#TBT The Malaysian bicycle tour

I dug this one up today, a throwback to summer 2010. Life was simpler then. I was double-spacing all my sentences, Fiona and I were still freshly coupled, and we liked each other. The two of us would not work out in the end (though it’d take a few more years to figure that out) but I will forever fondly remember this epic adventure. 

I’ve copied below the text only, but a much more fun version with pictures can be found here

No matter how many times we checked the numbers, it just wouldn’t add up.  Our USA tour was already expensive — airfares ascending well beyond cruising altitude after 2010 –and taking into consideration the cost of relocation from Beijing to our new jobs in Borneo, the travel gods of the western hemisphere did not favorably smile upon us. 

It was about this time an email rolled in from my buddy Kenny, an Old Malaysia Hand in Kuala Lumpur.  He told me of his plans to ride bikes from Singapore to Thailand.  He had done some research and by the looks of things, the ride would be not only scenic and unique but also physically undemanding.  Moreover, it would be dead cheap compared to an American safari.  Since we were moving to Malaysia anyway, it made sense to do some early reconnaissance. 

So it was decided.  In the intervening months, things started to move pretty fast.  We finished our work in Beijing, and while Fiona went back to New Zealand to tie up some loose ends, I traveled out to China’s Xinjiang Province to visit the wild west. 

I had precious little time after arriving back in Beijing to take care of last-minute details for the big ride.  My cell phone had been dead for weeks.  My recently purchased laptop only spoke Chinese.  I had heaps more shopping to do.  The Giant shop had not yet boxed up my road bike for travel.  My school had sold my apartment out from under me, so I was effectively homeless in a city of 17 million people.  All these factors might have driven a less resourceful person to madness, but I’m a freaking wolverine, baby. 

Despite all odds, Fiona and I reconvened in Singapore as planned.  Fiona had booked us into a swank economy-sized room in Little India, complete with cable TV and wi-fi.  Our days began and ended with some variety of curry.  I came to particularly enjoy the high-proof IPA’s and porters local to Singapore. 

One morning while taking our breakfast curry, we met a couple from Portland, Oregon of all places.  Briana and Marco lived on a small town on the east coast, and invited us to stop and stay awhile when we passed through.  Their town marked the halfway point for our journey, and we reckoned it would be nice to practice our English at some point during the trip, so we readily agreed.  This is what writers call “foreshadowing.” 

We struggled to leave Singapore, ever lured by its modernity and food.  It is the Manhattan of Southeast Asia, but gobsmackingly clean — too clean, some would say.  In one block, you might overhear Mandarin, Cantonese, Hindi, Marathi, Bangladeshi, Urdu, Malay, and of course English.  Buses and trains run on time.  The architecture is modern but not pretentious, and pays respect to its East Asian and Colonial European roots.  The museums are plentiful and engaging.  My only real complaint is common to all corners of  Southeast Asia:  information acquisition tends to be dodgy at best. 

Take the tourism office for example.  We dropped in to inquire about the best greenway to take out of the city.  The woman working the desk looked at us blankly. 

“What is this man asking me?” she must have thought.  “Did he say Universal Studios?  Did he say he wanted to visit the Long Bar for a Singapore Sling?  Surely… surely he didn’t just say he wants to ride a bicycle in the city!” 

“Are you interested in the museums, sir?” she asked.  “There is currently an exhibit on –”

“No, no, we’ve seen the museums, thank you.  As I said, we want to ride our bikes to Malaysia and –”

“Ah, but you cannot do this.  Singapore is an island.” 

“Thank you.  We drew this conclusion some time ago.  That’s why we intend to take a ferry –”

“Ah, but you cannot do this.  There are no ferries.” 

“There are no ferries in or out of Singapore?” 

“No.” 

“At all?”

“There are no ferries, la.” 

“So, here on my map of Singapore, where it says ‘ferry terminal,’ that’s not a ferry?”

“Yes.  This is.  But there are no ferries for taking the bicycles.” 

At this point, I realized this woman did not earn her job by thinking outside of the box.

“Okay then.  Let’s change our plans a bit.  Let’s say we want to ride our bikes to this place on the map, the part where it says ferry terminal.  Is there a greenway that gets us there?” 

“No no!  You cannot ride bikes in the city!” 

I took a deep breath, and left. 

As luck would have it (luck, and a night of poring over Google Maps) we discovered numerous coastal parks, all interconnected by greenways.  They offer camping, views, and not surprisingly, more food.  When we did finally get around to commencing the ride, we seriously considered camping in one of those parks for a night, as it was next to the ferry terminal.  After all, riding out of the city had been taxing as it was our first day of real exercise in over a month.  However, the man at the ferry yard told us there was ample camping on the Malay side as well. 

By this point we had done just 25 kilometers, still had plenty of energy, and we figured it made more sense to head over than pedaling eight kilometers back to the park, only to start all over, still in Singapore, the next morning. So we decided to go ahead on the ferry.

Except.

We had already converted nearly all of our Singapore dollars to Malaysian ringgits. This meant that I got to add 16 km to my total for the day, riding back to the park after all for an ATM.

Eventually, we got to the Malaysia port and found out that there is actually not camping, at least not for another 40 kilometers.  Yep.  Forty.  Never trust a ferryman.

We were eager to tent camp on this trip.  The monkeys, monitor lizards, and snakes gave us second thoughts, and the cloudburst we met at ten kilometers convinced us.  No camping, not in this jungle.  But if we weren’t camping, then where to sleep?  There seemed no end to the troublesome quagmires and palm oil plantations.  It couldn’t get worse.      

So we thought. 

The next 25 kilometers were a solid monsoon downpour but now with lightning to match.  There is no fear like that which freezes your soul as a lightning bolt strikes the palms trees just a stone’s throw away.  After about the twentieth time this happened, we found a shanty shelter and tried to get dry.

In the end, we managed to find hot food and cozy seaside accommodations in a town called Desaru… cozy by Malaysian standards anyway.  The beach was plagued with jellyfish, but there was an Olympic-sized pool, complete with diving board and a view of the sea.  It also featured a swim-up bar, but because this place was run by a Muslim family, it was unmanned and unstocked.   I’m thinking that this town used to be a hotbed of western tourism, but as we would learn in the weeks ahead, conservative Islamic values had chased all the infidels away from Malaysia’s east coast some decades ago.  We were no longer in Singapore!  On the bright side, an absence of western tourism meant an absence of white people, who can be annoying and dangerous in large numbers.    

In any case, we had fortunately packed a portable minibar on the back of my bicycle.

The weather failed to improve by the next day, and we hurt all over, so we gave it another day before we setting out again.  The rum was powerful medicine. 

Our ride to Sibiling was a damnably hot 35 kilometers.  When I say “hot,” bear in mind that this is Malaysia, so unless you live in the tropics, you may be unfamiliar.  “Malaysia hot” is like a warm, wet wool blanket.  There is no escape, not in the shade, not in the air-con.  There is a slight relief on a bicycle or motorbike, as this creates the illusion of wind, which does not seem to naturally occur in this region.  When exerting oneself outdoors, drinking water, even if it is immediately excreted out of the sweat glands, is necessary.  I felt like an aquarium pump, sucking water down, gushing water out.    

Then we had those hills.  My knees had blown out in the first leg from Singapore to Desaru, so  the rolling hills ensured that I stayed physically decimated and the both of us generally exhausted.  One of my high school football coaches used to say that “pain is fear leaving the body.”  I believe he abused steroids and needed professional help. 

Our bodies called it quits just as we were between two towns.  Fortunately we found a campground, and we were well ready for a solid night’s sleep.  I have spent my birthday camping for the last several years, so the timing was perfect as I turned 33 that day.  The camp was set next to a river and the river led to a memorably scenic mangrove.  Lovely. 

Sharing the camp was a large youth group from area madrasas.  They eyed us with curiosity but seemed more concerned with the stern instructions of their youth leaders.  What we didn’t know was this night was their bonfire jamboree.  As soon as we settled in for an early night, the revelries began and did not stop for hours.  In an odd role reversal from my usual birthday camp-out, I played the role of the grumpy old man, shaking my fist a a group of hooligans who were up well past midnight, listening to their rock and roll music, acting like crazy people.  Turning 33 sucks.

One sleepless night later we miraculously managed to mount our bikes and start what would be the most grueling 50 kilometers yet.  Rolling hills became giant rolling hills, mountains became visible on the horizon, and every ten minutes went something like this:

Pant, pant, pant, pant, pant…

WHEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeee!!

Pant, pant, pant, pant, pant…

WHEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeee!!

All this way, there were no towns. Not even so much as a lean-to warung selling sugary colored water in plastic bags with straws sticking out the top.  Our water supply was dwindling.  Fortunately, just then we saw the sign for Tanjing Leman and that gave us the final push for the final 10 km.

