhaps more importantly when you stopped being a child? I’ve marked my own achievement of manhood at various points along the way: my first car, my first boyfriend, the first death of a loved one, the first time I tried to kill myself, buying my first house, building a house, starting a business, watching it fail. And now this — becoming an expat and repatriating.

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Two years ago I threw away what billions of people would consider the winning lottery ticket of life: American citizenship. I didn’t actually revoke my citizenship but I swore I wasn’t ever going to live in the US again. A gritty 18 months in Malaysia made me rethink all that. In fact it brought me to my knees, quite literally many times — on my knees before a toilet vomiting my delicate western guts out. But for all that I bitterly complained about America, Malaysia was worse. Way worse. In fact, other than a few select countries I visited in Europe and New Zealand, I’d say that the whole world has it a lot worse than America.

I came to see that although guns really aren’t much of a problem in Southeast Asia, all the remaining G’s I fled were alive and well there and the God issue is even worse. So let’s just say Malaysia was 3G…just like my mobile phone in Kuala Lumpur. But I can’t complain too much. (Well, I can because we have freedom of speech.) But I did find love in a place I really came to hate. More about that in the months to come.

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First Impressions of America

My re-entry to the US was through Denver, Colorado. After an all night flight from Tokyo on the Dreamliner (which was fabulous) I wandered the Denver airport looking for something to eat and was struck by how friendly and service oriented Americans are. “Hello, welcome to ____, what can I get for you? Would you like a home baked cookie with that? How’s your day going? Would you like something to drink? Cups are here if you would like water. Great. Thanks. Awesome. Have a nice day!” I was returning from Malaysia, a country not known for its smiling service sector or its free water. So Americans aren’t known for their deep sincerity but somehow when someone smiles and greets you and asks how you are, it makes you feel a little less lonely. So, I’ll take fluffy insincerity now after a long period of gruff indifference. But don’t neglect the tip jar in America…which explains the awesome gratitude at the cash register.

I took my sandwich and “home baked” cookie to a table and sat near a middle-aged Jewish couple in polar fleece jumpers. They were chatting about their son’s college and the snow storm coming and whether they would get out before it arrived. I enjoyed having 100% comprehension of all chatter around me. In Asia I drifted into public isolation as most of what was spoken around me, about me, or at me, made no sense. It became just a drone of sing songy gibberish and I had no chance of ever getting to the bottom of anything. Foreigners must just accept what they get and don’t ask questions. Tough for Americans who really want to know everything. We are a curious people and we are generally allowed our curiosity within the confines of our own country. And in the US, you can complain without fear of the dreaded SAVE FACE whereby Asians will disappear you in a snap if you criticize them in any way. Here a well armed and defensive American will just shoot you if you if you criticize them too much. Well, I guess that’s some form of the same thing.

I also noticed that I’m instantly invisible in America. Really, almost no one is exotic in America because of its multi-ethnicity. We have a lot of everything. In Asia I savored being exoticized…it had lots of perks. People usually had a little more respect for me than I get here, they listened to me if they could understand me or looked at me with fascination if they couldn’t. At least they looked at me and often with lust…something that never, ever happens to me here. But being white in Asia also comes with monetary expectations. It is presumed that all white people in Asia are rich. If only they knew. Here in the US, I’m back to being ordinary in both looks and means.

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One of the things I noticed immediately when I arrived in Tucson was the resounding quiet. Malaysia is a densely populated country with 30 million citizens and over 2 million foreign workers + tourists crammed into a country about the size of the state of New Mexico, which by the way, has a population of 2 million. There’s just no way to cram that many people into a small land mass and have it be tranquil. Add in 21 million motor vehicles, 9 million of which are motorcycles, half of which don’t have mufflers, and my ears were ringing and I didn’t even know it. It was so quiet in my Arizona living room that I found it both startling and hypnotic. I can still hear Asia ringing in my ears. It’s as if I can’t get the motorcycles out of my ears.

Silence in the desert is a formidable presence. The quiet presses into your head. It’s like placing a seashell next to your ear only you don’t hear the ocean. It can either seem deeply relaxing or it can drive you to distraction. Two weeks after my arrival, I’m still sitting in silence in my backyard in awe of this phenomenon of emptiness. The only buzzing is the sound of hummingbirds whizzing by my head on the way to the feeder.

Last night, something significant happened: I fell asleep and slept the whole night without the use of white noise or earplugs. My patient boyfriend can tell you all about the white noise which I could not sleep without. In Malaysia it covered everything from the ungodly early call to prayer to the midnight motorcycle racing on the streets to the commuter train 30 floors below that rattled the house every 2 minutes. All the unintelligible chatter of languages I couldn’t understand and the moan of mosques and machinery left 9,000 miles behind me, I now sit here in my house stunned by what was missing from my life: nothingness. Delicious nothingness. I can open the front door and it’s quieter outside than inside.

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A short list of other observations of America:

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There is a vast infrastructure of fine arts organizations in America. This is the Tucson Symphony Orchestra Chorus – of which I am a part (I sing bass). We’re rehearsing Carmina Burana under the exacting and brilliant tutelage of Dr. Bruce Chamberlain. The University of Arizona has a huge music school with free or cheap musical events happening every day and night of the week and a Steinway in every room. There’s also a culture here of pursuit of excellence. It’s a great privilege to have my musical ass kicked into shape every week. How wonderful it is to have passed the audition to sing with 100 other accomplished musicians (the soloists are from the Grammy Award winning ensemble Conspirare) and to be sharing the stage with a full, professional orchestra (founded in 1928).  And there’s a university, chorus, and orchestra like this in practically every city in America. FYI – performances of Carmina Burana will be March 18 & 20 with seating capacity at 2,300 for each performance. It will probably sell out.

