May 13, 2003

Somewhere in Borneo, Malaysia
Bugs the Size of Your Arm

I'm in the jungles of deepest Borneo.

How about that, huh? Life goal accomplished. I lack only a pith helmet, monocle, and pointy mustache.

'Deepest' is kind of inaccurate, I suppose. It's the northeastern region, called Sabah.

I'm in a campsite along the Kinebatangan river on Uncle Tan's Wildlife Tour. There are twelve of us here, about an hour's boat ride from the nearest village.

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The accommodations are spartan; wooden shacks half-buried in mud. I'm on a wafer thin floor mattress surrounded by mosquito net. No running water, no electricity. The only source of on-site entertainment is listening to Lim, our guide, struggle through rough approximations of Nirvana songs.

The thing to do here is go looking for wildlife. There's a morning boat ride, a morning walk, an afternoon boat ride, and a night walk.

Here's how my shoes looked after one day.

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I'd like to say the wildlife spotting is great. It certainly could be. But the really amazing stuff isn't around, so we spend a lot of time looking at birds and trees. Neither of these subjects interests me. In fact, bird-watching strikes me as so profoundly dull that I'm wondering if I might be missing something.

Okay, it's an egret. It's white. It has wings and a beak. Let's move on.

The trees are okay, but there haven't been many world's biggest or oldest or smelliests for me to get excited about. There was one tree that Lim claimed had the world's strongest wood, but I found that claim dubious, difficult to quantify, and too arcane even for me.

I was sad to discover that Sarawak, the region neighboring where I am, has a park containing the world's largest flower: the rafflesia. Ah, well.

We've learned about many plants that taste delicious, and many very similar-looking plants that will kill us. We learned about a vine that can be used as an eyedropper, a leaf that's used to make baskets, and a tree that IKEA uses to make all its furniture.

Yes, it's true. The jungles of Borneo have been largely destroyed by unchecked logging. It's gone. From a plane it looks like a bunch of perfect green squares. All that's left are a few small clusters that they kept around once they found out tourists would pay money to see it.

Aside from the birds and trees, we've seen hordes of monkeys. Four of the nine local species have turned up.

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The most interesting is the proboscis monkey, which looks strikingly like an old Jewish man. I couldn't get close enough to take a good picture, but I'll grab one off the web without giving credit to the source.

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The 800 pound gorilla, so to speak, is the orangutan, which we have not seen. We saw their nests and we heard them calling in the distance, but there have been no sightings.

The orangutan is the only great ape in the world living outside of Africa. The locals spell it orang-utan, which is closer to how they pronounce it -- putting an emphasis on the 'u' as if it were two separate words. 'Orangutan' is the slightly bastardized English version, but I prefer it and my spell checker doesn't make a stink about it, so that's what I'm going with.

We saw numerous crocodiles. The ones here don't hold a candle to the saltwater crocs of Australia. They're hardly worth worrying about.

There are Asian elephants, but all we saw was their shit. That's one shit that's easy to identify.

There's also a species of rhinoceros lurking around, but they're extremely reclusive and no one ever sees them.

A large group of bearded pigs comes storming through the camp a couple times each day to roll around in the mud and inhale our food scraps. They're ugly and wretched, but they really seem to enjoy being alive more than most animals.

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There are a lot of monitor lizards, which I'm getting fairly used to as they're everywhere. Here's one engaged in a dispute with the pigs over a shared puddle.

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Borneo is like the big city for insects. If they can make it here, they can make it anywhere. The largest of them is the rhinoceros beetle, which I think could probably take down a mid-sized dog.

The stick insect is one for my record book. It's the world's longest bug, with one specimen measured at 55.98 centimeters, or 22 inches. That's one on the right next to the hand.

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Aside from being colossally huge, it can actually transform itself into a stick. It retracts its legs, tucks in its head, and instantly disappears into the foliage.

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On top of that, it can also fly. If they're lucky, most bugs get one cool thing. These guys have three.

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I had this grasshopper jump on my arm during one of the night walks. You can imagine my reaction.

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And we saw this fella hanging from a tree. It's a long-legged centipede. It has a venomous bite that they say is potent enough to kill a child.