We checked into a rustic ‘resort’ that, much like the one in Desaru, had seen better days, like in the 1980s.  The beach was the best we’d seen so far, and virtually vacant. Our bungalow was a few easy paces to the shore and to the cafe.  Surely, this place would provide the peaceful night’s sleep we had sought in the wake of the camping debacle.

Right about sundown, the PA system fired up. One of the local families, coming from all corners of the Johore State, was holding a reunion, and one of their cousins ran his own karaoke business.

For the first couple hours we tried to ignore it. Finally, I’d had enough and went out there to give them a piece of my mind.  I marched right up to the tallest, smuggest punk-ass Malaysian there and asked…

“Do you have anything by the Beatles?”

Comic antics ensued.  The family found Fiona and me to be the wildest addition to their reunion.  Satay and sweet tea were forced upon us by the plateful. They tried to teach us local dances and demanded encores of the three English songs they had available.  It was a hard day’s night by so many interpretations.  Not like we were going to sleep anyway.  May as well have fun with it.  Sleep when you’re dead and all that. 

Next stop:  Mersing.  

Allah be praised.  Mersing offered everything we needed.  Sure it took 60 km to get there from Tanjing Leman, and at least a couple hours found us in the daily downpour, but by gum we made it!  We found a hardware store that provided tools for some minimal but long overdue bike repairs.  We hit a cell phone store to get my iPhone back on the grid.  A friendly local directed us to what he called “the best cheap hotel in town.”

Did I say Mersing had everything we needed?  No, that’s not quite right.  It failed to provide the one thing we needed the most: an honest to God good night’s sleep.

The best cheap hotel in Mersing, the Riverview Inn, offers no view of any river and no peace for the heavy of head.  Apparently, the management was holding a special for drunken Chinese orgies.  The inn was like the Beijing subway, every room overfilled with Malay Chinese speaking at top volume like they were on their cell phones.  And the walls?  Paper thin.  Yet another sleepless night.

Mersing is an easy 10 km to the beach at Papan Air, so we decided to take an extra day before continuing north.  Arriving at this sleepy — nay, dead — seaside town, I was sure to ask the receptionist at the Papan Air Resort, “Are you expecting any large parties, family reunions, or youth groups?”  She replied that she had no reservations for the night and the entire resort was vacant.  We were so in!

We checked in at 11am. For the next 24 hours, we didn’t leave the room  save for eating and the occasional dip.  We slept like the comatose and caught up on novels.  ESPN was running highlights of the X-Games and Ironman 2010, which helped rejuvenate our spirits.  By morning, we were ready to tackle the next leg. 

Onward to Kuala Rompin.

The roads at this point had become far less hilly and punishing.  My kneecaps thanked me.  We rode through a forest reserve and spotted all kinds of exotic wildlife including flocks of toucans and hornbills. 

Kuala Rompin was the next logical stop since it’s an even 75 km from our last point of departure.  It is also marked on our map as a Point of Interest. For the life of me I can’t figure out why. 

There is a tiny strip of beach, but no other landmarks jumped out at us.  Maybe it’s because KR is the first place you’ll find a liquor store after leaving the conservative Muslim state of Johore — similar to the thrill of running the Carolina border to pick up a case of Southpaw on a Sunday.

Despite the potential for reckless abandon, this town was fairly quiet after dark.  I was most pleased to enjoy two consecutive nights of restful slumber.

The ride to Pekan began with a stop at a curry house, the first we had seen since Singapore.  The stack of roti chanai (beats the pants off of pancakes!) was exactly what we would need for the 90 kilometers ahead of us. 

Pekan is the Detroit of Malaysia, putting America’s motor city to shame in many respects.  They have manufacturing contracts from automakers all over the world.  There is an engineering school in the middle of the industrial park which sends graduates straight to the factories.  We learned all this from our hosts.  This is a crazy story… 

Ninety kilometers was tough.  What was really tough was learning that every lodging was fully booked for some kind of conference that week.  We were on our way out of the city, ready to take on another 50 kilometers (now in the dark) when we passed a small home stay.  I checked it out.  The man sheepishly grinned and shrugged his shoulders, apologizing that he had no vacancies. 

It must have been the utterly defeated look on my face that got to him.  When he learned that my girlfriend was outside, and that we had come by bicycle, he hesitantly informed me that perhaps he could see about a room.  Within a half hour, we were sitting with our host and a few fellow guests, gobbling down Malaysian food.  He informed us that he was a youth group leader for one of the local madrasas, and they were having a jamboree that night.  Remembering our nightmare of a camping trip with the youth of Malaysia days before, Fiona and I exchanged a knowing smile, which he must have mistaken for enthusiasm.  He insisted that we join him and meet the young Muslims of Pekan.  With his outpouring of generosity, we were not in a position to decline, even if we had experienced one of these jamborees already. 

The jamboree went well into the night, and we were dead on our feet by the time we packed back into his car.  Excitedly, he told us that the fun had only begun.  He took us on a royal tour of Pekan:  the grand mosque, the sultan’s palace, the Pahang State capital building, and the aforementioned industrial park.  This adventure had all the makings of a whimsical travel article in Lonely Planet, but it was well past midnight, and we had been ready to crash for hours by this point.  Our host suggested we pick up some late night curry.  It killed me to be so offensive, but I had to insist that we really, really were not in the mood for food.  Ugly American.   

Kuantan, just 50 kilometers up the road, was a dose of relative normalcy after the week we had.  We checked into a lavish yet easily affordable hotel room for the next two nights.  The Indian Malays on staff were tremendously helpful in securing our bicycles and over-the-top accommodating to our requests, directing us first to the best food in town, and the nearest liquor store where we could replenish our traveling wet bar.  One Indian food gorge session later, we were snuggling in for a boozy marathon of cable TV with full bellies. 

Not to say Kuantan is a vanilla-flavored, quirkless town!  At one point, Fiona had sent me on a mission to get more juice for our vodka.  Between our hotel and the central mosque was a night market.  I decided to take a stroll through and try to find an evil monkey paw or perhaps a puzzle box that opens a gate to Hell.  You know, something practical, something for Mother’s Day.  Instead I found something even more shocking:  hipsters

If you have spent a few years between Asia and America, you will notice that Asian fashion actually predates hipster fashion in the US by a couple years.  I think Asia might actually be the test market for American Apparel.  Tight jeans, undersized t-shirts, Ray Bans with colored frames, sweatbands… Asian teens have been rocking that gear for years longer than those kids States-side. 

But these were not just fashionable young Malaysians.  These were full blown hipsters, as was evidenced by the plethora of fixed gear bicycles.    

In Portland, Austin, San Francisco and other painfully hip towns, one sees plenty of these fixies.  But this was the first time I had seen a fixie army.  There were easily more than a hundred of them riding up and down the length of the night market, occasionally stopping to converge with friends and share cigarettes, blast music out of their faux iPhones, and look disapprovingly at each other.  They were all very proud of their fixies, and eager to tell their new foreign friend about them. 

“Got mine straight exported from London, la.

“He did not.  His mother, she bought him this thing.”

My chain is pink!” 

Awesome. 

I could have spent the whole night with these hipsters — comparing Malaysian emo rock to the garbage we have in the US, debating the merits of cowboy shirts, doing track stands — but I had a sweet babe waiting for me in a hotel room with an undoubtedly diminishing bottle of hooch. 

The next day’s leg was a brief one.  Cherating is a mere 50 kilometers up the coast (our stamina was much improved by this time) and the road is plenty scenic all the way.  I liked Cherating because it is a caricature of the Southeast Asian tourist destination; like the strata of a archeological dig, one can observe the layers of its rise and fall. 

Up until the 1970’s, Cherating was just another beach town in a 700 km stretch of beach towns.  Then surfers discovered its tasty waves.  Then Lonely Planet wrote about it.  Then it became a mecca of Eurotrash kids who wanted a more “authentic experience”
than “I drank ‘til I puked and got this t-shirt in Thailand.”  Then it became the rehab clinic for Full Moon Partying shoestring ravers (yes, the ones wearing the t-shirts).  Then venture capitalists, always the death knell of innocence, opened a string of resorts, including the region’s first Club Med.  From that point forward, Cherating was pronounced “played out” by uppity backpackers and largely abandoned by the hordes that had built it up, leaving the locals with a heaping pile of “What the hell just happened?!” and wondering who was going to help them clean all the bottles off the beach.   

Flash forward to August 2011. 

In more than 400 kilometers, we had seen not one single white face.  It was refreshing.  We had eaten like locals the whole way on a diet consisting primarily of rice, naan bread, and various curries.  We had sweated in the tropical sun day in and day out.  I had kept in regular practice with my limited Malaysian, and felt it was improving every day.  In short, at the risk of sounding chi-chi neocolonial, we were coming to feel like real Malaysians. 

