ABOUT THAT WHOREHOUSE IN BORNEO
New York, November 7, 2012
In the nineteen-seventies, as a financially broke single parent trying to muddle through with parenting four young children, then seven, eight, nine and ten-years old, in New York City, it often felt like walls were closing in on me.
“I’d rather run a whorehouse in Borneo”, was my frequent groan then.
Thinking back to those times, I don’t know where that expression came from, it just sounded right for the situation.
Raising the children eventually worked out just fine with no need for drastic escape measures.
As for Borneo, never been there even though the name, the location, the stories about that huge, three-nation island, covered by rainforest-shrouded mountains populated by mysterious, isolated headhunting tribes, and home of the orange-colored orangutans, had an alluring ring of mystery and excitement to it.
Last winter, more than thirty-years after my parenting tribulations in the Big Apple, I ended up in Saigon after leaving Burma/Myanmar sooner than expected (described in January to May 2012 blog post).
An e-mail from one of my kids said, in a clearly facetious reminder, “now that your Burma thing didn’t work out you could have explored what your life would have been if, thirty-years ago, you’d left us and gone to Borneo to do the weird thing you said you’d prefer.”
Having forgotten about my long ago Borneo groans, that reminder had me agree with the message but the alternative was also tempting. From the moment of arrival in Saigon, I was in love with the place.
After our inglorious helicopter departure from the roof of the US embassy at the end of the Vietnam debacle, it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, after the Vietcong general who'd whooped our butts. It turned out everyone in town still called it Saigon and I looked forward to explore it.
Also, I had to return to the US pretty soon. With spring coming, my Vermont garden needed attention. Checking out the special Borneo situation deserved more time than I had left for hanging out in Southeast Asia.
When I made the Borneo whorehouse groans it hadn’t occurred to me that the island’s population with its three nationalities; Malaysian, Indonesian and Brunei Darussalam’s, is predominantly Muslim. Once I realized that, it felt doubtful if houses of ill repute even officially exist there. Should they turn out to be clandestine, hidden from view, it might prove to be quite time consuming to check out the situation on the whole island, but, legal or illegal, I felt confident to eventually find something because, in one form or another, these places exist just about everywhere on the planet where there is a human presence. Those establishments exist for what is often called the oldest profession in the world.
Now the 2012-summer on my farm is coming to an end. Got a new fish pond, loads of dried, frozen and pickled vegetables from the garden, beef cattle went to the butcher, the maples are turning yellow and red and the wild flowers are turning brown. Snow is in the air.
|My farm in Vermont where I dreamed up the Borneo search|
I’ll be heading for the Big Apple to enjoy the city’s good life at Marumi’s sushi place, at Arturos, my home away from home where I know almost everybody and almost everybody knows me, at Raoul’s for the best Steak au Poivre, hoot it up with old friends, check if the girls still love me, get clothes suitable for wearing, washing and drying in hot humid weather.
Around beginning of January when people really start to shovel snow in earnest, I’ll head out to Borneo to find answers.
|Some of my potato and bumpkin harvest|
* * *
THAT WHOREHOUSE SEARCH IN BORNEO...
... might turn out to be an exercise in futility...
New York, November 10, 2012
In the last posting I tried to explain the origin that brought on that planned search for a whorehouse in Borneo.
As mentioned, it is simply based on an offhand exclamation of frustration,
"I'd rather run a whorehouse in Borneo" when I couldn't take it anymore, when walls were closing in on me while raising four young rambunctious kids as a financially broke single parent in New York City.
Now, more than three decades later, with a bunch of also rambunctious grand kids that sometimes drive me up a wall, I decided to go and check out what it would have been like had I really escaped parenting duties to do that weird thing in Borneo.
|The grandkids (now there is even one more).|
|... and then some people wonder why they drive|
me up a wall. (On a volcano in Nicaragua).
My google search suggested I couldn't afford the entry price to witness the spectacle of the country's sexual escapades.
Posts for Kalimantan, the Indonesian and largest part of Borneo, told yet another story. One of the first posts describes a small town, Singkawang in the far west, to be a special shopping mecca for well-off Chinese, Thai, Malay, Singaporean men, who went there to sample and purchase young brides. It sounds like a human trafficking metropole.
Human trafficking, one of the most heinous crimes, is rampant even in our times.
|... or when trying to pet a wild crocodile.|
In the early 1990ties my friend Fritz and I bought six slaves in the Sahara. They were male laborers in a mid-Saharan salt mine. We bought them from their owners, for an average price of 450 dollars each, to set them free (the incident is described in my book SEASONS OF SAND, Simon & Schuster 1993).
Another time, in Timbuktu, a merchant presented to us for purchase two young Tuareg girls to take along to our place in the desert. Of course we didn't even consider the offer, but reporting it to the authorities would have been a total exercise in futility, “because everybody does it”.
I’ve been invited to the wedding of a nine-year old girl to a thirty-year old man — a man she had never seen ‘til the evening of the day she was presented to him as his wife.
Singkawang is also described in the google post as a charming beach town.
An expanded search for Kalimantan whorehouses revealed a plethora of entries. Among places that posted: "Sex village. No Condom, No Sex", came one to kick you into the gut. Rather than trying to describe the revolting entry about one of the posts, I copied its description from a Google entry.
(I shortened it. E.A.)
Meet Pony. She is an orangutan from a small village in Borneo, where they cut down the rain forest to render the palm oil that gets sold abroad and made into lip salve, ice cream, chocolates, and cheese crackers.
VICE: So tell us about Pony.
MICHELLE DESILETS [Director of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation]:
Pony is an orangutan from a prostitute village in Borneo. We found her chained to a wall, lying on a mattress. She had been shaved all over her body.
If a man walked near her, she would turn herself around, present herself, and start gyrating and going through the motions. She was being used as a sex slave. She was probably about six or seven years old when we rescued her, but she had been held captive by a madam for a long time. The madam refused to give up the animal because everyone loved Pony and she was a big part of their income. They also thought Pony was lucky, as she would pick winning lottery numbers.
￼Did the clients realize that they were in fact getting an orangutan?
Oh yeah, they would come in especially for it. You could choose a human if you preferred, but it was a novelty for many of the men to have sex with an orangutan.
They shaved her every other day, which meant that her skin had all these pimples and was very irritated. The mosquitoes would get to her very badly and the bites would become septic and be very infected, as she would scratch them constantly. They would put rings and necklaces on her. She was absolutely hideous to look at.
How did you get her away from there?
It took us over a year to rescue her, because every time we went in with forest police and local officers we would be overpowered by the villagers, who simply would not give her up. They would threaten us with guns and knives with poison on them. In the end it took 35 policemen armed with AK-47s and other weaponry going in there and demanding that they hand over Pony. It was filmed by a local television crew and in the background of the film when we are unchaining Pony you can hear the madam crying hysterically, screaming, “They are taking my baby, you can’t do this!” There is no law enforcement in Indonesia so these people didn’t face any sentence or anything for what they had done.
My initial shock was caused mainly because of the unexpected weirdness of bestiality, yet the same horror is perpetrated, all over the world with human children. The New York Times' OP-ED page's contributor, Nicholas D. Kristof, frequently reports how there are many humans the world over in the same situation as that orangutan.
With that kind of information, my taste for the planned Borneo quest soured big time but then, rationalizing how, if I wanted a clean, simple and non controversial journey, today's Time Square in New York City would easily fit the bill.
Time Square, a veritable post biblical Sodom and Gomorrah in the nineteen-eighties has since those days morphed into a yawn, yawn version of Disney World. Living in New York city I've witnessed that radical transformation, visited that new sanitized, sterilized, commercialized destination and routinely found it plain dull. The now lavishly refurbished clean movie theaters show no more triple feature shoot ’em-ups with ticket prices worth a song. Nobody throws KFC chicken bones at the screens anymore. There's no more howling and hooting approval for gruesome on-screen mayhem, and you don't anymore get propositioned during the film.
I rationalized how my pathetic quest for excitement — as my kids tend to characterize my journeys — would surely prove to be more satisfactory by exploring Borneo.
From my previous year’s Southeast Asia journey, mostly in Burma (Myanmar), I have very pleasant memories from Cambodia where I traversed for the second time, after leaving Burma.
With such feel-good vibes, after my Borneo search, I might head to the land of the Khmer, a country, like Central Africa’s Rwanda, that has gone through a fairly recent nightmarish phase, Cambodia got devastated by the Khmer Rouge and Rwanda by the Hutu/Tutsi genocide. Both those former hell holes have now miraculously healed.
Also, after plenty of time on camels in the Sahara, I often dream about traveling in dense jungle on an extended journey by elephant. From all I know, Cambodia is the place to do it. Cambodia supposedly has the largest concentration of wild elephants.
Maybe, depending on time, in Spring I’ll return home via Switzerland, visiting my latest granddaughter in Geneva and play cards with my brothers in Appenzell.
|What one also does when in Switzerland.|
Almost certainly I won't shovel snow this coming winter.... neither in Vermont nor in New York City. Stay tuned to find out how my sweating near the equator turns out.
* * *
KNIGHTHOOD - ALMOST
Bangkok, January 23, 2013
Queen Victoria offered knighthood to anyone who'd manage to bring her a Mangosteen. She'd heard glowing reports from her subjects about the tastebud busting delights of those exotic fruits.
Just bought a dozen for about $ 1.20 and, thanks to my Swiss Army knife that helped get the delicious, snow white morsels out of their leathery pouches, already ate four of them. Locals squeeze the leathery balls to thus bust them open, but by doing that way, the delicate white morsels inside tend to get crushed.
Mangosteens, at least in my taste — and most likely also according to the folk describing them to Queen Victoria — are among the kind of treasures special to Southeast Asia. Nowadays with available air transport, I had them in New York's Chinatown, in London and in Geneva, but those are comparable to the kind of paper mâché tomatoes that are picked unripe in a greenhouse, then forced to a sickly red by some kind of gas, then coated with paraffin to remain shiny on grocery shelves.
You get the drift.
Queen Victoria would have been disappointed had she gotten one that survived the long journey from the Far East to London because it would have been picked long before optimum ripeness.
|The ugly looking, delicious Mangosteen|
Last night, the second time in less than a year, I sat again with a Singha beer at my observation post at an outside table of the Gecko bar (there is no inside Gecko bar, they have only outside tables).
This has to be one of the most perfect people observing spot. You get to see passing by your table an endless parade; all ages, all four sexes — straight, female and male homosexuals, and transvestites — extroverts, introverts, narcissists, egomaniac strutting macho dudes who came to Bangkok to learn Thai boxing, and knock-out femme fatales out to do whatever knock-out
|Some other local yummy snacks.|
stature, expression or attitude, to advertise their schtick.
One aspect stands out way more than in the past — many tattoos and exposed body parts to show them off. In 1960, when I got mine in Hong Kong it was a totally uncool thing to do. You — I — needed to be drunk out of your mind to go for it. Tatoos were souvenirs for sailors who’d gotten shit-faced on shore leave.
When I returned to Switzerland with a rose and dragon on my right arm, friends and family considered me weird.
My Bangkok dwelling this time, Wild Orchid Villa, is a true Khao San area joint. Room prices are from nine dollars, for a room without window, to twenty-nine. I splurged and got the twenty-nine dollar version with a window, a bathroom (shower and toilet in one cubicle), AC, towel, soap, and TV (that doesn't work). Tacked to a wall is a list of all the twenty-one things in the room with prices that will be charged if they are damaged or missing upon check-out. The list mentions an electric tea kettle but there isn't one. Will they charge me or check my luggage for it when I leave?
|List of stuff in the Wild Orchid guesthouse |
room and prices charged if lost or damaged.
Outside, at three in the afternoon it is a muggy, hot 96°F, so I sit in my air-conditioned room, and write. A little later I'll head out, go either left — or right, from the Wild Orchid Villa and breathe the exotic, slightly cooler evening air. Maybe I'll take a river boat ride to Chinatown for an invigorating birds nest soup, or wander to a not yet visited part of town, or, or, or.
I have absolutely no fixed program for my two day layover in Bangkok 'til my flight to Kuching in Borneo's Sarawak, but no matter what, I know I'll love it.
It feels totally cool realizing on how I equally love the solitude of Vermont, and the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, and the silence and solitude of the middle of the Sahara, and the North Atlantic on a sailboat. I also like the human congestion of Saigon — and the taste of Phò, their rice noodle soup. I groove with memories the grandeur of the Himalayan mountains, and the high plateau of western Tibet, and the harsh far north of the Siberian tundra, and the yummy sushi places in Tokyo, and the forlorn wilderness of the Australian Outback, and my old haunts in Paris, and the river maze of Bangladesh, the beaches of Shri Lanka, the bus, boat, car, foot journeys in Central and South America, the mountains in Patagonia, climbing Aconcagua, mucking around in the swamps of the Brazilian Pantanal, the far reaches of the Amazon, the Rio Negro, the Brazzo Casiquiare, and the Orinoco, the Nicaraguan Atlantic Corn islands, and so many delights in Switzerland, and Beirut, and Hong Kong, and, and ...
I have an intense love affair with our planet. I hope my grandchildren will find it just as welcoming.
* * *
TOLERANCE ... OR LACK THEREOF
Bangkok, January 24, 2013
A narrow alley in Bangkok. Five taxis stand behind a taxi with no driver inside. Is it disabled? No way of knowing, nobody around. I stand and watch, curious about what is going on. A man emerges from a store, waves a lottery ticket at the waiting taxi drivers. A few of them give a thumbs up. The lottery ticket buying man gets into his taxi and drives on. All other taxis also get moving again. None had honked in frustration about the blocked street.
|Street food offerings for carnivores.|
|Bangkok's electrical overhead wiring must require|
genius technicians to figure out what, where, how
One of the restaurants. Two women holding hands, one quite clearly the butch, have drinks. The butch waves the waitress over, indicates that some chairs block the breeze from a fan. The waitress repositions restaurant furniture, with a smile. A couple arrives, pulls the chairs back to the table and sit. The butch waves the waitress over again and tells her to do something about the untenable situation. The waitress smiles, walks away without comment, the butch fumes, glowers at the new arrivals then takes her and her partner’s drink and moves to another table. Her clearly embarrassed partner follows.
|Birds nests come in many different prices and qualities.|
Day and night, western-looking people are passing, large backpack on back, small backpack in front. They are searching for lodgings. Traditionally there was a high demand for the cheap, windowless ones. Finding vacancies in those required a long search. Now also the more expensive ones, the window/AC/private toilet ones, are becoming difficult to get because among the pack pack-lugging crowd one sees more and more Chinese and Koreans. Those newcomers to backpack traveling are easy to identify because they usually pull large wheeled luggage and wear designer clothes.
Tomorrow I fly via Kuala Lumpur to Kuching in Sarawak, to check out the Borneo whorehouse situation.
* * *
KUCHING — SARAWAK
Sarawaj, Indonesia, January 27, 2013
Arrived in the huge, three-nation, jungle-covered, mysterious island of orangutan swinging in trees among isolated, former headhunting tribes in inaccessible rainforest-covered mountains, the land of exotic adventures, and lost explorers. My whorehouse search in the wild land can begin.
The first glimpse of that mysterious adventure land is a super modern airport, and mini Manhattan skyscrapers, and Long Island-like suburbs, and traffic congestions, and Swiss-like super clean city streets, houses and people, and pristine river promenade, and souvenir shops for tourists. That first impression is at lot of things but nothing like the Borneo of my imagination. The local government's parliament building across from the river promenade looks like an opulent palace.
|The State Legislative Council's Edifice seen from the|
fancy River Promenade.
For an average American or European visitor there are lurching insidious dangers all over town. Black mold! Plenty of it, on buildings, walls, sidewalks and whatever you might come in touch with. The deadly growth is coating everything. No wonder mold likes it here. The air is dripping humid. I am soaked in sweat within minutes of strolling in town.
I personally know a lady in New Yorker who fled from their apartment because she saw a speck of that black poison in her bathroom. The fearless Kuchingers seem to be doing just fine despite constant exposure.
The Lonely Planet recommended guesthouse, Singgahsana Lodge, is a gem. Friendly staff speaks English and it sports an airy roof top bar, with wifi access and beer, despite the town’s Muslim majority. My top-end tiny room — I am splurging — with private toilet, window, and AC daily sets me back about thirty dollars, breakfast included in the roof bar. The place's walls and floors are decorated with island artifacts and a lush forest of potted plants.
Immediately after arrival, I dropped off my backpack, changed from shoes to flip flops and went for a grand city walkabout.
The river promenade has impressive, multi-colored mosaic paving, interspersed by tasteful landscaping. From the opposite shore glittered a gaudily illuminated, large structure which my map identified as the State Legislative Council's edifice (pictured above). Mosques on both sides of the river call for evening prayer while families meander from fruit-shake-vending kiosks to fruit-shake-vending kiosks. Children are playing. Most women wear hijab, the Muslim head coverings. So far, all I have seen in Kuching looks pretty and prim, nothing promises fodder for my specific search.
I went into the majestic-looking Grand Margherita's opulent hotel bar, a polished wood, brass, and mirrored phantasy. A pint of local Tiger beer cost more than what I’d have to pay for a beer in a fancy Manhattan bar. Several elegant ladies with unnatural blond or reddish hair and tight fitting clothes, sprawled on leather couches, are nursing tall colorful drinks. Despite the pretty obvious reason for the lounging ladies’ presence, “my old plan for running a whorehouse in Borneo”, could not very well be applied to that situation, unless I also considered becoming a hotel manager.
Not much farther into town; bingo! I discovered the red light district. A canopy of red lantern was strung across the narrow streets. I had a bowl of delicious roasted duck and noodle soup. While practically drooling over it, I also found out from the Chinese waitress that the red lights hanging everywhere were temporary paper lantern, decorations for the upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations.
|Strung across the street one can (vaguely)|
see the red lanterns that brought me here.
Oops! Dead end again?
An ominous joint with heavily curtained windows had a sign on the black lacquered entrance door:
Nobody under age 18 admitted. No school uniforms permitted.
Opening hours 9PM - 03:00AM.
It was only 8PM. I was bushed from traveling, my hotel bed beckoned me, so, pretty certain to have discovered what I came to find, I decided to check it out the next night.
A day later:
Some time after 10PM I went into the "no school uniform and above eighteen-years old" joint. It turned out to be a very dark bar with expensive drinks. There were no single women. A few morose patrons stared into drinks. A good illustration about the excitement in the joint might be that around 10:30 the barmaid, dressed in a lose-fitting fleece hoody, woke me up from my barstool slumber with the question:
“Would you like another beer."