Americans love to complain about how underfunded the arts are here. And then some private donor gives $20,000,000 to the University’s music department (this just happened). We have it good here and if you don’t think we do, I invite you to live somewhere else to gain perspective. I know of a city at the 3rd parallel you can go to. I assure you there’s not a Steinway in every room. Some say America is a nation in decline. That may be true depending on how you measure it, but it has a long way to go before it reaches a level that a lot of nations will never even get to. Malaysia is stymied by corruption and sloth and should be so lucky to achieve what America has even in its decline.

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Old architecture and the preservation of heritage buildings. They’re everywhere here but only exist in a few precious locales in Malaysia. The rest there is an endless jumble of ugly shop lots (strip malls) that all look alike or the ubiquitous soulless shopping mall with parking garage vortices. I’ve been in Tucson 2 weeks and haven’t even seen a shopping mall. Allahu akbar!

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The White American diet. Americans really embrace any new diet that will help them lose weight or feel special. We could say Americans have a lot of free time and money to indulge in such things. Yes, we could say that.

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Big, fat, juicy, red tomatoes that are sweet. Nevermind that it costs $2. It’s worth it. I just couldn’t find a good tomato in Asia where they are pink and tasteless. It’s not a tropical fruit. It takes a Mediterranean climate to make a tomato sweet. And if it isn’t sweet, what’s the point?

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Open space. Sidewalks. Bike lanes. And stop lights that mean STOP, not STOP if you’re Chinese in a car and GO if you’re Malay on a motorbike. And sidewalks without cars and motorcycles blocking them. Heavens, if you parked your car on a sidewalk in America, it either wouldn’t be there when you came back or you would be shot by some person in a motorized wheelchair. And you would deserve it.

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Truly a sign of a civilized society: paper towels. So glad I no longer have to wipe my wet hands on my shirt. Alas, there’s no such thing as a toilet sprayer (bidet) here in the US. But there is now at my house. Stop by and give it a whirl! You can buy kits and install them yourself. 

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Cheap alcohol and large selection of blue cheeses. Alcohol in the US is about 1/4 the price of Malaysia.

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A dazzling selection of microbrew beers. Haram! It’s enough to make a grown man cry knowing that I no longer have to drink Carlsberg beer and I can ask for a hefeweizen without getting that puzzled look followed by SAVE FACE.

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Blue skies. Wool sweaters. Felt pork pie hats. Not pictured: lace up shoes.

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Boys in pink pants and orange cashmere. America is a country without the “tall poppy syndrome.” The more outrageous the better because everyone wants to be famous and go viral and get invited on Ellen. I saw this boy cycling by and I just asked if I could take his picture. He happily obliged without any questions. It’s refreshing after being in a Muslim country where people lurk in the shadows of Islam and everyone is suspect of being something. No one but no one would ride a blue bike in pink pants and an orange sweater in Malaysia. No one in his right mind would ride a bike in Asia, honestly. It’s both dangerous and so déclassé. It’s very heartwarming to be in a country where cycling is revered and respected. Decent upstanding people with BMW’s in their garages cycle. And we walk too. That’s just what people do once they’ve been through their industrial revolution and out the other side.

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Am I being annoyingly patriotic? Americans can be spoiled rotten and I don’t consider myself among them. But I do believe in recognizing when you’ve got it good and being grateful for it. And I believe in contributing to making your community great wherever you are. But if Donald F. Trump gets elected, I’m going back.

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Chuan with the Burmese refugees. The photo was shot after I had left. Chuan was delivering the donated household items to them. Apparently they said, “Thank you. Do you have a sofa?”

Postscript

As expected, it was terribly painful to have to leave Chuan behind. It’s always harder for the one staying. The night before my flight, we closed the door on the last guest who came to say goodbye. The moment I closed the door, Chuan melted into my arms and wept…one of the only times since we met. I held him sharing the pain of acknowledgment that having a binational relationship means long periods of separation. I have been amazed at Chuan’s personal strength in difficult situations but I left him with the unenviable task of closing up the apartment after my departure. He dropped me off at the airport and went back to the apartment. By the time I got to Tokyo he texted me that it was just too painful to do on his own. I was glad our friend Hao Yen was able to come by and help him out. Thank you again, HY for rescuing my boyfriend in my absence!

What I was unable to sell to friends and neighbors got donated to the Burmese refugee. Chuan took some giant IKEA bags full of goodies to them. I sent them some nice handmade placemats, realizing afterward that they don’t even have a table on which to place them.

As much as I didn’t like Kuala Lumpur, in the end I’m glad I went because I met Chuan. I could have stayed home in Tucson complaining about being lonely the rest of my life. I took a risk and spent a lot of money. It wasn’t easy but it was worth it. We did have a sweet life in that apartment because we were together and that gave it meaning and purpose. Closing up that chapter was very poignant and only improved by the knowledge that our separation is only temporary. What will be written in the new chapter will very likely be fabulous in a way that just wasn’t possible in Malaysia. I’m pulling out all the stops to show him my life here. It’s my invitation. My proposal.

Now we wait.

Posted by: facetothewind | January 30, 2016

Farewell Malaysia

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Moving away from a place is like dying and being allowed to attend your own funeral — only worse because you have to be there for the un-fun parts like getting rid of the furniture and cleaning out the fridge and the scary junk drawer. But the fun parts are the farewell luncheons, the free drinks, and the people coming forth to say goodbye, the friends sending the crying face emoticons. These are the same people who normally are too busy to see you, who, had they made time for you during your tenure in this place, you might not have moved. But leaving is a chance to take stock of your life and see where you might possibly have had an impact or made a difference in someone’s life, even in a small way.

Take for example one of my main pet peeves in life: unconscious use of resources, wastefulness, and littering. I’ve complained bitterly about Asia’s reckless use of plastics and its unwillingness to reuse or recycle. How many times have I purchased an item and handed the cashier my own bag only to have them put my items in a new bag. And then when I say, “No plastic!” they put the new bag in my re-used bag. Now I have doubled my domestic bag population and not for lack of trying. I simply cannot get my message across in Asia. Not in concept. Not in practice.

