“How I survived the typhoon” and other tales from the wilds of Borneo

Tonight we ate at Simon’s restaurant, a small operation at the foot of our hill specializing in local and western food.  He makes some outstanding soup there.  Shooting the breeze with us at the table as he so often does, he casually mentions the storm that hit last night.  A helluva’ storm it was!  Power out, citywide.  Windows bowing in and out of their frames, trees cracking across roadways, emergency sirens all night long.

“Typhoon from Philippines,” he mused, chewing a toothpick.  “Category three.”

We call them hurricanes in the States.  His meteorological report struck an odd chord with me.  Category three… that’s kind of a big deal.  Not a Hugo or a Katrina by any comparison, but back home in Hurricane Alley the news would have been instructing everyone in the tri-state area to rush out and buy up all the bread, milk, and red meat they could find.  Gas up the car.  Governor shuts down half the interstate to clear a path for one way traffic away from the coast.  Be sure to panic first.

On our first visit to Sabah we were advised it would be different here.  Laid back.  Very, very, very, very, (at this point the person explaining would get a snack, eat it, then continue) very, very laid back.  Not like on the mainland, they’d say.

Somewhere on the mainland right now, I can hear the popping brains of my friends in Kuala Lumpur, Georgetown, Lankawi, and Donggonon and all points in between as they suffer massive strokes attempting to fathom a culture any more laid back than the one in which they live.  But I tell you now, it’s true, lah!


Kite flying counts as athletic activity here.  

Not knowing or at any rate caring about looming disasters such as typhoons is only the start.  Try getting the Internet hooked up.  The telecom told us that we could expect a man in two weeks.  By “Sabahan Time” that’s an acceptable standard – we know this by now – so we said tiara masala (no problem) and waited around.  We discovered all sorts of cool activities during that time.  Do you guys know about books?  Yeah, so the way it works is, you open the cover, and it’s like the Internet, except you don’t need to click on anything.  The words are there already.  It never seems to run out of power so it must run on solar or something.  Also, we discovered our apartment has a pool.


Or did the pool discover us?  

The Internet guy never did come, although they seemed very sure that he had when we called the telecom every day that week.  Maybe they were right.

There’s also the transportation options here.  Initially, the bus was our only way into town – that’s where we go to buy flour and eggs and chicken feed and whatnot.  The bus drivers were always an interesting lot.  They usually listen to Malaysian death metal, blasting it at eleven through the paper box speakers above the heads of grandmothers.  More than once I’ve noticed a bottle of Crown Royal sitting on the dash but I think they’re just showing off.  It’s probably windshield cleaner.  The locals always laugh at us when we board.  At first I thought it was because we were the only white people on the bus.  Now I realize it’s because I always wear that shirt with the copulating pandas on Town Day.  Need to look classy for the city folk.

When I say “white people” I’m not trying to be racist.  As a couple, Fiona and I are the very model of ethnic diversity.  She is from New Zealand and I’m from America.  Two completely different worlds.  She says words like “togs” and “jandals” and “reckon” and I speak English.  Despite our best efforts to blend in, we still seem to stand out amongst the other foreigners – Chinese, Indians, and white people.


[not racist]

Maybe it’s because most white people here have money.  Or at least a car that makes them appear to have money.  We on the other hand have a Malaysian-built duster that we’ve come to affectionately call “Drifty.”  It goes from zero to sixty kilometers, per hour.  The radio alternates between very loud and off.  Sometimes we like to listen to it on the way to work because then we don’t hear the engine so much.  One station plays Bollywood soundtracks, one plays the soft rock hits of the 1980’s, and the other five play that “Move Like Jagger” song.  The free market has done well here.

In the evenings, we like to sit at our rich white people in-house bar drinking rich white people bourbon highballs watching the sun sink over the harbor from the ninth floor bay window of our rich white people apartment.  It helps us forget that the rent we pay on this place ensures we shall be driving Drifty for a long time.


But we do okay between salsa night…


..and random evenings of copious drink.

At night we hear the frogs.

All night long the frogs.