There was a big spider clinging to a leaf over the path. I didn't get a picture of it. I was too busy shitting myself.

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This is a microhali-something-or-other: the world's smallest frog. I certainly wouldn't dispute the claim. That one there is fully grown.

We saw a viper sleeping in a tree after what appeared to be a large meal. On the snake front, there are also king cobras and coral snakes in the area - both deadly - and the reticulated python: world's longest snake. I saw one a couple weeks ago at Australia Zoo, but I haven't had the pleasure of encountering one out here.

Other than that, the only large creatures to see are backpackers, and they tend to bore me.

I don't get along very well with backpackers. There's the odd exception, but generally I just don't have much in common with them. There's a different set of interests and values. I don't want to say it's a maturity thing, cause I'm not that much older than most of them. A fair few are even respectable professionals. And after all, I'm the one hunched over my GameBoy each night. But there's something not the same between them and me that I can't put my finger on. I don't like being among them and I don't like being considered one.

One member of our group is a rugged Australian bloke with a strapping build, heroic chin, and an accent that makes Steve Irwin sound like Peter O'Toole. He's been walking the Earth for several years. He's amiable and outgoing and I disliked him instantly.

He has one of those lazy rural drawls that makes me recoil and convulse. His tone wanders up and down in his sentences as if everything he says is the punch line to a hilarious joke. It's tremendously irritating.

"Oiy down't even ahwn a telivision."
"Oiyl take anatha wanna thaws beeys, thanks."
"Mix it with poinapple and that monkey shit makes some good tucka!"

He's one of the few Australians I've encountered who actually says "G'day, mate!" In fact, just about everything he says is agonizingly clichi. When Lim described the village he came from and how poor his parents were, Ozzie man chimed in with, "Ya may be poowa, bat yer rich in family, roight?"

I would have happily joined Lim in beating him to the ground and kicking him in the gut Sopranos-style. I think Lim was considering it.

Needless to say, Ozzie man and I were assigned to bunk together. He seemed oblivious to my lack of tolerance for him, so I lay in bed the first night cringing each time he spoke.

Ozzie man can't get enough of roughing it in the great outdoors. As soon as he saw the hole-in-the-ground toilets and the foot-deep layer of mud surrounding everything, he decided to stay at least a week. He gets up before dawn each morning and dons his head-mounted torch (the lighting equivalent of a butt-pack) to get on the trail and beat the crowds.

Another contributing factor to his enthusiasm is the cost of 20 Ringit a night, which is about AUD $10, meals included.

On my budget, I could live here for a couple years.

Sadly, our time together was short-lived. Outdoor Ozzie man left food in his pack and the fire ants discovered it. His side of our shack was hopelessly overridden, so he had to move to a different one. They're leaving me alone, strangely. So it's massive army of vicious ants on one side, me wrapped in mosquito net on the other.

It's nighttime now and I'm willing to admit that I'm too scared to go to the bathroom. It's a dimly lit outhouse at the end of a very long trail of shaky wooden planks surrounded by mud. The usually irrational fear of being bitten by snakes, spiders, or giant insects is now chillingly rational, and I don't want to get caught with my pants down.

There are four young Malaysian guys who take care of the camp. I showed one of them my GameBoy and that was that. All other activities came to an abrupt halt.

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They were having a ball with Super Mario World. It made me sad to realize that I am no longer capable of reaching the intoxicating heights of sublime joy that they found.

Once again, thanks Pandemic people for the awesome going away present. I'm making great use of it.

I'm pretty sure the GameBoy, in combination with the laptop that I lugged with me to the campsite, has given me a bad reputation amongst the backpackers. I'm the nerdy American who drags his toys with him wherever he goes.

Fair enough, I suppose. But I do get a kick out of it. I like that I'm doing this trip in a way that hasn't really been possible until recently; what with the regular updates and photos. The world is getting smaller and I'm casting my rope around to cinch it tighter. It may not follow the neo-luddite backpacker ethic, but I'm not at all upset about that.

I've decided that travel is a great thing. Imagine if all we ever did with our spare time - and I mean everyone on the planet - was move around and see how everyone else lived. The shapeless blobs of places we've heard about would take shape and the people in those places would matter to us a little more. I'm not talking about world peace or anything. We can all keep hating each other and stuff. I'm just saying that if we made ourselves aware, there'd be more common decency going around and maybe we'd be more considerate.