But the other day something miraculous happened. I was shopping at the Regalia Pasar Mini – the mini market store in the lobby of the building where I live in Kuala Lumpur. The same Bangladeshi guy who has served me probably a hundred times, took my milk and put it in a new plastic bag, to which I quickly responded, “No plastic bag, thanks,” with the same eye-rolling false patience I’ve had since day two. And he looked at me and smiled for the first time in over a year and said, “Oh, sorry. Save the environment!” I was so dumbstruck I didn’t know what to say. It caught me completely by surprise. I tripped on my response, “Um yeah, save the environment.” I repeated it just to feel the glory of the words rolling off my tongue to understanding ears. “Save the environment. Yes, exactly. Thank you.” And I stood there beaming like a parent whose child finally used the potty.

Ho-ly-cow. I couldn’t believe it. He had paid attention to what I had said on scores of previous occasions and he even understood it. He hadn’t initiated actually saving the bag, but at least he got the concept instead of thinking it was just some annoying expat who prefers to carry his milk carton in his hands…how weird. I relayed the story as a minor triumph to Chuan. “Good Hubby,” was his stock response. (I think he thinks maybe I should choose bigger battles, but he knows at least to pat me on the back for trying.)

Then a couple days later, Chuan and I were on the elevator and the same Bangladeshi cashier stepped on, pressed his button and proceeded to look down at the floor as most foreign workers do, avoiding eye contact. I thought the intersection of our lives was fortuitous — I’ve never see him on the lift in my building. So I said to him with a big smile of acknowledgment, “Hey, save the environment.” His subcontinental bindi-ed face came alive and he responded, “Yes, yes, save the environment.” And he stepped off, our short social interaction ending at the garage level. Chuan looked at me with a face of “Good Hubby” and ‘why are you talking to the foreign workers?’ The beauty of the moment, however, was not lost on me.

That was a small but significant moment in my time here but undoubtedly the largest contribution I have made to Malaysia wasn’t even to Malaysia as much as the world community. It was my teaching the impoverished Myanmar refugees for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at the Zotung School here in Kuala Lumpur. I can’t say I was a great English teacher as I really have no qualifications. Though I use them all the time, I couldn’t have told you what a past participle was (but there’s one now). I bought a book and watched some YouTube videos about how to teach English. I felt terribly unprepared for this task and just stepped into the stinky rundown school mustering some courage and desire to help. Half the time I hated being there and walking on the broken sidewalks through the rat infested neighborhood on the way to class.

I looked like a school marm in my my drab olive shorts and plaid shirt with my briefcase that wasn’t full of toys, board games, and cookies. It had only one thing: my notebook with an outline of the day’s class which would include some reading, writing, storytelling, and grammar lesson. At first the kids seemed to reflect my stiffness. They were quiet and respectful but not joyful when I arrived each morning. But over time they warmed up sharing gossip (whoa, hold back on that kids!) with me like I was a peer. DimDim wore a little bow in her hair and would proudly show it to me turning her head to the side, “Look teacha!” Tam Wi Oo would get out the folders and put a water bottle on the desk for me. Hang Thung Lia would share a word he learned like ‘lovelorn’ revealing some of his tenderness to the class. Harry gave me a hug-like-he-meant-it when he got resettled to Oklahoma.

I gave my last class just before Christmas and I will likely never see Dim Dim, Tam Wi Oo, and Joel again. The other students I had over the year and a half of teaching moved on to other schools, were resettled to other countries, or died on the street here. But wherever they are, I think a small part of me lives in them and a bigger part of them lives in me. Maybe they will remember my words of the day like forgiveness, cooperation, and respect. Did I help them with their past tense verbs and prepositions? Sure. But more importantly I saw them as human beings in a place where they are illegal and treated like rats by the police. Of all things in Malaysia, I will miss them the most.

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A text I received from David the headmaster at the Zotung Refugee School. The school was shuttered January 1st for lack of funds. I worry that Joel has started working at the age of 12.

Summing up my life in Malaysia, it has been full of less than grand moments of triumph and defeat. That I figured out a small handful of restaurants in which to dine without going home with extra creatures in my bowels that would leave me glued to the toilet for days, is an unglamorous but noteworthy achievement of my time here. It’s one of many uninteresting details of life that I’ve tediously knocked out here by trial and error. The list is too long and dull to even enumerate. Knowing the ins and outs of a place is just what you do to survive. And I survived. But I didn’t thrive here. Thriving would be to savor the beauty of a place, to wake up in the morning ready to embrace the day and head out on a walk or a ride enchanted by what you might encounter. That faded shortly after I arrived and took the blinders off — the blinders that got me here in the first place.

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But if I look back at the reason I moved to Malaysia, I would say that I did achieve what I came here for. I found it in Chuan in spades. In my time here in Malaysia, countless people have asked me, “What brings you to KL?” I’ve fumbled for the answer saying anything from, “I wanted to get away from the US for a while,” (which always raises suspicions that I’m some sort of fugitive or as Chuan’s grandfather suggested, an operative for the CIA) to, “I came to Malaysia to find love.” That’s the truthful answer and one that makes no sense to anyone here. I quickly learned not to make that statement to any local here. It sounds like I came here recruiting for human trafficking victims. Their faces, upon utterance of that reason, give a look as if I had placed a turd on the table before them. A mission of love is the import of someone from a ‘developed nation’ — a privilege in a place that is more caught up in survival than such tender matters. And so I abandoned revealing the truth about my intent here just as I abandoned my enthusiasm for the place.  You can read my original blog posting about it by clicking here.

It was not an easy 18 months in Malaysia. I had my fun and my anguish but the scales were tipped a little too much to the latter and I admitted that I simply couldn’t make it work. In the end I did get what I came here for and I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful I had the courage to risk so much to venture over here. And grateful that in so short a time I found what was missing in my life in America. I’m grateful for the handful of beautiful people I met along the way, as one always does even in the most dreary places. Do I have any regrets? Yeah. I shouldn’t have eaten those candlenuts. I should have tried the chocolate camel’s milk. And I shouldn’t have scratched that car. (But I’ll tell you more about that once I’m out of the country.)