Then came Cherating.  We knew we had arrived when Fiona exclaimed, “Oh my God!  White people!”  Sure enough, there they were at the roadside bus shelter, anxiously flipping through their Rough Guide to Malaysia, expecting that Malaysian transit actually runs on any kind of discernible schedule.  We eyed them, awestruck, as we rode by, much in the same way as the locals had eyed us for the last 400 kilometers.  They nervously muttered something in German and stared back much like Marlowe must have stared at Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.

As I said before, the ride was scenic, but when Club Med rose over the horizon, I realized we were no longer on the Malaysian east coast with which we had become familiar.  One luxury resort after another followed, each one with manicured lawns and empty parking lots.  This place was looking expensive

Fortunately, all the gilt gave way to the town’s main stretch, just off the motorway.  The “main stretch” in question is no more than two kilometers long, and makes up the whole of the hamlet of Cherating.  Small shops and bungalows dotted the drag, a little worse for wear and largely unoccupied.  Cherating had indeed lived out its peak heyday, but what remained was the same charm that undoubtedly captured the first backpackers so many decades ago.

We checked into a place on the far end of the beach and asked where a young couple such as us might grab an evening tipple. 

“That’s easy, la.  Don’t Tell Mama’s,” replied the innkeeper. 

Don’t Tell Mama’s is not the only bar in Cherating, but once you visit, you don’t care about the other ones.  Inaccessible from the road, drinkers must walk down the beach to grab a table in this open air ramshackle bar.  They serve burgers the size of your head and dangerously potent cocktails toxic enough to get an elephant stampy.  We had operated out of our saddlebag wet bar for most of this trip, so having someone mix drinks for us was a real treat.  My ambitions of quasi-Malaysian-hood faded about halfway through my citrusy-sweet Long Beach.  All I can tell from my camera roll is that the rest of the night involved Dutch girls and a drunken weasel.  I’m told Fiona walked me home that night. 

Stupid white people.

Remember our friends from Singapore, Briana and Marco?  Their town was next.   

We had been looking forward to this stop on our trek, so the 85 km of ocean roads whizzed by us in no time at all.  We rolled into their expansive estate, with all of its cats, goats, and monitor lizards.  For the next few days we were blessed with barbecue, beer, and banter. 

We learned that Briana worked for a public education consultancy group that sends western educators into Malaysian schools with the goal of teaching Malaysian educators how to better do their job.  And who doesn’t love having someone from outside the community telling them how to do their job?  Especially when your job holds you unaccountable to even a minimal standard of competency.  Especially when you can leave the students alone in the classroom and go have coffee.  Especially when you can simply not show up for work, no phone call, no nothing, and expect no consequences for your dereliction of duty.  Especially when you’ve been doing your job in this manner for 20, 30 years and like things just the way they are, thank you very much.  Especially when you are a conservative Malaysian Muslim man and your assigned consultant is an empowered white woman.    

As you can imagine, her job is difficult. 

Marco just came along for the ride.  He is a devoted house husband these days, but back in the US he worked for an ambulance company, and before that his life had been an even crazier one, involving General Pinochet and decades of virtual refugee status.  One afternoon, he and I discussed our respective lives back in Portland, we began playing the “Who d’ya know?” game and discovered that we both know this one lovely crazy gal.  Had this conversation happened in Seattle or Minneapolis or some other town that is not Portland, it would have been an impressive coincidence.  But here we were on the complete opposite side of the world, virtually soul mates through this one person whom we had both known for years and years.  Yet Marco and I had never met.  That’s heavy.  We spent the next several minutes yelling, “No waaaay!  No freaking waaaay!!” thus rousing Fiona from her catnap.  We became especially good friends after that. 

There was a wine tasting happening in Kuala Terengganu, about 80 km north.  Briana and Marco highly recommended we join them.  A local friend had secured us rooms in KT’s finest hotel, and all we had to do was get there.  Thinking back on this day, I am still awestruck at how those 80 km breezed past, considering that such a ride would have killed us the previous week.  We nearly beat our friends there, who were traveling by car. 

The wine tasting was really more of a guzzle-fest in the end.  We mingled with pretty much the entire expat community of the eastern peninsula — all thirty of them.  Many of them worked for the same company as Briana, and as is often the case, difficult working conditions ensure instant camaraderie.  Plenty of goodly souls, intrigued at our audacious bicycle trek (“Doesn’t it get hot on your bike?!”), were eager to host us in their respective towns as we continued north that week.  Our uncertain journey north had suddenly gotten a lot more certain, comfortable, and friendly.    

Bitch and Moan (not their real names, but perhaps should be) hosted us in Permaisuri, 60 km northwest through pleasantly shady mangroves.  They resided in a — for lack of better word — mansion.  Yes, this is Malaysia, so the mansion in question had the typical problems with mosquitoes and feral cats, but when our bikes came over the hill, this place dominated the horizon.  Simply huge for two people. 

Bitch and Moan were hospitable.  They took us to the local night food market.  Because Ramadan was being celebrated at this time, vendors prepared all kinds of special high holiday dishes, beef rendang being one of my favorites.  But Bitch and Moan were also the kind of people who could not seem to get happy.  They complained about the vendors, they complained about the house, they complained about Malaysia in general.  We snuck out early in the morning for fear that their whiteness would rub off on us.        

Derek was the helpful soul who offered to assist us in Kuala Besut, an easy 45 km up the coast.  This town features in the travel guides only because it is the port of departure for the Perhentian Islands.  Derek said he liked it because he could rent a beachside bungalow for pennies and pick up hot tourist chicks at the dock. 

Up to this point, we had passed up every opportunity to get off the mainland and enjoy some hedonistic, not at all conservative Muslim, Jimmy Buffet-style island time.  We wanted to keep our experience as authentic as possible, and those tiny islands around Southeast Asia are about as culturally authentic as the Old Spaghetti Factory is authentically Italian.  However, Derek secured a price with the ferry operator we could not refuse.  The next two (three? four?) days were dedicated to absolutely… nothing.  Sand, scuba, and fresh drinks in carved-out coconut husks.  Derek joined us for part of the trip, partly because I think he appreciated the value of a wing man

By the time we got back to the peninsula, I felt fully converted back to white tourist mode.  Malaysia felt hot, icky, and foreign.  I now wanted all my drinks served in coconuts, and right now.  Our bikes were falling to pieces.  And we still had plenty more road to cover before Thailand.  This is the chapter of every epic overseas holiday that couples dread the most, the part that usually follows the hedonism.  The melancholy.

We had become Bitch and Moan.   

By the time we had slogged the 55 km to Kota Bharu, we had abandoned all hope of reaching Thailand.  Not that we physically couldn’t do it, but mentally we were in ruins.  Any of the beauty we had experienced on our best riding days had been trampled by Bitch and Moan, saturated with the saccharine sweetness of island extravagance, and now turned a rotten brown under the finger-wagging culture of the Bharu State. 

To understand the Bharu State, you must first know its political history.  While Malaysia was trying to unite and get hip to globalization, the ministers of Bharu argued that they should maintain a conservative theocracy where fun would be outlawed.  The rest of Malaysia said, “Yeah okay have fun with your little Islamo-fascist state,” and decreed that unpatriotic a-holes like that should not receive any more government funding lest they get some unhealthy ideas about armed revolt. 

Today, the Bharu State, represented by an inspiring all-black flag (because color might incite prurient thought or some such thing), is a potential model of what the US Bible Belt could look like if the Tea Party wins.  With no government subsidies, their infrastructure is rubble.  Dilapidated buildings, rancid sewers, and roads so worn and pockmarked so as to be indistinguishable from those in rock quarries.  Weather-worn citizens cower behind crumbling brick walls, shawled women beg for alms.  It was a depressing contrast to the comparatively wealthy palm oil states we had passed through to get here.  Rent Book of Eli.  That should give you a better idea. 

During our wine night the week before, we heard that someone from the expat circle had been beaten by a gang of thugs as he left the bar one evening.  He called the police.  They shrugged their shoulders.  “Shouldn’t have been drunk,” they said. 

We wanted to get out of this place as soon as possible. 

On the occasions when we had to leave our hotel, we spent as much time as possible down in the Chinese district.  Take note, Chinatown is the safest place for non-fundamentalists in any fundamentalist state (unless you are dealing with fundamentalist Communists).  Our plan was to leave by train. Unfortunately, the best laid schemes, especially those laid in Malaysia, soon go awry. 

I had contacted the national train company at least three times during our trip to ensure we would have no problems bringing our bicycles with us.  Every agent assured me, “Yah.  Can.”  However, when we presented our bikes to the porter at the Bharu station he asserted, “Cannot.” 

What followed was hours of deliberation with the train company, the porter, and finally the station manager.  Despite my most eloquent ranting, the train people were steadfast.  “Cannot.” 

Now it was official.  We hate Malaysia. 