A droning air conditioner had turned the place into a freezer and I escaped into the outside heat.
Today I went on an organized mini-van journey into the western mountains of Sarawak. The Singghasana guesthouse had advertised it as a chance to see orangutans in the wild.
A Park employee brought us into the jungle. He carried a bucketful of fruits. From time to time, he let out strange howls, presumably a sound to which Orangutans react by coming to investigate. None came. The man explained that we are now in the season of plenty ripe, wild fruit so the animals don't need to be fed.
|Nothing like the ones in National Geographic Magazine,|
today's Long Houses are plastic and sheet metal shacks
on split bamboo platforms strung together by old electric
The trip also promised a visit to a Longhouse followed by a kayak jaunt through the jungle on a river with minor rapids. The longhouse, unlike what I had seen in pictures before, was a collection of corrugated tin roof-covered shacks on a common split bamboo platform, tied together by old electrical cord. Some of the inhabitants were in traditional outfits, presumably for our benefit, paid for by our admission fee. Others wore jeans, hot pants, miniskirts, and T-shirts. Many fingered multi-colored smart phones. Their main business activity seems to be the in the souvenir industry, even though most of the souvenirs had “Made in China” markings.
|The former headhunters display human skulls for |
My search in Sarawak ends tonight. I'll leave by bus to go over the mountains to Kalimantan in the Southwest.
|The Kayak trip downriver with the Australian nurse.|
* * *
YET ANOTHER MOTORCYCLE AND POTHOLE ENCOUNTER
Singkawang, Indonesia, January 28, 2013
The decision to check out Singkawang in northwest Kalimantan came from a google entry that I copied in an earlier posting to the blog. It describes the town as a charming seaside resort where wealthy men from Southeast Asia come to chose, sample and buy brides. For my search that description sounded like a promising lead.
The day started with a 05:15 wake-up call — a knock on the door because there are no phones in the Kuching Singgahasana lodge. Because of a concern about toilet related problems during a day-long bus ride, I had no breakfast, not even coffee. During the fifteen-minute walk to the bus ticketing office, from where a shuttle would bring me to the bus station outside town, I got a thorough drenching in a sudden cloudburst. Not finding a taxis this early didn’t really matter much, because with the dripping morning heat I would have been sweat-soaked. I preferred being wet from rain.
“There is no bus service from Kuching to Singkawang” I was told the previous evening when I tried to get a ticket. "I suggest," the helpful bus ticket sales lady had said, "get a ticket to Pontianak. It is in the same general direction. You tell the driver that you really want to go to Singkawang and, along the way he might might help you catch a local bus heading there".
With no airport in Singkawang, no long distance bus connections, no seaport to speak of, how, I wondered, how do those horny rich dudes end up in the town where they hope to satisfy their jollies.
Finding out about the origin of the town's google description was the stated reason for my coming to Borneo.
The Kuching bus terminal is very modern, done in polished marble and granite. It looks very efficient, but in reality it is total bedlam — maybe because it is so new the personnel doesn’t have the hang of it yet. When I asked at the information desk where I could find my ride, they didn’t know. After I slipped him a dollar bill, an uniformed attendant, by asking around, from one end of the terminal to the other, brought me to a brand new, slick, air conditioned bus. It was fitted with comfortable upholstered seats. For the eight-hour ride we had a grand total of four passengers in the forty-seat rig.
The border crossing from the Malay part, Sarawak, to Kalimantan in Indonesia, took only an easy, no hassle, half-hour. The border formalities were efficient, the Indonesian visa cost thirty-eight dollars US and was issued on the spot, and, best of all, there was a clean, modern, sit-down toilet.
A few times along the trip I saw the Borneo I had expected to see; cloud-shrouded pinnacle rock peaks, piercing through a dense jungle canopy of vivid green. On high elevation slopes were plantations of cocoa, in the foothills oil palm and rubber plantations and in the flat flood plains rice paddies and fish farms. Most of the operations had names of international corporations. Most were giant, the rows of trees or fish farms stretching far into the hazy horizon. On the Indonesian side, settlements of tin roof covered, rather primitive dwellings lined the road, suggesting the Indonesian population to be less well-off than the Malaysian.
In the mountainous first part of Indonesia we passed cemeteries that looked like forests of crosses. Small churches and schools plastered with crosses line the road in abundance, blocking out modest mosques. The Christian missionaries must have worked in overdrive in the comfortable cool higher region where life is a lot less stressful than in the steaming lowlands. The girls' school uniforms include neckties. Large wooden crosses around all the girls' necks seemed to be obligatory.
Further down in the lowlands the majority of the population was Muslim. Women wear hijab and long gowns. Mosques occupy the dominant locations that churches claim up in the mountains.
The bus stopped by a tire repair shop. The driver pointed at a thing: "This go Singkawang," he said. As the Kuching ticket agent had suggested, I'd told him at the beginning of our journey my goal was Singkawang.
|Also motorcycles are loaded overloaded. View from my|
Mad Max bus.
With busses like this the only transport going to Singkiang, my doubt about the town's google description brought me to the conclusion the author must have eaten or drunk something real funny when he wrote about Singkiang, describing it as a place where wealthy southeast Asian men go to chose, sample and purchase brides. A pleasant beach resort town, as the article also stated — must have been meant as a joke.
Along the way we had a real need for a tire repair. While we waited among mountains of discarded tires, I went to the toilet, even though I had neither eaten nor drunk anything all day to avoid just such an eventuality. A cloud of mosquitoes rose from the hole in the ground even though that should haven been impossible. The poison gas from whence they rose should have killed them. The friendly, toothless driver bought me a coffee with heavily sweetened condensed milk.
About 6:30 PM, thirteen hours after I left Kuching, we drove into Singkiang. The "pleasant beach resort town" would more aptly be described as a dilapidated dump. For a while, on approaching the town, the road led alongside the sea shore. The water in the bay is the sickly brown-gray murk of strong coffee colored with skin milk.
My “bus” stopped somewhere in town. the driver got out and flagged a motorcyclist.
"Motorcycle taxi bring you hotel," the toothless driver said with a grandiose gesture.
A dotty old man on a small motorbike smiled at me invitingly.
"20,000 rupees", the “bus” driver said.
Not yet having become familiar with the local currency I protested. But, when I looked at the bundle of rupees I had gotten in exchange for a twenty-dollar bill at the border I realized there were quite a few 10,000 and 20,000 rupee bills. Later I found out 20,000 rupees is less than two dollars. The official name for the currency is: seratus ribu rupiah.
I slung on my superheated backpack from the buses engine cover and mounted the back of the bike. The old driver weaved off. Totally out of control, he zigzagged through oncoming traffic to the other side of the street where we dove under a truck right between the front and back wheels. Lucky for our legs, the truck just then came to a traffic stop. My right foot was pinned under the my motorcycle driver and his machine. People pulled us from under the truck. I was bleeding a bit on both feet, I wore flip-flops, and my right elbow. Someone helped the old man to straighten the bent handle bar of the bike and he motioned for me to get back on. Despite just recently having lost an eye in a motorcycle mishap in Tanzania's Zanzibar, I couldn't tell him I was reluctant to get back on his bike, because I didn't want to appear as a wimp with all the onlookers. Also, partly for for the old man to be able to safe face, I climbed on again. This time he immediately lost control over his motor bike. Either he was wounded or his nerves were shot. He opened the throttle all the way, the bike reared and skidded off. My backpack and I were jettisoned into the muddy puddle of a big pothole. The old man picked up the bike and, without looking how I fared, roared off with a running start. Some bystanders yelled after him, then helped me out of the puddle. I was slathered with pothole muck and smeared with blood (with my daily Aspirin intake I get to do some impressive bleeding!) A man from a nearby pharmacy brought me a bucket of water and a ladle to clean up some of the dirt and blood. He wanted to treat my wounds but I figured I'd rather trust my iodine and antiseptic ointment in a hotel room — if I ever got to one.
A young and seemingly capable man drove me to a hotel on his motorcycle, free of charge. It seemed there are no car taxis in this resort town for wealthy southeast Asian men.
|Foot abrasions from motorcycle spill — after I cleaned|
off the blood soaked muck and disinfected them.
During the day's long, and uncomfortable ride, I planned to describe in the blog how I love such a day.
|... and elbow abrasion.|
"Read the title of the blog" I was going to write, “then you can understand why, after such a day of getting hammered, a simple dinner and a cold beer will appear to be a luxurious feast.”
The hotel restaurant was closed.
The dinner at a mud-splattered road stand was not exactly the expected feast. I pointed at meat and rice (no noodles available). Since neither of the food vendors, the man —with inch-long fingernails — and the woman — with black (lacquered?) fingernails and garish makeup — understood English, I made motions of eating soup. I said beer, the answer was "no", I said, "Coca Cola", they said "no". I ended up with a weird tasting tea and a rice gruel enhanced with liver, my least favorite meat of all meats. But still, even that tasted (almost) good.
|At least I managed to keep my one good|
eye — and the home made fake one.
As I write this, I had a few cramps above the wounds. A vague memory tells me cramps are somehow associated with Tetanus. I tried to google symptoms of Tetanus but in this shitty dump I can’t get online.
* * *
I ALMOST BLEW THAY ONE!
Pasir Panjang, Indonesia, January 30, 2013
Maybe my motorcycle-pothole encounter also affected my brain.
Of course, with my rather unconventional entry into Singkawang, there was not much love lost for that town. The place looked just as I felt, filthy, shitty, dilapidated and crummy. The promised free wifi connection in my hotel — the only in town, I was told by the man who drove me here on his bike — worked only sporadically and only in certain places of the hotel. My room was not one of those spaces. Nobody was able to point out where the secret location was, nobody spoke English.
Ha! The best hotel in town!
Searching for reception bars on my iPad's I roamed corridors and stairways on the premises. Maximum connectivity came from inside the restaurant which was closed when I passed and, as it turned out, closed just about whenever I tried to get on-line.
Now, next day the world around me looks much brighter. For one, when I woke up it didn't rain and last night, not far from the hotel, I found a street food seller who made me a delicious noodle dish, served on a banana leaf. Even his tea was passably good.
Sweat-soaked in the oppressive humid heat I explored the town on foot, found my pothole of the previous day, this time the puddle of muck inside was almost dry and looked benign. I took a picture.
|Found the pothole where I had landed the previous |
evening. With no rain it had dried out and didn't
look as menacing anymore.
The Wikipedia description of Singkawang beach, about 15 miles south of town, called Pasir Panjang, sounded like the pleasant resort, I’d expected to find. Googling "hotels in Pasir Panjang" brought the description of many, with the best, Palapa Beach Hotel. It advertised plenty of luxury rooms, restaurants, entertainment, all facing a pristine white sand beach.
As for getting to Singkawang’s Pasir Panjang from the outside world, the posting made it sound like a piece of cake.
"To reach it from from Sarawak's Kuching, the closest international airport," it says: “All you need to do is get on a bus". It didn't mention an eight-hour ride, an international border crossing, no direct bus, changing rides at a tire-repair shack out in the middle of nowhere, and all that on rutted, narrow second-class roads.
Even though I'd already made arrangements for a Borneo version of a bush taxi to take me to the provincial capital, Pontianak, I canceled that and ordered through the hotel one of the rare regular taxi to get me next morning to that dream beach resort. If it is as described, that clearly must be the market place where one can select, sample and buy brides as Google describes it. (I am curious to see if that Singkawang Google entry gets modified after this blog post with my critical on-the-spot-observation report,)
The taxi driver found the hotel in Pasir Panjang at the end of a long drive, lined by dying decorative bushes. How can any vegetation die here where bushes, like weeds, grow out of house facades and cracks in road pavement, I wondered.
The hotel is big. Two girls at the reception didn't speak, or understand, a word of English (how about those Singapore, Chinese, Malay dudes who come here for brides? How do they communicate?). I showed them a credit card. They had no idea about what to do with it. One turned on a generator to turn on electricity to turn on a printer to make a copy of my passport, then she turned the generator off again. I paid about twenty dollars cash for a double room, because they have no single rooms. A man brought me to my dungeon. It was pitch dark, had neither window nor lights, and smelled like a closet full of old, unwashed socks. I explored with my flashlight. With no window in the room and no sink in the bathroom — I saw holes in the wall where one must have been attached in better days, there was an un-flushable toilet bowl, with a bucket and ladle, full of algae-covered water next to it. For apparent lack of alternatives, I took the room.
The ladle, when I used it to flush out the toilet's contents, was so slimy it slipped out of my hand. I skimmed off the layer of drowned cockroaches to send them together with algae juice via the toilet to their permanent water grave, probably in a direct line to the ocean.
I was a little concerned about the exotic microbe families in the filthy place that might invade my two- day-old wounds from the motorcycle spill. I lathered broken skin with a liberal coating of antiseptic ointment.
I chained my luggage to a chair with my number combination chain/lock combo. That way, I figured, a potential thief would have to take a bag and a chair hanging together, making it difficult to run off with my stuff.
The lights came on, probably turned it on for me, the sole guest. The room had also a TV. I tried it with a vague hope to find an English news station. It didn't even offer Indonesian fare.
Deciding to explore the surroundings I went through a long, dark corridor — the floor tiles made strange crackling noises when I walked on them. Even though quite clearly the only guest, strangely uniformed employees were slithering around me with curious looks.
Between the hotel and the beach is a large, paved terrace, with neither chairs nor tables. A man sweapt leaves and plastic bags. The wind blew it all back to where he had just swept.
The beach beyond the terrace is very long and very messy. I walked on what was once a paved boardwalk, now piles of broken concrete and paving stones, to one end, turned around and went to the other end, altogether a walk of almost two hours. I passed countless empty beach restaurant shacks, gazebos, shade trees, two primitive statues of barely recognizable horses — a masterpiece of primitive art — and practically no people. I saw not a single soul on the beach or in the muddy surf.
|Idillic snack shelter on the idillic beach.|
|The romantic beach in the exclusive beach resort.|
The closest to something resembling a sexual connotation, as suggested in Google, came when a woman called me from one of the many, seemingly empty, beach shacks. She came running towards me, waving a cellphone. She made me understand she wanted a picture of herself together with me. Of course I agreed. She called towards the shack where she had come from. Three other women emerged. To judge from their appearances and behavior, they were regular, middle aged housewives, yet their language and gestures suggested something quite different. A picture was taken of the first woman together with me. She smelled like a bottle of spilled perfume but, compared to the others, she was almost pretty. The whole group wanted a photo with me. Again I obliged. I also took one with my camera, of my erstwhile picture companion then a picture of the whole group.
|Charming beach restaurants with no waiting lines.|
During my long beach walk a few beer drinking guys lolling in one of the shacks, called out:
"What you want."
I was tempted to say, "a beer", but looking at the sleazy-looking group I said:
"Nothing! Just out for a walk."
Wikipedia described the procedure for a bride for cash transaction. An agent would demand a deposit from a prospective bride acquirer, then he would bing a selection of women.
I was overcome by a sense of disgust. Good thing no such agent approached me with a proposition. An urge to punch him into the face would have been hard to suppress.
|The first woman who asked to have a picture|
taken with me.
I was reading on the terrace sitting in two of the neatly arranged teak chairs when a group of young people arrived on mopeds. They looked like a bunch of kids out for having a good time. They cavorted, yelling, laughing, shouting and ran around trying to catch each other. The girls wore hijab (head coverings) like devoted Muslim. They way they behaved with the boys suggested they followed a very liberal version of Islam.
The group approached me, timidly, as if a foreigner were a rare species. In an abrupt change of behavior they very politely asked permission to sit with me to converse, to practice their English. Of course I agreed. They are studying Islam in Pontianak’s university, they said. We got into a lengthy, rather heated discussion about religion in general and Islam in particular. Despite of my stated opinions — my reservations about religion, any religion — they didn’t accuse me of heresy.
|The other super perfumed "hausfraus" who also wanted a picture.|
I have no idea what I can do here tonight, other than go to bed real early and listen to the pillow. It the light were on I could, for lack of something better, read about those fifty shades of grey but for that I was not willing to run down my flashlight battery.
I'll try to arrange for a ride for tomorrow morning to Pontianak, the larger regional town where I might be able to make arrangements for a journey to the mysterious inland on one of Borneo's rivers, to disappear for a while in the heart of darkness.
I am no-way pissed for landing here in this dump. During my long stroll on the crumbling boardwalk, I broke out laughing. An observer might have taken me for a jolly idiot, what with laughing all by myself out there, in total solitude. The laugh came when I realized the ludicrous absurdity of my quest, about how it is a big, fat joke — and the joke is on me.
|The students of Islam who wanted to converse in English.|
Part of Paulo Coelho's word of wisdom comes to mind:
Routine is deadly, he said.
What is happening to me right now in Singkawang and Singkawang Beach is far removed from anything that could be called routine for a person like me from Manhattan, or Vermont, or Switzerland, or wherever, ergo I must be very alive ...
... and the beer I drink in this Muslim outpost while I write in my iPad tastes absolutely delicious.
* * *
INTO THE HEART OF DARKNESS
ON A SLOW BOAT INTO THE JUNGLE
Pangkalan Bun, Indonesia, February 2, 2013
Don't know yet what that Borneo heart of darkness will bring. I came to Pangkalan Bun in Borneo’s south on a small plane from Pontianak. Could have taken a nine-hour bus ride, but learned it would mean bumping almost the whole time through endless oil palm plantations, only interrupted occasionally by a rubber plantation and pot holes.
Lonely Planet, the backpacking traveler's Bible recommends for lodging a Yayorin Homestay while in Pangkalan Bun. Yayorin is the headquarters of an Indonesian organization that tries to conserve parts of Borneo in its natural state, or, where it is already messed up, restore it. My thirty-dollars per night’s lodging, including breakfast, go towards that goal. The place is a couple of miles outside town.
Since Yayorin people are in the nature conservation business, I’d assumed, they might also be helpful in finding a boat to get lost in the vast forest. I am looking forward to see the Borneo described in the wild stories of Borneo's exploration, the stories I read in my youth when I was a prisoner of school, the formative years when I had to content myself with armchair adventures.
Now I am in Yayorin. My lodging is a cute little rattan bungalow, reached on a small path through woods and a swamp. As I write on my iPad at a cute little desk, a little girl brings me a thermos with hot water. A jar of instant coffee and a jar of sugar is on the desk and a fan blows mosquitoes away.
|My cute little rattan room at the Yayorin land preservation|
organization. The wall is made of artfully woven bamboo.
