Monday, December 29, 2008

Muslims Behaving Erratically

Solo, Java, Indonesia

So here I am in a Hotel Ibis in Solo (formerly Surakarta), Indonesia. Ibis is a reasonably nice European hotel chain, which in Indonesia is priced like a shabby small town motel in Canada — meaning, several times our normal budget of $10 to $20 a night.

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Our room looks European. It’s slightly smaller than is reasonable, so all of the furniture has a decidedly vertical orientation. The bathroom is also very European; the fixtures are all very modern, the showerhead is aimed at the hair of a six-and-a-half-foot-tall Dutchman who is not here, and the bathroom is small enough that if someone (Erin) opens the door while you’re showering, you can’t get out of the shower until she has fully closed it again. But all in all, the room is very comfortable, except when the air conditioning is set to 13 degrees, like it was when we arrived.

As happy as I am for this tiny European vacation in the middle of my Indonesian trip, this isn’t where we planned to stay. I am fairly convinced that this is the only hotel room in the entire city that wasn’t booked last night. And it’s not just Solo where the hotels are slammed; we can’t find anything available for the next several days in Jogjakarta either. Today we called at least 15 different hotels listed in our guidebook, and they were all full. This is an especial problem because we can’t stay here anymore — tomorrow, the Hotel Ibis Solo is fully booked.

This problem isn’t caused by a massive influx of foreign tourists. I think I saw three white people today. It just turns out that the period between Christmas and New Year’s is when Javanese people travel around their island. I had no idea.

I suppose I should have guessed that Javanese people couldn’t be as happy and friendly as they seem to be if they didn’t take some vacation time at least once a year. Everyone needs a vacation. I just had no idea that they all took their vacation in the same places I want to go to and at the same time.

It also seems odd that that time is governed by the birthday of our Lord, Jesus Christ, whose mother was a Virgin, and who died on the cross for our sins, amen, because most of these people aren’t really into JC, the sufferin’ saviour. From what I can see, the locals here do most of their praying under domes surrounded by loudspeakers mounted in tall towers that erupt into wailing song early each morning. I guess what I’m saying is, they’re Muslims. And for Muslims to plan their holidays around Christmas is, to my mind, unconscionably weird.

Erin and I left Bali on the 27th of December, partly to escape the coming New Years’ rush. I know I didn’t tell you guys, but the decision came suddenly. I had assumed that we would stay on Bali — Erin writing, me adding to my giant earwax ball — until New Year’s at least, but Erin got bored of writing and decided that we would leave Bali the instant I felt well enough to leave.

You see, I had been sick. My mind knew we were in the tropics, but my body missed Christmas at home, so I developed myself a really good cold, with a fever and everything. One day I got so chilled that I went for a walk in Bali wearing a hoodie. The other tourists thought I was nuts.

Anyway, Erin got sick of writing, and I got sick of being sick so the very first instant that I felt like I could get on a bus without dying, I did, and we left Bali. I got into a taxi and then into a bus, then a boat, then an economy-class train for six hours (a special treat) and then a pedicab and then another bed. Then Erin and I got up at 2:00 AM to climb a volcano to watch the sun rise, then Erin lost her awesome camera but had it returned to her by a man who only wanted $30 as a reward, and then we got into another economy class train for nine hours and got to Solo, Java, Indonesia, where we got the last hotel room in town.

Just before the economy class train pulled into Solo, Java, Indonesia, we met one of the most irritating and friendly men I’ve encountered on this trip. He was friendly in an aggressive, nearly bullying way, demanding that we answer his questions and refusing to leave us alone, no matter how much our body language (and later, our mouths) told him we were exhausted from being in the 9th hour of a train journey on a day when we woke up at 2 AM to climb a volcano.

Thrusting his wispy Muslim beard into our faces, he demanded to know what our religion is, and when we told him none, he demanded that we explain to him why so many westerners he met said they had no religion. Then he asked whether it was true that there were many devils in the United States. Devils? I asked, and he smiled and his eyes got wider and said, yes, devils, he had seen men flying across the sky on TV, was this not a fact? I wanted him to fuck off so badly that I nearly told him so.

When the train pulled into Solo, he tried to arrange a cab ride for us and finally, I was able to convince him to fuck off, telling him that I wanted to look at the train schedule before leaving the station, and that we were perfectly capable of arranging our own cab. He apologized for annoying us, we assured him he hadn’t annoyed us and that it was nice meeting him, he left, and we proved to be utterly incapable of arranging our own cab.

Walking out of the train station, we were adopted by a man who had both a lisp and the impression that he spoke English. He decided that he would arrange a cab for us and it took me at least ten minutes to understand that the low, low price he was offering was $50. We were unable to deal with the cab driver without the help of this middleman, so we left and found pedicabs who would take us for $2.

Being both overweight and overburdened with luggage, Erin and I decided to be nice to our cab-pedalers and ourselves and get two cabs. At first it was fun, being slowly but peacefully pedaled through the nighttime streets. Halfway across the city, though, my cab got a flat and slowed down, and lost Erin’s cab in the traffic. Then, riding around on one flat tire, my pedicab driver got lost. It took me about six undirected, wandering blocks realize that we had only told the one driver our destination, and the reason my driver seemed so confused was that he had no idea where he was supposed to take me. Finally, I told him where I wanted to go and he took me to the hotel where Erin was nervously sitting in her pedicab, wondering when or if I would show up. The hotel was full.

We went to a second hotel, this one, where they told us that not only were they full, but every hotel in town was full. Then they said they’d try to figure something out, and we sat our filthy, sweaty, volcano-hiking and economy-train-riding bodies on their nice lobby couches and waited. Erin took a shit in their pristine lobby toilet. Then the receptionist told us they had a cancellation, and we were in. We showered, flopped down on our beds and turned on the TV, and BBC World News told us that a few days ago, Hamas felt it would be a good idea to fire rockets at Israel, and Israel responded with their usual subtlety. Now the whole Middle East is up in arms.

On this end of Asia, we’ve got confused Muslims going on vacation for Christmas and booking all of our hotel rooms. On the other end of Asia, we’ve got some other Muslims (less confusedly, but no less inconveniently) fucking up whole countries where we hope to stay.

And God fucking help you if we decide to go to your town. First Bangkok and their crazed souvenir-toting revolutionaries, then Mumbai and their hotel-occupying gunmen, and now this. Erin and I are the fifth and sixth horsemen of the apocalypse. If we even book a ticket to your city, war, famine, pestilence and death will put you on their itinerary. If we even think about a place, in some way it will get fucked up. I swear, the whole reason Vancouver has been under three feet of snow for the last few days is that Erin got homesick over the holidays. Watch the news for Jakarta — I’m sure that sometime in the next week it’s going to get hit by a volcano or get buried in ten feet of dogshit or something equally awful.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Fish Fear

Candidasa, Bali, Indonesia

I ain’t afraid of nothin’, except for fish, dogs and entropy.

I don’t jump out of my seat when I watch horror movies. Generally, I identify with the protagonists so little that I can’t wait for them to feel the bite of the chainsaw’s teeth. If a horror movie is on TV, I spend most of my time either laughing at the idiocy of the thing, or shaking my head in disgust. Consequently, I don’t watch horror movies.

If I want to give myself a good scare, I have to choose between fish, dogs and entropy. Entropy is omnipresent and inescapable; I am always terrified of it, so it offers no novelty. Dogs smell bad, and so do fish when they’re above water, so the only way to give myself a good fright without offending my olfactory sense is to go underwater and expose myself to the terrifying menace of fish in their natural habitat.

But I’m not sure why I would do it. I’ve gone bungee jumping and skydiving before, which gives you a good, clean fear. Intellectually, you know you’ll be safe, and you get an exhilarating rush of adrenaline while you’re falling. Going underwater to hang out with fish provides no exhilaration — only sick, damp, claustrophobic fear and the nauseating certainty that over an infinite timeline, something down there would eat you or sting you to death.

So why the hell would I do it? That’s what I was asking while I was sitting in my mask and flippers, looking down at the rectangle of water between the outrigger and the canoe.

Candidasa’s beach has washed away, so all of the locals know for certain that if you’re here, you must want to go snorkeling. It’s one of the things that is done by every tourist that comes through here, and somehow the certainty of the locals transferred over to me and I knew that I, too, would go snorkeling.

My fears change over time. I used to be much more afraid of dogs than I am now. Events in my life — such as my brother getting a dog that is so happy and so stupid that you could beat him with a two-by-four and be certain that his only reaction would be to lick your hand — have lessened my fear of dogs. The constant presence of entropy has made my terror much less insistent over the years. I have no idea what happened with fish, but I am now more scared of them than I have been since I was a little kid.