In the end, we loaded our bikes onto a bus, a normally free service that our driver was only too happy to collect a fee for anyway.  And why not?  We were just stupid white people.  The overnight drive all the way back down the peninsula was sleepless and quiet, save for the DVD that played a looped sequence of only the first 30 minutes of several Hollywood blockbusters

When we arrived at the bus station in Kuala Lumpur, we had to ride across the city to the other bus station.  There, we were informed that there are no buses that cross into Singapore, at least none that can carry bicycles.  Thus we overpaid for a private car.  Friendly driver though.  As we passed through customs, the dystopian congestion of Kuala Lumpur giving way to Singapore’s squeaky clean metered and monitored motor traffic, our driver had a few words that really capped off the whole experience for us. 

“Me, I am from India.  I speak very good English because I study very hard.  I was an engineer in India.  But I come to Singapore so I may send my son to the very best schools.  The schools in Singapore, they want to teach Malay in the schools.  I say no.  Malaysia, she has great beauty.  Rain forests, mountains.  Singapore has none of these things.  But do not teach my son Malay.  He will make Malay friends and he will become lazy.  Look at Singapore.  The language here is English.  The language of money.  Look at Malaysia.  Everyone is lazy and poor.” 

His diatribe did not make up for the fact that his car company overcharged us on the crossing, but we felt a little better knowing he commiserated with our gripes about the peninsula.  Complaining about Malaysia is not just for white tourists anymore. 

Right then, he pulled up to the hotel we had checked out of a few weeks earlier.  It had seemed like months and years since we had left the Dickson.  We unloaded our bikes for the last time before we would have them boxed up for the flight to Borneo.  I thanked the man and we entered the lobby to check back in to civilization. 

Epilogue

The Malay Peninsula ride was full of highs and lows.  We found it hard to believe that the ride had finally ended, but even harder to believe that we had chosen to take our new teaching contract across the South China Sea in Malaysian Borneo.  The bike trip may be over, but our life in Malaysia had just begun! 

Though the people in our host city of Kota Kinabalu had less conservative attitudes than those on the eastern peninsula, they were nonetheless thoroughly Malaysian.  To help everyone understand what this comparison looks like, I have created a chart. 

When I say “thoroughly Malaysian” I do not mean to offend.  But I know I will.  I found most Malaysians we met to be kind, happy people.  I found that most of those same Malaysians will gladly tell a person yes just so as not to suffer the awkward discomfort of saying no.  They obey authority without question, but deep down inside, figure that they have won the game, because they are not going to work any harder than they feel like working that day.  Their economy is fast growing, yes, but that is mostly due to Chinese investors taking advantage of cheap labor and rich resources.  That money is not going back into the hands of Malaysians.  It is a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty, greed, and waste. 

Malaysia, like Singapore, was a British colony all the way through the late 1950’s.  Some blame Malaysia’s maladies on post-colonial trauma; because Malaysia spent so many generations answering to the Crown, it forgot how to govern itself.  If this is the case, one can only wonder how many generations must pass before a people pulls itself together?   

In saying what has been said so far, some would accuse me of generalizing, stereotyping, race-baiting, and so on.  They would be right in part, I cannot deny that.  My attitudes are unabashedly neocolonial about things I dislike, stupid things especially.  I fear that such things might one day become acceptable in other countries, such as the one I hail from.  Maybe you drew a few parallels of your own as you read through the last 22 pages. 

Generalizing is an important first step to understanding the gestalt.  As a fellow traveler and longtime friend of mine once said, “Experience rarely breeds idealism.” 

That said, Malaysia’s post-colonial hangover, or whatever you want to call it, is balanced out by gorgeous, untouched beaches, outgoing locals, and unforgettable adventures.  If I were writing for Lonely Planet, I would leave it at that.  Fortunately, I do not write for that company or any other travel guide that paints rosy pictures of everything.  Just like at home, there is magnificent beauty and deplorable ugliness, compassionate souls and real jerk-offs.  My aim is to point the whole picture.  One must walk in the darkness to witness the light. 

As for the Islam thing, I have no strong opinion on the matter, except to say that I care little about one’s religion, so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.  Some in the West see the Muslim world as a breeding ground for terrorism.  Careful!  When generalizing (as I do), make sure you take in the whole picture.  Yes, terrorists (or freedom fighters, depending on which side you stand) do come from Muslim countries.  They also come from Ireland (IRA), Colombia (FARC), and America (SOA).  Do try to remember there was a time in the USA when it was acceptable to be anti-Semetic, support Stalin, and rally behind the KKK.  Also remember that for every terrorist that comes from a certain religion, culture, country, etc, there are millions of others not at all like him. 

Oh, and that Osama poster?  Found it in a Johore coffee shop.  Great curry.   

Because it was Ramadan, I listened to the entire Koran during the ride (randomly mixed with tracks by Pink Floyd, Ben Folds, and Yes).  Funny how much it’s like the Bible.  Lots of contradictory statements about God the benevolent and God the destroyer.  One theme that comes up a lot in that book is that no man is fit to judge another man.  That is God’s job.  Something for extremists on all sides to consider.  I have come to believe that religions are mostly benevolent (charity, hope, coffee and donut drop-ins).  In cases where religion is used as a rationale to limit or take away someone’s rights, it is no longer religion.  It is politics. 

On that cheerful note, ride safe, travel widely, and test your thresholds of comfort often. 

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Beer tourism in Qingdao

Aside

From the archives. A short piece on Qingdao, China that I wrote in 2011 but never got around to publishing.

The annual overnight field trip went much better this year than last. No food poisoning, no epileptic seizures, no disappearances in crowded marketplaces. In fact, with the exception of my ADHD student accidentally smashing a few thousand kuai worth of soapstone jade replicas, everything went according to plan. We visited the tomb of Confucius (not actually his tomb) and climbed the mountain where the same man did his historic footwork. On the bus ride through the Shandong Province, we got to introduce the students to American film classics such as Top Gun, which incidentally, was also once used by the Chinese military propaganda office to show the might of their air force (I can’t make this kind of stuff up). It was upon our arrival in the seaside city of Qingdao that my coteacher, Leeds, became visibly excited.

Leeds, seen here making a point

“Sam! Do. You. Realize. Where. We. Are?!” Leeds has a flair for drama, so he would be just as frantic if he saw two Starbucks across the street from each other. Shame on me for not putting it together myself — Qingdao shares the same name as China’s national beer, Tsingtao (both pronounced chingdow). And that’s no coincidence. This is the city where the namesake beer was born!

“Sam! We’ve got to get off this bus, man!” Leeds continued ranting, foam forming at the edges of his lips. “I lived here for three… four… five? Years. I can’t leave this town without a visit to Beer Street!”

“Leeds, we have on the bus with us forty children, aged ten to twelve. We can’t just –”

“Dammit man! I am team lead! We go to the Beer Street!”

I could tell he meant it, but surely, some shred of reason remained in the man, a shred to which I could reasonably appeal. “Leeds, if we abandon our pupils, leaving them at the mercy of our Chinese teachers while we go drown ourselves in pints, we will lose our jobs. Then we will never be able to afford beer again.”

Ach! You’re right!”

“I’ll make a deal with you, Leeds. I promise that one day we will return to this city, and we will drink their tankards dry. In the meantime, we must attend to our duties, and continue watching Top Gun.”

“I’ll be your wingman anytime, Sam.”

So it was. It took months, but with the help of our often confused but nonetheless sympathetic principal, we were able to petition the director to fund a trip for the foreign teachers to spend two days in fabulous, sometimes even sunny, Qingdao.

Unfortunately, the morning the bus left, Leeds was not on it. Issues, he said. He did pop off some final advice as we departed Beijing though: spend your entire time there eating clams and drinking dark ale. This turned out to be the sagest advice I ever got from that insane man.

A little history on the place: Qingdao was a fishing village before zee Germans arrived. Like so many of their European counterparts in that era of glorious pre-Great War colonization, they wanted a Chinese concession all their own. The Portuguese had Macao, the French held Peking, and the British owned Hong Kong and pretty much everywhere else they planted their flag. As is evidenced by smatterings of Hinterland architecture today, Qingdao was granted to them, and they made use of it in the best way Germans know how. They built the most gargantuan brewing empire in the world.

To visit the brewery, though it takes up an entire Chinese city block, it still doesn’t look like much if you’ve seen some of the macro operations by the likes of Anheuser-Busch. However, one must bear in mind that the Tsingtao empire has grown well beyond it’s original brewery, and today supplies beer to the entire nation of China. That’s more than a billion overserved on a nightly basis. Maybe that’s because to buy Tsingtao beer is the patriotic way. After all, the post-colonial period of Tsingtao is much like that of her nation. Read on!

The Japanese brutally occupied China during the wartime years. With greater zealotry than its European predecessors, Japan grabbed up anything she fancied in China. The Germans at this point were long gone, so save for shoving aside the drunkards slouched against the front gate, the Japanese nationalized the brewery with little effort. It was rechristened “Kirin.” That’s right. Like the stuff you drank in the sushi restaurant last night.