In the morning, the sun presents another spectacular show through our eastern window.  This is a reminder of two things: 1.) we are living a pretty good life here, and 2.) we must really like our jobs to be waking up at 5:30 in the morning.


Pretty lame, I know.

In truth, we don’t like our jobs very much at all.  The owner of the school is a gluttonous, narcissistic, highly unpleasant man who fancies himself an aristocrat.  He yells at the staff then the students every morning.  Sometimes for the sake of efficiency, he upbraids the staff in front of students.  During the Communist “crisis” of the 1970’s, he was a police chief, the sort who would’ve been responsible for ordering executions, village burnings, and other community-building activities.  Now he runs a school.  We won’t be here much longer.


Honestly, the moustache should have tipped us off

Ah, but the typhoon. Crazy thing about this typhoon, while we roughed it out in the comfort of our luxurious high rise, we had forgotten all about our CouchSurfing guest who, the night before, had gone up to Mt. Kinabalu, the highest point in Southeast Asia.  The typhoon struck when she was on trail, a trail which quickly turned to mud, then to flash flood.  Whole sections of the footpath began to slide down the mountain as she scampered  down the mountain with her guide (who had assured her the looming storm clouds were “tiara masala, la”).  Most appalling were the guides they passed, leading whole groups of tourists right up the perilous peak.  Arriving back at the park hostel soaking wet and hypothermic, she asked the staff if they could offer her some emergency blankets or at least some extra towels.  No, lah.  But maybe she’d like to buy?


In background, Mt. Widowmaker

As if we needed further evidence to the other-worldliness of Malaysia, at the very same time our CouchSurfer was telling us her woesome tale, the three of us sat watching the wildfire from our living room window.  Wildfire?  Yes.  Wildfire.  That story goes something like this:

Upon arriving home that afternoon from the job we hate, we noticed the smoke above the tree line.  Our flat offered a better vantage point, good enough for us to realize the wildfire was in our back yard!  We called “Carol,” the Korean local who acted as our landlady, translator, and guardian angel in Kota Kinabalu.  English is not her strong suit however.  I tried to explain that we had a fire and needed to contact the fire department.  She misunderstood on several fronts.

“You have started fire?”

“No, Carol.  There’s a fire outside.  Right now.  We didn’t start the fire.  It was always burning.”


..since the world’s been turning.

“You are at work?  You should tell boss.”

“No, Carol.  We’re at home, I’m looking out the window, everything is on fire outside.”

“Don’t go outside.”

“Don’t worry, Carol.  We won’t.  But do you know the number for the fire department?”

“You need to call the fire department!  There’s a fire in your kitchen?”

“No.  Carol.  The fire is outside.  We are inside.  We can see the fire outside…”


It’s the one that’s not getting any smaller.  You can’t miss it.  

Eventually, I got the fire department on the phone (mental note: write down the emergency numbers as soon as I land in a new country) and they were as responsive as Carol.

“Turn off your stove.  Maybe is gas leak, lah.”  

It took nearly an hour, but a single fire truck rolled up.


Our heroes!

The men who got out did not resemble firefighters.  No helmets, no mylar jackets, no hoses.  They work flip-flops and brandished what appeared to be rakes made of palm fronds.  For a long time, they stood back, contemplating the fire that had by now consumed several trees and a little more than 100 square feet of brush.  A brief discussion followed, which I am convinced involved the drawing of straws.  One man stayed behind while the others marched up the hill, rakes in hand.

What happened next I would not believe if I had not witnessed it myself.  They set about beating out the flames with the rakes and their sandal-clad feet.  The three of us sat huddled by the window, gasping, “Oh my God they’re all going to die!”  I readied my camera, expecting to capture a snuff film.


Taken seconds before the point man burst into flame

More incredibly still, they managed in less than 15 minutes to extinguish the blaze.  Three men, three rakes, six flip-flops.

Strange days.  Malaysia is a love-hate experience.     

On that note, the frog chorus has started, monkeys begin their scampering through the jungle below, and if we bothered to get cable, I’m sure the six o’clock news would be just now wrapping up with the weather report – we’re probably missing nothing of great importance.


Our noisy neighbors


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