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In a few days all the furniture will be sold or donated, the piano will sit unplayed in the store where I found it, the bed stripped of all its late night cuddles, the magic carpet rolled up, and the curtains on the magnificent view pulled tightly shut. The smell of Chuan’s baking will be scrubbed off the walls, the oven sent to Auntie Louise, the pots and pans to Auntie Eve. The air conditioner will be switched off and the hot, humid air will overtake the apartment. Chinese New Year fireworks will go unheard by my ears this year and Chuan’s nightmares will go un-comforted when he returns to his bunk bed in his mother’s apartment where he lived before we met. My plane bound for the States leaves just after the sun casts its first orange light between the Petronas Towers onto my former home.

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In my 30 hours of flying home I will go from being rich and exotic to being poor and ordinary, and my name ceases to be “Boss.” I will be just another white face in a mostly white crowd, but this time I won’t be going home empty-handed. Chuan has his B2 visa and his flight is booked for April.

Cross an ocean, start a new chapter.

Here’s the farewell video with a recap of the last month in Malaysia and a little slice of domestic life in KL…

Have a look at the Gallery of Goodbyes. Click on one and advance with the L or R arrows… 

 

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Arizona, here I come. Right back where I started from. Flying the ANA Dreamliner. Exciting!

Posted by: facetothewind | January 6, 2016

Last stop in Asia: Bali

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In the movie South Pacific, Bloody Mary sings about Bali Ha’i:

Bali Ha’i may call you…
Here am I your special island
Come to me, Come to me.

She was crooning of an imaginary place, a lonely island somewhere in a foggy ocean. It seems that there’s something lurking in the psyche of human beings that longs for a tropical island paradise. We want that primal experience of a waterfall flowing over us, the fragrant breath of a jungle to delight us while we wander in a sarong beneath the fruit trees plucking something sweet and ripe to gobble. That visage of paradise might have been possible in 1949 when South Pacific premiered at the Majestic Theater in New York…when the world population was just over 2 billion. Now at nearly 4 times the population, there’s trouble in paradise.

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The masses heard the call of Bloody Mary and they came by the millions — by cruise ship and Pan Am Clipper — to find that fantasy island somewhere in guess where? The South Pacific. Today the island of Bali, Indonesia, tucked 8 degrees south of the equator in the Indian Ocean, is a vastly overcrowded mutation of someone’s island paradise suffering the scourge of Eat, Pray, Love, the book and movie that put it on the map. It has a population of about 5 million (+ the teeming masses of tourists and expats) on a volcanic rock smaller than the U.S. state of Delaware. Once a serene place, there’s no way around the fact that Bali is now choked with traffic, buzzing with motorcycles, and up to its ankles in plastic waste. Surely there’s serene beauty to be found here, but it has been pushed further and further afield and has made the task of finding it something of a search for the holy grail.

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Perhaps I simply wasn’t paying attention, or I’m terribly dense, or I live in my own dream world of 1940s fantasy island musicals. (Very likely all of the above.) Bali turned out to be a bit of a rude surprise when we arrived on New Year’s Eve from Malaysia, another exotic, crowded, and polluted place. We immediately found ourselves stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic — something we thought we’d left behind in Kuala Lumpur. Hah! KL’s got nothing on Bali’s traffic.

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Our traffic meditation. Notice the speedometer.

This is all too familiar to me having lived now in Southeast Asia for a year and a half. Traffic, crowds, and garbage are sadly the norm wherever we wander. It’s damn near impossible to find that ideal place that no one has discovered, where you can listen to the birds without a leaf blower overpowering them, or paddle about in clear waters without bumping into a plastic bag and freaking yourself out that you just grabbed a jellyfish. Whew, it’s only a plastic bag! But crap, it’s a plastic bag.

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With the lightning speed of communication and in a time where everyone’s a travel writer, any desirable little corner of the world has already hit the coconut wireless long before you’ve even had a chance to check to see if there are any AirBnB listings for it. And wherever that little nook is, yes there are listings and a TripAdvisor rating for it. There’s even a listing in Karakalpakiya, Republic of Karakalpakstan. One. And maybe I should go and stay in their windowless room and be the first guest to review it. I would like to see the Savitsky art collection and somehow I think I wouldn’t get stuck in traffic there or be run off the sidewalk by a motorcycle.

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But back to Bali. We arrived with a bang. It was, after all, New Year’s Eve and what should we expect but crowds and explosions? And that’s what we got.

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Our friend Sten invited us to a party at a gay bed and breakfast. It was a sweet party of multi-generational and multi-ethnic men. And then we walked to the beach to see the pyrotechnic spectacle, me with my earplugs already jammed into my ears and a facemask at the ready. I was well aware that the terror alert was at its highest as Australia and the U.S. had intercepted terrorist chatter of a planned attack in Bali on New Year’s Eve. We were advised to stay out of crowded areas in Bali. Where, dear State Department, might that be?

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I might have been the only person on the beach who thought, wow, this is really kind of gross. Fireworks are a cheap thrill that pollute the hell out of an already polluted place. Do you think people cleaned up their burnt Roman candles and firework messes at the end of the night? Dream on, gurl. It was all there sitting at the tideline the next day waiting for turtles to choke on.

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I texted a friend that Bali really wasn’t the island paradise that it was purported to be. He wrote back that to enjoy Bali is to not go out — to stay in your villa. And that we did…

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The villa was a very lovely sprawling home built by a Dutch man and staffed by locals who were very kindly — a bit like a more sincere version of Thailand. So to do Bali right is to choose the right walled-off chunk of it and venture out at your own risk of being offended. By everything.

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We did venture out a bit into Legian and Seminyak and always came back to the villa panting from the heat and overwhelmed by the traffic and noise. The idea of leaving on a round-island road trip seemed horrifying if it took us an hour just to go a few blocks.