Revolutions came and went, and China became the People’s Republic it is today. Though Mao was not a beer fan, he was a heavy imbiber of baijiu, the heavily fortified rice wine that sustained the morale of his troop during the Long March, and the spirit that floored the strong-livered Richard Nixon during his diplomatic visit that would open China to the world. Therefore, instead of turning the brewery into communal residencies for a few hundred families or a rocket plant for the proposed Mars base (the Revolution was an optimistic time for the Mao cult), he kept it as a brewery, reestablishing the original moniker.

Those who know me know that I love history. And if there’s one thing I love more than history, it’s beer. My somewhat pickled tour of Qingdao was turning into the best vacation ever.

I did take Leeds’ advice and spend a day with shellfish and dark beer. I would pass this recommendation along to anyone else who visits the city. The clams are simmered in a delicious broth flavored with Sichuan peppers, ginger, scallions, and garlic. The beer is notably unique to the Tsingtao consumed outside of its hometown. In the lager as well as the stout, the malt is more present, and the hops are livelier. It’s a completely different drinking experience. Best part is, it all comes from giant stainless steel casks that every restaurant seems to be equipped with as a requisite for running shop on Beer Street. Therefore, you are guaranteed the freshest, crispest libation, served ice cold in a glass pitcher.

I could tell you about the beaches, but it was unseasonably cold and a heavy smog filled the skies both days. I could tell you about Fi and I attending the Chinese wedding, but it was just too silly an experience to repeat. I could tell you about our gym teacher using the bedsheets when he realized the maid hadn’t stocked any toilet paper, but that’s nasty. What I will tell you is what I’ve told you already, the best advice that was told to me. When in Qingdao, fill your days with clams, beer, and humble reverence for beer’s ability to outlive the follies of humanity.

My ongoing love affair with hotels

I have long adored hotels. I love the airiness of a grand lobby, the employees who greet you at every turn, the smartly ironed clean sheets, and even the pool, though I rarely use it. I take my time in the lobby, browsing the local paper, sipping on coffee, in no particular rush to explore whatever city I’ve managed to land in.

A stay in a nice hotel is a reprieve from the angst of daily life. It provides restaurants and bars to take care of hunger and thirst, a gym for physical activity, and maid service so I never have to think about making the bed. 

If there is an afterlife, I’m convinced it looks like a Hilton — a really nice Hilton resort for the good people, a Doubletree for the average folk, and a Hampton Inn for the sinners, because I don’t believe in Hell but I do believe in Hampton Inns. 

I have criteria that determines the overall quality of a hotel stay.

1. Cable. Specifically, Asian cable. Asian cable is the bomb. For one, I get Asian MTV. It’s like American MTV, but from the 1980’s, when it was full of these things called “music videos.” Ever wonder what happened to all those video music directors? They started working for Asian MTV. Music videos still exist, and they are awesome. They also run this show called OK Danceoke. YouTube it. I just stole three hours of your life. You’re welcome. Also, Asian cable has about 100 movie channels. Most of those channels run movies from the last three decades I’ve been meaning to watch forever, but life got in the way, and also, I don’t have Asian cable at home. While you’re busy Netflix binging on the latest season of Broken Mirror, I’m in this hotel, watching “Freddy vs. Jason” and “Another 24 Hours.” No commercials, either. Not sure how their business model works, but it works for me. 

2. Million billion thousand hundred thread count cotton bed linens. I’m not much of an IKEA man, but I know good bed sheets when I’m in them. Some folks are really into the hotel mattresses, but I live in the developing world where mattresses are basically just chewed up newspaper stuffed into a burlap sack, so I’m cool with whatever, far as mattresses go. But bed sheets? I want bed sheets that swaddle me like an infant. I’m kinky like that. 

3. Things work. This should not be a tall order, but I’m often surprised. At the time of writing, I’m in a hotel that’s rated four stars, but there’s a small lake pooling beneath the air-con vent and the internet disconnects if I turn on the coffeemaker. I don’t know what the light switches do, but they don’t seem to have any relevance to the lighting in this room. Maybe they work for the lights in the room downstairs. The remote batteries are nearly dead, so the TV powers on, but it won’t power off, and I can’t find the archaic power button on the box itself, so I guess it’s Asian MTV all night long for me. 

4. Things that should be free are free. Water, mainly. Come on guys. Water. In America, outside of Flint, Michigan, tap water is fine. Europe too, I guess. But the rest of the world, people need to stay hydrated, and you’re a terrible company if you charge minibar prices for a bottle of semi-filtered dookie water that costs 30 cents at the neighboring 7-11. 

5. Things that put me at ease about my loud Western footprint. I like hotels that don’t automatically refresh your towels every day. Even better I like hotels that refill things rather than burn through endless tiny plastic containers. Bonus points if the hotel contributes to charities, uses fair trade products, or sources local sustainable food. 

6. Rooftop bar. Don’t need to say much more about this. Bonus for a rooftop pool.

7. Room service that’s worth the 50-100% markup. When visiting a new place, the best food is found outside the hotel… usually. However, when I’ve just come off an insane 14-hour trans-Pacific flight, starved and half-drunk, and none of the signs in town are in English, or if I’ve just landed at the airport hotel by Dallas-Fort Worth and it’s 10pm and the only nearby eatery is a Denny’s, I’m opting for the hotel food. Denny’s wants $8 of my money for that cheeseburger basket. The hotel wants $15. It had better be a damn good hamburger. 

8. Staff that treats me like George Clooney. I’m thinking of George Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham from “Up in the Air,” but any incarnation of George Clooney, including George Clooney himself, I’m cool with that. Now that George Clooney stuff isn’t going to happen unless you’re either a regular Joe Businessface who checks into the same Kansas City Radisson every Tuesday to make sure his subterranean Bitcoin servers are still running, or you’re someone with a shiny card that bestows upon its holder added value as a customer… like George Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham.

All about the shiny cards

I have a shiny card that skips me past the Chinese tour group at the check-in desk. Sometimes the shiny card can summon a bellhop to seize away my bags and escort me onto a special elevator that goes up to a special floor where  people say “Hello Mr. Campeau,” and ask, “How was your flight?” Their name tags say words like “Tar” and “Pretzel” but I don’t ask questions because this is Asia. 

Pretzel invites me to sink into a velour-upholstered sofa or a studded leather armchair while she takes care of my paperwork and sends my bags up to a room that looks fancier than what I should be able to afford. I enjoy free coffee and scones and read the paper. I’m informed that cocktail hour starts in an thirty minutes, so I can head up to my room now and freshen up, or take my time with the paper while they ice up the booze. 

I go up to the room. I’ve been upgraded. It’s a corner room, far from the Chinese tour group. It’s on a high floor overlooking the high floors in other buildings. The bathtub is fit for two William Tafts. There’s a box of chocolates on the bed. All because of the shiny card. 

Back down in the lounge, a guitarist strums Gilberto Gil while the smart casual crowd gets business drunk on complimentary highballs. This goes on for two hours. Hors d’oeuvres are available, so that’s dinner sorted. Seven PM, time for some Asian cable and free internet. Alternatively, I can throw my feet onto the chaise lounge and watch the city skyline. 

Come morning, any fogginess from cocktail hour is absorbed by a gratis continental breakfast that actually spans the continents. Every country has a sausage, I’ve learned, and they all go well with eggs and toast. While I’m at it, how about that dim sum corner? Or the miso bar? Or the fatty grilled pork with noodle soup? 

All this is Perfect World Scenario. Shiny Card Scenario. This is the standard by which I now judge hotels. I’m not sure if that makes me a pretentious prick — I’m pretty sure it does — but whatever man. I donate to charity every month and have a rescue dog and I think that goes a little further than thoughts and prayers, so I’m going to enjoy my shiny card benefits. 

Let’s talk about that card some more. Yes, it has an annual fee, and it’s not a small fee, but it’s easily counterbalanced by the cool stuff I don’t have to pay for. Like the George Clooney treatment for one. All this this “Mr. Campeau” business, the executive lounge access, the room upgrade, this all comes with the shiny card.

I also get into airport lounges, where I can sit on a couch and drink complimentary wine and eat noodles and watch the Blazers play basketball and think about getting a free massage while other flyers are sitting in plastic seats that they can’t take a nap on, watching the same Samsung ad run over and over on a loud, angry, 70-inch plasma screen, surrounded by nose-picking toddlers and sweaty bald people. 

In the US, I get to stroll past the morose immigration officials who struggle with anger management, blip my passport, and clear the gate without untying my shoes. 

Upon landing, a Hertz guy walks me to the spaces right next to the office, not the spaces across the parking lot. “Mr. Campeau,” he says (I like that part), “That Ford Festiva you ordered is not available. We’d normally substitute a 1990’s Geo Metro, but you get a Jeep Cherokee. Enjoy.” I never much cared for SUV’s. Then I drove one. I still don’t like them… but I like to drive them. 