When I was in Australia about six years ago, I screwed up my courage and went snorkeling and scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. I have no idea how I did it. I think I was embarrassed that everyone else who was around, from old women to little girls, had the courage to do it, so I did it too — and I even enjoyed it a little.

The Great Barrier Reef is a vast, repulsive phantasmagoria of sea life. Every aquatic horror imaginable exhibits itself there, and I swam among them with a minimum of panic. I swam through clouds of fish, over reefs teeming with disgusting life, and seldom ever did I spin around in a panic to see what was swimming up behind me. In a moment of enthusiasm, I even chased after an enormous grouper fish, to get a closer look at its enormous face, like a nightmarish distortion of a human’s. It was only when I came face-to-cloaca with a jellyfish that was quivering horrendously at arm’s length from me that I panicked and swam for shore, vowing never to return.

I’m even more of a coward now. I wouldn’t even get in the water until Erin jumped in, had a look around and told me it was safe and deep enough that I wouldn’t touch anything with my feet. Once I was in the water, I immediately started to hyperventilate through my snorkel. A wave washed some water into that plastic umbilical between me and the habitable world, and I started to swim back to the boat.

I really wanted to get out of the water. There weren’t that many fish down there, and the number of creepy-crawlies was minimal, but still, it was awful. There was nothing down there that I wanted to look at. Nothing down there could do anything for me; I don’t even like eating fish, and the coral was just waiting for a wave to wash me into a shallow part, so it could cut my tender belly open. Sure, it was pretty, but what is beauty when compared to having your bones picked clean by prawns after something even more horrible ends your life in one of a million unthinkable ways?

As much as I wanted to, I didn’t feel like I could go immediately back to the boat. Our boatman spoke terrible English, and I could never make him understand what I was doing out of the water. We had about a 40% success rate when we tried communicating with him, and a 60% chance of having a misunderstanding — he absolutely always thought he understood what we were saying, but more often than not he would proceed to do the opposite of what we were actually asking him to do. If I got out of the water and told him why, it would certainly be embarrassing, and it might result in him thinking he understood that I wanted him to sail away and abandon Erin a kilometer offshore with nothing but her snorkel and the terrors of the ocean to keep her company.

Besides, I’d paid for the trip; I’d better at least make a token effort to enjoy the awful things that other people loved about the ocean. And Erin was having fun, looking at all of that stuff that is the antithesis of everything comforting and human in the world. It would be pretty disappointing for her if I made her experience all of that horror alone, so I forced myself to stay for awhile and look cautiously and incuriously around.

It felt like ages, but I think my willpower lasted for somewhere under half an hour. Three separate times I was unmanned by some part of the scenery and started thrashing my way back to the boat, but each time I forced myself to calm down and get my money’s worth of awfulness out of the experience. Finally, knowing I was on the verge of vomiting in fear, Erin told me that her fins were making her feet sore, so we should go back to the boat. I could have kissed her, but for the snorkels and the saltwater and all the terrible fish.

We escaped alive and sailed back and then rode our motos to a beautiful beach, where we played in the waves. In my mind, there are no fish at beaches, so swimming there is fun. Please don’t anyone try to convince me otherwise; I have a hard enough time enjoying beaches, what with all of the entropy of the waves crashing on the shore.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Faded Paradise

Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

The motto of Lion Air is, “We Make People Fly”. Seriously. What is this, the airline Stalin used to transport prisoners to the gulags? Personally, I prefer all of my flying to be voluntary, not coerced. What is with these dodgy Indonesian airlines and their mottos?

Nate’s theory is that the motto is short for “we make people fly on planes they’d normally never consider boarding.” We booked tickets to Bali from Samarinda on Lion Air, from a stunningly incompetent travel agent who was sitting under an enormous Lion Air poster that boasted of their 180-plane fleet of brand-new Boeing 737s. Our tickets said “Lion Air” on them, but when we arrived at the airport, we learned that we’d be flying on Wing Air, Lion Air’s shady subsidiary, which runs a fleet of MD-82s that are so old and so ill cared-for that every one of them we saw had huge scabs of paint flaking off the fuselage.

An MD-82 is a stretched DC-9, modified for use in hot climates. They are the aviation equivalent of a rusted-out Dodge Rambler. On our layover in Surabaya, Erin found some free wi-fi and looked up the MD-82 on Wikipedia. Not the best safety record going. Remember earlier this year when American Airlines caused air-travel havoc when they had to cancel about 6000 flights and ground three hundred planes for safety reasons? Those were MD-80s — basically the same plane.

Both of the planes we flew on looked like hell. They had two of the old-style long cigar-shaped jet engines strapped to the sides of their tails, so we knew we were burning three times the fuel a modern aircraft would use. On takeoff, they leapt off the runways like Apollo moon rockets (their near contemporaries), and they returned to the ground like crashing meteors. I don’t know whether the planes have horrible flight characteristics, or whether their pilots were incompetent or just in a hurry, but both times we landed I nearly had my knees force-fed to me. I never felt the need for a shoulder belt on a plane before.

But never mind, we made it, and we’re safe in Bali.

“Bali?” you ask. “Neat! How retro! That is soooo 1987!”

Bali was a synonym for paradise in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and it’s clear this place has seen its best days. The main beach on Bali is Kuta, which is on the side of a peninsula that sticks out of the island’s south end, out below the bulk of the islands of Bali and Java. This exposure to a long expanse of open water must be what gives the beach its famous surf. Nowadays, on their way along the southern coast of Java, those waves harvest all the plastic dumped into the rivers and ocean by the 130 million people who live on Java and deposit it directly onto Kuta beach. It’s pretty disgusting. I still haven’t gone swimming. To this plastic problem, add the 200+ tourists who have been blown up in terrorist bombings in 2002 and 2005, and you’ve got yourself a resort that is well past its prime.

But I don’t complain. There are perfectly good reasons for us to be in Bali right now. The people are friendly, the food is great and there are loads of nice hotels built in the 80’s and 90’s that we can stay in for super cheap. Yesterday, Nate, Linda, Erin and I were forced (by other people’s reservations) to upgrade from our separate $25 a night rooms to a $60 a night “family” room that has two separate bedrooms with big queen-sized beds, nice bathrooms, a terrace, and a shared living room with a fridge and satellite TV. That’s $15 a person! Including breakfast! And the hotel has two swimming pools and free internet! Come on!

In a couple of days, we’re planning to move down the island to an even less popular formerly-popular beach. It seems that Candidasa was once a thriving little beach resort, until they finally felt the long-term effects of their dynamiting their coral in years past. It seems that before the tourist economy developed, people in Candidasa were poor enough that breaking up their coral reef and selling it off for use in cement manufacturing sounded like a swell idea. Exposed to the full force of the ocean, the beautiful white sand beach that made Candidasa popular simply washed away, leaving behind dozens of beautiful hotels and virtually no tourists. So we’re going to get an even nicer hotel room for even cheaper!

The reason why we’re so interested in cheap comfort is that Erin now has a total of three magazine stories to write. We’ve spent too much time adventuring around and gathering information for her two Borneo stories, and far too little time sitting still and doing the other half of journalism, which is writing. Plus, she’s just picked up another writing obligation from home, so now she needs time to figure that thing out as well.

Besides, we all felt like we could use a little comfort after we came back down the Mahakam River. We had adventures and they were cool, but each day we spent on that trip was less comfortable than the one before. We spent hours and hours sitting in a motor canoe and we slept in increasingly bad beds in increasingly dirty small-town guesthouses with increasingly questionable water supplies. When we finally got where we were going, we found ourselves in the sweatiest place on earth, within one degree latitude of the equator, far from the sea, far from any breath of wind, at a level of humidity that made the air breathable by fish, where the night was only about two degrees cooler than the day, and where the only place to wash the sweat-grime from our bodies was in the river, which doubled as the town’s sewer.

I had my bath just downstream from the neighbour’s outhouse, which was located on their dock. They were kind enough not to use it while I was bathing.

And let me tell you, the 24-hour boat ride back to Samarinda was no treat either. The upper deck had mattresses for sleeping, but the mattresses had bedbugs.

The trip was really cool. We went up one of the great rivers of Borneo, crossed the equator in a boat and reached the heart of that legendary island. I had my bum knee cured in a traditional Dayak healing ceremony, (it’s not their fault that I re-injured it again a few days later) and we got to talk to all kinds of people and see all kinds of awesome stuff. I loved it.

But as I said, it was pretty damn uncomfortable and we felt the need to pamper ourselves, so now we’re on Bali, soaking up the cheap luxury. I think there are more Italian restaurants in Bali than there are in Vancouver. They even have their own microbrewery here, which makes a very respectable pale ale — I had almost forgotten what hops taste like before I found this beer. The place we’re moving to in a couple of days is a short moto-ride from a white sand beach that isn’t covered in Javanese plastic and hasn’t had its reef dynamited and its sand depleted. There are still bits of paradise left around here.