Happiness is: My dark green silk sleeping bag. The gossamer veil's ripple, fluttering in the breeze of the fan is caressing my body. I’m dreaming of tomorrow’s journey into the heart of darkness.
Memories, created by the silk bag, often transport me into a state of nostalgic euphoria. After struggling through clouds of dive bombing Arctic mosquitoes and cool living-off-the-land-and-water adventures, of fishing and hunting with my friend Boris in the tundra of the Taymyr Peninsula in Siberia's far north, a hundred-and-fifty miles north of the Arctic Circle, Emilie and I traveled by boat from the Arctic ocean up the Yenisey River, where we stuffed ourselves with baked, broiled, stewed, stuffed and grilled sturgeon. From Krasnoyarsk the Trans Siberian train took us to Irkutsk on lake Baykal then to Manchuria in China. We crossed China by train and bus from its furthest north to its furthest south at the Vietnamese border, then ended up in Hanoi with nothing appropriate to wear for the Vietnamese summer heat. Even though we'd given away boots, cold weather stuff — like thermal long johns, fleece and super padded sleeping bags — on the train, in tows and villages, with what was left, we were still only outfitted with stuff suitable for Arctic climate.
One of the warm weather purchases in Hanoi was a silk bag for sleeping when trying to escape from airborne or earthbound bugs, or to put a barrier between dirty surroundings and body, or to use as sheets. Sleeping in that bag now invariably transports me to memories of a world full of cool adventure. Since it is made of such delicate fabric, the bag takes not much more space than a hanky. I carry it along on most of my journeys. The soft familiar veil creates blissful reminiscences, it carries me to places where it became a safety blanket, to roaming in the Amazon, or on eastern Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast, or in some East African or Himalayan hovel, or in a Burmese village, or in Brazil's Pantanal, or in a desert's sand, or in the bush of the Australian Outback, or simply sleeping on the floor in some friend's house that was already full to over capacity with other friends.
The Yaorin people were helpful. They put me in contact with Dessy, a very competent woman decked out in a hijab, who speaks fluent English and seems to know everyone. She arranged for a boat for me to head into the woods.
Too exited, or rather, not tired enough to sleep I got up to write. It is three AM. I slipped into my bag at 8:30 since there was nothing else to do out here in the swamp but to listen to the nigh time creatures’ holly racket — after the Muezzin was done with his sermon.
Tomorrow I'll be off into the woods on a boat. We’ll go up the Sungai Sekonyer, or Black River, of southwestern Borneo. The way Dessy made me understand, there will be just the owner and I. My silk bag and I will live on a boat deck in the heart of darkness, and, this being Borneo, presumably also the soggy heat of darkness. The only Kurtz I am likely to meet will have extremely long arms, covered in an orange-ish pelt, the orangutan.
Of course, while in the forest I don't expect to have Internet access. So, if you want to know what happened there, you'll just have to bide your time.
I won't be gone for long - even though I'd like to.
|Harvesting Tilapia from the pond outside my cabin.|
* * *
REPORT FROM THE BOAT
Black River, Kalimantan, Indonesia, February 5, 2013
Yes, I am the only passenger, but not, as assumed, alone with the boat's owner. Besides me there are two deckhands, a cook, a skipper and Faisal, an English speaking guide, all catering to yours truly. Because fussing over only me doesn’t fully occupy them, the crew is constantly cleaning the already spotlessly clean boat. The trip will last three days and two nights.
The boat is somewhere between forty and fifty feet long, with an upper and a lower deck. The lower deck's headroom is barely four feet. The chef prepares the meals down there in a permanent deep crouch. Except when they pamper me, the whole crew huddles down there.
The engine, a one-cylinder tuck-tuck-tuck-job with a heavy fly wheel, has, according to Faisal, only 133 cc, about the size of a scooter motor. The boat does go slow, but still, I don't believe the 133 cc story, it must be at least one zero more, as in 1330 cc. and even that is questionable. Faisal’s English might have something to do with that. Most of the time I simply guess what he tries to tell me.
|We wound our way through narrow channels into the roadless jungle.|
Along the way Faisal and I visited a Dyak village, then trekked into the woods where an Indonesian orangutan rehabilitation outfit tries to reintroduce formerly captured or wounded apes into nature.
I was told palm oil plantation owners try to get rid of these animals by shooting, mutilating and poisoning them. To help these rescued victims of "progress" adjust for a fresh life in nature, organization, like Yayorin set them free in the woods then feed them for a while at a given spot in the jungle, far removed from human activity. They must have done a good job with the rehabilitation because only rarely the animals came to claim the basket of assorted fruit we'd brought. They have learned to fend for themselves.
This six-hundred dollar trip into the wilderness is making me out to be a spoiled rich man. Faisal, on a one-kilometer hike into the jungle, on a well trodden path, fell almost over himself trying to keep me from tripping over roots. I told him to lay off. He said: "You are an old man and I am here to help". I changed my opinion about him. Suddenly he doesn't appear so cool anymore.
On our return to the boat he must have told the crew about my obstinacy. Now, instead of calling me Sir, as they did before, I became Pappi.
Traveling upriver we saw — literally — trees full of monkeys, an incredible profusion of birds, two monitor lizards, one proboscis monkey (the odd-looking monkey with a nose resembling a dangling potato), but, so far, no orangutan.
We passes a dilapidated shack on the water's edge.
"A policeman used to be stationed here to check for poachers but then a crocodile ate him, now there is no more policeman," Faisal said. Actually, what he really said sounded something like: “House there, police man sleep, crocodile eat him, now finished police.”
|This cabin is where a policeman used to be on the lookout for poachers 'til a crocodile ate him. Now there is no|
more lookout for poachers.
For the night we tied the boat to a tree near shore, in the middle of nowhere. The jungle's animal racket that dusk brings on, defies description. Screeching, howling, chirping, croaking, bellowing, screaming, you name it, it is all there.
The crew was about to double up on the one mattress they had already laid out on deck for me. I stopped them, feeling a bit awkward at the deferential treatment. I didn't want to be the princess in the fairy tale, who was bothered by a pea under ten mattresses. The mattress rejection didn't stop them from setting up a mosquito net over my sleeping arrangement and hanging rain shields on the sides. During the night when I had to get out to relieve myself — over board —I was real grateful to be able to crawl back under the mosquito net.
|At night the crew installed a mosquito net for me.|
While writing this on my iPad, I worry about how the soggy air will affect it. Already it doesn't adjust from horizontal operation to vertical anymore. I have become accustomed to the touch screen keyboard size that comes up in the horizontal version and now that is no more available. At least that provides me with a handy excuse for typos.
I just finished a breakfast of eight, yes eight, slices of fried bread, an omelette, liberally slathered with chilly paste, a plateful of miniature bananas and something that is supposed to be coffee. With the first, skeptical gulp, I couldn't make out if it was engine lubricant or transmission fluid. I wonder why some people have taken to call coffee Java? I am in Indonesia, Java is in Indonesia. If anyone should ask me about Java as in coffee, I'll have a word to say about that Java from Java.
|That is the kind of copious meal they put up for me three times|
Today we chugged upriver for a couple of hours. The water is a sediment laden ochre color. The river got narrower and the boat squeezed between dense vegetation. We came to a fork. The river from the right was an ink-like jet black and the left arm the customary yellow.
Faisal explained: "The river on the right is tinted black by decaying vegetation, the river on the left should be the same color, but now it is polluted. Lately," he said, "there is a lot of illegal gold mining where the river comes from. They wash out the soil for gold. The army can't stop it, the police can't stop it. They just keep going further into the jungle."
My thought: Or pay off the cops.
|From ahead flows the sediment-laden gold mining water and from the left the black jungle water.|
Remember, you read it here!!!
Today we walked to camp Leakey, one of the leading Orangutan preservation organizations. I think it is that Leakey who mentored, Diana Fossy, the gorilla lady of Uganda who was featured in the film GORILLAS IN THE MIST and later got killed by poachers.
|One of the male orangutans who came for the fruit we brought into the woods. Such a male orangutan is reputed to have the strength of seven grown men.|
As already mentioned, those ape rehabilitation organizations can claim a remarkable measure of success, because very few of the animals they set out in the wild still come for the offered food. We have been to three such feeding stations and only in one did we see orangutans. Faisal claims to know the names of all six orangutans we saw — of course he is free to tell me whatever he likes. If he’d told me one was Napoleon, that ape was Napoleon.
Now, a day later, we are tied up for the night in a jungle clearing, next to a good size pond. It is not quite dusk yet but the jungle concerto has already begun with its overture. One beast, bird? Mammal? Reptile? sounds like an industrial wood plainer. In the distance something just screamed its last hurrah before becoming a meal. Again, as reported last night, there are no words to adequately describe the ruckus around us.
Yummy scents rise from below deck. That, and the clattering of pots, suggests the chef is preparing another feast.
I wish I had a cold beer — actually I'd also settle for a warm one. I am chugging on a Sprite and sip from a water bottle.
By the way, considering where I am, my motorcycle/pothole wounds are doing miraculously well. There is not even a hint of infection. Despite the drippy air, crusty scabs are developing.
I'll have to spend the night in my smelly shirt. After two days of uninterrupted sweating it stinks big time. I didn't bring a spare because I don't want to to have two out of my three shirts messed up. Now I can look forward to a real pleasure in the near future, when I get back to town where I left a bag with clean stuff.
Last night's downpour was a masterfully choreographed and orchestrated performance. The overture was a tremendous single shot thunderclap. As if on cue, the crew appeared on deck and quickly lowered rain curtains that during the day had been rolled up against the upper deck's roof so I'd have a clear 360 degree view of our surroundings. Just as this was done, the sky opened up, I mean, really opened up. What came down was not rain as we know it back home, it was a river, a cascading waterfall, pounding us with the roaring sound of an approaching train. It lasted about ten minutes, then, just as it had begun, it stopped. The jungle sounds that had been drowned out, returned in full force.
|The boat crew that spoiled me. On the right is Faisal|
the "English speaking" guide.
When I had my first birds nest meal in Bangkok's Chinatown, I was made to believe, through pictures in the restaurant, that fearless men, risking their lives, descend on ropes down over steep cliffs to collect nests. When I drove around by bus in Borneo I saw, all over, but mostly in wet areas, three to four-story slim windowless towers out in the fields. At first I took them to be rice silos, but then, with only vague foot paths leading to them, I had to discard that notion.
Dessy, the organizer of my jungle boat trip, shed light on the mystery when we passed a profusion of those tall, structures, with tiny holes all over, on our way to the boat.
"Swallow houses," she said (actually she called the birds swiftlets but to me they look like regular swallows). She explained how those buildings were set up to attract the birds, to facilitate their nest building and breeding. After the young ones have left," she said, "the nests are harvested."
A persistent peculiar loud noise I had taken as bird sounds of nature, were loudspeakers on the structures with the chirping of many swallows, to attract new occupants.
|The tall structure in the back are swallow (swiftlet) houses set up|
all over Borneo for the collection of edible birds nests.
* * *
TRIBULATIONS OF TRAVELING ...
In certain places
Pontianak, Indonesia, February 6, 2013
As mentioned in the last posting, to go to my next Borneo destination I’ll have to backtrack on a giant detour, via Pontianak in Indonesian’s Kalimantan to Kuching in Malaysia’s Sarawak, from there via independent Brunei Darussalam, the land of the filthy rich oil and gas boys, to Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Sabah.
|Many of the houses in Pangkalan Bun are built over the water. Most|
have a fish farming cages underneath.
|A Korean factory transform rain forest into pulp.|
“Wind shear at the airport, squalls from an approaching storm.” The small propeller plane circled, and circled, again and again over the town.
“Nice of them to provide sight seeing,” I said.
My seat neighbor, a local lawyer who does that flight often, pulled out his Blackberry and showed me what would happen if the plane landed in cross wind. The picture he'd taken the previous week, showed a plane's landing gear. Of four tires, three were shredded. He said the plane taxied to the terminal on bare tire rims.
Okay, keep right on circling, I thought.
A taxi borough me from the airport to the bus station. The town looked almost like Venice when we sloshed through a tropical downpour.
The bus station for my overnight bus turned out to be a small storefront. I had to find out how to kill seven hours in the submerged town ‘til the bus's evening departure for Kuching. After depositing my bag, I went roaming, or rather wading, in town, found a hole in a wall with some good curry and, as is often the case after eating spicy food, had to find a toilet in a hurry.
That's when things got uncomfortable, an appropriate moment for using the expression: That is when
the sh*t hit the fan.
Imagine a rather dirty crouch toilet, the hole in the ground kind, with my camera down in the yellowish, brownish, bug invested hole between my feet. When I’d crouched down into the business position, the camera slipped out of my shirt pocket and slithered right down there. Luckily it is water proof but unluckily I was in such a hurry, I had to do my messy business before fishing the camera out — by hand. I washed it, and my hands, with plenty of water from the bug invested through used for flushing the toilet with a ladle. The one bright spot in the affair was remembering a little pouch of shampoo in my pocket I'd salvaged from the last hotel's bathroom toiletry supply. Problem is, I had to fish that pouch from the pocket in order to wash the camera and my hands, a task made complicated by the condition of my hands and the sticky sweat-soaked fabric of my shorts.
During the long wait in the store front bus station, and in between writing on my iPad, Dery, the bus company owner’s twenty-year old son practiced English conversation with me. I learned quite a few things from him. Like, It hadn’t occurred to me, even though I frequently stare into my regional map, that the equator goes directly though Pontianak.
In the taxi from the airport, sloshing around to find my curry stall, scurrying around in the desperate search for a toilet, and erring to find my way back to the tiny storefront bus station, I must have crisscrossed the equator several times.
During the long wait for the bus I mused about the omnipresent swallow birds' nest towers. It made me appreciate what Nick and Jade, my youngest daughter and her hubby, are doing — getting involved in the similarly symbiotic business of raising oysters and other shell fish.
Shell fish farming produces high quality food and in the process purifies the water where the bivalves feed and grow since they get their food by filtering water.
Likewise, the bird towers, apart from helping to produce a ready supply of edible birds nests — the consumption of which is supposed to guarantee quasi immortality — also do double duty; they function as very efficient natural mosquito control. Considering the climate and the watery landscape here, without them there would be clouds of bugs torturing man and beast. This, like the shellfish farming is a pure symbiotic process in producing food and in the process improve the environment.
There exist, probably, many other such totally advantageous double duty activities, good in every way from beginning to end. Think of algae farming. By feeding them carbon dioxide while exposing them to sunlight, algae, via photosynthesis produce protein, carbohydrates, or energy. Or, maybe a bit less chic, farming worms. It produces compost from waste. Compost is valuable and so are the worms for organic farming — and for sale in bait shops.
There surely are many more such potential processes.
If I was younger and needed money from a business income, I'd be tempted to start a company with a friendly catchy name like "Sunny Earth". That company would produce nothing but the kind of symbiotic products mentioned above. I am certain it would create plenty of free publicity, everybody would like to support such endeavors. It would be a natural for crowd funding. It might become a world food program, possibly even a feel-good enterprise on a scale of Bill Gates’ and Steve Jobs’ achievements. At the very least it would produce good karma.
* * *
NOODLE SOUP WITH SPARE PARTS
Kuching and Miri, February 7, 2013
Back in Kuching in daytime, after an over-night bus ride from Pontianak, as usual on such rides, without food and drink before or during the trip, I went to a small restaurant. The menu in English promised, among other delicacies, Noodle Soup with Spare Parts? I found out from an English speaker, it is a local common term for a meal of innards; lungs, heart, eyes and other such "spare parts". I went for the soup with vegetables and primary parts of pork. These primary parts were ground up and served as meat balls, so... who knows what sections of a pig I ate.
For the journey's continuation I read in the Lonely Planet about a town on Sarawak's north shore, called Miri. A booming petroleum extraction industry, and its attendant roustabouts, has brought with it an active night live. Lonely Planet makes only spurious allusions to such night life aspects but it describes the town's surroundings as well worth visiting. So, the plan is to check out Miri to, maybe, find out something about what I came to investigate.
The fifteen-hours bus ride leads along the north shore of Borneo, a region that is often described as an environmental disaster scene, of rapacious petroleum, gas and coal extraction, gold and other mineral open-pit-and-mountain-top-removal mining, endless palm oil and rubber plantations that have replaced rain forest and vast wet land lands, turned into fish and shrimp farms, all as consequences of satisfying the multiple needs of a rapidly growing human population.
Tomorrow morning 08:30 the bus leaves Kuching and is expected to arrive in Miri after midnight. Because of Chinese New Year’s vacation time, I could only get a standard ride, on a bus without toilet and non-reclining seats. I made an on-line Miri hotel reservation. That town will be one of the few places on this trip where I'll stay in a multi-starred hotel. Most of the cheap backpacker digs don't take online reservations and are not staffed at night. I want to be sure my digs will be open when I arrive after midnight, that I'll have a toilet, a minibar, a shower and A/C.
As mentioned when I was the first time in Kuching, I found absolutely no pay dirt for my Borneo story. The town looks proper and prim. The bartender in the rooftop bar of my guesthouse, when I asked about houses of ill repute in Kuching, gave me a look that made me grinch.
The bar where school uniforms and younger than eighteen-years are not admitted I’d already found out during the first time in town turned out to be a dead end.
Yesterday I went to a bar I had also seen during my last time in Kuching. It had looked sort of promising for my “research”. Sure enough, the three women in the dark, cigarette-smoke-filled place, looked and acted like "working girls". Their skin-tight dresses barely reached far down enough to cover panties. Garish makeup and the way they talked to me by word and touch, the touchy-feely kind of conversation, and the way they spoke English with descriptive sign and body contact language, completed the picture.
It was a bar where anyone could get in or out, whenever they wanted. I had to assume the women were independent operators. Nothing indicated a controlling pimp or a madam.
Despite finding nothing so far, no doubt there are houses of I'll repute out in the inaccessible Borneo hinterland where loggers are busy cutting down the rain forest. Those guys, despite working far away from populated areas, surely try to get their jollies, one way or another. No doubt, there are operators who supply them with opportunities — even if they have to resort to offering female orangutan, as a post in Wikipedia suggests. There is no chance I had such places in mind when I made my whorehouse exclamations of frustration. I have no desire to check out such outposts where civilization has gone amok.
I made disturbing discoveries in Pontianak that had nothing to do with my quest.