I do pay for the base rate on hotels, flights, and rentals, but even that is subsidized by points earned just by using the shiny card. I never thought I’d be one of those people who uses a shiny card, but I’m glad to be one now. 

For more information on shiny cards, I recommend you visit The Points Guy. It is an obsessively comprehensive website that analyzes and evaluates the cards out there. Never a better time than the present to get yourself set up for the George Clooney lifestyle, if only while traveling.

A family member visits, anxiety ensues

My dad is here with me in Kathmandu. It feels strange, to have him out here. He’s no stranger to travel, mind. My parents routinely visit my nieces in Spain, or have a fun jaunt in other parts of Europe. But this is Asia. More than Asia, it’s Kathmandu.

Unlike my brother, I’ve grown accustomed to not hosting family out here. I always imagined that to them, Asia seemed like the edge of the world, a no-man’s land. Europe is familiar and friendly; people look the same as we do, but with less body fat. Asia on the other hand, is exotic. 

Indeed, Asia is exotic, but you get over it after a few weeks. End of the day, it’s just another contract, whether I’m in Beijing or Borneo, Qatar or Kathmandu. By the end of my first month in any host city, I’ve learned how to order off menus, get around in taxis, and haggle where needed. I know the location of the local grocery store and the local pub. My flat is set up, a la Fortress of Solitude, and I spend the remainder of my contract descending further and further into the depths of my host culture.

A visitor from home then can be a little unnerving. Even if you’ve never lived abroad, I’m sure you can relate. Ever had one of those moments, when you’re busy being you? Say you’re singing Mariah Carey in the shower, top volume. Your significant other gets home early from work, hears you singing. You feel a little embarrassed but everyone has a good laugh. Now multiply that times several days.

In the days before my dad’s visit, I compiled a mental inventory of what could get weird for him. He hasn’t been to Asia since the 70’s, and he’s never really seen a developing country before. So let’s start there.

Garbage everywhere. I mean everywhere. It’s on the streets, the pedestrian lanes, the rivers… everywhere. Kathmandu is a giant interactive landfill.

The air is chewable. Heavy particulate matter, such as the dust that’s perpetually kicked up from unpaved roads and endless construction projects, combines with light particulate matter, like the emissions from unregulated brick foundries and diesel engines, to create a potent, dull grey cocktail of low air quality. Add a dash of trash fires for extra dioxins, and you’ve got the Kathmandu Valley Swizzle.

These drivers. In a city with no traffic lights, stop signs, or lines in the roads (which may or may not be paved), drivers definitely do their own thing. And the horns the horns always the horns.

Then there’s me. My free time is usually spent in one of the garden bars around town, or in front of my buddy’s bodega, drinking lousy beer and socializing. Lots of dick jokes. To an outsider, this might look depressing. To a family member, it might look concerning.

Fortunately, there was no judgement when my dad came to visit. Indeed, he was more than happy to join in with the loitering and revelry. However, he’s said more than a few times now, in observing the garbage, the air, and the devil-may-care drivers, “You need to get the hell out of this town, man.”

 

 

Social media checkout, Day 1

I’m already doing that thing I do when I write. Think about what this will look like in a year, three years, ten… and so on. Will this entry sound foolish and naive, like my earliest overseas writings? Will I be surprised at the wit and insightfulness and honesty, like when I came across all those folded up letters from high school? Will it seem trite, or timeless?

It is probably fitting that this experiment begins at 3am, on an insomniac morning of the risen Christ. Maybe that’s all his deal was. He wasn’t dead, just tired. But he couldn’t sleep, so he went for a little wander.

But I digress.

It’s 3 am on Easter Sunday morning and a few hours ago I deleted my Facebook account.

I made the decision based on a few factors. For one, there’s been the news: the data harvests, the bots, the manipulation of elections. Furthermore, there’s the wasted time. Wake up in the morning, time for the Feed. Breaks and lunch, check the Feed. Afternoon Feed and evening Feed and just before bed Feed.

Sitting in a cafe waiting for coffee? Feed.

Out with the lads and they start talking about soccer? Feed.

In a taxi by myself? Feed.

In a taxi with companions? Feed.

Thought of something actually important to broadcast, like an announcement for the pub quiz I host? I might start with the intention of writing that announcement, but then comes the Feed and I forget.

By my math, I would sometimes spend hours per day on the Feed. Not just Facebook, but sometimes Twitter, occasionally Instagram. As with any habit, I rationalized.

This is the 21st century. This is how modern humans spend their time.

What if I miss a world changing event? I don’t want to be last to find out.

How will people know I’m still alive?

How will I know about the latest meme everyone at work talks about?

How else can I get people from high school to marvel at my perfect, exotic overseas lifestyle?

Perhaps the most terrifying of all: what do I do if I get bored?

The answer, I propose, is writing. Not just one- to two-sentence blurbs about something funny I saw, or a dish I ate. Actual, meaningful writing where I bare my soul. Or not. Whatever I feel like doing that day, really.

Those who know me well, know this is not the first time. After my wife left the country in 2016, I dropped off for awhile. A few months I think. Then it was, “I’ll just post the odd tweet, but I won’t engage in the Feed.” Then it was only Twitter content, but no Facebook. Then it was Facebook, but only for promoting events. Before long, total relapse.

The pattern repeated over the last few years. Cold turkey for some days or weeks, then back to the Feed, harder than ever. Just like relapse of other vices, every time I returned, it felt a little more shitty. Less content I cared about, more petty bickering from the political chasm. Fewer dopamine moments, more cortisol.

I found myself mentally muttering “shut up shut up shut up” as I scrolled through all the pettiness. The Right: ranting ad nauseum about guns that don’t kill people, about Europe’s no-go zones, about Her emails, and about the Jesus. The Left, about niche gender identifications, about white male privilege (and what I ought to do with mine), about the cultural appropriation in Hollywood and the Brooklyn food scene, and about Donald Fucking Trump.

Every post was a potential rabbit hole. Do I comment on my cousin’s post to say that guns are in fact the number one cause of gun violence? Or should it be this thread, posted by a friend of a friend from Portland, whom I’ve not seen in a decade? Xi (non-binary pronoun here) says that the white guy who founded Pok Pok has no right to cook that cuisine because he’s not Thai. Do I point out that all recipes in the history of humankind are a result of cultural convergence?

Do I pinpoint their logical fallacies? Their inaccurate data? Their confirmation bias? Their grammar mistakes? Or do I retreat to my mantra?

Shut up shut up shut up.

Articles and podcasts linking social media to depression, these tidbits keep dropping into my life. I’ve been thinking about my choices and my vices. I’ve been thinking about life changes. With my time in Katmandu, the years now, drawing to a close, I think about fresh starts. I feel like it’s going to stick this time. I’m done with the Feed.

A dream woke me, just before I began to write. A bluegrass troupe was visiting the school. I’d been asked to session with one of the pickers. I flaked on the time. Dude was pissed. I found him later and apologized. Oddly, he was married to the actress who played Counselor Troi on Start Trek. They had two kids. The five of us got to know each other and after some friendly banter he asked if maybe I’d like to do some strumming right there. I felt honored, but as I looked for my banjo I realized I’d not practiced playing it in two years. I started to feel embarrassed and ashamed. That’s when I woke up.

Reading about my dreams is about as interesting as reading about anyone else’s dream. At best, it’s boring, at worst, it’s awkward because it starts with something like, “I had this dream about you last night… Oh but it wasn’t sexual…”

Despite that conventional wisdom, I shared this dream to make a point. The dream shook me. I realized I’m not doing much to change the things about myself that I don’t like. I’m not pursuing passions like I once did. Maybe this is a cliché midlife crisis, but whatever it is, I don’t like it and social media’s not doing me a lick of good. Yes, WordPress is still social media, but at least there is no compelling Feed that demands my attention. And I used to write. A lot. So let’s see if I can take all this angst and doubt and struggle and turn it into something that’s actually worthwhile. Rather than hours of scrolling and trolling, let’s use those down times for punching some words into a screen, words that will be read not by 417 friends, family, and friends and family of those friends and family, but by 7 people, according to the WordPress data. Let’s see where this goes.

Haikus on Public Education

As I’m back home this month, the inevitable question comes up time and time again.

So when will you come back to teach in America? 

Listen, I’ve worked in America. Do you know what it’s like, working in schools here? I mean, yes, my body absorbs a daily onslaught on airborne contaminants and waterborne microbes, I’m surrounded in dust and poverty, and I have to shower with my eyes shut, but even still, this is way preferable to teaching in the US.

As one point of evidence, I present here a series of haikus I wrote while invigilating exams at my last public school. I have to sit on my ass for hours, so do the students. The test takes forever. The school spends months on test preparation (as opposed to you know, teaching and learning). Yet my state is still on bottom for testing, nationwide.

These haikus say it better than I can.