And there are adventures to be had, too. There are at least two volcanoes we can climb, and yesterday I made the inadvisable decision to try to ride across the island on my rented motor scooter. My goodness the traffic here is insane! The east coast was way farther away than I’d thought, and the drive was much less pleasant in reality than it had been in my imagination. When I got back to our hotel just before sunset, my face was smeared with diesel soot and my ass was sore as a cabin boy’s, but I did manage to find the former splendour and present cheapness of Candidasa, so the trip was a success.

Nate and Linda are going to enjoy this cheap luxury with us until the 22nd, when they’re going to return to Sabah for Christmas. Erin and I are going to stay however long it takes for her to write her stories, and then we’re going to travel overland to Jakarta. It now looks like we’re going to skip India, partly because we’re taking a lot more time in Indonesia than we thought we would, partly because we don’t have Indian visas yet and getting them will be a hassle, and partly because we were supposed to be flying through Mumbai, where a couple of weeks ago a bunch of crazy people thought it would be a good idea to kill as many people as they could. Erin’s mom doesn’t need the extra worry. Instead, we’re going straight to Beirut, where it’s safe.

In other news, the literary agent who was reading my novel has decided to pass. She told me that my book is okay, (I believe the term she used was “hunky-dory”) but the gosh darn market is just too crappy right now, and she can’t be confident that she could do anything with it.

So, if any of you, like, know someone who, like, wants a novel, I’ve got one I could sell ’em for cheap.

Cheap as Bali! Last decade’s hot commodity at a fraction of the price! Remember back when you wanted to own a literature? It was the hottest thing since neon spandex and peach-coloured stucco on houses — everyone was faxing each other like crazy about it — the little phone antennae on the back windows of their Porches were simply buzzing about literatures and the ownership thereof. Well, now you, too, can own a literature, at a fraction of 1990s prices!


Saturday, December 6, 2008

Into Indonesia!

Samarinda, East Kalimantan, Indonesia

Zzzzzzzzip across Sabah and into Indonesia!

A few nights in Kota Kinabalu eating nice food and visiting with a few of Linda’s innumerable but individually immensely memorable siblings and then jump onto a night bus for Tawau, Sabah.

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The bus is as comfortable as can be expected, but the road is windy. Each of us has friends. Erin has a book that puts her to sleep. Nate has a few pills of Gravol. Linda has a plastic bag she refuses to fill up with vomit, despite the demands of her gastrointestinal system and her addled inner ear. Ben has a dram of Irish whisky, poured into a plastic water bottle and consumed openly, as though it were cold tea.

I loved that bus! Everyone else was either sleeping or miserable, but I was drinking decent whisky for the first time in weeks, I had a good book and when I looked up, there was a hilariously miss-subtitled Thai/Chinese kung-fu movie to laugh at. When I asked the bus driver to wait for me to pee in the ditch while we were stopped at a police checkpoint, even the gravel on the road looked magical to me, standing out in long black streaks in the headlights of the bus. And when I looked up just in time to clearly see a dog disappear under our front wheels with a satisfying thump, I giggled. That bus ride was meant for me!

The morning was much less good. The bus driver was too fast for dogs and for passengers wanting to sleep past 4:30, when we arrived in Tawau in the middle of the heaviest rainfall I’d seen in at least three days. Sleepily, we stood around for the bus shelter waiting for the rain to let up, and then we ran through the rain to a dirty all-night restaurant that served coffee and food that can only be served in the middle of the night by the only place open for miles.

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We waited until 6:30 (we thought the boat left at 8:00) and carried our bags across town to the ferry port, where we were told the boat didn’t leave until 11:30. We bought tickets and found a slightly dirtier restaurant nearby, where Linda and Erin tried to read through bleary eyes and where Nate and I slept with our heads on the table, periodically waking to order another cup of coffee or bowl of soup. Finally at 10:00 we cleared customs and got on the boat at 10:30. The boat didn’t actually leave until 1:00 — an hour and a half late — but I was far too asleep to feel impatient.

At Tarakan we did some backpack-laden gymnastics, climbing from boat to boat to pier among our smiling and helpful Indonesian fellow passengers. Up on the pier, Erin immediately declared, “I like this place. That was fun. Those people were so friendly.” We had been in Tarakan for less than 10 minutes at the time. I kissed her for being so prejudicially positive, or I should have, anyway.

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Even before we clear customs, the one English-speaking cab driver in town finds us. We don’t need an English-speaking cab driver; Linda speaks Bahasa Malaysia, which is ten words and an accent away from Bahasa Indonesia and besides, the rest of us have fifty words of Bahasa and a phrasebook to get us whatever we want. But once he has us, we can’t shake him, and we climb into his shitty little van and he makes inquiries on our behalf.

He calls the travel agent Linda spoke to yesterday and mysteriously they haven’t kept the plane tickets they promised they would hold for us. All of the other travel agents are closed, he says. The hotel we want to check into turns us away. There are too many bad things happening all at once. Anything this man touches turns to shit, I say. Still, we let him drive us to another travel agent. He takes us to a residential back alley. The agency is closed, the driver says, so the travel agent is at home. Suddenly, mysteriously, the “agent” is quoting us a price for a plane ticket that is nearly double what we thought we would pay.

It’s all much too bad for coincidence. The only thing to be done is to get rid of the cab driver. We make him drive us to our second-choice hotel, the Hotel Paradise. He suggests a different one, but we insist on Paradise. We drove past it before, so we know where it is. So he takes us there and we get rid of him, and everything starts to get better again.

We get rooms. The Hotel Paradise was never splendid, but even its lack of splendour has faded. The rooms are shabby and overpriced, but they have beds and showers. Linda is exhausted from being our go-between with all of the conmen we’ve met, so Erin and I let her and Nate shower, while we go downstairs and try to sort out our flight situation. The hotel’s travel agency is closed, but the nice man at reception makes a couple of phone calls and tells us that there is room on the 7:00 AM flight we intended to take on Batavia Air, and if we show up at the airport at 5:30 AM, we’ll probably be able to get on the plane.

This is an improvement. None of us wants to have to spend a whole day in Tarakan.

The motto of Batavia Air is “Trust us to Fly”. I always thought that it is implicit in the act of buying a plane ticket that you trust them not only to fly, but also to land the fucking plane. I don’t find the motto encouraging.

We shower for the first time in well over 24 hours. Undressing is an olfactory assault. The last thing I want to do is pull my t-shirt up over my nose, but it’s the only way to get the thing off my body without cutting it off. I consider cutting it off. I have so few t-shirts, though; instead, I take a deep breath.

Refreshed and feeling human again, we go out and find food. Tarakan is a bit of a hole, but we find a lively street market and some passable street food. Then I look for beer and find it nowhere. Muslims. We’re about to give up when we walk past a much more expensive hotel than our own. Expensive hotels always have bars, and this one is no exception. Bottles of ice-cold Bintang beer are about C$1.75, and the staff is very friendly. Things are getting much better.

We have a couple of beers and return to our hotel and find the hotel’s travel agency suddenly open. The nice man at reception evidently called the travel agent in on our behalf. The travel agent tells us that contrary to our previous fear, there are several flights a day from Tarakan to Balikpapan. He sells us tickets on Sriwajaya Air for a very reasonable price and tells us that he’ll drive us to the airport for free the next day at 10:00 for our 11:30 flight. Things are bordering on being fantastic.

Sriwajaya Air’s motto is “Your Flying Partner.” I personally don’t feel at all qualified to be their flying partner. I’d never thought of my arrangement with any airline as being a reciprocal partnership on the subject of flying. I’d always thought of it as being a strictly one-way relationship, in which they did absolutely all of the flying without consulting me on any of the technical aspects. I hoped that I wouldn’t be called to the cockpit to fulfill my part of the partnership — landing the plane, for example.

The breakfast at Hotel Paradise is worse than the rooms, but the travel agent is good as his word and he meets us out front with an SUV. We had only seen him sitting down before; he turns out to be unbelievably short. He drives us to the airport, takes our money and gives us fully-functioning plane tickets. We are very happy with the short man.

Sriwajaya did 100% of the flying to Balikpapan. Their in-flight service consisted of handing each passenger a boxed meal as we boarded the bus that took us across the tarmac to the plane. The box held a container of water, a chocolate-filled bun, and a small cube of sticky rice with chicken, wrapped in a banana leaf. Erin didn’t want hers, so I ate it for her. We discovered that the reason they gave us the flight meal in advance was that the flight attendants were far too busy during the flight trying to sell all manner of tatty dollar-store goods to the passengers to serve meals, but they did land the plane without my help.