Upon finding out I was American, and that I liked our president, and voted for him, a student of Islamic studies in northwestern Kalimantan and a Kuching taxi driver, challenged me about Obama. Neither of the two had an opinion about Obama politics. They didn't care about that, but both expressed convictions like:
"You, you as a white man, how can you even consider having a "dark" man as your president?”
No matter what I said in response, pointing out Obama's intelligence, his mentality, personality, his ideas, his education, according to both men’s opinion we Americans made a monumental mistake by getting a dark man to run the country.
It sounds like some of our conservative fellow Americans would find receptive ears in Borneo.
The Kuching taxi driver was Chinese, he told me so, and the Kalimantan student of Islam, an ethnic Indonesian. Both refused to believe me when I said that, according to statistics, Asian Americans voted in the majority for Obama.
The son of the bus company's owner in Pontianak, a twenty-year old student of business, sat with me to talk about America and life in general, to practice English conversation, he said. He came across as smart, educated and yet, incredibly racist. Our discussions didn’t get around to the US president, but he explained how much more intelligent and cultured ethnic Chinese are, compared to ethnic Indonesians. No member of his family would ever consider marrying a non Chinese, he said. If one fell in love with an Indonesian and wanted to marry, he, or she, would be disinherited.
"We could never respect them," he said. He claimed to be a proud catholic. A large wooden crucifix hangs on the wall in their store front bus station/office.
In the restaurant of the rather posh Pontianak hotel where I stayed the first time in town, three managers, two men and one woman, came to sit with me. They were operations manager, personnel manager and restaurant manager. We had intensive conversations. — and I got free beer. Two described themselves as Christians and one Muslim, presumably to demonstrate their tolerance. They were interested to know how a person like I could wish to travel alone.
"If I was here with someone, I'd never have that conversations with you, none of you would have joined us at the table" I said, and trying to make it sound like a joke to blunt my exploitative intent, I added: "So now I have a chance to find out what makes you guys tick."
Among many other things, I asked them how good Obama's local language knowledge was. With a dismissing hand gesture one said:
"He knows Nasi Goreng," suggesting with a sneer, he doesn't know more of the language than an occasional visitor to an Indonesian restaurant. All three claimed to like America but I got the impression by their attitude, they also have problems understanding how we would vote for a dark man as president. Being educated people, they didn't blurt out their feeling in such words to an American guest, but their vibes spoke volumes.
Having said this about some racist reactions, the vast majority of people I met are incredibly impressed with America’s decision to elect and re-elect, an African American man for the presidency. A general comment is:
“We assumed, and history suggests, America is a racist country and now you have proven us wrong.”
Morning, two days later:
During a sixteen-hours bus ride yesterday, from Kuching to Miri, a town near the border with Brunei, I got a good look at Sarawak of Borneo's north shore. I saw only a few deforested tracks and palm oil plantation. Very heavily sedimented rivers we crossed along the way, indicated that further inland there might be a more intensive exploitation of the land. Along the road, rain forest has been replaced by individual farming of fruit trees, rice paddies, and vegetables fields, mostly beans. Road side houses, villages, and people, look clean, not exactly Swiss clean, but compared to most tropical countries I have visited, it can almost be called pristine.
My standard bus drives into every town's and village's terminal and pulls in at overland provisional stops picking up and dropping off people all along the way. Three times during the ride we were let out at food and toilet rest areas. The toilets were, to say the least, not inviting, but the edibles looked and smelled very tempting. I didn't risk having food or drink, being concerned about the having-to-go consequences on the toilet-less bus.
This long ride was one of the minor “hitting the head with a hammer” episodes where, after it was over — when the hammering stops — I could end hunger, thirst, clammy body wraps and cramped legs; by downing a couple of cold beers, stuff myself with yummy food, and melt with feel-good in a hot shower.
|The temperature was above a 100° F and yet, many women were completely wrapped, from head to toe.|
This time, all that wonderful stuff I could reasonably expect because from Kuching I'd made an on-line reservation at the Imperial, best hotel in town.
At one AM, when I got to my posh Miri digs, the bar, the restaurant, room service, all was closed for the night. I had a bottle of Evian(!) that was in the room. (Yes, Evian, imported from France to this water-logged land!).
A note in the empty mini bar said:
Thank you for staying with us.
Mini Bar items are available upon request.
Please contact our Housekeeping Department at Ext. 4 for any assistance.
Have a pleasant day!
Housekeeping also was closed for the night.
Hungry and desperate for something to eat and for chugging a cold beer, the “hitting the head with a hammer” suffering will have continue 'til breakfast next morning.
I got the hot shower though.
In my anticipation of, among other things, a cold beer, I had forgotten that in predominant Muslim areas, I won’t find beer in a hotel’s mini bar, unless, sometimes, specially requested.
|In my fancy Miri hotel's pool some women wore the hijab and are|
fully dressed, even in the water.
The February 9, 2013 edition of STAR of Sarawak, one of the local English language papers, that was delivered to my fancy hotel room, has a front page article titled:
There is still no end in sight for the long wait by the thousands of swiftlet (swallow) farmers to get their bird's nests re-enter the China market. They were very hopeful that the ban would be lifted before the Lunar New Year but unfortunately it did not materialize.
The story goes on to say the Sarawak nests have been banned by Chinese authorities because unsafe levels of natural nitrates have been found in them. The price has fallen to 700 dollars per kilo, from the 1,500 dollars it used to be.
Night of 10 to 11 February:
The town is on fire.
Around 11:30, when I came back to my 23rd floor hotel room, the city below me lit up. Omaha Beach during the Allied WW II invasion must have sounded and looked like a picnic in a park, compared to Miri. In New York City, Chinese New Year had never sounded quite like that, even before mayor Giuliani spoiled the fun. In this Malaysian town, with a Chinese minority, there was not a firework somewhere — the city itself was the firework. From my window it looked like a sea of flames, sparkles, detonations, thunder and flashes, a giant inferno. It seemed like a miracle that later, when the spectacle subsided, no houses were on fire.
* * *
THE YEAR OF THE SNAKE
Miri, Brunei, Kota Kinabalu, February 8, 2013
Tomorrow, the plan was, to head for Brunei. I'd read about a minivan going there and had a phone number. Since on the other side of the phone line no one spoke English, a fellow at the reception offered to make a call for me.
"Ha! Tomorrow?", he said when I told him what the call was about. "I don't think anyone is going to drive you anywhere. To a barbecue, maybe, but no way for his transport business. These days we celebrate Chinese New Year."
Sure enough, after the call he grinned, "no minivan, no bus, nothing tomorrow". So, 'til day after tomorrow when the minivan transport system starts moving again, I'll be for another night in my twenty-third floor super digs. The Imperial, where I stay, is by far the best hotel in town, and still, my "Executive Room" costs only about a hundred dollars per day, elaborate breakfast buffet included.
My roaming the city last night was great by way of food, drink, and chat with strangers, but didn't furnish any new insights into the subject of my search. Lonely Planet, the backpacker's bible, makes a suggestion that might answer some questions.
Those keen on a pub crawl might consider catching a cab to Pelita, a warren of small streets lined with pubs, cafés, restaurants and dodgy karaoke places 3km north of the centre.
In many southeast Asian countries karaoke is an euphemism for brothel, so that place outside Miri just might fit the bill. Somehow though, now that it seems like I could go there, observe and form an opinion, I have no more desire to know. The more I think (and write) about my search for whorehouses, the more I find that subject a turn-off.
When I tried to get money from an ATM, the machine refused to give me cash.
"Invalid card", it said.
Since this is the only way I get travel money, here where credit cards are not accepted, at least not at the places where I am likely to be, that put me into a bind. A good thing is that I am in the Imperial Hotel, where I can make international phone calls.
I got Citibank at the collect call number given on the back of my "invalid" card.
After cash was taken out through an Indonesian bank, I was told, they invalidated the card. Before departing for this trip I'd notified Citibank about where I'd be heading, to avoid just such a situation.
The friendly lady — with no Indian accent — apologized. The card is good again to produce money.
A horror story:
At a table next to mine in a Miri restaurant sit a woman, a man and a boy, about 15-years old. They are Chinese, probably on a New Year holiday. The man has his arm around the boy, his head is very close to the boy's head, both heads lay practically on the table. The man talks quietly to the boy whose back is towards me. From the way he shakes, it is clear he is crying. The woman stares away, as if the two were non existent. The man gently strokes the boy's head then turns to the woman. He tries to caress her arm. The woman, without looking at the man, shakes him off, starts a harangue, not loud but with a face twisted in anger. The boy puts the earplugs of an iPhone in his ears. The woman gets louder. The boy straightens up and puts his hands over his ears. Now I see, on his fingers are several heavy, gaudy rings. The man tries again to stroke the woman's arm, she again shakes him off, and becomes louder. She now has tears also.
What a vacation! I thought.
And now a nice story:
The minivan driver picks me up at the hotel. I'd imagined it would be something like a Dalla-Dalla, the decrepit kind with which you try to get from one place to another in East Africa. I expected to have, if not another passenger, at least someone's luggage or an animal on my lap. Since the journey to Brunei was supposed to take less than four hours, I didn't care.
It turns out, the vehicle is a brand new delux, air conditioned Land Cruiser. My backpack goes in the back luggage compartment, not on my lap. I get to sit next to the driver, a place that costs double fare in most of Africa. The whole way no one sat on my lap, the road in Sarawak is very good, many places with beautiful landscaping alongside. The sun was shining, the A/C was working, the border crossing was a breeze. The first part of road in the obscenely rich Brunei Sultanate was a shamble, not because of potholes, there was unblemished asphalt, and perfectly painted center line and road side line markings. The road was apparently built on soft ground without foundation. It looked, and felt, while driving on it, like bobbing in a little boat on an agitated sea. Further into the country the road became better.
|A Bandar Seri Begawan square and mosque with flags but no people.|
|Another big Bandar Seri Begawan square, and grandiose mosque, also devoid of people.|
|Bandar Seri Begawan street with landscaping but no people.|
Much of public writing in town, on roads, on buildings, on posters, is in Arabic even though Brunei is practically half-a-world away from the closest Arab speaking/writing country. That script, same as in the Quran, is probably because from all appearances, they seem to wear their religion on their sleeves. Huge, mostly gaudy mosques blanket the city. Alcohol is unavailable.
I have absolutely no desire to do any “research” in this sterile place. The money bag rulers must be doing their money guzzling sybaritic trysts in other parts of the world. Already when reading about it back home I thought it would be an exercise in futility because of anticipated cost, but now, regardless of cost, just looking at it, gives me the willies.
Tomorrow I'll take a bus to Kota Kinabalu, in Sabah.
The bus to Kota Kinabalu is comfortable with A/C. Almost empty, there is no risk I'll have to share my seat with man or beast. This journey of about 300 miles, involves a lot of border crossing because of Brunei's truncated shape. First we cross from Brunei into Sarawak, then out from Sarawak back into Brunei, then again out of Brunei, again into Sarawak, then out of Sarawak and into Sabah.
|A ferry crossing from one of the Bruneis to one of the|
Most people think of long distance bus travel as a lousy way get around but I disagree. It may be uncomfortable when a real hefty person's blubber from the adjoining seat spills over onto my lap, or when other people’s luggage lands on me, or when other passenger’s kids behave as if I was their seat, or when passengers’ animals become intimate with me.
In exchange for the potential discomfort I get to really see and experience the countries where I travel. At the food stops I eat what they eat, I use the toilets they use. I get to talk with a grand variety of people. I see where and how they live, what kind of work they do, what and how they plant and what and how they harvest. I see their schools, how many mosques, churches, temples and hospitals they have. Invariably, regardless of the region’s religion, the palaces of worship are much more elaborate than hospitals and schools.
A day later:
When getting into the western part of Brunei from Miri, it didn’t appear affluent.
Today, as we left Bandar Seri Begawan, direction northeast towards Sabah, it looked as if we had entered another country. Official buildings were over the top, in size, elaborateness, and grandiosity — and tackiness. The Brunei Supreme Court is almost as grand as the one in the US. A sea of yellow and black, the colors of Brunei's national flag drapes everything, everywhere. The flags look very similar to the ones Tea Party followers wave in US demonstartions. In Brunei there is not a flag here and a flag there, they are literally everywhere. Some edifices have rows of flagpoles like trees in plantations, on the ground on roof lines, at entrances. We passed a road that seemed to go from nowhere to nowhere yet it was lined on both sides with flags.
I get to write now because we are at a one-hour food and toilet stop. Outside the heat is oppressive. I sit in the air conditioned bus and write. A real cute girl also stepped out of the heat and keeps watching me.
Later in Kota Kinabalu:
I am in a cheap Kota Kinabalu hotel room but get sort of distracted as I write this. Through the thin wall separating me from the next room come loud groans, grunts, moans and muffled cries. The wall vibrates. The couple over there seem to have the time of their lives.
I never heard about Kota Kinabalu before coming here, yet a lot of other people must have. The part of town where I am staying consists of practically nothing but hotels, a few large ones, but most are little holes in walls. Restaurants, bars and travel agencies compete for space with souvenir shops. The majority of visitors are clearly from Southeast Asia, from the looks of it predominantly ethnic Chinese. Menus are written in Chinese.
My plan was to head inland to experience the wild Borneo I'd expected to see. To judge by posters and advertisements of travel agencies in town, the masses of tourists came also here for just that. I realized that, unless I manage to get to some undeveloped, far away mountain or valley, I'd be surrounded by a mob of other international visitors. Given those circumstances, I have not much desire to go bush whacking. Instead I’ll check into the travel agencies’ advertised alternatives.
Hey, nowadays that seems to be the real Borneo.
Here, in Kota Kinabalu, like in most of Borneo, many women wear the hijab that leaves but part of the face exposed. Most also drape their bodies with heavy fabric from wrist to feet to avoid showing a bodily outline. In some extreme cases even hands are covered with gloves. All that would not seem much out of place in regions where body covering provides protection from cold. but it seems like torture here, in the stifling, tropical heat where the slightest breeze caressing the skin provides a welcome relief.
Of course, adaptability allows humans to learn how to deal with even the worst handicaps. A blind person, one with but one leg, or one eye, or any other such deformity can adapt. The thus afflicted have no other options because blind remains blind, physically challenged remain physically challenged.
Such a need to adapt to handicaps is not a requirement for shrouded women. They, except for a need to adhere to religious edicts, could ease their burden by simply shedding their wrappings.
By contrast, men in these places have it easy. They walk alongside their women in comfortable pants or shorts, in T-shirts, fully exposed to refreshing air. Some go even as far as wearing pants way below their waists to expose their butt crack, as some young people nowadays seem to think of as hip and cool.
Almost all religions have such idiosyncratic practices. Blood-covered Catholics crawl on via dolorosas with their knees grinding in sharp gravel to please the Lord or the Virgin Mary. Muslim's Shia flagellate themselves bloody, presumably to please God or the Prophet. Buddhists torture and deprive themselves of bodily comfort in countless ways to reach Nirvana. Hindus let holly cows devastate their desperately needed crops, and they trek high up into the Himalayas to pray to a giant icicle that, to them, represents the penis of Lord Shiva. Fakirs rest on beds of nails. Scientologists, Mormons, Orthodox Jews and many other such outlandish sects willingly expose themselves to ridicule by down-to-earth people for some of their wacky, harebrained believes and practices.
The list could go on.
What has happened to our “god-given” brains!
* * *
Kota Kinabalu, February 18, 2013
With time left in Sabah, 'til my flight out of Brunei to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, I became a regular tourist with no more plans to investigate whorehouses or non-existing wilds of modern Borneo. No more hope to discover head hunters and deadly snakes, or having adventures by getting lost in intractable wilderness, near starvation, drowning, tortured by clouds of insects. One risk might be
getting trampled by stampeding tourists.
Sabah, the most alluring, mysterious ingredient in those old, exciting Borneo stories, is now a tourist Mecca. The provincial capital, Kota Kinabalu, is chock-full of tour operators, travel agents, trip organizers, giant, big, small and tiny hotels, restaurants with Chinese, Thai, Australian, Italian, French, Mexican, and whatever other fare, and acres of souvenir shops, stands and stalls. There are wall to wall multi-story malls with names like Hyper Mall, Super Mall, most with attached multi-story car parking complexes.
Even if I had the time and desire to head into the woods in search of ex-headhunters, with all the trail bikes, ATVs, 4x4 pick-up with roll-over bars and giant knobby tires, helicopters, that are now omnipresent in outlying regions, the locals in those places might be tempted to take pictures with their smart phones of a tourist — me — hoofing it like a lunatic through their woods.
To find a really isolated place, I might come up with a satellite picture of an inaccessible hamlet where pigmy elephants and orangutan still roam among semi-naked hunters and gatherers. Probably a group of "scientists" from an international foundation to "research vanishing cultures, customs and fauna" would already be encamped there.
The eminent ethnologist Margaret Mead lost a good part of her stellar reputation when, decades ago, she reported having found a tribe in the Borneo hinterlands who'd had no previous contact with the outside world, only to be exposed by other folks' pictures of people that she had photographed practically naked with bones stuck through their nostrils. In those other folks' pictures some of her "hitherto un-discovered" people wore shorts and jeans and smoked Marlboros.
I went to a travel agency and signed up to "Discover Borneo" excursions.
Now, having been there, having seen and experienced it, I can give a first-hand-report about today’s Borneo.
Yesterday my quest for discovery led me to a near-town-jungle-trek to view proboscis monkeys, the weird-looking monkeys with potato noses I'd already seen on my boat trip into the heart of darkness. We saw some swinging from trees. I kept wondering how evolution — or intelligent design! — came up with such ridiculous faces, where a dangling nose impedes food from getting to the mouth. A possible explanation might be an efficient restriction for too much food intake. No risk for any to die off on account of obesity. None of the proboscis monkeys I saw had pot bellies.
An extended Chinese family from Beijing and I, made up a small mini-van group on the way to explore the woods promised to be full of such monkeys.
Grandpa, grandma, two pre-one-child-policy daughters with their husbands, each couple with one child, an eight-year old boy and a thirteen-year old girl, oooohed and aaaahed at the vegetation, at the monkeys — and the little boy at my eye patch. He must have imagined being in the jungle with a pirate. I wear the black leather patch in the woods over my empty eye socket in order not to get sticks or branches pocking into the delicate hole. Apparently to the boy the patch seemed more fascinating than the monkeys.