Barren walls cry out

To students and visitors

Learning stops this week


Once taught in wartime

Mortars, car bombs; but no test

Kept kids from learning


Rules say no food or drink

Because apparently no one

Here is a grown-up


Accreditation

The report that disappeared

Like all the others


Minutes tick on by

Make me wish for a razor

To slice out my eyes

In case you’re wondering why I left, here’s one final haiku:

“Keep up the good work.”

Said the evaluation. 

On page two: “You’re fired.” 

Nowadays, I enjoy a fulfilling classroom position with professional colleagues and managers. Things are better.

More Notes from a Tiny Island

Another entry from my time on Bali. I was still annoyingly double-spacing all my periods. Aside from that, it’s an enjoyable read. 

Benoa. I hereby retract all the mean things I’ve said about Benoa.  Okay, maybe not all of them.  It is still a soulless resort town catering to incoming cruise lines chock full of tourists with no desire to immerse themselves in Balinese culture.  It is still lined with hotels demanding ludicrous rates that won’t take in a lowly traveler, even on Christmas Eve.  But now that I got the “local” edge, Benoa has become a little more fun.

Watu surprised me with this question:  “Want to go parasailing?”

I admit, the “sport” has never been on the top of my list, but I’ll try anything once.  In a blink, we found ourselves back in the land I swore against last year.  Except now, we were backstage to the tourist show.  Watu knows someone who runs a tour package business and gets friend prices on campy attractions such as this one.  Arriving at the “Jet Set” water sports center (take your minds out of the gutter, Dan Savage fans), we were escorted past tables of wealthy Korean tourists and into a seaside bale laid out with comfy rubber cushions.  The manager cheerfully ran down his price list.  Not only did they offer parasailing, they also offered scuba, snorkeling, and glass-bottom boat tours to Turtle Island.  Best of all, the prices were marked down like a Canadian pharmacy going out of business – the local prices!

Parasailing always seemed silly to me before; it seemed even sillier to me now as a harness snugly hugged my crotch, a parachute laid across the sand behind me, and I was instructed by a dreadlocked Bali stoner in a Rasta shirt to “just hold on to the ropes, mon, don’t leggo.”  After standing there for a good five minutes, scanning the water for which of the hundred boats on the water had me tethered to it, I was about to ask when this thing got started.  Just then, I felt a mighty tug from my crotch, sort of like an elephant getting fresh on the first date.  Suddenly, I’m airborne!

I had no idea Benoa Bay was so beautiful.  Sometimes, it takes a hundred meters of altitude to change one’s attitude.  The entire peninsula was visible, surrounded by lush coral reefs.  Directly beneath me, I saw the motorboat carving ess-shaped curves into the clear green waters.  This is really fun!

The rest of our party took their turns, good times had by all.  But this was only the beginning.  Still ahead was adventure on the high sea.

Watu always told me she doesn’t like to swim at the beach.  I thought maybe she was afraid of sharks, or was creeped out by swimming where fish pee.  I had no idea that she simply does not swim. Counterintuitive, I know… a person born on an island who doesn’t swim. But this is Watu, and she will likely kick my ass after reading this.

I learned the extent to which Watu does not swim when we motored out to the corals.  She and our tour guide friend were to do some snorkeling while Rice (who appropriately, is a chef on Bali) and I went scuba diving.  I’d been in the water for about ten minutes, telling jokes to a clown fish, when I spied a commotion up on the
surface.  Watu’s legs were kicking frantically.  Barracuda attack?  A cramp from all those crackers she ate?  Being only a few meters down, I surfaced to find her still flailing, strapped into a life jacket, turned around backwards in an inner tube, escorted by two handlers who kept saying, “You don’t want to go back to the boat!  There is so much beauty to see on the reef!”  Good thing they got her back on board when they did.  The eyes behind those goggles were seeing red.

Before long, all of us were back on the boat and heading back out to the mysterious Turtle Island.  I knew nothing of Turtle Island.  What secrets did it hold?  How did it get its alluring name?

As it turns out, Turtle Island is named for all the turtles that live there.  Hmph.

Seriously though, this place was pretty cool.  They have nurseries that raise the little guys until they’re old enough to go out to sea. I’d never been close enough to touch one, much less pick one up and dance with it.  They eat kelp in a way that is so cute as to make me
laugh.

Turtle Island is also a sanctuary for injured animals, namely fruit bats (when you see them up close they are quite visibly mammals), toucans, pythons, sea eagles, and plenty more.  Guests can hold just about every animal in the menagerie, and you know I did!

After all was said and done, we thanked our new friend, the events manager, and the four of us made one last stop:  the Jimbaran fish market.  I’d visited this place once before on my own, but it’s much more worthwhile to go with friends, as money spends a lot further when you’re ordering by the kilo.  We feasted like royalty on clams, squid, snapper, and prawn, all swimming freshly just an hour previous. Bellies full, it had been an awesome use of a Sunday.

*****

Jakarta.

At the Denspasar Airport, the automated system announces one city more clearly and loudly than any other.

“Lion Air, flight 3411, leaving for… JA-KAR-TA!”

“La Guardia Air, flight 935, leaving for… JA-KAR-TA!”

“Air Asia, flight 2852, leaving for… JA-KAR-TA!”

You can almost feel the phlegm fly out of the speakers.

It’s to be expected.  Jakarta is the capital city of Indonesia, one of the most populated in the world.  It is a destination for international businessmen, religious pilgrims, and uncles, aunts, and cousins visiting their families after a year of working the hotels of Bali, the logging operations of Borneo, and the fishing vessels of Sulawesi.  No wonder the robotic voice suddenly sounds so enthusiastic!

Today, Watu and I were to be on that Lion Air flight.

Before I speak on Jakarta, a word about Lion Air.  Haters need to back off Lion Air.  So what if they have a questionable track record of planes missing the runway?  So what if they are dependably one to two hours behind schedule on every flight?  The fact is, they push the finest tin to roll out of Seattle-Tacoma: the 737-900 fleet.  These bad boys are equipped with more emergency exits than George Bush’s Oval Office, fly quieter than a sleeping babe on barbiturates, and boast a formidable collection of tri-lingual in-flight publications. And unlike Air Asia, the cabin does not fill with smoke prior to takeoff and the stewards do not snarl when you push the call button for a lukewarm Bintang.  Hats off to you, Lion Air!

Landing in Jakarta can be disorienting.  The smog clouds the sky completely, while the city lights burn bright, creating the illusion that the plane has suddenly inverted itself, and you are landing upside down (not to hate on Lion Air, though).  After a safe, upright landing, we were picked up promptly by Watu’s friend Deti, who gave us a special late night tour of the city, something only available after midnight, as traffic is otherwise prohibitive to traveling more than one mile in an hour.

In her most enthusiastic, highly caffeinated tour guide voice, she began announcing:

“To your left is Stadium, a club where the water is more famous than the alcohol.” (only some of you will get this joke)

“To your right is very famous building, the World Trade Center, still standing!”

“To your right again is delicious restaurant from Scotland, Mac-Donalds.”

“To your left, you will see the famous prostitutes of Jakarta.  And up ahead, Jakarta’s famous lady-boys.  Look, one approaches our car right now!”

It was a most entertaining hour, followed by a stop at a late night bar, where we played Swede into the wee hours.  We finally found a reasonably priced hotel (the Go-Go Godzilla) around 5am, just enough time to catch a few winks.

Though the Hotel Godzilla was nice enough, it could not compare to the place we’d check into for the next two nights:  The Hotel Mercure. Watu’s friend is a manager there, so we got friend prices at this four-star.  At first, it was a little obnoxious in that lobby… kids running to and fro (holiday weekend) with nannies chasing after, Chinese tourists wanting to take pictures of me – the only white guy in the whole place, and a lounge waitress who had a hard time following Watu’s native (and very pretty) Indonesian tongue.  But once we got up to the room, all that was forgotten.

The suite was furnished with an Ottoman-style recliner, as seen in my psychotherapy sessions.  The view overlooked the beach (and to some lamentation, the tacky carnival pool below).  The bathroom was stocked with fluffy towels and herbal soaps.  The television was satellite, and the enormous bed was fitted with 400 count Egyptian cotton sheets. Best of all, the air con was cranked to “polar.”  We had a laundry list of things to do in Jakarta, but most of them had to do with lazing around the sweet suite.

A romantic side note here.  Dr. Phil goes on and on about the importance of trust in relationships.  He suggests all these exercises that you and your loved one can do to build up that trust.  I think you can skip all that business in one simple step.  Real trust comes
in the form of tiny scissors.

I was enjoying something on Asian MTV when Watu came at me with the
tiny scissors.

“This is driving me crazy.  Hold still,” she commanded.

I thought she was going to trim my increasingly less subtle unibrow. But no.  She went straight for the nostrils.  I’ll admit, I’ve been meaning to do some man-scaping in the nostril department, but that’s the kind of thing a man does on his own, locked in the bathroom, wrapping his shameful dust catchers up in toilet paper and flushing them away to oblivion.  This was a kink for which I was unprepared.