After a couple days of West Bali madness, we set off for the upland town of Ubud with my friend Yulia who fled the war in Ukraine to Bali with her 2 daughters in tow. I had rented a room out to her through AirBnB 2 years ago in Tucson.

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We became instant friends back then, sharing a common free-spirited, whacky-yet-elegant philosophy of living. We picked up our 24-hour friendship right where we left off and added Chuan to the mix. It was a threesome lovefest at first sight.

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Ubud is way more charming than Legian, Seminyak, and Kuta, but equally choked with traffic which just sits at a standstill belching fumes into the 2 blocks of road that comprise downtown Ubud. To get out of town, you have to either brave the rickety sidewalks until you’re past the jam and then take a taxi, or hop on a motorcycle and wiggle through stuck cars. Either option seemed to me crushing of what could be a sweet town full of alternative people and great restaurants. Perhaps they could take up auto meditation where you sit in a car for 45 minutes and give up your attachment to actually getting anywhere. Twice we bailed out of cars and just walked the remaining distance leaving the car stuck behind.

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Ubud is the town where Eat, Pray, Love took place and as such there’s a lot of eating, praying, and you know whating, going on. If you objected to the self absorption of the book and movie, let me tell you the town will work your nerves. Chuan found it endlessly amusing. For him it’s exotic and funny. I find nothing exotic about the new age but I do find it entertaining. It’s all too familiar being from California and Hawaii where many of my best friends are EPL’ers. New age people really know how to cook a good raw meal.

There were definitely some pretty charming spots to discover but we had to take it slow, not just because of the traffic getting in and out of Ubud, but the stifling heat and humidity. Take 3 steps and you’re drenched in sweat. This is the rainy season and it didn’t rain at all — it was sunny and hot every day. So we spent a lot of time in shady cafés taking no steps other than to order cool, refreshing drinks like kambucha and the famous “purple haze.”

I’d like to go back to Bali sometime and see more of what exists beyond the confines of the cities we stayed in. But after a year and a half in Southeast Asia, I now put a premium on quiet, unpopulated, unpolluted places. And so that quest will take me far from Asia, ironically full circle to where I started in a place that is lightly populated and not terribly polluted: Arizona.

(Thank you Sten, Chris, Mark, Joel, Yulia for the adventures and conversations!)

Here’s the video compilation of 5 days in Bali…

Here’s a little photo gallery of the Bali trip…

Next stop: Tucson.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Posted by: facetothewind | November 23, 2015

Hawaii house construction photos

Apparently my book, Homosteading at the Nineteenth Parallel, has become somewhat of a cult novel in Hawaii…unbeknownst to me. But I have news for the readers: it’s not a novel! It’s nonfiction. But in Puna, Hawaii, who needs fiction? From what I can tell from my royalty checks, either the publisher is pocketing my royalties or someone is passing the same greasy copy around the jungles and beaches. No matter, it’s nice to know that people are reading it.

Recently a reader requested to see pictures from the construction. So I thought I’d take a little stroll down the soggy memory lane and post some. Here they are. (Click on one to enlarge and use the arrow to advance.)

Posted by: facetothewind | November 11, 2015

Remembering Hang Thung Lia

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I received a text from the refugee school headmaster this morning that one of my students, Hang Thung Lia, was run over by a car and killed last night. It’s devastating news, though not surprising considering how dangerous their lives are here living in undocumented squalor, facing police harassment. The boy was only 14.

HTL was an on and off good student who would disappear from time to time. I was told he liked to drink and was a bit wild. I’ve been teaching him for a little over a year now and when I first had him in class, he was inattentive and listless. He had a chip on his shoulder and I frequently had to prod him to pay attention. But over time we made peace with each other, he came to life and flourished. In spite of his being the bad boy in the class, he was usually more advanced and excelled in pronunciation and writing.  A few weeks ago, he won the Word of the Day review contest and gift bag, remembering more of the words I’ve introduced to them than all the other students. Two weeks ago, he was able to pronounce “with” properly before everyone else and sat at the front of the class smug for having done it.

One day when all the students seemed so glum, I asked him what was going on and he said he was “lovelorn.” I was taken aback! That was a pretty advanced word for him to use. He revealed his crushes to me and I came to realize that his bad boy exterior was just compensation for what I believe was a sad romantic, always hatching some unrequited love affair. His use of the word lovelorn was an apt description of himself.

I’ll miss this skinny little guy, his hunchbacked rockstar style, and his sense of humor. He loved to say, “Everybody dance now!” And we would all laugh every time he repeated it.

I’m meeting with his parents tomorrow morning to offer them a donation for his burial. I don’t know how I’m going to keep my composure. Half the time I’m in class I want to burst into tears as they are so terribly vulnerable, just sitting there year after year awaiting resettlement by the UNHCR — something that seems like an impossible proposition now with all the world’s refugee crises.

I’m so sorry he never got a guitar and that he was run over like a rat on the brutal streets of Kuala Lumpur — a poor, undocumented refugee from Myanmar whose death will go unnoticed by any official measures. But I will remember him always.

No one is dancing now, dear child.

P O S T   S C R I P T

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Hang Thung Lia’s stepdad at the apartment visit today. His father is deceased. I didn’t realize that he had indeed gotten the guitar he always wanted. This made me smile. At least one of his dreams was realized in his short life.

Chuan and I drove down to the Indian flower market in Chinatown (very KL) late last night and got a gorgeous bouquet of flowers for the family. With the generous help of some other teachers and friends, we raised 1,700 ringgit for them to help cover the funeral expenses, and so I went to the house to deliver the money and some flowers today. I met my students at the school and we walked to HTL’s apartment through squalid alleys, Joel happy to be carrying the bouquet and the other kids plugging their noses. Some baby came out of a store to see the flowery entourage going by and came up to us and hit the flowers. WTF? We got to their apartment building and walked up the unlighted staircase to the apartment to find tons of people’s shoes outside the door. We slipped off our shoes and went in.