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In Balikpapan we got a cab to the bus station and a bus to Samarinda. Samarinda is a bustling, dirty boomtown that has recently switched from logging to coal, but it’s not completely without its charms. We found one restaurant that is very nice except for being lightly infested with beggars, and we found a hotel that I like very much. Every time I go to the toilet or have a shower, I have a cultural experience. The toilet in our room is a squat toilet, (which I have been told and which I believe to be much healthier for your bowels than a sit-down toilet) and showering is accomplished by scooping water onto your head from a container called a mandi. I enjoy it.

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Some people ask me why I enjoy traveling in uncomfortable places so much. I like it because it’s like a roller coaster: up, up, up, DOWN, (wheee!) up, up, up, DOWN, &c. The bad moments are trying enough that the small victories are immensely rewarding. Finding a cold beer can be a triumph and a $15 hotel room can feel like a palace.

We have found a guide and made plans to depart tomorrow for our exciting trip up the mighty Mahakam River. I don’t think I can tell you what we’re doing up there. Erin is writing another story. It’s probably a secret. I’ll ask her, though.

Monday, December 1, 2008


Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia

It has been four days since we descended Mount Kinabalu. I’m up to four anti-inflammatory pills per day, trying to quiet my raging knee and make it behave itself as an instrument of locomotion once again.

My knee has been bothering me for the last couple of months; I fucked it up landscaping, and then helping Erin move her office. Every now and then something pops out of place and it hurts like hell until I can pop it back in. During our descent from Kinabalu, five hundred meters from the end of the trail, my knee finally popped out of place and I couldn’t get it back in. It hurts, but I did make it up and down that mountain.

Even more than my knee, my problem with walking has been from the muscles in my legs. I was a younger man the first time I climbed that mountain. I don’t remember my legs aching for this long last time. Erin, Nate and Linda all say that their legs are nearly back to normal. Mine aren’t.

There were twelve of us plus two guides who started out climbing Kinabalu on Thursday: my parents, five of Linda’s brothers, one of her sisters, Linda, Nate, Erin, the photographer for Erin’s story, and myself. We stuck together for the first half an hour or so, but the Jimi kids couldn’t restrain themselves to our pace for long. Most of them are younger than the rest of us and all of them are way more Dusun than the rest of us.

It is their mountain. Mount Kinabalu is where the souls of the Dusun go when they die. Kinabalu was giving their legs strength and pulling them up to the top. Us, it fought every step of the way. The Jimi family ran up the trail ahead of us. We didn’t see most of them again until we reached the mid-point, where we would spend the night.

Sharing the trail with us were dozens of Dusun porters taking supplies up to the lodge at the mid-point of the mountain, everything from food to canisters of gas to building materials. They generally walked slower than us, but unlike us, they seldom stopped to rest. I asked one tiny woman with a homemade backpack how many kilos of cement she was carrying. She told me, “only 28.” She was barely over 4 feet tall. An older man was carrying two 10-foot long planks on his back. Linda asked what they weighed and he said 52 kilograms. We asked what he was getting paid to carry them up the 6-kilometer trail which gains 1500 meters of altitude, and he said 175 Ringgit — about C$60.

About halfway to the mid-point, my mom got sick. I think she was pushing herself a little too hard and climbing a little too fast, and she started puking. She couldn’t keep water down, so there was no way she was going to make it. She and my dad turned back.

The rest of us slogged up to the mid-point, which is at an elevation of about 3300 meters, making it a total climb of 1500 meters on the first day. That’s really a lot. For Vancouverites, it’s the equivalent of doing a high-altitude version of the Grouse Grind twice in a row, and the trail is nearly as steep and not quite as well-maintained.

The Jimi boys were waiting for us in the lodge at the mid-point, and they were freezing their asses off. A thermometer on the outside of the lodge told us it was 11 degrees Celsius, which was the coldest temperature most of them had ever been exposed to. By the next morning, they would be nostalgic for 11 degrees, but they didn’t know that yet.

They got in bed and shivered. Jerry Paul refused to get out of bed for supper until I went into his room and gave him hell. I told him that half the reason he was cold was that he was starving, whether he felt hungry or not. He had climbed 1500 meters that day. No fuel, no fire.

We tried to get to sleep early, because to make it to the summit for sunrise, we’d have to start climbing at 2:30 AM. Erin and I decided to have a beer after supper, to help us sleep. A can of Carlsberg costs about 4 Ringgit in most places in Sabah. At the mid-point lodge we paid 20 Ringgit, which is about C$7.00. Considering someone had to carry that beer all the way up, I felt like we were getting a pretty good deal.

After the beer, I lay down in my bunk and listened to the Malaysian soldiers who were staying in our lodge talking on the other side of the paper-thin wall of our room. I’m not sure how much I slept. There was definitely a period of semi-conscious confusion between about 8:00 PM and 2:30 AM. I hated my alarm at 2:30, which means that I probably was asleep when it went off.

It was raining like hell and black as death at 2:30 AM. Our guides had a conference with some other guides for about ten minutes, discussing whether it was safe to climb. They decided that it was, so we set off. The rain quickly stopped.

The beginning of the climb was a lot of steep stairs. Both Linda and her sister Jolivia felt like they were going to die, and we walked slow.

The middle of the climb had a lot of ropes and involved climbing a lot of cliffs in the dark.


Then there was a long section that Nate calls the “inclined parking lot”. It is a steep plane of granite, over 3500 meters in altitude where the air gets a little thin. There is nothing to think about except for your next step, whether it’s time for a break, and whether the sugar you get from a piece of candy is worth the gummy, sugary phlegm in the back of your throat.

The last hundred meters is a scramble up the pile of granite boulders that is Low’s Peak, altitude 4100 meters, the highest point between the Himalayas and New Guinea.

I’m lousy at describing scenery. Fortunately, we had a camera, so I don’t have to.

The summit was freezing. Linda warned her brothers not to climb too quickly, because if they got to the summit early, they’d have to wait around for the sun to rise and they’d freeze their dicks off sitting around on the top of a mountain, not moving. They didn’t listen. Their (mostly) young legs and their Dusun souls propelled them to the top of the mountain. By the time we got there, Hillosky looked like his soul would have a short journey to the afterlife.

We were about to leave the summit when a sudden storm blew in. The wind picked up, pelted us with rain and threatened to pitch us off the back side of the summit and down the 1800-meter cliff we were perching atop of. The few dozen climbers who were crowded around us hurriedly vacated the summit. The storm stopped pretty much as soon as we scrambled down the peak and reached the inclined parking lot again.

Hillosky looked like he had given up on life. He had nothing on his head but a baseball cap, and the sleeves of the winter jacket he had borrowed for the climb were four inches too short for his arms. His hands were covered by knit gloves, which were now sopping wet, and he was wearing rubber shoes, which were great for traction but useless for insulation. Worst of all, for the first time since I’ve known him, he had stopped smiling. He was barely walking. He had given up on life. I put my arm around him and propelled him down the mountain. I promised him that the lower we went, the warmer it would get.

We retreated to the mid-point lodge for breakfast and life-giving coffee. Hillosky smiled again. Then all ten of us started down the mountain. We took about three and a half hours to get down. Linda’s brother Velentino got down in 45 minutes.

I made it almost all the way down the mountain, to a spot 500 meters from the bus to the parking lot, when my knee went out for no discernable reason. I guess it just got sick of walking. I couldn’t pop it back in, so for the last 500 meters of the hike, the jungle heard a monotonous stream of English obscenities.

My advice to you: never climb a mountain with a Dusun — they’ll make you look like a fat, out-of-shape, lazy westerner, either by climbing twice as fast as you, or by carrying 52 kilograms of lumber on their back while they do it.

I’d like to say that we white kids were better at something than the Dusun, like eating, for example, but it’s just not true. The Dusun ate more than us, too. We’re just plain useless, unless eating all the anti-inflammatories in Sabah counts as useful.

We’ve now returned to coastal elevations and we have been recuperating and preparing for the next stage of our trip. Linda, Nate, Erin and I are soon going to the Indonesian side of this island, which the locals are pleased to call Kalimantan.

Erin and I had a flight from Bangkok to Bombay (Mumbai) booked for two weeks from now. Any of you who have been following the news know that Bangkok’s airports have been occupied and shut down by the anti-government protesters who Erin and I visited last month, and Bombay was invaded by ten terrorist gunmen who somehow lasted for 60 hours and killed 195 people.

Luckily for us, we had already cancelled that flight, because it didn’t fit into our schedule. As it stands, we’re definitely not going back to Bangkok, and we may skip India altogether. Instead, we might spend some extra time in Indonesia. I’ll let you know if we ever decide what we’re doing.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Could be Worse

Kibbas, Sabah, Malaysia

It has always pissed me off when people say that something is the worst thing in the world, or that things couldn’t be worse. Things could always be worse. If you think they couldn’t, then you suffer from an extreme lack of imagination.