None of the family spoke English, and I, of course, no Chinese, but that didn't stop the boy from constantly blabbing with me, maybe with questions about the secret life of pirates.
After the monkey trek — yeah, yeah, we saw a couple of them swinging in the trees — we were served a barbecue; chicken wings, lamb chops, corn on the cob and a baked potato wrapped in aluminum foil. Eating utensils were plastic fork and spoon, no knife. Apparently the Beijing family thought it improper to touch the food with hands — unlike yours truly. It was hilarious to watch how they tried to separate meat of the chops and the chicken from bones with fork and spoon. Escaping pieces of chop and chicken wings flew all over the table. Try to eat corn on the cob with a spoon and fork! They experimented with all sorts of techniques. The boy developed an ingenious method. With the spoon he shoved a piece of chicken, or chop, or corn, to the edge of his dish, clamped it down with the fork, then lowered his head down to chew on whatever overlapped the rim of the plastic plate.
After the meal our van brought us in the dark to a small river boat. Boarding was not an easy task, especially for grandma. We slithered over a rickety, slippery, unlit dock way above the boat. Two local men practically hauled us down into a little puddle jumper.
The reason for that nightly jaunt, the brochure had said when I signed up for the tour, was to see fire flies. I wasn't excited about the prospect since those little nightly dots of light I see often in Vermont’s summer nights. I went along because the fire fly spectacle was part of the potato nose monkey tour. It was all or nothing.
We motored slowly on dark water surrounded by walls of trees silhouetted against a star-lit night sky. There was no sign of flying light dots. After a while the local guide in our boat turned on a green strobe. Instantly we were showered by a cascade of light descending on us from the surrounding forest canopy. In moments we were enveloped by a gazillion brightly lit bugs. They got into clothing, ears, hair and pockets. The two children squealed with joy. The Borneo light bugs are nothing like their fire fly cousins in Vermont. They don't flicker their lights on and off. When they are lit, they remain lit for a long time. They are very bright.
The man explained how the strobe light was imitating a signal from males trying to attract females. Boy that was successful in attracting horny firefly ladies — even though we should have been easy to distinguish from male fire flies.
|The village at the foot of Mount Kinabalu is plastered with souvenir malls and pay toilets.|
Never mind the Babylonian language muddle on our trip, the mood was festive, everybody was out to have a good time.
First we were driven to a village at the foot of Mount Kinabalu, at 4100 Meters, the highest peak in Borneo. Shrouded by ever-present rain clouds the great mountain remained invisible but the village at its base was covered by acres of souvenir stands.
Many locals also were in the business of providing toilet facilities in the assumption visitors needed a John after a three-hour bus ride from Kota Kinabalu. Sure enough, many paid a toilet attendance fee of a few pennies. One little child at the facility I used was happily counting a big stack of small coins.
After the village visit, we went to a part of the jungle where there is supposed to be profusion of orchids. The ranger pointed out some tiny white dots on a plant, no larger than a pin head. Since I didn't have a magnifying glass with me, I saw practically nothing. The ranger declared it to be the smallest orchid, then, close by he found another small one, about one-eighth-of-an-inch long. That one, he said, reminded him of the Christo statue overlooking the Copa Cabana in Rio.
I tried to see the similarity but failed to even properly see the orchid. All the other flowers, the ranger said, have either not yet formed a bloom or are past their prime time.
He pointed out plants that are promoting child bearing and others helped do the opposite, end pregnancy. He pointed out medicinal plants for or against just about every ailment know to mankind.
One of the cloudbursts drowned out his voice — and got us thoroughly soaked.
|The big Rafflesia flower stinks of road kill and, after taking nine|
month to grow lives only a few days.
To see a flower, big, but stinking of rotten flesh, and not particularly beautiful, is hardly worth ten dollars, but now at least I can say; been there, seen that, and don't need to repeat the experience.
After our course in botany we went for lunch, in a giant dining hall with a gazillion other eating tourists, then to sulphur hot springs, with foot baths included in the admission price, then up a steep, slippery, soggy, half-kilometer trail to a swinging, hanging bridge above the tree canopy and straddling a deep gorge — which caused a few blood-curdling screams of deadly freight from some of the ladies.
The mountain, Mount Kinabalu, would normally have had a Siren song to tempt me for a conquest — just because it is there and I am too. Yet, after the wheezing and gasping for air when I had to carry my backpack up four not inordinately steep flights of stairs to my hotel room in Kota Kinabalu, I thought better of it.
|Mount Kinabalu, the tallest peak in Borneo is almost always shrouded in clouds. This, I am told, is a rare view.|
Actually, I have an even better excuse. Our guide said that for accommodation at the refuge huts on the mountain, eight to nine months advance reservation are a must. Experienced hikers, he said, take between two-days-and-one-night to do the mountain and others plan for a three-days-and-two-nights ascent.
The way things are for me and my seventy-five-year old lung capacity, no doubt, I'd be a three-day-two-nights aspirant, thus in dire need for accommodations while on the mountain.
According to our all-knowing, lousy joke cracking guide — he gets to practice them daily with a new batch of tourist but still sounds like yawn, yawn — there is an annual race by international super trekkers, to the top of the mountain and back. Last year a Spaniard broke the old improbable-sounding record of just under four hours. The Spaniard did it in just a little over three hours.
Duh! No matter. I'd stick with a three-days estimate on the mountain for me, hence, without accommodations, no chance climbing the thing.
Got out of this one easy, no?
There are even easier excuses available.
I have neither trekking shoes, nor a high-altitude sleeping bag, nor proper protection against expected frequent downpours, which at 4,000 meters above sea level, might be rather cold. To boot, the view from the summit will most likely be non-existent, given an almost permanent cloud cover.
With little or no stress while wandering in a soggy jungle in search of dangling and swinging monkeys, flowers that smell of road kill and misleading horny male fire flies into futile attempts at sexual fulfillment, all sorts of thoughts start crawling around inside of my head to bring me back to my customary world — and, devoid of adventures, Borneo transports me to strange musings.
No idea where these kinds of thoughts originate. They just come.
Presents for Christmas, birthdays, or other occasion when giving presents is customary, more or less obligatory, seems wrong to me. I dislike the looking, choosing, deciding about what, when, where, how many, and why.
Even the recipient can’t be thrilled about getting stuff, because, after all, that is what is supposed to happen, on these occasions, it is a routine — and we know from Paulo Coelho, what routine does to you.
Exclamations like: Wow! How wonderful! What a surprise! are just as lame. At least the "surprise" bit has to be phony.
On the other hand, when on an impulse I think about surprising someone by giving something, just the thought of it, makes me happy.
Recently, one night in Manhattan I walked back home from some event. On Seventh Avenue, on a stretch that seemed totally lifeless at that time, a food stall vendor was still standing by his cart, hoping to sell a hot dog to a late night straggler. Totally not in the mood for a hot dog, I passed him. A little further on it occurred to me that this man, if he tried that hard, really needed to make a buck. I walked back and handed him a fifty dollar bill.
"Sorry," he said, "I don't have change for that".
"No need," I said, and walked away.
The man's silence spoke volumes.
These kinds of things, create feel good memories. Invariably whatever I gave away made me feel infinitely better than the best meal it could have had instead.
I just went out and bought a pair of pearl earrings for Teth whom I’ll meet after Borneo in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
And now, a not-so-nice story:
Today's Borneo Post, a local newspaper, had on the first page a headline: "Negotiations over deportations soon." It described how the government was trying to deal with a hundred or so uniformed, heavily armed intruders — invaders from the Philippines.
Same paper, same day, same size font as the one about the armed invaders, had a headline, titled:
"Kardashian-Humphries divorce to go to trial in May."
In VIEWPOINTS on page A 10, again same issue, under a title: “Is America in decline?” it says in part, "America has become an absolute cesspool of filth and corruption, and the thin veneer of civilization that we all take for granted is rapidly disappearing." Then the article goes on to quote all kinds of voices and statistics to support that claim, such as the US congress being bought by unaccountable interest groups.
And now a nice story, with a caveat:
In the Kota Kinabalu restaurant where a few times I ate a portion of roasted duck for lunch, one of my favorite dishes in this part of the world, waitresses serve the guests. The busboys are little girls and boys, averaging ten to twelve-years of age. They scurry around among a tight warren of chairs and tables, clearing away dirty dishes, squirting tables with a cleaning liquid and wiping them clean with rags.
It seems they are having fun. They are well dressed and, while laughing around they trade jokes with fellow workers as well as with guests. They talk to me as if I understood them and giggling, they comment on my eye patch.
This is clearly child labor but ... to judge from their interaction with the waitresses, they are their children.
Child labor, under most circumstances is not defensible. Ideally children need time to play, to learn social skills, they need to be in school. Since my restaurant visits are around lunch time, when school would most likely be out, as is the case in most hot climate countries. These children are under direct supervision of their mothers who work there too. The kids make their work their play while acquiring more social skills than they could ever hope for getting while in school.
If that situation is in addition to school —and not instead of school — I think the arrangement makes perfect sense.
Think of swaddled, pampered, cuddled kids back home, many of whom turn into selfish, lazy, self-centered tubs of lard. Those might profit from a Sabah kind of arrangement. But, of course, that would require that their mothers also work.
Last night I went to the last of my pre-paid discover-Borneo tourist journeys. I got picked up from my digs about 5Pm. In a minivan, three Australians, two young women and one man, and I, were driven into nearby woods to, what they call a Mari-Mari Cultural village.
|This hanging bridge brought on a few blood curdling screams from people who had|
no choice but to traverse in order to get back down from the jungle trek.
Once more I could barely contain my excitement and anticipation.
We saw and experienced all the promised wonderful things, together with a group of about thirty people from across the planet.
Some stairs to houses that were on stilts, were a bit steep' but they had emergency access ramps for old and invalid guests. Roy asked me how old I was and when I told him, he directed me to the invalid ramp. I was tempted to punch him into his smug mug.
Now I know everything that is to know about Borneo.
* * *
YOU MEAN THAT BORNEO
Kota Kinabalu, Indonesia, February 22. 2013
BORNEO IS INTERESTING ... IN COMPLETELY UNEXPECTED WAYS.
Am now at Kota Kinabalu airport, waiting to fly to Brunei and from there, a day later, to Cambodia.
Whoever read this blog knows by now Borneo is no more that mysterious, last bastion of untouched wilderness, one of our planet’s last places that hasn't succumbed to the worldwide electronic gadget saturation of cell phones, smart phones, iPads, iPods, electronic notebooks, besides automotive and other motorized gizmos' gridlock, air travel, fast food, and polyglot hip music, plus cable, and satellite TV, plus international gossip. Coca Cola, KFC, McDonald, Pizza Hut, Toyota, Ford, Hyundai, Caterpillar, Sony, and the whole Nestlé assortment of baby formula, coffee, powdered milk, and chocolate that have become part of the island’s staple — ha! sometimes supplemented by pork spare parts. Kids, like recently all over the planet, are howling and dancing around trying to copy the new Korean idol, gangnam style.
As for isolated and wild areas populated by primitive people who have no contact with the outside world, fugetabout looking in Borneo. One might have better luck finding them in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, down near the southern part of the Garden State parkway, or in the hills above the Hudson, a stone throw from West Point, or in West Virginian hollers. Rumor has it such wild people can be found in those places and they are hiding in plain sight.
I am truly happy to have come to Borneo. Now there won't be anymore regrets about having missed out about exploration of a totally awesome, adventure-packed paradise.
Of course, beyond Borneo's loggers and palm oil plantation planters and their support crews, one might find a few inhabited spots that seem removed from civilization. Those, nowadays, are the kind of places that attract, besides the ubiquitous missionaries on the hunt for wayward souls, NGO, eco foundations, ethnic, botanical and zoological researchers who seek such locations for field research. You'll probably find a bunch of sunblock-lathered earnest people there, attempting to make world changing discoveries or conversions to harvest souls for their god. They tend to wear round, steel-rimmed glasses on their sunburnt noses and T-shirts inscribed with clever messages. They are pumped full of vaccinations against all imaginable diseases and swallow malaria prevention pills that make them hallucinate — and let them get malaria just the same.
Those “isolated” people, if they still exist somewhere in Borneo, soon won’t look isolated anymore because the missionaries tend to instill in them a need to go out and buy and wear clothes — so the ignorant heathen also get to know how it feels living in sweat-soaked rags. I might have seen them outfitting in the shopping malls.
Mark Twain's CONNECTICUT YANKEE AT KING ARTHUR's COURT, who, while living in a far removed early century, said: It is my conviction that any Established Church is an established crime, an established slave pen.
Even if I could dodge the scientists and the missionaries, what is the fun in going off into the wild, pretending to live off the land, when you are only a satellite phone call away from a rescue helicopter?
No doubt, there are places somewhere in Borneo’s mountains to where I could escape to the whorehouse thing I dreamt about when child rearing seemed like an insurmountable task, but, from the way Borneo appears now, parenting any number of the most unruly kids, under the worst possible circumstances, in comparison, would have felt like bliss.
I acquired a new skill in the Borneo tourist Mecca; becoming an expert in identifying the individual travelers’ nationality by their appearance, stance and idiosyncrasies.
Mod outfits, self assured, neat haircuts on men, stylish hairdos on women. They are fluent in English and don't chew gum. If available, they drink fine wine, but in a pinch they make do with imported beer.
Although neat, they are less stylish. Most are also fluent in English but they flaunt Mandarin and eschew their Cantonese. They are outgoing, worldly and friendly.
Have not had any interaction with them in Borneo, so don't have an opinion. I heard there are plenty of them in Southern California where they wear Hawaiian shirts.
Hip, mod and discrete. Men have facial hair, either mustache, neatly trimmed beard, or they sport the new hip male fashion, the rakish, unshaven look, abeit with trimmed edges. The women cover their mouths when they laugh or giggle and walk with very small steps. They have short legs and all, women and men, bow at the tip of a hat.
Wear face masks, sun hats, are super neat, have their faces slathered with sun block, clutch their purses close to their bodies and travel in tightly packed groups.
Travel in large lose groups, whole family dynasties together, grand parents, who might have had multiple kids, which they got before the one-child policy took effect, and those kids with their one child. Those parents and grandparents hover over the kids, and kids' kids. On every tiny step the little darlings take, Mommy or Daddy, grandma, or grandpa, breathe down their necks. They are the prototypes of helicopter parents. To my eye, they have atrocious taste in clothes, frilly, garish fashion for females and mismatched sport outfits for men. As if in revenge for their formerly ubiquitous dark blue Mao suits their outfits’ colors scream. Even their luggage dazzles in bright carnival colors, some plastered with polka dots. Men smoke and make horrible noises when they gather their phlegm from the far reaches of their throat and trachea before ejecting it on the closest clean floor. The rare young Chinese travelers, if they are girls, have their luggage covered with loudly colored little, big-eyed dolls and the boys wear T-shirts with inscriptions like NYPD, or property of SING-SING.
Australians, New Zealanders:
The elderly ones strut around in the kinds of outfits they'd wear for a backyard cook-out or barbecue, the younger ones wear loose clothes with patches and have sun-bleached hair, even when they are in the city. On their feet are either flip-flops or heavy hiking boots.
The worst dressers, ever. They always carry bulging shopping bags and talk Russian. They also smoke, even where it is forbidden to do so.
They are always in groups that make it look like old Israeli don't exist. They are loud and behave as if they were the only people in the world. An elderly couple told me they refuse staying in a hotel room with Israeli neighbors because they find it impossible to sleep.
They don’t come to Borneo. Okay, there are exceptions to this, described a bit further on, but those are not tourists. Anyway, why would Americans be here? It is football season back home.
Can't tell them apart so easily anymore. It used to be no problem to distinguish Italians from Germans on account of their shoes. Now, Germans wear Italian style shoes and Italians wear Nikes. The Dutch are tall, the Scandinavians take long strides, both are blond, and the Swiss, even though they don't yodel all the time, are Swiss. You can, sort of, tell by just looking at them.
I saw five young men and one young woman drinking fruit juice in the same Brunei, alcohol-free, sterile palace where I was doing the same thing. They looked casually dressed, shorts, wash and wear pants and shirts most wearing sneakers or flip-flops. Before I heard them speak I was totally unable to place them. When I did hear them speak, I was even more totally unable. I couldn't make out the language, or the behavior, or their outfits. Based on features, and a little bit by the sound of their language, I tentatively made them out to be Slavic. When I couldn't stand my ignorance anymore, I asked:
"Czech Republic," one said.
There is a final, rather large group. I noticed them mostly in Miri and Kota Kinabalu. They don't stand out because of national origin's idiosyncrasies. It is their stance, their demeanor that sets them apart.
They look like they are about to say: "Yo, what-the-f..k are you lookin’ at me for." Most wear jeans, many with large belt buckles, depicting images of Texas Longhorns, or bucking broncos. They wear mostly red baseball caps, visor pointing forward as is proper. They have a reason for that. Their sunglasses, many of them with reflective lenses, are clamped above the visors. The dudes have that strutting me, me, me, look. When available they order a paper bag full of beer at a time, and they carry their own bottle openers. Many are accompanied by a beefy of girls in tight outfits.
And, oh yeah, on their red baseball caps it says HALLIBURTON.
Okay, don’t smirk about my analysis. I know there are no rules without exceptions, but, for that matter, there can't be exceptions without rules.
What unlimited, unearned money can do, and does:
Just like in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where Hassan has a skyscraper built because Faisal already has one — never mind there are already a whole bunch of empty ones nearby — it is the case with shopping malls in Brunei.
While strolling around in the steaming, empty streets of Bandar Seri Begawan, ever once in a while a blast of ice cold air hit me. Those frigid squalls came from wide open shopping mall doors. Malls here are wall-to-wall, acres of them. The town is practically made of shopping malls and multi-story, empty car park buildings. The refrigerated shopping paradises are very convenient for getting out of the heat.
Inside, the sales personnel outnumbers shoppers by far and about a third of all ground floor store spaces are vacant. The one mall I checked out a bit more intensively while searching for a luggage padlock, had a second floor with two thirds vacancies. The third, fourth and fifth floor were closest off, probably because of hundred-percent vacancies.
Clearly, the owners of those malls have no need to earn money. Just as in the Arabian peninsula, dollars just keep gushing in from oil and gas wells. The mall and parking house owners don't seem to have an inkling about the concept that an investment is meant to bring a return. A few of the smarter chauffeur-driven money bags might have noticed there was something wrong with the picture. They went with their moolah to Kota Kinabalu next door, in Sabah. Kota Kinabalu now has also a profusion of shopping malls with attached multi-story car parks, but that place also has another, necessary, ingredient — there are potential shoppers in town and they don’t all have chauffeurs driving them around, thus they need spaces to park their cars.