The mother was distraught and walked about the apartment wailing and reciting his name. The sounds of her tired voice mixed with babies making various baby noises. I greeted the father (who is actually the stepdad replacing his deceased biological father) and handed him the envelopes of money. He burst into tears and hugged me. They didn’t speak any English so David the school headmaster translated to him the amount that we brought which was considerably more than a month’s salary for most people in his situation. Thank you to those who donated!!

We sat quietly on the floor of their apartment as they had not a lick of furniture and no air conditioning, so it was hot and uncomfortable. But there was a lot of love in the room — seems like every Burmese person in the neighborhood filed in and out to sit with the family. After an hour of sitting on the floor with my students, I suggested we go out for a walk and get some food before going to the memorial service at their local church. When I stood up, the mother came over and said, “Thank you teacher, thank you,” and held onto me and then hugged and petted the flowers and kissed the picture of her son. It was terribly sad and I just held her for what seemed like a long time while she wept. With all eyes on us, I felt somehow shy about letting loose my feelings which were that I wanted to wander around the house screaming with her.

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Above is a note he wrote in a class exercise when I asked them to write an introduction of themselves and their wishes.

The backstory that I got in very broken English is that HTL went out late that fateful night with some friends and got robbed by a gang of boys. They put up a fight and more guys showed up to fight and HTL and his friends scattered and HTL took off across a busy road and was struck down by a car that never stopped. A taxi stopped to help and when the police and ambulance arrived, HTL was dead.

Anyway, we went for lunch and a breath of hot fresh air. We had noodles with fish balls. I had one without the fish balls. I tried to talk to Joel a bit, which you’ll see in the video. After lunch we went to the church for the memorial which was packed with community members and a line of wreaths at the front. My small bouquet was put on a chair with “Saya David” written on it…which I think means Teacher David. This is all in the video.

The immediate family of HTL didn’t come to the memorial. I asked a few times why and didn’t get a satisfying answer until I put the words “too painful” in the headmaster’s mouth. “Yes, yes too painful,” he said shaking his head. Ahah, OK. I paid special attention to Joel because I thought he would be hit the hardest and he came without anyone to the day’s proceedings. But he showed almost no signs of grief for having lost his best friend. He was smiling in a way that belied the heaviness of the circumstance, but what does a 13 year old know about death? He is perhaps protected by his undeveloped mind and this will all mean more to him years from now.

IMG_5407Watch the video…

And here are a few photos I indelicately shot today…

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His mother in their apartment.

Fellow teacher Cynthia sent me these photos. Below is Hang Thung Lia (in blue shirt) just last week in class at ISKL where Cynthia would invite them. He’s with his best buddy Joel…

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Joel and HTL were inseparable in class, always holding each other and playing together like kittens. And here is what he wrote on Saturday in Cynthia’s class. You can click to enlarge…

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Da pacem cordium. Give peace to every heart.

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Kinda sad when you go to Borneo and this is the best photograph you come home with. It’s not a bad photo, really. It’s actually a lovely photo, in my humble opinion. It’s calm, soothing, a little melancholy — a sort of diner still life with a very tiny nod to Edward Hopper.

But if you’re going to Borneo, you’d expect to come home with pictures of little purple starfishes gleaming under crystalline waters, orange orangutans jumping from tree to tree in their mountainous rain forest habitats. Well dear reader, I’m sorry to report it didn’t happen. After a failed attempt to get to Bali (due to volcanic eruptions closing the airports), we went home from the KL airport in a bit of a daze not knowing what to do with the time off and the airline credit. We had hoped that the next day we would be able to get to Bali but no, the flight was cancelled again that day as well.

So we quickly checked AirAsia’s flight availability and flipped through a Malaysian National Parks booklet I happened to have. We decided on a marine park as we really wanted to go swim with da fishies. So we chose Tunku Abdul Rahman marine park in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, East Malaysia, checked the flights and at 10:30 am we left the house for a 2:30 pm flight hoping we could get on at the last minute.

In our haste we forgot to bring the underwater housing for the camera, an umbrella, and I even forgot to turn off the aircon. Dern it. In the taxi to the bus station, I texted a few friends to let them know where we were headed and they all warned me about kidnappings in Sabah, the Malaysian state where we were headed. I quickly did my research on my phone and in fact there are US State Department advisories warning tourists about potential kidnappers who take tourists at gunpoint and then demand ransom for their release. My friend said white people fetch higher prices. Like I don’t have enough worries in Malaysia with typhoid and crazy drivers and people throwing shit out their high floor windows — now add to that the possibility of being kidnapped and secreted away in a jungle while my parents try to come up with a million dollars. Whoopee, Sabah, here we come!

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Where the hell is Borneo? Well, it’s a giant island in the South China Sea that has 3 different countries sharing it: Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei.

The trip started with the SkyBus driver surfing the Internet on his phone the entire time. He was weaving over the lines and turning without signaling and signaling without turning. So I filmed him and sent it to SPAD (the federal authorities) and called the bus company who was quite upset with the news and phoned him immediately. This is the second time I’ve been on a bus in Malaysia with the driver paying no attention at all to the road. (You can see this in the video below.)  I get it that driving a bus isn’t that interesting but it could be worse. I’ve had dull and boring jobs myself. You don’t know boredom until you’ve had to type up loan papers for a bank. So count the lines on the road or the minutes ’til you’re home or what you want to do to do Emilia Clarke…anything. Devote yourself to customer service and the endless possibilities of ordering suitcases in the luggage hold. But look Mister Malaysian Bus Driver, you’re probably not hired for your genius or the fact that you’re a very important person, so just deal with your station in life and 45 minutes of boredom and do your friggin job. Your own personal life is probably not that important for you to be risking the lives of 50 people so you can check Facebook.