How about this: You borrow a friend’s expensive car and you accidentally crash it into someone else’s even more expensive car. You find out your friend didn’t have insurance. It couldn’t be worse!

Yes it could. All of the above could be true, plus you get kicked in the balls.

And what could be worse than that? All of that, plus you have rectal cancer.

Worse than that? The accident, the ball-kicking, the cancer, plus someone at the police department decides to frame you for possession of child pornography, and you get crabs from a public toilet seat.

You get the idea.

Well, we were in Danum Valley doing some hiking. The Danum Valley is an area of primary growth lowland jungle. The lowlands happen to be where palm-oil palm trees flourish, and it also tends to be the part of the jungle that is easiest to log, so there isn’t a lot of old-growth lowland jungle left in Sabah. The Danum Valley is a completely protected area surrounded by a forestry reserve, where only selective logging is allowed. It’s a pretty special place. The jungle there is amazing.

There are about two problems with hiking in the jungle like that. The first is mud; the second is leeches.

The problem with the mud is that you get muddy and it's slippery, so sometimes you fall. I fell a couple of times. I chose to travel with lightweight boots instead of good boots, so my grips weren’t the best. Going downhill, it was tough to keep my feet under myself, and I fell, hurt my ass a bit and mildly wrenched one shoulder. I also got filthier, but we were pretty filthy with mud and sweat anyway, so it wasn’t a big deal. It could be worse.

The problem with leeches is that they like to suck your blood. You can try to protect yourself; for example, you can wear two pairs of socks and tuck your pants into your socks, but at best you’ll just reduce the number of leech bites you get. Given enough time, the leeches will burrow through both pairs of socks and even through your pants and they'll get your blood. If a leech gets your blood flowing, then it won’t clot for at least half an hour after you’ve pulled it off, and you’ll have blood streaming down your leg, or whatever part of you got bit. But it’s not like they’re poisonous or something. It could be worse.

To combat the leeches, we brought along five hearty Dusun — two rangers from the park, plus Linda and her two brothers. Actually, the rangers were park rangers and not really guides, so they weren’t interested in our leech battles, and Linda wasn’t particularly brave that way either, but Jerry Paul and Hillosky were leech warriors. They were better than anyone else at pulling leeches off and calmly depositing them on a nearby tree (rather than panicking and wildly flinging them into the bush like I did) and they kept a vigilant watch on our boots and pant legs for creeping invaders. So we had a lot of help fighting our leeches. It wasn't that bad.

I found that when we were descending muddy hills, I started to get more leeches on my upper body. One of them came when I fell while going downhill. I put my hand down to break my fall, and when I stood up, I had a leech stuck to the palm of my left hand. I pulled it off with my right hand, and then it bit my right hand. Then I pulled it off with my left hand, and it bit me there again, too. Finally, I managed to fling it in the bush. I also started getting leeches on my arms. I think it was because struggling to stay standing, I was grabbing onto trees and picking up leeches from the trees.

Then I felt something strange on my belly. I pulled up my t-shirt and found a leech sucking my blood an inch from my belly button. I don't know how the hell it got under my shirt, but there it was. I pulled at it, and it wouldn’t come off. It was a tiger leech, with an orange racing stripe — they’re tenacious little fellers. I pulled again and my belly fat pulled outward and it still wouldn’t let go. I must have been yelling, because Hillosky ran over to help and with his leech-pulling fingers he got a good grip near the leech’s head (if leeches have heads) and tugged him off.

But he was gone. It could have been worse. I told everyone that if the leech had actually been inside my bellybutton, I would have really freaked out. I didn’t know what I’d do. I can’t stand putting my own finger in my bellybutton, never mind have a foreign body penetrate it. It could easily have been worse.

Half an hour later, climbing another hill, I felt something strange on my belly again. This time it was worse. Was it a leech in my bellybutton? No! It was something worse! But what could be worse than a leech in your bellybutton?

Two leeches in your bellybutton!

I’m not even kidding. There was a tiger leech and one of the little reddish-brown ones tangled around each other, sucking the blood out of the indentation where I got my food and oxygen from back when I was gestating. I pulled at them, but they wouldn’t let go.

I must have screamed like a girl, because Hillosky ran up the hill to help me. He reached in there with his long, leech-pulling fingers and pulled them out, one at a time, together with a few of my belly-hairs.

But hey, it could have been worse. There could have been three.

Then we saw a bunch of stuff, did a bunch of driving, got back to Kibbas, went to a Dusun wedding and had a bunch of fun. Ho hum.

THURSDAY: We climb Kinabalu!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Monkey Monkey Monkey

Lahad Datu

The attention we get when walking down the street strongly suggests that few tourists ever come to Lahad Datu. Erin was getting a little more attention than she wanted from the local men when she wore shorts the first time we went out for a walk. Malaysia is Muslim and it’s a little conservative, so we thought that maybe putting female knees on display in a backwater like Lahad Datu wasn’t kosher, (or halal) so she put on pants and a baggier t-shirt for our second sojourn. Then we noticed that the local Chinese women often go out in shorts, and that the men were still making eyes at Erin.

They’re not looking at her because her knobby knees are showing. They’re looking because she’s white. They don’t see a lot of us white folk. Several people have said “hello” and then covered their mouths and giggled.

I’m sure that Linda will be annoyed at my portraying her countrymen as a bunch of yokels, but that doesn’t stop it from being true — in Lahad Datu, anyway.

The 6500 sq. km of Lahad Datu district is home to about 160,000 people, according to Wikipedia. According to Ben, Lahad Datu is a somewhat scabby little town with a mystifying street layout and poor provisions for pedestrians.

There is no reason to come to Lahad Datu, unless you have a good reason to come to Lahad Datu. Our good reasons for coming are that it is a convenient place to break the drive, and that there is a good air conditioned hotel here, for my parents to recover their equilibrium for a day before we plunge back into the jungle.

My parents arrived in Borneo something like a week ago. I don’t have a very good feeling for time these days, and I don’t care to check, so we’ll call it a week. We hung around Kota Kinabalu for a few days, and then jumped into our rented van and drove across Sabah.

Our van is a beauty. It’s a Toyota Hiace that the rental agency says is only 4 months old. It already has 29,000 km on it, though, which on these roads would be hard to rack up in just 4 months. It is relatively new, though. It has loads of room for 5 Colis and 3 Jimis and all their luggage, and the 3-liter diesel could push the fully-loaded van up any hill in the world.

It’s a good thing it’s a good van, because the driving in rural Sabah can be a bit on the white-knuckled side of reasonable. Malaysia spent loads of money building freeways in peninsular Malaysia, where most of the people live. The one road that goes across Sabah is about as wide as two compact-only parking stalls, as windy as a python with scoliosis, and as pockmarked as a KFC staff group photo — which is to say that it is better than most roads in this part of the world, but still no treat to drive on.

I pulled the first shift of driving (my dad had to let me; it was my birthday) and took us the first 100 km up the side of Mount Kinabalu to Linda’s home town of Kibbas, where we picked up her brothers Hillosky and Jerry Paul. From there my dad took the wheel and took us back down the side of the mountain and across the coastal lowlands to the orangutan sanctuary at Sepilok.

Along the way, we got to see about 60 km of palm plantations. There is virtually no jungle left in East Sabah, except for the few pockets inside wildlife sanctuaries and forest reserves. People should stop wringing their hands and talking about saving the jungles of Borneo. If we were going to do that, we should have started twenty or thirty years ago. As near as I can tell, in Sabah everything that isn’t already protected has already been cut down. Except for our little stopover in the urban gem that is Lahad Datu, our itinerary has us hopping from one protected bit to another, and crossing hundreds of kilometers of palm plantations in between.

In Sepilok, I got mightily drunk with Erin and Linda and Hillosky and Jerry Paul. It was my birthday. It wasn’t particularly appropriate to drink a bunch of beer in the guesthouse restaurant, but I didn’t particularly care. It was my birthday. My parents, before they left, had us laughing so hard that Jerry Paul couldn’t pick his head up off the table; apparently he had never seen a 58 year-old woman imitating her father-in-law’s habit of flexing his buttocks. It was a fine birthday.

After my parents went to bed, Hillosky challenged me to a lehing-drinking contest. He tapped out early, claiming that the $5-bottle of sour lehing he had bought from the staff was giving him heartburn. Lehing is homemade rice wine and the stuff was pretty sour; I’m sure he really had heartburn and it wasn’t his fault for having to drop out of the drinking contest that he started. That didn’t matter to me, though; I crowed and made fun of him and generally acted like a poor winner. It was my birthday.