Ha! Try to imagine what would happen to those useless, obscenely rich Brunei boys if all of a sudden oil and gas became worthless. I would love to live to see them cry and stomp their Gucci-loafered feet in puzzled wonder about what was happening.
Such a thing could come to pass if someone invented manageable fusion.
An article in the BRUNEI TIMES has the Grand Mufti declaring that henceforth, to combat lose morals, unmarried sex will be punished by one-hundred lashes. Having sex outside wedlock, got you lashes already before the new law came into effect, but the article didn't say how many. It was probably assumed everybody was well aware of the consequences of hanky-panky outside the marital home.
There are mitigating factors for men. It is easy for them to fulfill all their sexual phantasies right at home. A dude can have four wives and, if he wants a new one, a divorce can be accomplished by simply sending a text message to the one of his present betrothed he likes least.
In the same paper with the news about lashings for sex outside marriage, was a story about a government minister who, after a one-week marriage, divorced his latest, eighteen-year old wive, with just such a text message.
According to the article — to the credit of some, it must be said — they asked for that minister's resignation because of improper behavior.
In most countries of the world, wouldn't stuff like this be called rape — statuary rape?
I assume most everywhere on earth the answer would be yes, but that is not the case in Brunei. Here, according to google postings and gossip columns, many males have untold numbers of females at their beck and call. Many of those women are chosen by the sultan's emissaries from among entrants at beauty contests worldwide. At least, it can be assumed, those women are at least eighteen-years old and they come on their own volition — for the money.
On the immigration form visitors to Brunei have to fill out upon entry, is written in red letters:
DEATH FOR TRUG TRAFFICKING
UNDER BRUNEI LAW
That cheerful note is in the place where other countries might write:
TO OUR BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY ...(name of country)
ENJOY YOUR VISIT
Needless to say, it seems unlikely Brunei will ever become a tourist destination.
Today I tried to see one of Brunei's sights, according to Lonely Planet, a hotel built by the government at a cost of one cool billion US dollars. Daily rates are between 400 and 16,600 dollars. The lobby is fitted with chandeliers of gold, silver and precious stones, that cost 500,000, each. I missed the last bus of the day to go there, and, just for the pleasure of seeing that monstrosity, I was not willing to shell out the sixty dollars required for a taxi round trip.
CAMBODIA IS SMILING AT ME.
The traveler grapevine claims that parts of Cambodia have lately become an international travelers' hit. Even if the problem is not quite as pronounced as in today's Burma, (after both, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and Hillary Clinton said it is now acceptable to visit, getting accommodations is becoming increasingly difficult. Now, instead of formerly about 50,000 visas per year they issue 1,200,000. The country is not ready to accommodate such numbers of visitors). Looks like, while in Cambodia, like sometimes in Burma, I got to start making reservations, something I never did in any of my travels.
Of course, only bigger, expensive hotels have a website and accept online reservations. The (non)availability of accommodations was perfectly illustrated when my first choice had no vacancies. The one, where I was successful, costs in one day as much as my digs on previous visits to Cambodia cost in a week.
As my brother Kurt advises me in the film, BAREFOOT TO TIMBUKTU, I am finally "getting a life", I'll pay the hundred-and-fifteen dollars per night and won't feel guilty for splurging.
... and yet another of my many gripes about religiosity:
When choosing waiting lines; for tickets, for airport check-in, for immigration control, and for whatever else one has to cue up, I don't choose lines based on how many people are in front of me, but by the waiting crowd's appearances. Waiting lines spell trouble when they contain folk who wear their religion on their sleeve, like Muslim with below-the-chin beards, in white gowns, with embroidered, white haji skull caps, and Ultra Orthodox Jews with weird hats, black cassocks, tassels around their waist, locks hanging down over their face, forward of their ears. Another bad lot are jolly Buddhist, Hindu and fundamental Christian fellows with beatific smiles that announce they have invited Jesus, or Shiva, or Buddha, or Thor, or Zeus, or Apollo, into their heart and now they're buddy-buddy with their deities, therefore ranking way above the rest of mere un-anointed earthly humans. Saffron robed Buddhists, and tie-dye robed, beaded Hindu fakirs announce their special ranks with their attire. Rastas, disciples of Haile Selassia, announce heir schtick with dreadlocks. All those folk consider themselves the chosen disciples of their gods who take care of everything for them. Chances are their visas are missing, invalid or wrong, they got the wrong ticket, that they have impossible special needs. They want to be treated as "special" — and fully expect it. With but a few exceptions to the rule they hold up the line.
Today, on the flight from Brunei to Kuala Lumpur, a couple of Muslim pilgrims, all in white, accompanied, at a distance, by heavily wrapped women, sat, instead of in their assigned tight seats, into the empty ones by the plane emergency exits with larger leg room. Those seats were clearly marked as for crew only. They were even a different color from the regular seats, red instead of black. I could not understand what the flight attendants told them, they spoke to the occupiers long and intensively, in Malay. The pilgrims refused to move, probably protesting they would be better equipped to manage the exits in an emergency because Allah was assisting them. The crew, apparently not wanting a fight, gave up and, for the landing, they found themselves some other seats.
Almost an identical thing happened on a recent Swiss Airlines flight from New York to Zurich. Right next to where I sat, a gaggle of ultra Orthodox Jews with black leather straps wound around their arms and black square boxes strapped to their foreheads, gathered in the isle to pray, from the looks of it, having a conversation with God. The cabin personnel tried to move by with their food carts, but couldn't. The praying better-than-thou dudes didn't even acknowledge the flight attendants entireties. The personnel, probably also to avoid a confrontation, withdrew and all the passengers beyond the prayers, waited for their food to get cold.
On account of such religiosity I got my first, sort of, job. Neighbors in Zurich, where I grew up, were Orthodox Jews. Friday nights, beginning of Sabbath after sunset, I went to their house to turn on an off lights, to turn on the gas on the stove to heat water for tea. Saturday morning my brothers and I carried their kids' school bags to school, in class we opened and closed books for them then carried the school bags back home. Yes, those days we had school on Saturday mornings. We got paid for our Sabbath services — on Sunday.
Second day in Cambodia and loving it; it's people, it's food, it's mood.
* * *
THE TETH STORY
Phnom Penh, February 23, 2013
We met last year in Phnom Penh. The few days we spent together then were like magic. I paid Teth for continuing her English classes. Throughout the following year we had frequent, very pleasant email exchanges. We planned to travel together, she would be my guide in exploring Cambodia. I looked forward to the coming month.
|Teth as I remember her from|
the previous year.
Never having gone to a proper school, she, like many in her age group, now about thirty-years old, is functionally illiterate. Having read quite extensively about Cambodia’s recent history, I should have expected that. She was school age when the country was in shambles, after the Khmer Rouge destroyed all institutions. Under Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge’s leader, about two million Cambodians were murdered. Hands without calluses, wearing glasses, owning books, and knowledge of a foreign language were reasons for torture and execution. To save on bullets they used hammers against heads and plastic bags over heads. They were frugal and re-used the plastic bags. Pol Pot planned to create a purely agrarian society free of all intellectual aspects, hence the absence of schools.
|Teth when we met again.|
Next day we went shopping for traveling clothes and a traveling bag for her. Despite not bargaining for lower prices, as I routinely do because it is expected in countries like Cambodia, it bothered me to observe how she treated the sales people disrespectfully, while she was incredibly attentive and courteous to me.
What bothered me more than all those things was her cavalier attitude about her children's care, a twelve-year old girl and a boy of eight.
When I arrived on February 21 she said we could travel only starting February 28 because her mother was still busy with the rice harvest.
"What about their school?" I said.
"While we travel they stay with my mother in the country, no school then," she said.
I couldn't accept that.
I invited her with her children for dinner that evening ... and that evening is when my recent opinion about Teth did again a rapid hundred-and-eighty degree turn around.
(I am now in New York, editing my blog entries and putting them in chronological order — as opposed to the reverse order of the original blog entries. After I gained more insight into the country’s customs, and got to know Teth better, I came to totally understand and respect Teth’s behavior. This is a perfect example for the enriching results gained by traveling and thus becoming exposed to other cultures, moralities, and customs.)
In the evening she came with her children. They were neatly dressed, extremely polite, super courteous, very good looking, clearly intelligent, not meek or intimidated by the unaccustomed surroundings at my hotel, in short, they were totally exemplary. Knowing quite a few kids of similar age, such as my own grandkids, Teth's seemed almost unreal.
|Teth, her children and her friend Arane in a posh Phnom Penh restaurant.|
I made a paper airplane for the boy and he could barely contain himself from trying to see how it flew right there in the restaurant — but he didn't. When we left he led us across the street to the river side promenade. With squeals of joy, he let loose with his plane. His sister joined in the fun and the two ran
around like little dervishes.
Teth and I sat on a bench, watching the children's play.
"I'd like to pay for a good school for the two", I said. "Maybe they can become doctors, or engineers, or whatever, and take care of you when you are old."
Teth almost took off my arm the way she kneaded it in gratitude.
Suddenly she jumped up:
"Where are they!" She cried close to panic. They'd been running off with their paper airplane, following it to wherever it landed after they tossed it. Now it was Teth's turn to take off like a demented dervish. She frantically called for them, scurrying all over the place. Out of the masses of strolling people on the river promenade, the two kids came racing to the bench where we'd been sitting.
The one-hundred-and-eighty degree turn around in my opinion about her parental involvement was firmly set and complete.
I told Teth I decided to travel alone while in Cambodia so she won' t have to leave the children. She seemed relieved. So was I!
Tomorrow, 6:30AM a minibus will pick me up for a six-hour drive to Mondulkiri. This, according to the Lonely Planet, is in the Cambodian highlands near the Vietnamese border, the region where the Ho-Chi-Minh trail led down to the latitude of Saigon. It is the least populated area of Cambodia. The hope is, to be able to go off into the woods on an elephant. I’ve read elephant mahouts know where it is safe to tread, a reassuring statement, considering the area is supposedly still littered with land mines.
Every year there are people wounded or killed by mines. Those instruments of indiscriminate death were planted by the Khmer Rouge, the Viet Minh, the Viet Kong, regular Cambodian armed forces, and — yes — also the US.
Over the years, I’d learned how to travel with quite a few kinds of animals. I had donkeys to ride and carry building materials in the Sahara, camels also in the Sahara for riding and carrying stuff, and pulling water from wells, riding a water buffalo through a swamp in Burma, horses in California, Switzerland, Brazil, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, and ponies in Tibet. I even rode an ostrich for a short stint around a South African arena, made for tourist rides. After that turn as an ostrich jokey I got a "certificate" pronouncing me to be an accomplished ostrich rider.
My elephant experiences were limited to a kiddy ride in Zürich’s zoo, and a tourist outing in India where fellow tourists and I were sitting comfortably on a padded bench lashed to the top of an elephant. That elephant-top bench was reached via a sturdy platform that brought riders to the same level as the bench. The platform had hand rails for comfort and safety.
* * *
GETTING PEPPERED BY PEPPER
Sen Monorom, Cambodia, February 26, 2013
Sen Monorom, in Cambodia's Mondulkiri Province, is a small town, about 800 meters (approximately 2,000 feet) above sea level. Because of the elevated altitude it is a bit cooler and dryer here than in the lowlands around Phnom Penh. Even though not a huge difference, every fraction of a degree is a totally welcome change.
Lonely Planet recommends Monorom Nature Lodge, described as a friendly place on a windswept hilltop outside town. Now I have, for ten dollars a night, a super comfortable, lofty pepper tree house, with a few stilts reaching the ground, with a mosquito-net-equipped bed and an actual, sit down, western style toilet, and, I could hardly believe the luxury, a hot water shower. The water is heated by a contraption attached to a bottle of LPG that also stands in the toilet/shower.
Being so close to nature, causes slight problems, I soon discovered. Sitting on the toilet invites an army of stinging ants who immediately take this as an invitation to start crawling all over you and proceed to do their stinging best.
|My Mondulkiri house on a platform out in the woods with a pepper tree growing through it.|
If you don't want to crush Daddy Longlegs when walking around, you always have to watch your steps and when you go from the left side of your room to the right side you have to wave your hands in front of your face to wipe away fresh spider webs.
The gently swaying and rustling of the tree branches above and below my perch, accompanied by the prattling on my roof of pepper corns the breeze keeps shaking off the pepper tree's canopy, orchestrated a gentle lullaby.
Now, as I am sitting and writing on a landing of the stairs to my lair, a friendly-looking pony starts nibbling on me. No idea where the cute thing came from.
I felt like a million dollars.
Shorty after starting to contemplate my Nirvana, I had to stop grooving. The sun came over the rooftop and began mercilessly beating down on me.
I went for a walk in the shade of nearby woods. This region, again according to Lonely Planet, still has wild elephants, several species of large wild cats— actually the largest concentration of tigers in Southeast Asia — many kinds of antelopes, and the lowest density of humans. It describes how some areas of the high plateau were similar to the Serengeti during wildebeest and zebra migrations. The description is in the past tense because during the Vietnam War and the following rampage by the Khmer Rouge, much of the wildlife was converted into bushmeat by hungry soldiers.
Finding neither tigers — and luckily none finding me — nor antelopes, nor elephants in the woods I decided to walk into town.
Calling Monorom at town, even though the capital of Mondulkiri Province, is a bit exaggerated; village would be more appropriate.
|The "road" towards Sen Monorom got wider the closer I got to town — except for river crossings.|
It took me only about an hour from where I started at the edge of the woods, to get there. The path led on a dusty, vague, red dirt trail up and down, in open bush without a trace of shade. I couldn't get lost because, I saw my goal enveloped in reddish mist on a distant hill. As I slowly got coated with a reddish film, with the sun beating down on my hatless head, my sun-exposed hair became almost too hot to touch. Not carrying a water bottle, something that nowadays looks almost like an obligatory piece of equipment with most tourists on even the shortest of hikes, I was once more reminded of a Kipling bon mot:
Only mad dogs and Englishmen are out in the tropical midday sun.
It is near midday, the sun is out, and I am in the tropics. Being neither a mad dog (I think), nor an Englishman (I know), what does that make me?
Might it be the guy who is hitting his head with a hammer, because it feels so good when he stops?
In town I had a confirmation that there might be something to that hitting the head with a hammer thing. There are no words to describe how incredibly good that first cold beer in Monorom tasted.
The more I think back on such real feel good events in my life, the more the hitting the head with a hammer analogy makes sense. It, of course, has to be taken figuratively. With real bloody gashes on the skull from hammer blows, it’d not be tempted to exclaim: “wow, that feels good", no matter what body or mind pleasing miracles happened to me.
A less violent analogy, would be: You need a period of down to really appreciate the up because if you're always up, up feels like the new normal, a boring routine.
Yet another perspective: If you always eat but the best gourmet foods, gourmet food becomes the run-of-the-mill daily bread. If you are starving, a piece of moldy bread is a feast.
Ups need downs to remain feeling like ups.
Thus spoke Ernst
* * *
A MAN, AN ELEPHANT, A MONK AND I
Mondulkiri, Cambodia, February , 2013
Birdsong? Bird racket? Bird Cacophony?
Sounds waking me up here in my Nature Lodge treehouse reminds me, in a sort-of a weird way, of a Manhattan early morning, one with the music of garbage truck compactor's whine, ambulance, fire engine and police car siren wail, singing revelers staggering home from after-hour joints, and the upstairs neighbor yelling at his wife. Lately an early morning cooing from a dove has joined the concert from the courtyard in the back.
After many years living in the Big Apple, those sounds have become so familiar, if they are absent it feels like something is amiss.
I am not alone in this. My friend Jeri, who lived most of her life in Manhattan, first time she tried to sleep in Vermont, the oppressing silence kept her awake.
Only a few sounds interrupt the dark hours in my tree house. Whenever a breeze shakes the pepper tree's crown above, pepper corns gently prattle on its tin roof. There is also the occasional screech of a nocturnal beast and sometimes a distant barking of village dogs. Ever once in a while one hears the pleading of the Southeast Asian gecko, whose “geh-kho” sounds eerily human.
Last night I heard a new, disquieting noise. While reading on my cot about the adventures and misadventures of a Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court, from one of the other huts came frantic women's screaming. Just as the Connecticut Yankee would have when he encountered something amiss during his medieval tryst, I felt an urgent need to intervene, jumped into my clothes, grasped my Swiss Army knife, opened the blade, and stormed towards the hut from whence came the screams.
When I got closer I also heard laughter. I slowed my rush and listened closer. There was definitively merry laughter amidst the screaming. I turned around and went back under my mosquito net and the Connecticut Yankee's medieval tribulations.
Those occasional nightly sounds change drastically with first glimmer of dawn when a gazillion feathered sopranos, falsettos, yodelers, crooners, yellers, squeakers, squawkers, beepers, and serenaders started doing their thing — simultaneously. It sounds like an industrial noise with a volume where workers could get extra pay for having to labour under hazardous, ear shattering conditions. Even if there happened to be beautiful individual bird song somewhere in the cacophony, there is no way to separate it out, detect it, then groove with it.
I was to meet the mahout early in the morning. He was going to pick me up to head for two days and one night into the woods with his elephant and me. Torn from slumber by the concert, I woke way before the mahout’s arrival.
Over morning coffee at the lodge I met some of the women whom I’d seen emerging from the cabin from where the night-time yelling had come. I asked about the ruckus.
"There was a mouse in the house," was the answer.
After the elephant trek:
Every bone, muscle, tendon hurt. Abraded, scratched skin stings. A sun burnt face feels afire.
Samnang Sok, not the mahout but, it turned out, my guide and translator, picked me up at Nature Lodge. During the car ride to the village of the mahout and our elephant he gave me the run-down about himself and what to expect in the next two days and one night.
About thirty-years old, Samnang had been a Buddhist monk for almost ten years. He got a scholarship to study in a Burmese monastery for three years. Since the program was for international Buddhist monks, the courses were in English. Samnang, because of his acquired fluency in English, can now get jobs where knowledge of English is essential. He'd previously worked as an English to Khmer film synchronizer, and an interpreter at all kinds of events. For a while he even was a cashier in a casino, 'til the people he had to deal with in that job became unacceptable to his sensitivities.