There’s something about Southeast Asia — about doing as little as possible and trying to cheat the system with no regard for the effect on others or the environment. There’s a prevailing attitude here of seeing what one can get away with, not how one could do better or improve things. I see it everywhere from people dropping rubbish off their 18th floor balcony into the pool to people running red lights. Do you see how one can go sour on life in Malaysia when there’s so little common sense, adherence to health and safety laws, and basic integrity that a simple bus ride or a meal cooked with unwashed hands turns into a fight for your life? No one knows this more than Dianna (a regular reader of this blog). It’s this mentality that keeps this and other nations in the region isolated and perpetually stuck. The cheating comes all the way from the top down. Next time I will take the train and hope that the driver of THAT isn’t texting…dream on. I know America has its share of irresponsible people and cheaters, but not to the extent that it exists here. If that bus was seen weaving like that in the US, there would be police helicopters tailing it and shooting out the tires while being broadcast live on CNN. Several lawsuits would follow.

ANYWAY I DIGRESS, sorry. We had a great ticket agent at the AirAsia desk (a special treat!) and we got booked on the flight with the credit we had from our failed Bali trip. With boarding passes in hand and an hour to spare, off we went to Starbucks to use the Internet to find a hotel, dine and dash for the plane. No time to research the trip or plan a great mountain excursion with orangutans and kidnappers which may be indistinguishable.

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Three hours later and one in-flight chicken in cream sauce, and we arrive in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah…BORNEO baby!

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We got a nice expensive 2 minute taxi ride for 25 ringgit to the hotel. Guess we didn’t know that we could have walked it…25 ringgit, really people?!

The hotel was quite nice but Agoda’s price was considerably higher than the price promotion offered at the hotel front desk. Chuan notices these things and said Agoda will refund if it’s not the cheapest rate — what a great travel companion my hubby is — and so I got on the laptop and phoned customer service and got a full refund and re-booked the hotel at a lower price. Off to town for dinner with the savings!

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This is downtown Kota Kinabalu also known as KK. Not very charming in my opinion. Full of unsightly shop lots and choked with traffic…unfortunately, that’s the look of most of Malaysia. But there’s some great seafood to be had. By the time we arrived in KK, Chuan had a list of top rated restaurants picked out and so we dove in. First meal was outdoors at an Italian place on the waterfront where I witnessed someone pointing a pocket laser beam at a flight leaving the airport nearby (a federal offense in America). Do they do that to impress a girl? Did they think about the devastating consequences of blinding a pilot?

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This is the night fish market downtown. Entering the market, Chuan and I saw a whole family of rats scurrying through the parking lot on their way home from the market with their takeaway dinner. What can I say about rats and Malaysia that I haven’t already said? Just make sure you wash everything before you put it in your mouth. With all the above I found my spirit slowly sinking into the South China Sea. I feel bad for Chuan when this happens because he always keeps on the sunny side of life and either doesn’t notice all the offenses I do or he just isn’t weighed down by them. Lucky for me, he isn’t pulled down by my gravitas. And so the trip went on with him leading the way.

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Above is a locally caught lobster (not ours) which is a spectacular creature — too spectacular to kill for a meal. In general I won’t eat cute, cuddly, or beautiful animals. And I really abhor looking into a tank and picking out the animal to be killed for my meal. Yep, I’m a weak person. I just prefer that be done by someone else and hopefully they won’t choose the fish floating belly up.

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We did eat a LOT of shrimp on this trip. Above is the char kway teow (my favorite) at a restaurant on Manukan Island. Chuan was delighted how much seafood he could eat for so cheap compared to Kuala Lumpur’s prices. So we ate a lot of seafood including steamed fish with ginger sauce and crabs with me crying UNCLE one night and insisting we give the ocean a break and eat vegetarian…with a side of shrimp.

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We spent one really lovely evening watching a sort of sunset at the Shangri-La Resort. We each had a pricey piña colada which seemed to contain no alcohol — typical of bars here. This time even Chuan complained, to which the staff said, “Hee hee hee. Sorry,” the stock response for all complaints. Here’s what happens inside the Asian brain when you lodge any complaint: First there’s a smile mechanism that’s immediately triggered to defuse any tension. If you press the issue, then there’s a big yellow internal button that gets depressed. It’s called the “Save Face” button. Once that button is depressed, you will no longer be seen. You become completely invisible and inaudible. You’re saying, “I’m not happy with this cocktail!” and what the Asian person is hearing is: huminuh huminuh huminuh. If you don’t immediately apologize profusely for your complaint, the the levers of inaction will be pulled. That causes an instant neuromuscular retardant to be released into the Asian’s bloodstream that disables any remedial action. It has essentially the opposite effect of adrenaline. We can only feel sorry for the Asian person at this point because they are completely incapacitated and useful to no one.

Chuan declared that from now on we’re ordering the half-priced “mocktail” version and producing a small bottle of rum from our backpack to juice it up. As long as we’re in a country of rule breaking we might as well…when in Rome, do as the Romans. Don’t attempt this, ever, in the US (but at least in the US, you can get a good strong and cheap drink so you don’t need to). Here you order a glass of wine for the US equivalent of $8 + 6% tax and 10% service charge which brings it to around $10 and it’s really a half glass. So in effect, a full glass of wine is $20. In the US, you’d get 4 full glasses for that price. Malaysia taxes the hell out of alcohol, literally. It’s an artifact of living in a Muslim country. It’s called a “sin tax.” And so I’m certain that establishments simply add water to their booze bottles. Sigh.

But we didn’t come here to drink. We came here…wait…why did we come here? Oh yeah, snorkeling!

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We took a couple day trips by boat to some of the surrounding islands. It’s only about 7-10 minutes by speedboat to any number of small islands in the national marine park where you can hop off and immerse yourself in the underwater world of colorful fishes.

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Click to enlarge panorama of Manukan Island. It’s monsoon season so the skies were stormy and it rained heavily every afternoon.