I'm trying to articulate this thought without sounding hopelessly naove.

As far as the places being visited go, the effect of tourism on developing regions is extremely positive on the whole. It straightens things out politically. It helps the environment a lot more than it hurts it. It brings in gads of cash. And it equalizes places with the rest of the world.

That's all globalization is, really. We're equalizing.

Okay, now I'm definitely sounding hopelessly naove.

I'm in an area where malaria exists and I'm getting stung by mosquitoes constantly. I have pills that I can take, but it's one of those things where the side effects outweigh the risk of the disease. It's called Larium, and it's the heavy duty type of pill that you only have to take once a week. The thing is, it's known to cause vivid nightmares, hallucinations, and in rare cases, dementia. I don't want that to happen to me in the jungles of Borneo.

I'm going to wait until Vietnam to take it, so I'll have Brad to deal with me if I start seeing penguins gnaw at my toes. Actually, Brad might want to take one too and make a night of it.

Okay, I'm gonna jump around a bit to when I arrived in Borneo six days ago, then work my way back to the jungle trip.

My first stop was Pulau Sipadan (Pulau means island), a dive resort off the coast of Semporna in the far east of Borneo. The flight out was a bit of a drama. I left Kuala Lumpur around midnight and arrived in Kota Kinabalu at 2am. My connecting flight to Tawau didn't leave until 6am, which I could cope with until I discovered they were throwing me out of the airport. There was no one around, nowhere for me to go, and nowhere for me to sleep. I was outside in the heat with my carry-on bags, which included plenty of extremely stealable stuff.

With flights going out every day en route to the resort, you'd thing they'd have things worked out a bit better.

I tried sleeping on a bench. That wasn't happening. I wandered around until I found the customs office, which was wide open, lit, and even air conditioned, but there was no one inside.

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I wandered up and down the halls of the customs office for a long time, flirting with the idea of dropping my bags and going to sleep right there. Then I got visions of Malaysian customs agents walking in and finding me asleep on the floor and all the unpleasantness that would most likely ensue.

I finally opted to get a taxi into town and find the cheapest hotel so I could sleep for two hours. I found a cab driver who understood my plight and was willing to pick me up again at 5am to take me back to the airport.

There were many hotels in town that rented rooms by the hour, but the cab driver and I agreed that wasn't the kind of place I wanted to go. What I ended up with wasn't much better. It was dank, dirty, small, smelly, and crawling with geckos.

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Anyone want to speculate about what I'm supposed to do with this hose?

I slept for two hours and woke up with no idea where I was or what terrible mistake I had made in life to end up there. The cab driver was downstairs waiting for me and we were off.

The dive resort had a bus waiting in Tawau to drive the other new arrivals and I to Semporna. From Semporna, we took a boat out to the tiny little island of Sipadan.

Sipadan was great. It was a four day package trip that included meals, accommodation, and unlimited diving. It went like this:

Dive, eat, sleep, eat, sleep, eat, dive, dive, eat, dive, dive, eat, sleep, eat, dive, dive, eat, dive, eat, eat, sleep, eat, leave.

The island is the peak of a mountain that shoots up 600 meters from the ocean floor. It mushrooms at the top, so the island curves in slightly just beneath the surface. Once you drop off the ledge, you can actually swim under the beach.

I used my fancy new underwater camera housing. It's a neat toy.

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Here's a couple videos.


Turtles (9MB)



Sharks (5MB)


Underwater photography used to require a whole lot of money to do with any reasonable level of quality, and shooting video was a much larger expense. These digital cameras are a massive leap forward. You can shoot really good quality stuff with minimal competence.

I showed the pictures off to the other divers on my laptop. I felt like a salesman for Canon. In fact, I'm pretty sure I did sell a couple.

Surprisingly, the guests on Sipadan were mostly American, though I'm told it's a big destination for Italians. I met some really nice, interesting people. I learned a little about the oil industry and a lot about meat. I will pay much more attention the next time I order a steak.

One of the divemasters had a daughter there named Beebee. She was adorable. There were no kids to play with, so I had to suffice.