The next day we went and saw the orangutans being fed. They were pretty cool, but there were at least 80 tourists there, taking pictures and getting in each others’ way, and the experience was made much less cool in retrospect by what happened later.

We then drove to Sukau, which is a little village on the Kinabatangan river. The Kinabatangan runs through a series of wildlife reserves, and Sukau is a great place to get a boat to go and look at monkeys. So last night we looked at monkeys, and this morning we woke up at 6:00 to get in the boat and look at monkeys again.

Monkeys are very cool, and looking at them hanging from branches a few feet away from your boat is a lot cooler than looking at orangutans on a feeding platform 50 feet away from your crowded observation deck, in my opinion. I know that orangutans are supposed to be more special, being closer to us genetically and much more rare than the bunch of stupid monkeys we saw, but I liked the monkey experience better. I guess I preferred being outnumbered by the monkeys to outnumbering the orangutans.

And now we are in Lahad Datu, where there is wireless internet, a selection of restaurants, and a variety of scenic rancid storm sewer canals. Bright lights, big city!

If anyone's been wondering where the hell we are, check this out:

View Larger Map

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Rice Planting


I confess: I lied to you two posts ago. It was a lie of omission, but that doesn’t make it any more forgivable in this strictly factual web-log that will one day form a major part of the historical record on the subject of... whatever it is that we’re doing here.

I didn’t tell you about a very heavy part of my luggage in my luggage description. It was a gift to Linda’s brothers and sisters (who will hereafter be referred to as the Dusun People) and I wanted it to be a surprise. Well, it wasn’t just for them — Nate and I drank a fair bit of it, too. It was two 26ers of Alberta Springs good old-timey Canadian whisky.

It was an outrageously frivolous addition to my already overloaded and overweight backpack, even for just ten days of bumming around. The bottles weighed at least a kilogram apiece, and they were fragile and potentially messy to boot.

When we got to the Penang airport to fly to Kota Kinabalu, Air Asia let us know exactly overweight they considered our luggage to be, while simultaneously revealing how they make a profit selling tickets for as cheap as they do. Our two seats cost a total of 300 ringgit (C$100), and our excess baggage charge for going over their 15 kg per-person weight limit by 7 kg was 105 ringgit. That’s 300 ringgit for all the dozens of kilograms of our fat asses and our legitimate luggage, and 105 ringgit for the other 7 kg.

There’s only one thing to say about that: motherfuckers.

But this is a digression. I didn’t mean to spend my time bitching about airline policy. I meant to talk about the whisky.

Kibbas is a small Dusun village in Sabah, about 4 km down the road from Ranau. Linda did all of her growing up here, and at a farm 2 km down the road.

No joke: while I was midway through typing the last sentence, Linda’s dad came into the room with his grandfather’s grandfather’s headhunting sword. He reckons it’s a hundred years old. Linda’s dad says that headhunting stopped after his grandfather’s grandfather’s generation, but the sword was apparently well used in its day. The hilt of the sword used to be decorated with hair taken from its victims. Linda remembers seeing the hair, but they have been removed in recent years, I assume because Linda’s family converted to Christianity and moved to Kibbas.

Back to the story.

Kibbas is a beautiful village on the side of a large hill. Sabbah’s main highway cuts the town in half, and Linda’s family lives in lower Kibbas. Everything is green and well taken care of. The houses are built on stilts and chickens and dogs run around the yards. The chickens cluck, and the dogs bark and fuck, because this is their mating season.

The day we arrived, we found four-dozen beers in the fridge, and we had two bottles of whisky. Almost all the booze got drank, but it’s not because we’re alcoholics with super-powers. We had help: Linda has hundreds of brothers and sisters. Okay, not hundreds; she is seventh of twelve kids, whose lives have scattered them across Sabah, to peninsular Malaysia and in one case, to Canada. They weren’t all in Kibbas when we arrived, but the Dusun People are a thirsty people, and there were enough of them. We ate something delicious that Linda cooked, and we made a fire under the house and sat in hammocks and drank whisky. Some of Linda’s siblings speak excellent English, and others speak very little, but they all smiled enough for us to understand that we were welcome.

Erin and I stayed at the Jaini Lodge, a small hotel located about three minutes’ walk from Linda’s house. I have no idea why someone opened a hotel in Kibbas, but it was very convenient for us that they did. For the first two nights we were the only people staying there, and for the second two nights one other room was taken. The hotel isn’t exactly five-star, but it’s clean, quiet and has balconies on the downhill side that overlook the valley and offer amazing views of the black peaks of Mount Kinabalu, lurking in the clouds.

Mount Kinabalu is where Dusun people go when they die, according to their traditional beliefs. In Kibbas everyone is either Catholic or Protestant now and their souls now go somewhere much more abstract. The new afterlife has more haloes and harps, but the old one is much easier for the living to visit. I like the old version better.

The weather here is hot and sticky during the day, until mid-afternoon when the sun has scorched enough moisture out of the jungle to put together a convincing rainstorm, which then inundates the valley and cools everything down. By nighttime, it’s cool enough that Erin and I sleep under covers with the fan turned off. Then the sun rises and starts producing clouds again.

The only time Kinabalu is clearly visible is in the early morning. I haven’t been awake in the early morning yet, but Erin tells me it’s beautiful. For the rest of the day, you can only see glimpses of the mountain through the gathering clouds. Ominous spires of black rock peek through windows in the cloud, hinting at its overall form. It’s 4100 meters tall, which would tower over most of the Rockies, if only it could get close enough to them to tower over them.

And in a couple of weeks, we’re going to climb the motherfucker.

Update from the present moment: Linda is apparently surprised that her own family were headhunters. She knew the Dusun took heads, but she had no idea that her family had been involved.

My brother is living with the descendant of headhunters. Cool.

On our first full day in Kibbas, Linda took us to the house where she grew up. It is no more than 100 meters from the highway, but it took Linda at least twenty minutes to hack out a trail with a machete. Her family seldom visits to the house, but they still own the land and do occasionally come back to harvest fruit from their fruit trees.

Linda grew up in a three-room house. There was a kitchen, a bedroom partitioned off of the main room for her parents, and the everything-else room where she and her siblings slept. The house was abandoned when Linda was 14, when her family converted to Christianity and moved to Kibbas, so her ailing mother could be closer to the hospital.

Her mother is fine now. She’s 62, the veteran of 12 childbirths and 62 rice harvests. Linda has been trying (successfully, we think) to convince her to retire from rice farming after this season. Her husband has been out of commission with a bad knee this rice-planting season, and Linda’s mom has been working herself sick trying to get the rice planted, so her crop isn’t too far behind her neighbours’. Partly because we wanted to help her, and partly because we thought it would be awesome, we volunteered to go and plant rice for the last two days.

The farm is down in the valley bottom, about a 20-minute walk from Linda’s house. Rice farming, particularly terraced valley-bottom rice farming, is one of the most beautiful forms of agriculture in the world. The land is separated into fields by dykes, and water cascades from the upper fields to the lower ones. Young rice plants are a colour of green that you don’t see on our poor continent. Farmers squat in their fields and wave to us crazy whiteys who, for some reason, are walking through their rice farm in rubber boots and funny hats.

A month or so ago, Linda’s mother densely seeded a nursery field. Now the rice is sprouted and needs to be transplanted to the flooded fields, a few blades of grass at a time. Before this can be done, each of the fields must be cleared of weeds. Then the dykes are adjusted to flood the fields so the rice can be planted. It’s damn hard work, and Linda’s mom has been doing it six days a week, with the help of whichever of her kids happens to be available.

We planted for two days. Linda is twice as fast as I am, and Linda’s mom is probably twice as fast as she is, but I’d like to think that between the three of us whiteys, we did help a bit.

On the first day, we got started a little late and planted for about three hours before the rain started pissing down unusually early. We hid in the farm’s shade-hut and Linda cooked us something delicious, and then we lay down and napped on the floor while we waited for the rain to stop. It never did. We walked home and got wet.

On the second day, our luck was a little better and it stayed more-or-less dry all afternoon. We got in about six hours of work before our bodies gave out on us and we went home. I am very sore today, mostly my back and my legs.

Each day, Linda’s mom got to the farm before we did and stayed after we left. She is a tough old lady. She’s been doing this all her life. I think she’s now entitled to a rest.

My parents are flying into Kota Kinabalu in two days. I am excited to see them, and even more excited to see Borneo through their eyes. I can’t wait for them to meet Linda’s parents: Alberta oilman meets rice farmer. I know that in spite of their differences and in spite of the lack of a common language, my mom is going to love Linda’s mom, and probably vice-versa.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Revolution by Souvenir


Mere hours after I wrote a web-log post about my luggage because Erin and I weren’t having any adventures, we had an adventure. We did something that the government of Thailand hasn’t been able to do for six months — we visited Thailand’s parliament building.