He said what lay ahead was going to be rather strenuous, that I should tell him before departure into the woods if I felt like I might not be up to the normal routine.
"We can trek somewhere within reach of a road," he said. He explained how just recently two French people had to be evacuated because of extreme exhaustion.
"Far from a road that is very difficult and very costly."
Of course, evacuated French people or not, there was no way I'd cop out.
"I'd like to do the whole, real deal," I said.
Samnang's eyebrows rose when I told him my age, but I insisted on going ahead with it.
We met the mahout, about twenty-five-years old, his helper, about fifteen, and the elephant, a twenty-two-years old girl, named Crapo (her name is pronounced like crapaud, which means toad in French). Elephants have a similar live span to humans, so chubby Crapo had to be a young lady.
|The untidy loading of Crapo, the elephant. The bamboo basket where the load went, and where I was supposed to sit, was in shambles.|
In a village at the edge of the woods, the mahout and his helper loaded the rickety cane basket on her back with our packs, provisions, cooking pots, hammocks, bottled water, and fruits for Crapo. He then motioned for me to get on top of all that stuff. Rather than trying to balance on such haphazardly loaded cargo, in a bamboo basket that looked totally decrepit, I opted for walking, thus giving up on the only chance to mount Crapo via the village’s mounting platform.
|Samnang showing me how to harvest combustible tree|
We were under way over six hours, up and down, up and down, on a narrow path, partially in dense woods and partially in open savannah in indescribable heat without shade, slapped at horse flies and an assortment of other bugs and crossed two rivers.
We stopped for a one-hour lunch break of banana leaf-wrapped fried rice. Crapo kept trying to steal mine out of my hand with her insistently probing trunk. Like the mahout who, during the ride swatted her frequently with a cane, I started to hit her pestering trunk with my open hand. She seemed to like that, because the more I pounded on her trunk, the more insistent she became. Her persistency worked for her. After the grabbing business end of her probing trunk had made a total mess out of my food, I gave up and let her have the whole remaining thing.
To show her appreciation she let loose a long, loud, rumbling and very pungent fart in my direction.
|Crapo, the elephant tries to steal all our|
Towards evening we came to our night camp by a thundering water fall. At one point someone had tried to put up a crude shelter there but wild elephants have re-arranged the whole set-up. It sort of looked like a tornado had done to the camp what tornados do to structures.
|The thundering waterfall near our night camp. We had a super refreshing swim in the cool water.|
The mahout and his young helper went fishing with a throw net, but got only four little fingerlings, each barely a hand width long.
Samnang clamped them on a split bamboo to roast over our camp fire, not scaled, not gutted. Since this catch wouldn't properly feed the four of us, he also roasted four chicken legs from our provisions.
|The mahout and his helper fishing for our dinner.|
The mahout brought Crapo into the water. What followed was a beautiful demonstration of the fabled symbiotic relationship between an elephant and it's mahout. During the journey the kid had often been yelling at and slapping his beast. Their time in the water together was reminiscent of the relationship between a loving mother and her child. The mahout had her roll lustily on one side, then on the other, then submerge, then stand up, lay down again, all the while scrubbing her with the soles of his flip-flops that he used like a scrubbing brush. He splashed like crazy while rinsing her down. The elephant moaned and grunted in bliss. Occasionally Crapo returned the favors by sucking water up her trunk then showering the mahout.
|The catch, roasting here, was so puny, Samnang also|
prepared chicken legs he'd brought along.
By eight-o'clock, sitting on a log by the camp fire, Samnang and I were talking about the world we live in. He, as a devoted Buddhist, tried to make me understand what makes him tick because of his religion. I almost got it because the way he described it the most important aspect was to strife to do only good, to all, human and beast, land and water, to have neither anger nor malice — but I couldn’t help thinking of recent news reports about Buddhists killing Muslims in Burma and southern Thailand.
“We only strive for perfection,” he said. “Not all of us achieve all our goals all the time.”
Happy about no planned particular evening activity, I carved a fan out of a plastic water bottle to get a bit of relief from the stifling heat and maybe chase away a couple of mosquitoes. I looked forward to the prospect of crawling into the hammock. I was so bushed, that, despite being soggy with sweat despite the swim in the water fall, sleep promised to be the answer to all my earthly wishes.
One problem about that expected bliss turned out to be that, in order to re-hydrate from the day's sweating and exhaustion, I'd drank a lot of water at dinner. As a result of that drink fest — and my old bladder — all night I had to go, and go, again, and again. Disentangling myself in the dark from a mosquito-net equipped, zippered sleeping hammock, swinging between trees, is, to say the least, quite a hassle.
At least I didn't have far to go from my hammock. The vegetation was dense and wandering around in the bush could end up in stepping on a mine.
The jungle night concert was rather subdued — or I simply didn't hear it over the waterfall's roar or because of my deep sleep — which transported me back to bliss every time immediately after my frequent toilet forays.
In the morning, for the return trip, with less stuff in the basket on Crapo's back (most of the bottled water was gone!) it looked a little more inviting. Samnang talked me into riding.
I did, and, already after Crapo's first few steps, regretted the decision. Not only the elephant's swaying rhythm of gait, but also sitting in a rickety basked on top of a load of protruding cooking pots cooking utensils, and water melons for Crapo, made life miserable. Getting on and off via a tree branch if you can't climb up one the elephant's leg — which I couldn't — is an ordeal, even for the boys.
Pushing and shoving by two men and cooperating Crapo who crouched a bit to be helpful eventually got me on. No matter how torturous, of course, with the mounting and dismounting hassles, I would only under absolute duress admit to wanting to get off. I hoped desperately I wouldn't have to "go".
There are people who say riding on a Carmel's back is torture. My response would be: let them try the elephant basket I was on. As mentioned earlier, I've been on a tourist elephant ride in India, on a proper padded seat with a proper, elephant hight platform to get on and off. That was, even if not exactly luxury travel, compared to what I endured, a cozy, pampered outing.
The basket on Crapo had a wooden cross bar that dug into one side of my butt, the cooking pot took care of torturing the other side and the iron tripod for the cooking pot took on all the other torturing tasks. The bamboo basket’s railing was torn so I had nowhere solid to hold on. The worst of it was the forward, backward and sideways swaying. I didn't know for what eventuality to brace, if there even were a place to hold on for bracing.
Luckily I'd had the foresight to attach a neck string to my glasses, otherwise I'd have lost them with all the tree branches, some with thorns, brushing across my face. The leather patch over my missing eye protected the empty socket from being punctured.
After three-and-a-half hours of pure torture, uphill, when I risked rolling out of the basket backward, downhill when I risked rolling out of the basket forward, the rest of the time trying to alter the point of contact with protruding things in my basket, we stopped for lunch on a river bank. Once out of my hellish contraption, by jumping off the elephant into Samnang's arms, I had almost lost the use of my legs and stumbled around like a drunk.
|The mahout scrubbed down the elephant at every opportunity.|
Lunch was ramen soup and a few slices of water melon, which the elephant tried to steal from me. This time I was not so forgiving. I really pounded on its trunk with one hand while quickly stuffing the water melon into my mouth with the other.
I gave her the rinds.
"Next part is going to be very steep," Samnang said, "you should ride."
“Are you kidding?” I said. "All the more reason for me to walk.”
|I loved Crapo for walking so slowly up the mountain probing every step before taking it. When we arrived on|
top I was still able to breathe — almost normally.
I imagined myself hanging onto the basket on top of Crapo, on top of cargo, trying to hold onto nothing solid. Just the thought gave me the willies.
During the climb I fell in love with elephants, at least with the leisurely uphill elephant plodding. Unlike camels who go at almost trotting speed (for humans), wether up a dune, down a dune or on level ground, the elephant moves along very, very slowly. Climbing up, Crapo seemed to be probing each step before taking it. After close to an hour's climb with no rest along the way, although soaking wet with sweat, I counted my pulse. It was only 130. Had I followed a camel up the same rise it would probably have been in the stratosphere.
There might be a difference in different elephant's countenance. Samnang told me the village owned thirteen but only nine were useable. The others were too ornery to work with.
On a zipper clasp of my backpack I have a little thermometer/compass. Daytime temperature during the journey was between 98 and 109 degrees — and very, very humid.
On the journey's last leg, the mountain climb behind us, we plodded on almost level ground on a mountain crest path towards the mahout's village. Walking leisurely, gradually getting coated in layers of the path's red dust, and the face, exposed to the merciless sun, slowly starting to resemble a tomato, Samnang and I became philosophers.
I told him, the Buddhist monk, about my aversion to all religions. I said how, in my opinion, they are the major reasons for mayhem, injustice, and intolerance. I recounted examples on how all through human history, terrible acts have been committed by followers of Christ, Allah, Yahweh, Thor, Shiva, Ganesh, Zeus, or Buddha.
He interrupted me.
"Buddha is not a god," he said, "just a very wise men who tried to teach people to be good, to do good."
"So, how about, right now, Buddhists in Burma killing Muslim?" I said, repeating my criticism of the previous night.
"There is no perfection," he said again, "we only strife for it."
He mulled over the Burma killings.
"In Mandalay, after being accused of raping a girl, Muslims, instead of apologize, kicked a football into the face of a Buddha statue," he said. "Monks asked them politely to apologize. The Muslim refused. One thing led to another. Killings started and now run rampant."
I agreed with Samnang about Buddhism not being a religion in the true sense but, even in the absence of a god, as far as I see it, there is no big difference. It is the nature of the beast that adherence to any kind of dogma usually creates intolerant fanatics with its attendant results.
Samnang illustrated Buddhist's tolerance with an example.
During the Vietnam war, his father's village in easter Cambodia was bombed. Soldiers managed to shoot down the American plane. In the evening the village celebrated with plenty of food. Samnang's father liked the meat. When he asked what it was, the soldiers said that, not long before that meat had spoken English. Samnang's father threw up.
"But Buddhism," Samnang said, "forgives a sin that was committed without knowing about it."
"How about killing the chicken you eat?" I asked.
"If you don't kill it yourself it is okay to eat it,"he said.
“Hm.” I didn't pursue this any further.
Neither Samnang nor I were fanatical enough to become enemies over our different Weltanschauung. I respect him and, I think, he respects me.
Back at the mahout's village, we were picked up by a car from Nature Lodge.
At the lodge, with a shower, clean clothes, bandaid on blisters, a cold beer and rest, I had another illustration of the hitting the head with a hammer motto’s veracity.
Once more I felt like a million dollars — or, a million not being anymore what a million used to be, should I say a billion dollars?
Later, along with dinner of chicken sautéed with mixed vegetables, I had a bottle of red Chilean wine. That nine-dollar bottle of wine tasted better than any, at any price, I remember ever having had.
* * *
PHNOM PENH, DREAMING
March 10, 2013
Some of what happens to me in Phnom Penh might be just a tad too delicate, or private, to describe in the blog, but I can at least report about a few benign events to give a sense of why I AM LOVING IT.
The process of getting pertinent information, then organizing and financing a good private school education for Teth’s two children, a twelve-year-old girl, Sreynit, and her six-year-old boy, Sisopolnanl, getting school clothes and a laptop for them, is a total time consuming, yet all around feel-good happening. It occupies a good part of my activities while in Phnom Penh.
I moved from my 135.00 dollar per night hotel room, which I took when I arrived in town late at night — and in no mood for shopping around for digs — to a 30.00 dollar per night guesthouse. Even though I pay now considerably less, Teth scolds me for being wasteful. She claims to know a nearby guesthouse, just as nice as my present one, that goes for 15.00 dollar per night. Since I prepaid a week in the 30.00 dollar digs, I'll just have to be looked upon, for a whole other week, as an overspending foreigner.
Here is what I get in Phnom Penh for thirty dollars per day: A room with a balcony overlooking the beautiful Mekong River promenade, and, of course, the river itself. It is decorated by potted plants and a teak table with two teak chairs. The room is air conditioned, has a small flat screen TV that features besides local fare also CNN, an option I didn’t have in the expensive hotel. There are two beds, a toilet/cum hot water shower, a little fridge, and a window.
|At night the river promenade and street traffic brings|
out, it seems, the whole Phnom Penh population.
Often, when I come home, delicious scents announce what the family is having for dinner. Meals are prepared in a little alcove, a location where in a high class hotel you'd find the concierge. The wife, cum mother, cum receptionist, cum bus ticket agent, always has a ready smile. Whenever I pass she routinely asks if I need anything.
|The traffic, even though everybody finds their own way without rules, driving left, or right or in the middle, moves along just fine.|
When I casually mentioned that my bathroom sink doesn't retain the water for doing my laundry, she quickly offered to do my wash. This happened to be the third Phnom Penh offer for washing my clothes in as many days.
I said I need to do it as I go, during or after a shower, so next day I'd have clean clothes. That doesn’t mean I am claiming poverty. It is simply because I don't want to lug around much stuff, especially not dirty stuff, and thus carry only two sets of clothes.
Her husband, toolbox in hand, came immediately to the room and fixed the sink drain.
|Along the promenade are little shrines where people|
pray and make offerings.
They take messages for me.
Shanghaied in Phnom Penh.
The wife/mother/receptionist/bus ticket agent at the guesthouse dropped her jaw and almost let go of her nursing baby when I came in. Not long before I'd left the guesthouse in a beard and a headful of unruly hair. I returned clean shaven with a hairdo that would make proud the emperor of weird, Kim Il Un(?) the new big honcho dude of North Korea.
That transformation came as a total surprise also to me. After a most serious body wash by two attendees, where not even a fraction of an inch was left untouched by bathing lotion, shampoo, soap, scrubbing cloth, and brush, with laundry detergent and scouring pad restoring the bottom of my feet to their original color and shape — minus callouses —, then sprinkled with body scent and cologne, and after a thorough brushing of my teeth, I was shanghaied.
Teth and Arane loaded me into a tuck-tuck. They were giggling conspiratorially. The tuck-tuck journey ended with me sitting in a barber(ette)'s chair. Simultaneously, one attendant was cutting my hair, one was constantly brushing off cut hair from face and shoulder,and two attacked the beard. While the four serious, dedicated humans were thus fussing with my face and skull, Teth and Arane supervised them and kept giving instructions.
The way I am treated here in Phnom Penh, is almost over the top. No doubt, to a large extent that is in gratitude for financing the pamperer’s children's schooling. I'd happily do this simply for the satisfaction of being able to do it.
As I am writing this, in late afternoon, describing the preceding events, Teth rang. I now have a Cambodian cell phone. She got it for me so we can stay in touch. She wanted to know if I am in.
|Manicure by Teth on the balcony of my cheap digs.|
Manicure and pedicure (finally) done, Teth scrubbed my filthy, worn through flip-flops, then commented they won't do anymore.
"I go market for nice shoe," she said.
I wouldn’t let her because I like to test my flip-flop before I buy them.
I don't know what is up for tonight, but with the kind of event planners who are now orchestrating my life, I am absolutely certain it will be something interesting.
|... and pedicure at the same place.|
Snow shoveling? Me?
I now smell like a flower, and look like a dandy.
A day later:
The evening was the expected fun, but the next day — today for me, as I write this — turned out to be special.
The girls rented a taxi (of course, they first consulted with me because I pay) to go with the children into the country.
They came to pick me up at the guesthouse, Teth with her two children, her sister, a girl with an unreconstructed harelip with an horrendous-looking, large single incisor sticking out of her mouth cavity, Arane with her eight-year old daughter and the taxi driver made up the traveling party.
Teth and Arane took one look at me and did not approve of my appearance. Both, my shirt and my pants were a little bit stained. While the others waited in the street, the ladies dragged me back up to my room, looked for clean stuff in my luggage and literally, as if I was a little kid, changed my clothes. Teth sprayed me with the cologne she'd brought the previous day for the big body scrub.
The forty-five-dollar, two-way trip, 55 kilometers, one-way (about 40 miles), was interrupted a few times for food buying raids. The women bought picnic stuff from roadside stands. We ended up with loads of fried chicken, grilled fish, plastic bags with rice, sautéed veggies, fruits, and a pouch with beer, soda and water. It already looked like we’d have food for several days when Teth bubbled with excitement when she saw yet another street side food seller — with stuffed, grilled, hind-leg-less frog bodies. The frogs' hind legs were missing, I was told, because they had been sold at high prices to restaurants.
|Teth buying roasted frog bodies (without hind legs)|
for our picnic at the bear sanctuary.
We picnicked under trees, fighting off a troop of monkeys who tried to get at our food. The taxi driver warned me to hold tightly onto my camera because the monkeys are know to rip them out of hands.
|Our picnic which we had to defend from monkeys. Notice at the foot of the tree (upper right) a food offering to|
Buddha. Teth's sister (in red) made the offering before we could start eating.
|Besides bears that were kept in nice, nature-like|
enclosures, other animals were in pitiful environments.
This green slime covered puddle held a green slime-
covered crocodile (upper left of puddle).
We got back to Phnom Penh in late afternoon. Teth and her harelipped sister were car sick
Towards evening Teth called to find out which kinds of fruits I like for her to bring me. She was at the marked shopping for the kids' and her sister's dinner. The sister is babysitting while Teth, Arane and I’ll go out for a fancy dinner that — being in Phnom Penh — will probably cost what a feast of Big Macs would go for back home, not counting the wine.
Next morning, after CNN informed me what Paul Ryan had to say in his filibuster, attacking just about every aspect of the administration’s programs, and a hotel room “brewed” Nescafé, I was going for a walk on the river promenade.
|Teth's sister was minding the kids while Teth, Arane|
and I went for a fancy dinner without frog bodies.
"I've just been robbed." He pointed to an ugly developing bump on his forehead.
"How? When? Where?" I said.
"Right over there, a few minutes ago, they hit me over the head and took everything." He pointed to the river promenade where I planned to go for a walk.
He didn't want any help, didn't want to call the police, because he thought they'd be useless, and his cell phone was gone anyway.
I wished him good luck and went for my planned walk on the river promenade, trying to imagine what kinds of aggressive or defensive Bruce Lee-type moves I'd try if it became necessary. I became very familiar with many of them because on just about every Asian bus ride on this journey I had been endlessly exposed to images of flying Karate assaults, compliments of on board TV fare.
In addition, no doubt, the home-made black leather patch over my missing right eye will protect me. Potential robbers will be scared to tangle with a bona-fide pirate.
Except for a ragged old street woman winking at me, nothing out-of-the-ordinary happened to me on the river promenade. I got back to the guesthouse in one piece to write this.