Though nervous, I lay very still, partly out of trust, partly out of fear.  You don’t want mistakes when soft tissue is involved with stainless steel.  It wasn’t easy because I kept fighting to stifle laughter, but now I breathe easier, and my heart beats more merrily. She’s really something special.

On the rare occasions we departed from our John and Yoko version of non-reality, we had lots of fun around the city.  Drinks and tapas at a fabulously fancy ocean side lounge and resto with international friends, a visit to the woefully unkempt but nonetheless eclectic art museum, a tour of the salty shipyard with its magnificently enormous wooden fishing dregs, and a walk about the national monument (we would have taken a ride to the top of the obelisk, but the line looked like free cone day at Ben and Jerry’s).  Through all this, Watu snarked that although she’s a native Jakartan, she’s never done most of those things, much like the countless New Yorkers who’ve never visited the Statue of Liberty.

A few major highlights worthy of greater detail:

•       The Dufan Theme Park – Madness, just madness!  Long lines for rides
that turn the stomach, hourly parades of loudly costumed characters, and an omnipresent saccharine sweet soundtrack that stays in your head hours after the park has closed.  This is the Indonesian Disney World, sans oversized mice and chipmunks.  Instead, there are several large chickens.  Unlike a larger than life Donald Duck that gropes you into a photo op however, these feathered fiends are very camera shy, unless you agree to buy bags of their salty snacks (which don’t seem to actually contain any chicken).  I love this place!

•       Café Batavia – The name originates from the old Dutch colonialists, who at one time thought they could come up with a better name than Jakarta.  The café rests in what remains of the old city, adjacent to the city plaza and national museum campus.  The sidewalk tables outside, positioned amongst the bustling crowds of bicyclists, taksi hawkers, and teenage punk kids, make for an idyllic repose and people-watching headquarters.  Go inside, and you begin to feel very colonial indeed, as the architecture defies anything found on this continent.  Teak wood trim, high ceilings, and one hundred years of countless signed black and whites from visiting celebrities (including Portland’s own Gus Van Sant) make the Café Batavia resonate with the spirits of Morgan and Rockefeller.  Unfortunately, that spirit trickles right down to the menu, which is also disproportionate to the rest of the region, in terms of price.   However, we managed to eat well from their tasty dim sum menu, and I slowly enjoyed the finest caprioska this side of Mother Russia.  Meanwhile, the Jakartan version of Pink Martini crooned a lovely version of “My Funny Valentine” on the stage behind us.  The ambiance was set to “perfect.”  Could the Café Batavia possibly be the finest restaurant in all of Indonesia? Only one last indicator could tell for sure – the restrooms.

The restrooms at Café Batavia deserve their own paragraph, if not their own page.  Up to now, the best bathroom I’d ever visited was at a bar in Portland, Oregon.  It has a two-way mirror positioned so you can spy on your date while washing your hands.  But Café Batavia dusts this concept with a radical new take on urination.

Imagine yourself in a pristine bathroom, art deco, circa 1920’s. Black and white pure porcelain tile from floor to ceiling.  A giant, circular community sink in the center of the floor.  The motif of celebrity photographs continues here, but now they’re all female nudes (male nudes in the ladies room), mainly French, so it’s tasteful. Only after taking all this in do you remember what you came in for – the toilet!  But there doesn’t seem to be one.  Only a giant mirror covering one wall.  As you stare at your reflection, you notice the sprayers lining the top of the smooth surface, then the thin trough below. Invoking the holy unspoken first name of Mr. Clean, you realize this is a mirrored urinal! You are about to pee… on yourself!

The first moment is awkward.  It’s only the rare bathroom that reveals what you look like while answering nature’s call.  Perhaps the designers realized this, because the moment your stream hits its own reflection, a motion detector triggers the sprayers, which unleash a glorious waterfall across the surface before you, inspiring Jon Brion
symphonies in your head as your visage is comfortably masked behind the flowing stream.

Café Batavia, you make the alphabet wish it had a letter better than “A.”

•       The Big Ass Mall – Name says it all.  Seems I can’t visit a major Southeast Asian capital without dropping into a larger-than-life mall. They have air con, after all.  This particular mall was clearly established for the yuppie set of Jakarta, but we didn’t come to shop. We came to see the enormous slide.  On the seventh floor, the rider straps on a helmet, secures into a roller board, and sails hundreds of feet down a hamster tube.  Now that’s fun!

•       Red Square – If you know me, you know me not to be a club person. Sure, I’ll dance and act a fool at a club, but it is for the purpose of entertaining myself, not because I am entertained.  Too many clubs, especially those on Bali, play the same 12 songs over and over, hoping no one notices.  Nonetheless, as we entered the heavily bouncered doors of Red Square, I kept a smile on my face and an open minded attitude, as Watu swore this was the her favorite club in all of Jakarta.  Plus, we were to meet her friend Titi that night, and I find that name charming and hilarious.

Titi is apparently the queen of Red Square.  One word to the bouncers and we beat the line and the cover.  Shark-finning us through the throbbing crowd, she introduced us to her many friends, none of the names of which I could hear over the thumping music.  An Irish guy asked me if I was Sam Beam of Iron and Wine fame, because I “looked just like him” (it must be the beard).  Yes, of course I am!  On holiday in Jakarta after a long international tour.  I was beginning to have fun.

Had the Vegas Mafia invaded Moscow, it would look something like Red Square.  The top of the center bar oscillated between various glows of color and was full of drinks and high-stepping feet.  I kept a careful hand on my Heinekin as a pair of go-go boots (Titi’s, I think) danced dangerously close.  Elbows elbowed my elbows and Watu shouted in my ear, “Wait until this place fills up!  Then the party really gets started!”  Think happy thoughts.

Without warning, a piercing whistle sounded.  All heads turned to a slender Javanese girl in tall, red leather boots, a barely-there miniskirt, and KGB officer’s jacket and cap.  Still blowing the whistle, she pointed her fist towards the main bar and began a marching step.  Looking towards the bar, the tenders lit a dozen bottles on fire and began juggling them.  They tossed, they caught, they balanced them on their heads.  They began spitting fire towards the ceiling.  They threw bar napkins into the crowd.  The place went nuts.  I can be a hard person to amuse sometimes, but when you set things on fire, I’m all yours.

Again, if you know me, you know that if you can drag me to a club, I will be one of those people dancing on the bar before long.  And on this, our last night in Jakarta, I did not disappoint.

All in all, I was sad to leave Jakarta.  Despite what all the Balinese locals and expats say, the city has soul!  Yes, the traffic can make one crazy, street kids press themselves up against your window asking for change, and the presence of open sewers prohibits breathing through the nose, but if you’re the kind of person who, like me, romanticizes the pre-Giuliani days of New York City, you will love modern day Jakarta.

*****

The Double Six is to the surfing world what the Sun Records studio is to Elvis fans.  Surfers can find bigger waves elsewhere, and Presley-philes can find gaudier ornamentation at Graceland, sure.  But the Double Six is more than waves.  The Double Six is every Beach Boys song (even if none of them ever surfed a day in their lives), every
Endless Summer movie, and every utterance of “Dude!” from Keanu Reeves’ mouth.  The Double Six is a place of purity.  The sand is white, board rentals are cheap, and the surf is up.

The tides can be temperamental, so the surfer should expect to spend a lot of time sitting on the board, meditating on the Zen of the sea. Before long though, the placidity of the solemn surface gives way to a surge that seems to scream, “Ride me out or be destroyed.”  Watching the surfers from the shore, a single wave takes down one rider after
another like the killing fields of an old war movie.  Yet there is always that one determined wave trooper, usually a local teenager half my age, who skims the voluptuous blue bosom, playfully slapping the inside curl with his fingertips, akin to a burning fighter jet with nothing left to lose.

And me?  You’ll see me for a few seconds.  You’ll see my face alight as the inertia of the wave takes hold of my fate and fires up my adrenaline.  You’ll see my long board searing through the azule water as the convex turns to crushing foam.  You may even see me hop onto my feet and struggle for balance as the gods of the sea (whom the Balinese believe to be quite angry and difficult to please) attempt to smash my face into the sand beneath the shallow sea.  They always succeed.

I’m sure veterans gripe about the development of the last 30 years or so; I doubt that in 1979 the Double Six featured a bungee tower from which you can jump while mounted on a motorbike.  However, as you drag your beaten, sometimes bloody body back to the shore, sand dripping from the bottoms of your shorts, hair all akimbo and salty, board rash across the front of your torso, the tattooed Balinese guy who rented you the board gives you a high five and hands you a cold, fresh Bintang with a layer of ice around the bottle and a rubber coozie to keep it that way.  You plop down next to your surf buddies and brag about each other as the sun goes down and a bevy of locals beats bongos and strums guitars somewhere down the beach.  Further in the distance, the sound of someone dropping 45 meters, straddling a Suzuki, echoes.  Nonetheless, this is paradise. For now.