Thailand is currently going through some political turbulence. I don’t have the time or the knowledge to explain it properly, but I can summarize it by saying that the former Prime Minister, Thaksin, has been sentenced to two years in prison and is hiding in Hong Kong while his protégé is still in charge of the country; most rural folk love Thaksin and most city folk think he’s a crook.

A new party called People’s Alliance for Democracy has formed, and in protest they have occupied a huge part of the government district of Bangkok, including the parliament building. They’ve made barricades out of sandbags, razor wire and old tires, and they’ve set up a big tent city. All over Bangkok, people are wearing yellow polo shirts in support of the protesters. The protesters have had a few scuffles with the police — several people have died, and many others lost limbs in a weird episode where the police used Chinese-made tear gas that apparently (and probably accidentally) contained some kind of explosive.

Meanwhile, a few kilometers away, Erin and myself and ten thousand other tourists were hanging out around Khao San Road, eating pad thai, getting our hair put into braids, getting regrettable tattoos and venereal diseases, and drinking strong Thai beer out of large bottles and wondering why we couldn’t walk straight after just two of them. Well, we weren’t all doing all of those things, but every one of those things was being done.

Following her journalistic instincts, Erin decided that she and I should go and have a look at the barricades. She thought that we could go down there and take some pictures from a distance, using her new telephoto lens. I told her I meant to keep my promise to her mom and stop her from doing anything stupid. She was warned.

The first sign we found of trouble was a police blockade to the north of parliament. They had a barrier set up, and a large number of police were milling about, looking unconcerned. We decided not to ask to go through the barrier, but see if we could find our way around it, which we easily did by cutting through an education ministry compound. This put us inside the police area, where nobody gave us a second look. It seemed like pretty much anyone was allowed inside the police area, in spite of the barrier. A lot of vendors had set up shop, selling the police food and cold drinks, and stuff like police boots and belts, and t-shirts with police logos on them. Thais are the world’s ultimate shopkeepers and they’ll go wherever they need to go to turn a profit.

We looked around, took some photos of cops, but were politely but firmly told to go the other way when we walked toward the protesters’ barricades. We had to catch our train to Malaysia in a few hours, so we considered just going back to the hotel, but we decided to walk around to another side of the occupied area and see if we could get a better look at the barricades from another angle.

We found ourselves approaching what seemed to be the main barricade at the bridge on Ratchadamnoen Nok. There was only one policeman nearby, a smiley fellow who told us we could go over to the barricades if we wanted to. We took a bunch of photos of the barricades and of each other posing in front of them, and then I suggested that we go home. Erin asked if we could go a bit closer and try to see over the barricade. The situation seemed quite peaceful, so we crept a bit closer, and a bit closer, and a bit closer still, when a very nice-looking Thai man who was manning the protesters’ checkpoint came over to us and waved us in.

So we went in, through the checkpoint and into the area they have been occupying for the last six months. And we saw how the middle class conducts a revolution.

The occupied area is as neat and orderly as anything in Thailand, and the protesters are incredibly well supplied. Only a movement supported by big business and several branches of the government bureaucracy could have put together an occupation like this. The camp was laid out very neatly, with actual tents, not hastily thrown-together tarps. They had huge stocks of bottled water, communal kitchens, porta-potties that were cleaned according to a regular schedule, and even trailers that contained showers. This was clearly a massively organized effort, with dozens of truckloads of materials and supplies brought in and a huge amount of organization.

At least one of the trucks that came to set up the camp must have been carrying nothing but souvenirs. There were dozens of stands selling t-shirts and these little hand-shaped plastic clappers that are apparently a symbol of the PAD.

We talked to several people on the way through the tent city, all of whom were friendly as only Thais are, and a couple of whom spoke English well enough to tell us what they were doing there. We got directions to the parliament building, where we found an elaborate stage set up on the front lawn, with rows of plastic chairs and hundreds of wooden pallets with mats spread over them. On stage, in front of two TV cameras, various speakers gave rousing speeches, which were punctuated by a rousing rattle from the plastic hand-shaped clappers the audience used.

Naturally, Erin and I didn’t understand a word of what was being said, but we dutifully and journalistically took pictures of the proceedings, smiled at and said hello to several dozen people, and then left in time to pack our bags and get on the train.

In the tuk-tuk back to the hotel, I told Erin that I couldn’t believe that people had been killed in that place. It didn’t have a feeling of militancy or hostility at all. It was more like a county fair that happened to have a telethon going on in the middle of it. Most of the people looked like they would be more at home in a bingo hall than a revolution.

I guess this is how the middle class takes over a country: by conducting telethons and selling souvenirs.

To Kathy (Erin’s mom): It was perfectly safe. Honest.

TODAY: Amazin’ curry in Penang!
TOMORROW: Correct the schedule in yesterday’s blog post!
SATURDAY: Fly to Borneo!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Travel Gear


Erin and I have just returned to Bangkok from our trip to Ko Samet, the island where we met five years ago. Our tour included such nostalgic stops as the bar where we first danced (I’ve danced on about two other occasions in the five years since) and the beach where Erin’s friend Bess received her eyeball scratch that was subsequently invaded by a parasite, causing her to go temporarily blind (her problems went on for months, but she’s now fine).

It was nice. Mostly, we ate. We went up and down the beach searching for the mystical journey you get from a really good spice high. I got mine from a bowl of tom yum-like noodle soup I had for breakfast one morning. It had me leaking four different fluids from my face, which is perfect, because the fifth fluid would have been blood. Erin got her mystical journey from a mixed-seafood red curry. It was awesome.

We didn’t have much in the way of adventures. We’re still not quite over our jetlag, so we’ve been going to bed at 10:00 PM and waking up at 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning. I feel like a farmer.

So, instead of relating to you our latest adventure, I’m going to answer a question I am frequently asked: “what do you bring with you on a 4 ½-month trip?”

Yes, I’m going to write a post about my luggage. Listen, I’m going to have adventures, but they haven’t started yet, and I need to write about something now, don’t I? People ain't going to check this web-log for nothin'.

Besides, some people are interested. They swear they are, and I’m too polite to doubt them. My parents are probably interested — right about now, they’re packing their bags so they can come to Asia and climb Mount Kinabalu with me and Nate and Erin and Linda and representatives of Linda’s enormous family.

(Did I mention in previous posts that we’re doing that? I’m terrible at exposition. We’re doing that, all of us. My parents are coming. It's going to be fun.)

A friend at home asked, “You aren’t old, but you aren’t really young — do you bring a suitcase or a backpack?”

Not young? Ouch. I’m 31. But I’ve already got a bad knee, and young people are starting to really piss me off, so I guess she had a point.

My age is irrelevant, however. The answer is and will always be, backpack. On this side of the world, even in the cities you seldom find a stretch of pavement smooth enough to roll the little wheels of roller suitcase over without it tipping over. They’ve started making backpacks that have wheels built into them and a handle that pulls up, so it can become a roller suitcase when you want it to be, but they just make your backpack heavier and less comfortable. Believe me, you’ll be pretty pissed off at yourself when you’re carrying that extra weight all over the world, walking down slippery planks onto riverboats in Borneo, or dodging cow shit on Indian streets with those fucking little wheels digging into your back.

What Erin and I have are 50-liter travel packs that zip all the way down the side so you can get at the stuff in the bottom. They have waist straps and nice, wide pack straps. 50-liters is pretty small, but these bags are damn heavy, for reasons I’ll get into in a bit. On top of this, both of us have a second piece of luggage — I have a shoulder bag with a laptop pouch in it, and Erin has a cool journalism backpack with a built-in camera case and a laptop pouch.

Now you’re asking, “You fucking idiots have two laptops with you?”


Traveling light is a matter of pride among most backpackers. Unlike most backpackers, we’ve got shit to do, man. On Ko Samet, while we were looking around for a hotel, a guy saw us and smirked and said, “you guys have a lot of stuff.”

And I was, like, “fuck you, man!” Only, I didn’t think of that comeback until we were way up the road, but it’s what I would have said if I’d thought of it in time.

We’ve got a lot of stuff. We don’t have a lot of clothes or personal comforts. We’re doing a great job of traveling light when it comes to that stuff. We do have two computers, a big SLR camera and two small libraries with us. I’m afraid to count, but I think we have close to 25 books with us. At least three aren’t shown in these two photos. Consequently, our shit is heavy. Fortunately, we are mighty, and not afraid of looking a little silly.

We each have an excuse for our extravagent luggage.

Erin is a journalist. She is journalizing. Many of the books she is carrying are reference works for magazine stories she is either hoping to write, or has already been hired to write. She needs a computer for writing, and she needs an awesome camera on the off chance that she’ll take an amazing photo and get it published alongside her story.