* * *
PHNOM PENH, THE ENIGMA
March 13, 2013
The Cambodia kaleidoscope:
On the road along Phnom Penh's Mekong/Tonle River Promenade, a stream of little mopeds passes, transporting as many as five people per bike, adults, children and shopping bags, all hugging each other for support.
I watch a tiny, three-years old boy, one of the many street urchins. He steps out into the traffic-chocked road, imperially holding out his little hand. With the authoritarian stance of traffic cop he alerts drivers of his presence, then crosses the road as if he owned the whole place.
|One of the loaded Mopeds. I saw more extreme ones but didn' always |
have the camera ready.
There is also the snotty kid with greased hair and loud, mod clothes, arriving in a brand new stainless steel Maserati, leaving the car diagonally plopped near the curb, blocking everything and everyone, and strutting away in Gucci loafers with a I-don't-give-a-shit-about-anybody-else attitude, while twirling the car keys around on an outstretched index finger. I’ve noticed such creeps strut around with retinues that clearly look like body guards. They awaken in me an urge to kick shin bones.
There are pretty, young Cambodian girls, hand in hand with elderly foreigner dudes strolling, nursing cocktails in sidewalk café's cosy chairs, or joyriding around town in tuck-tucks.
Yeah, yeah, I can imagine what you think, but my friends are not that young!
There is the haggard bicycle rickshaw driver in rags pedaling fat clients around.
Girls and boys with menu in hand are trying to lure customers into restaurants, offering Khmer massage — or massages with happy ending. They sell pirated DVDs, music CDs and photocopied books.
Women with nursing babies are begging, legless men, probably victims of Cambodia's ubiquitous land mines, crawl on sidewalks, also begging.
There is a tuck-tuck driving in heavy traffic on the wrong side of the road as if that was the rule, traffic dividing in front of it as if that was the rule, no one yelling or honking, as if that was the rule, making a left turn, blocking following and oncoming traffic, as if that was the rule. Rules are clearly flexible and they are interpreted differently, according to need. Cambodian tolerance seems to allow for that.
Two Buddhist shrines on the promenade attract many supplicants. They bring plates of fruit, bunches of lotus flowers, incense, and candles as offerings on the shrine. Enveloped in the smoke of countless incense sticks, they pray.
Men, women and children with cages full of little birds sell them to the worshipers who set them free, presumably to get brownie points in an afterlife.
Evening's cool river breezes bring throngs of people to stroll on the promenade. Some play badminton, volleyball, or kickball, children play tag and fly kites.
In the river street kids wash the day's grime off their bodies and clothes and frolic in the water.
|Car dealerships display huge, expensive gas guzzlers on display.|
Is it drug money? Skimming off humanitarian aid payments? World bank rip-offs? Illegal logging? Human trafficking? It sure couldn't be from rice farming or frog leg collecting. Tourism, even though growing tremendously in Cambodia, generally doesn't generate the kind of obscene wealth that is often so overtly flaunted here.
Cambodia ranks among the world's most corrupt countries and still, unlike in super rich places, like oil and gas giants such as Nigeria, Algeria, Libya, and in some of the gulf states, most of the visible Cambodian infrastructure looks in reasonable shape. Roads are good, bridges passable, schools and hospitals look decent. Here in Phnom Penh, right outside my guesthouse room, is the beautifully built, meticulously landscaped and well maintained river promenade. There are many physical workout instruments available for public use, free of charge.
How, with prevailing hundred-dollars-per-month salaries, can there be seemingly more mopeds and motorcycles than people? How is almost everyone in Phnom Penh dressed so well? How do more street food sellers than potential street food eaters survive? How does the lady in the market with a display of ten garlic cloves make a living?
Men, women and kids, like almost everywhere else in the world, have morphed into a mass that is constantly staring onto smart phone screens, with roving thumbs texting, scrolling, tapping, doing all the stuff one does now with those ever present gadgets. Who pays for all that, and how?
Just got chased out of my air conditioned, thirty-dollars a day room, by a crew of six cleaners, four female and two men. While they collectively do up my digs, mopping, scrubbing, dusting, changing bedding and towels, I escaped to the terrace and the broiling heat, writing what you're reading now.
As a pathetic news junky, when traveling I am often unable to satisfy my hunger for news. Here, in my guesthouse room, I have a little TV that carries CNN. These days it leaves me fuming.
Wall-to-wall-24-hour covering about a mob of mostly fat, narcissistic, smug, potential child molesters in elaborate bright red outfits, fill the screen, almost to the exclusion of everything else, all in anticipation of crowning a new pope.
Never mind destitute refugees in Syria, mayhem in the Malian Sahara and in Timbuktu, obscene political machinations by governments, worldwide economic turmoil, environmental disasters, all that is relegated to the back burner by the news about chubby cardinals in red gowns.
I got an appropriate public-minded suggestion from a friend on Facebook.
"Now that the Conclave doors are locked ... for the sake of humanity, THROW AWAY THE KEY!"
* * *
ROASTED RED ANTS
Phnom Penh, March 15, 2013
The waitress brought a dish of grilled frogs, just the headless bodies and front legs, minus the hind legs. If I had a hankering for dining on the culinarily more appealing hind legs, I'd have to frequent a posher restaurant than the traditional Khmer joint Teth has brought me to. Cambodia exports many of the amphibian's hind legs to other parts of the world and the remaining few available here cost an arm and a leg. With the many rice paddies here, more habitat than natural swamps ever provided before, and no fish in paddies to decimate their spawn, the tadpoles, frogs are very plentiful.
|One of the big dinners we had for less than what a Big Mac costs |
Moments later the owner emerged from the kitchen, laughed and explained to the remaining patrons that there was nothing to worry about, they were having fun in the kitchen. As if by magic, the vamoosed waitresses, the busboy and the two men reappeared.
An almost identical thing happened, albeit in reverse, in an other restaurant, one that also served quite a few non-Cambodian diners. There was a loud bang outside, like a popping balloon, a firecracker, or whatever. Maybe it was the misfiring of an old car's engine, the kind of nondescript clap one often hears in a busy town. This time, since the sound came from outside the waitresses scurried to the back of the restaurant, presumable towards a back door. When none of the foreigners reacted, and no more bangs were heard from outside, the girls traipsed back and resumed servicing diners.
Unlike in Africa and other Asian countries, here in Cambodia kids often freak out and scatter when they see my black eye patch.
After a brutal civil war under Lon Nol, sponsored and supported by the US, then communist Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge's murderous rampage across the country, border skirmishes with Thailand and Lao, war with Vietnam, carpet bombing by the US air force and violent incursions by US soldiers, ubiquitous land mines, all in relatively recent times, it seems to have become second nature, a reflexive act for Cambodians, to bolt and try to save their skin at the slightest hint of trouble.
With the incredible variety of stuff people eat here in Cambodia, if I want to be just a little adventurous in the choice of my meals, I have to do it over a long period because it is impossible to sample all the exotic foods during a short visit.
Shall I go for the roasted red ants or the black ones in the menu? Eel comes grilled, boiled, broiled, sautéed, pickled, smoked — and I probably forgot a few other preparation methods. There is a huge assortment of snails, little ones, medium ones and giant ones. Some are coated with red chillies, some are encrusted with salt and some come in seaweed and garlic. Then there are fish, crabs, prawns, mussels in a gazillions species. Those also are prepared in countless different ways.
The many street food sellers have their whole menu on display, no need to guess what it is going to look like as when you order from a written menu, but they put your purchase into a plastic pouch. You'll have to figure out where and how to eat it. If you are not comfortable eating with your fingers, you got to come up with a method that suits your style. Ever tried to slurp a soup with dumplings and vegetables out of a plastic bag?
Most people take the stuff home then eat it there, but what is a poor traveler to do with no home to go to?
As far as food is concerned, it turns out I have absolutely no loyalties.
When, as a twenty-year old, I took off from Switzerland to hitchhike around the world, leaving with practically no money, food was always foremost on my mind.
At the beginning of the journey, whenever I was hungry, I salivated when thinking of my mother's Sauerbraten with Spätzli. After a couple of months in Beirut my thoughts wandered to Felafel every time I hand hunger pangs. Turkish, Syrian, Iranian, Afghan, Pakistan food, the edibles in the countries I traveled through after Lebanon, fugetaboutit. They didn't tempt me particularly, of course I ate them but there were none to write home about. Indian food, in those days didn't charm me either, maybe because I got hepatitis in Calcutta as a result of eating free food in SikhTemples where they feed hordes beggars — and me. Burma's offerings were so-so. In Thailand where I was for about two month, dirt poor, recovering from my Calcutta hepatitis, I didn't get swept away by their delicious food, as I find it today, mainly because I rarely had it. My main staple was plain rice because it was cheap.
Japan totally changed me again, big time. I was there for almost a year, made good money, loved everything, everybody — and became totally addicted to Sushi and Sake. Swiss Sauerbraten and Lebanese Felafel was forgotten. On my way home to Switzerland through Siberia, the ubiquitous borscht, the Russian beetroot soup, just didn't do it for me, My Japanese discovery was always on my mind. That newfound love for sushi came at a time, the early nineteen-sixties, when the average Western would have gag reflexes with the thought about chewing on raw fish.
Many year later, after binges with Steak au Poivre Vert and Moules Marinière while living in Paris, American grain fed juicy beef, Dedeo's chicken, roasted over a camel dung fire, with sweet potato chips in Timbuktu, and, of course, always the Cervelat with Büürli and Thomy Senf in Switzerland, I discovered Phò. That Vietnamese rice noodle soup with slices of raw beef and lots of veggies, overwhelmed me — totally. Recently, while in Saigon I sometimes had it three times a day; for breakfast, for lunch and for dinner.
And now I am in Cambodia and look forward to dinner — every day. There is not one particular food that does it for me here, it is the variety.
Tonight I'll be with Teth and her children. We’ve had dinner with her kids before and it is a total pleasure to see them overjoyed with the prospect of looking through a menu with photos of available dishes and order whatever looks good. They don't normally get to do that. Because the kids' eyes are much bigger than their stomachs, I am happy to know that here they don't throw out leftovers. In Cambodia they use scrap food to fatten pigs, who then, in turn, will fatten us. No food for pigs from Teth and her kids though. They doggy bag the last crumb and take it home even though they have no dog.
As for the price, that isn't even a consideration if you've previously eaten out in the US or anywhere in Europe or in Japan, or in Singapore. No matter how much we eat here in Cambodia, how many beers we drink, or how much wine, how many sodas the kids have, I always get quite a bit of change when I pay with a twenty-dollar bill (yes, in Cambodia one can pay just about everywhere with US dollars!)
Today Teth, her kids, her sister, the poor thing with that horrible harelip, a nephew that sister takes care of, and I, went by tuck-tuck to the Cambodian version of Disney World. Teth and the children were so excited about the prospect that we left Phnom Penh at day break. We arrived at the promised land way too early. There wasn't anyone else there yet. We had the huge place to ourselves but none of the rides were open yet, none of the food stalls had food yet.
|Teth, her children and the little nephew which is in the care of Teth's sister.|
The entry fee for four adults and three children to the vast fun fair was a little over two dollars. The kids sat on merry-go-rounds that didn't go round, looked in wonder at a roller coaster, wondering what it would do, clambered around on a ferris wheel that stood still. We had some, scary for the kids, fun on a swinging suspension bridge.
One food stall lady started her business early just for us. We just sat and ate while the kids races around.
The place looked surprisingly good, considering it was built for the common people by a totally corrupt government where supposedly just about everything from state doffers flows directly to the privileged few. There were many painted fearsome concrete dragons, concrete fairytale castles in the colors of the rainbow, dark concrete caves and dungeons with forbidding iron bars, scary concrete monsters and, strange for a country with such majestic trees in nature, concrete trees. Even tables, benches and stools were fashioned of painted concrete, made to look like wood. Although for my taste a bit kitschy, it all looked clean and well maintained.
|Teth, her sister and the nephew on the tuck-tuck ride back home.|
|The kids were totally bushed.|
Just about everybody considers every place to be a garbage can. Everything, by just about everybody, gets thrown out wherever, whenever, whatever.
Teth would use a tissue to clean her son's hand then the tissue would sail to the ground, wherever she happened to be. Personally she is clean, almost to a fault. Go out for dinner and on returning she steps into the shower, and expects me to follow suit for a thorough scrubbing. The procedure is so vigorous, if it were to be going for a length of time all my skin would be rubbed and scrubbed away. Her and her children's clothes are spotless.
Almost all people chew their food with an open mouth, something that reminds me of a herd of ruminating cows, and — can you believe it! — they put ice cubes into their beer.
Today I saw a family sitting in a tuck-tuck while the driver pushed and pulled the heavy load. The motor of his contraption must have given up and still the family remained seated while the driver slaved away pulling the whole heavy load. Somehow I wasn't surprised. It seems to be a general attitude that someone is always considered less privileged. The slaving tuck-tuck driver would probably behave in a similar superior way like his passengers if somehow he were to inconvenience a lowly street sweeper. By the way, tuck-tucks here in Cambodia, are mopeds or motorcycles with a six-seat trailer — which frequently carries a double load. By contrast, in Thailand tuck-tucks are self contained units with the power train inside the driver and passenger enclosure. Both, Cambodian and Thai versions, have a shade/rain roof and are comfortable conveyances providing open air passengers with shade and a welcome breeze in the tropical heat.
Teth, despite, as mentioned, meticulously clean, has no problem messing up a hotel room because there will be staff cleaning it up.
Today we tuck-tucked into the countryside to a magic restaurant on the banks of the Mekong. Many thatched shacks on stilts, some in the water some on the dry shore have low tables set out on beautifully woven bamboo mats. Guests sit around them on cushions. In addition to the cushions, ours was also fitted with three hammocks. I lounged in one and, like a pasha, was finger fed. At one point my hammock suspension broke and I crashed to the floor. It was quickly repaired. Yummy food and drink just kept coming and coming.
|The fancy riverside restaurant,|
"I didn't know because I have never been here before," she said.
The check for four adults and three children, totally pigging out in that magical place, was a whopping 43 dollars.
|The restaurant from below, at the water's edge.|
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TOLERANCE - AGAIN
Reflections about Cambodia
Phnom Penh, March 19, 2013
A table in a Phnom Penh Khmer restaurant. Two young Cambodian, Teth and the restaurant manager who'd become a friend of ours, sit across from me. I admire their beauty and grace. Nicely presented food in a variety of bowls and plates is brought to the table. One of the women places a well-balanced portion into my dish. We clink glasses with cold beer and start eating. The food is very tasty. I look up to congratulate my companions for the excellent menu choices.
|They look very different when they chew their food with open mouths.|
Am I intolerant?
Just about everybody in the restaurant eats the same way. They also tear mounds of paper napkins from table dispensers, wipe the vicinity of their mouths, because stuff might have escaped from the open cavity, then throw the soiled wad to the floor, sometimes in the direction of the waste basket. There is one under each table. Ever once in a while a restaurant worker passes with broom and pail, gathering discarded napkins, chicken bones, frog bones, crab shells and other such things, to put into the garbage bag-lined waste baskets.
Am I intolerant for being ill at ease?
When my table companions look at me, I start chewing with an open mouth. There is no reaction. I start chewing by moving my lower jaw sideways, like I've seen cows do it when they ruminate their cud which they'd retrieved by regurgitating it from one of their stomachs. That makes my companions laugh. I now am a funny clown.
They don't get what I am trying to do, mimicking them to demonstrate how ugly their way of eating looks — to me.
Am I intolerant?
Or, should I adapt? When in Rome, do as the Romans do? Should I, in solidarity, throw soiled napkins to the floor? Make chewing noises with an open mouth?
Ah we'll, I like them and whatever they do. I think they like me, also the way I am. The manager actually said she'd like to meet a man just like — ah, you know — yours truly.
I banish concerns about tolerance and enjoy the company and the food — my way.
Another thought worms its way through my mind. As mentioned earlier in the blog, Cambodians display an incredible tolerance in traffic. Situations that would invariably bring on honking, swearing, or even road rage back home, are quietly tolerated here — by just about everybody.
Do they see me as gauche and just don’t say anything? Am I doing boo-boos and no-nos? Does my behavior display a crass ignorance about local manners? Are they, like I try to do with them, just writing it off as ignorant, the behavior of a foreigner?
I definitively know of one instance where I made a big faut-pas. They corrected it with diplomatic aplomb.
When we picnicked in the bear sanctuary I sat on the floor with the bottom of my feet pointing to the food and my companions. That, I should have know, is a total no-no, a sign of disrespect.
Teth simply said: “Why don’t you lay in the hammock, it would be so much more comfortable for you.”
When in Rome ...
This is my last day in Cambodia, for this journey. Tonight I'll fly, via Seoul, back to the Big Apple.
I love Cambodia, I love New York, and Paris, and Switzerland, and Vermont, and Timbuktu, and, and, and... I have mental pictures covering the large world map illustrating my love affair with our planet.
Back in the US some plan will form for the coming winter when snow shoveling is on the agenda for northern hemisphere dwellers. Maybe the Amazon will call, maybe skiing in Switzerland, maybe the South Pacific. Maybe an old plan to do the Darien Cap will resurface.
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I ordered from Amazon a map of Panama and a book with the title: CROSSING THE DARIEN GAP.
I read the book about the Darien Gap, written by Andrew Niall Egan, a young Canadian. On the first page he writes: I read about eight adventurers that had tried to cross from Panama to Columbia overland through the Darien Rainforest. In their excursion only two made it out the other side.
After reading that, the die was cast. The Darien Gap it will be. It sings exactly the kind of Siren Song I can't ignore. Maybe there were not many seventy-six-year olds who did it but I'll sure give it a try.
Want to know how it went? Check next winter's HITTINGTHEHEADWITHAHAMMER.BOLGSPOT.COM
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EPILOGUE FOR THIS BORNEO AND CAMBODIA PART OF THE BLOG
One of these days I might also add some of the many photos I have of the East Africa Journey and the Burma Adventure.
Back home life is also wonderful. I am not adding the following for commercial reasons. The houses sell well without my pushing them. I am simply showing this because I am very proud of what Tony, my son, does.
|My son Tony is building net-zero energy houses |
in New Paltz, upstate New York.
|Description of the houses Tony is |
The above described house is the type Tony is building, thus helping to keep our planet healthy.
I’ll be growing food in my farm in Vermont, have a good time with friends, roam in the woods, raise fish in my ponds, and play with grandchildren.
Life is good and I am grateful.
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