Once you get away from the groups of mainland Chinese tour groups who cling to the shore, even eating in restaurants in their lifejackets, it’s a great and fascinating adventure beneath the surface. We quietly slipped outside the barriers (lifeguards are too busy texting to notice) and swam the entire circumference of Mamutik Island. There, away from the frantic crowds screaming and scaring away the fish, we saw fantastic corals, unpuffed pufferfishes, big lipped triggerfish, turquoise and pink parrotfish, and feisty clown fish guarding their anemones.

We hold hands while snorkeling, partly as a form of affection but more to just keep track of each other without having to always be looking. And with a squeeze of the hand we could point out something like the pipefish lurking at the surface or the black tipped shark that came by to see what we were up to. This sighting was particularly exciting for me because in all the years of snorkeling, I’ve never seen a shark. Its visit was quite peaceful but even more surprising that Chuan didn’t scream into his snorkel. I tried to mouth the words, “Stay calm. Don’t panic,” through my snorkel which sounded something like “mmmay mmmalm mmont manit.” He was very calm and didn’t crush my fingers. He told me later he’d seen sharks before. Meh. Big, strong, fearless me, telling him not to panic, huh?

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What’s up with the babies in Malaysia? There’s clearly a baby boom going on (in a place that doesn’t need one). You’re never far from screaming kids wreaking havoc on a place. And parents here have no hesitation bringing their kids to a place where they clearly don’t belong, like late at night at a cocktail bar. Really? We had many a meal skewered with wailing babies having meltdowns at or near the table, usually followed by the silverware banging on the table while parents are texting. (I swear aliens could visit Asia and pluck granny from the table and give her the anal probe and no one would notice because they’re all face down in their devices.)

One baby-zilla in KK we witnessed twice on a rampage walking on the furniture, ripping leaves off potted plants and brochures off the rack in the hotel lobby, and then hitting his mother while she just put up with it silently. And then on the airplane home, for 2 hours babies were kicking my chair. There were 3 kids and a helpless mother in 3 seats with the father seated somewhere else. An accident? I don’t think so. AirAsia is like the flying “kampung” (village).

At first I tried to imagine I was getting a lower back massage in one of those fancy high-tech massage chairs you see in airports and malls. Mmm. Nice and relaxing, yeah work the lumbar please. Great. When it causes my glasses to unseat themselves from my face I figure it’s gone far enough. Then the tray table slamming started. Up down. Up down. Up down and then followed by some more jabs at my tailbone. At one point I reached behind and grabbed the child by the ankle and threw it off the back of my chair. That would be enough to stop most kids in their tracks and file a lawsuit for inappropriate touching. But not in Malaysia. Pushing, shoving and grabbing is just par for the course.

Four more times I grabbed and pushed her feet off my seat. At one point I stood up and talked to the mother and asked her to please control her children. It continued. Then I asked again. Each time it was “Sorry. Sorry.” But no action. Finally I jumped up towered over the child who had her seat belt buckle all the way in her mouth, “STOP IT NOW! YOU STOP! STOP IT.” I was having a bonafide, undignified, characteristically Caucasian, hissy fit. I noticed Chuan looking at me from 3 rows back nodding his head like, “Yeah Hubby, give it to them.” He knew what was going on. It was a clash of cultures that would result in nothing. It was gay vs breeder. Caucasian vs Asian. Atheist vs Muslim. West vs East which = stand up and fight for your rights vs do nothing and save face. And then before there was going to be a quadruple homicide at 33,000 feet I asked to be reseated and the flight attendant obliged thereby avoiding an international incident and a sudden water landing.

Here’s the short video of the trip. You can see the Chinese mainlanders doing a wefie at the beach and listen to the babies screaming at various locales…

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This basically says, “Caucasian Street.” Mat Salleh comes from the old days of British occupation of the Malay Kingdom when locals saw what they called Mad Sailors — drunk no doubt — and their term for drunk sailors was applied to all white folk.

In the end I didn’t get kidnapped so I guess the trip to Borneo was a success though it wasn’t exactly the Balinese paradise we had planned on. We will try Bali again in the coming months. We weren’t prepared on this last minute trip to do Mt. Kinabalu and I didn’t want to go chasing orangutans on the east side of Sabah where it’s kidnapping territory. So in a way we really didn’t get to see the best of Borneo. Maybe when I’m rich enough to have armed security detail I can go. Honestly, I’d rather see orangutans on TV than watching them being fed bananas in a sad rescue camp after losing their habitat to Indonesian deforestation. That’s just depressing. I wanna see happy simians in their native environments and that’s just not so easy in this world of dwindling forests.

I have only 80 days left in Southeast Asia, but who’s counting? ME. I AM! I am counting the days ’til I am on the ANA 787 Dreamliner bound for fresh air and emissions standards and good pizza and goat cheese and pecorino Romano and kalamata olive spread and cheap wine and hefeweizen beer and law and order and blue skies and bike lanes and crosswalks and sidewalks and noise ordinances and laws restricting fireworks and only one new year per year and museums and art openings and street musicians and thrift stores and farmer’s markets and recycling and composting and food labels. I’d rather face being gunned down on a sidewalk than not having a sidewalk to walk on or air that I can breathe.

What a difference a year and half has made.

Next stop: Langkawi in the Andaman Sea where alcohol doesn’t have the sin tax applied…not that cheap alcohol is the only draw, though it may very well be.

Posted by: facetothewind | November 3, 2015

Bali No Go

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The moment we walked out the apartment door, my suitcase broke and cut my leg. Chuan said this was a sign that we shouldn’t go — a bad omen. Nah, I thought, it’s just a scratch and I’ll deal with the luggage.

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Then on the train to the airport, the emergency alert came in that the Bali airport was closed completely due to the volcano erupting.

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So we’re back home now. We are rebooked for tomorrow’s flight, but there’s no telling if the volcano will allow us to land. Sometimes travel delights you and sometimes it kicks your butt.

Today it kicked our butts.

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