I, on the other hand, am a ridiculous twit. I can’t stand the idea of sitting around doing nothing while my girlfriend is writing brilliant things and making a name for herself in the magazine business, so I need my own three-kilogram computer so I can write things while she is writing stories that will actually be published (it’s a bit like installing a toy steering wheel in a child’s car seat). I am also a voracious and extremely picky reader, so I need loads of books that I have personally chosen because I’m much too much of a snob to just read the books that other travelers have left behind.

Apart from the library and the expensive electronics, we are packed very sensibly. We have a small amount of clothing. I have three pairs of shorts and about six t-shirts (two of which I bought here), so I am perpetually looking for somewhere to get my laundry done and I am always a little stinky. I have a small pair of boots for the mountain we’re going to climb, a reasonable little bag of toiletries, and all the little tools and toys you need when you’re traveling, such as a flashlight, swiss army knife, malaria pills, mosquito spray, emergency cash, passport, and my Indian backpack chain and padlock, so no one can walk off with my bag while I’m sleeping on a train.

I’ve never needed my Indian backpack chain. I’m not sure why I brought it, but they sell them outside of Indian train stations, which makes you wonder if you can dare to go without one.

Once you get past the idea that you need to bring a clean change of clothing for every day of your trip, it’s easy to pack for 4 ½ months. Just pack like you’d pack for a week, and bring money to pay for laundry, and to buy anything you forgot.

But if you have big feet (I don’t) bring all the shoes you need, and if you have a big ass (I do) bring all the shorts you want. In Southeast Asia, they don’t have big feet and there is a shortage of three-dimensional asses. My poor friend Tucker (a.k.a. Mooseass) can’t buy shoes or shorts in Southeast Asia. Shoes are the bigger problem, actually; if you can’t find shorts that fit you, you can just take your enormous ass over to the tailor’s (or in Tucker’s case, the tentmaker’s) and he’ll whip up a nice pair for cheap.

Tomorrow: night train to Penang.
Wednesday: US election news and curry-induced mystical journey.
Thursday: Fly to Borneo!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Bangkok is Still Here


The fastest way to Bangkok is not to fly first to Beijing; going to Beijing would be like stopping for gas in Boise, Idaho, on your way from Vancouver to Calgary. Air China was the cheapest way to get to Bangkok, however, and Erin and I are extremely discourteous to our future selves when we’re pricing out flights, so we had a very long journey yesterday and the day before, and — technically — the day before that.

Everything here feels familiar. Even stepping out of the plane into the partially air-conditioned limbo of the jetway was familiar. The humidity of Bangkok made all of my clothes go limp and hug my body. The spiffy new airport I’d never been to before felt just like old Don Muang airport must have felt like about 40 years’ worth of entropy ago (and completely unlike the gargantuan unused mausoleum of air travel they built in Beijing — see Erin’s post at It was bustling, fairly efficient, and friendly.

We got to my old Bangkok haunt, the Nakorn Pink Hotel, at about 1:00 AM. Completely fucked from the fifteen-or-so time zones we crossed and the airplane beer and the snippets of sleep we managed, Erin and I were hungrier than we were tired, so we went and hit one of my favourite restaurants (the seafood place on the corner of Samsen and Soi 6 — some of you know what I’m talking about). Then we wandered down empty Bangkok streets in a happy daze and stopped for Beer Chang at Popiang House. At 4:00 AM we got to overhear conversation about someone who’d just missed his flight home for the second day in a row because he wanted “just one more beer”. I know the feeling.

I’m actually surprised at how happy I am to be back. I’m overjoyed. I’m giddy. I’m in Asia again. It’s been too long. I find myself wondering why I ever left. I’m sure there’s a reason, but I can’t think of it right now.

A few things have changed about Bangkok. There’s the odd new restaurant and guesthouse around, and the 7-storey ruins on Chakrabongse are in noticeably worse shape than they were four years ago (I wonder if anyone was hurt when all of those chunks fell off), but the feeling is still the same. The people are still friendly and if you go to the right places, the prices are still low. There’s a reason why so many people go to Thailand: because it’s fucking awesome.

Erin and I have been just wandering around, sussing out travel details and eating $1 meals out of the little street stalls. Erin, having quit her job just one weekend plus two long flights ago, is already coming up with ideas for stories she could write about Bangkok. I have forbidden her to go to work already. Tonight we’re going to go and watch Muay Thai boxing and get drunk and place bets, and tomorrow we’re getting on a bus for the beach. She’s going to take a week off and there’s not a damn thing she can do about it.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A New Journey


Everyone's favourite nomad is hitting the road again, on an uncharacteristically purpose-driven 4 1/2- month tour of (probably) 9 countries, from Borneo to Beirut and points in between.

I'd love to say that I have a gimmick, like, that I am walking across Asia as the title of this web-log implies, or that I am at least using only surface transportation to cross the southern end of the world's longest continent, but this new trip is much too objective-oriented to allow such symbolic frivolities. We're going to be taking a lot of planes, man, because we have got shit to do.

Yes, for a change, I am traveling for a reason. You'll be relieved to know that I didn't come up with the reason -- I'm drifting through life as aimlessly as ever, the same shiftless gadabout you grew to love so many years ago. I have, however, in the last few years, latched onto a lady-nomad, who is as driven as the pure snow (but definitely not the other way around).

The lady-nomad's name is Erin. I met her in Thailand about five and a half years ago. Loyal nomad-followers may remember from a disordered rant about swimming naked as a porpoise in the Gulf of Thailand. We kept in touch, and for the last couple of years, we've been fighting over the blankets and sharing morning breath with each other.

Erin's a journalist. For the last couple of years she has been writing for Maclean's magazine and editing their education website, but the time has come for her to pursue her dream of making less money and being paid irregularly. She is embarking on a career as a freelance magazine writer with a trip across Asia and I, characteristically, am just going along for the ride.

So what am I going to do? Hang out and watch her write?

Of course not.

I'm going to dust off the old bennythenomad writing-jockstrap and write; I'm going to write as though I had something to say, or at the very least, as though it doesn't matter that I have nothing to say. It's the internets, after all; nobody has to have anything in particular to say, just the will to say it.

Now anyone has a global forum where they can publish photos of their cat, (who is just the cutest little kitty in the world, doncha know?) their opinions on which vegetables are too obscene to be served whole, and their diatribes on which races of humanity must be exterminated. Every mouth-breather with an internet connection and enough manual digits to thrash out a page of unpunctuated invective against the drivers in their city now has access to an audience of billions, but fortunately, little chance of being read by an audience of more than three.

The very least I can do is add to this insipid stew the seasoning of my witty fart jokes. There is zero chance that I can lower the average quality of the content of this, the world's collective mental urinal, and maybe I can invent a new fart joke along the way.

So prepare yourselves! Fart jokes are coming!

I'm not sure what else will be coming, but here's my best guess:

Erin and I are leaving for Bangkok in less than a week. After about a week's worth of messing around in Thailand and Malaysia, we're flying to the state of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo to meet up with my brother Nate and his girlfriend, Linda, who happens to be from Sabah. Erin is writing a story about Linda's savage curry-eating people, and we're climbing a tall mountain. Then we're going to the Indonesian side of the island and going up a river into the jungle to research a story about a coal mine.

Then, we're getting out of the jungle and getting back to Bangkok so we can fly to India in mid-December. I'm not sure what we're going to do in India. We'll figure something out. Erin might need to take some time to write her Borneo stories. I'm sure we'll also spend a fair amount of time on the toilet.

Then in mid-January we fly to Beirut. We'll be hanging out in the middle east for about two months. Erin doesn't have any stories lined up for the middle east yet, but if she can't find something to write about there, she might as well eat her fedora-with-the-'press'-sign-in-the-hatband and her old-fashioned comedy camera and give up on being a journalist.

Sweetheart, I don't mean it. I'm sure you'll be a great journalist, even if you are a girl. No, I don't think you look fat in that jungle brassiere and that natty reporter skirt.

Sheesh, women. Nice to look at, but barely worth the work you have to put into them. They're always asking, "why don't you ever take me to Borneo?" You can always tell it's that time of the month and their hormones are going crazy when they ask stuff like, "why can't we ever discuss the impact of globalization on the environment as developing-world countries seeking foreign currency turn to large-scale resource extraction without the environmental oversight that exists in the developed world?"

Are you with me guys? Sheesh, right? Silly women.

(How long do you think Erin's going to let me use her as a comedic prop? Maybe I'll get lucky and she won't read this web-log.)

So here's your fair warning, internets: You have one week to delete every single photo of pet kitties playing with yarn and little doggies sniffing at wide-angle camera lenses, or I will unleash a torrent of obscenity-laden travel stories the likes of which you have not seen since 2005!