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There were a number of monitor lizards on the island. I took this picture of what is unmistakably a lizard track. I thought it was funny.

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On my last night, I struck up a conversation with the resort's repairman, Elias, and got the low-down on the island gossip. Family members are not going to like this stuff, but it's too interesting not to put down here.

Two days before I arrived, a diver died. He was a young Russian guy staying on nearby Mabul island, which has nicer accommodations but does most of its dives off Sipadan. The guy was reckless and went down to 75 meters on a two-tank dive. That's 244 feet. Oxygen toxicity sets in at around 60 meters, which means (I think) that the volume of oxygen you're taking in with each breath is so dense that your body can't handle it. He panicked and rushed to the surface, causing the air embolism (brain bubble) that killed him. They found him face-down in the water. Elias said his neck had expanded from all the bubbles. Pretty gross.

Any diver will tell you that going down to 75 meters is completely insane. It's suicidal macho stupidity. The deepest an Open Water diver is certified to go is 18 meters. The legal limit is 40 meters, although I have no idea who could enforce a law like that or what kind of penalty there'd be. I guess it's just a thing they say.

On one dive, I was with a large group and the divemaster was chasing after a thresher shark. With six other guys around me, I didn't worry about my depth and accidentally followed them 39 meters down into the abyss. It was pretty scary. All the horrible things they teach you about in the PADI course suddenly rushed into my head. I realized that each breath I was taking was five times more dense than a breath on the surface. My body was quickly filling up with nitrogen it couldn't do anything with and oxygen it didn't need. My first instinct was to shoot up to a safer depth, which would've been bad. I slowly made my way up to 15 meters and spent the rest of the dive there. Everything was fine.

I never saw the thresher shark.

Elias told me they usually have one or two deaths on the island each year. He told me a couple stories, and they were all reckless divers who should've known better.

I know that probably doesn't help. Sorry, mom.

The other big story I wanted details about was the hostage crisis. You may have heard about this one. In April of 2000 a group of Filipino muslim extremists landed their boat on the uninhabited side of Sipadan and stormed the resort at around dinner time. They marched 20 people, both staff and foreign tourists, into their boat and took off.

I'm not certain of the details of what happened. I believe a ransom was paid and all the hostages were released. The kidnappers were eventually hunted down and all but one of them is now dead.

Security has been beefed up both on and around the island and it's very unlikely that anything similar will happen again.

Elias, who's Filipino, was very particular about not calling them terrorists. I used the word once and he corrected me. These guys weren't trying to terrorize people. They wanted money for their revolutionary cause, which was to liberate Mindanao and its surrounding region from the Phillipines and make it a separate muslim state. It was a valid point. To us, muslim + guns = terrorist, but it's a loaded word and we should be careful how we use it.

The other fun thing about the east coast of Sabah is that it's notorious for piracy. When I read that, I wanted to don my eyepatch and peg leg and run out to join them. But apparently, it's not that kind of pirates. These guys use assault rifles and they don't say "shiver me timbers" or "yar!" or any of that stuff. I was crestfallen.

Sipadan sells itself as one of the world's top five dive sites, and in their more enthusiastic literature they claim to be #1. They are safe in that claim only because it's a completely subjective assertion. To be honest, I didn't think the diving was all that spectacular. Aside from the unique shape of the island, which was very cool, most of what was on display was fairly typical for the Asia-Pacific region. There were lots of green sea turtles and white-tip reef sharks, which are fun to see, but not at all uncommon. The corals and smaller fish were beautiful, but for me that stuff doesn't make a dive memorable.

I don't want to be too down on the place. I had a great time. I'm just disputing their hype.

On my last day, one of the divemasters spotted a hammerhead on his morning dive. Seeing that probably would've changed my opinion about the place.

On the way back, I got them to drop me off at one of their sibling resorts called Sipadan-Kapalai, as it's only a few minutes away. The resort is way out in the ocean and was built entirely on wooden stilts. There is no landmass at all.

The diving isn't as good as Sipadan, which is why I didn't stay there, but the resort itself is like something out of a dream. I kind of have a thing for wooden walkways. I have the silly notion that any place with elevated wooden walkways is a utopian vision. And elevated wooden walkways over clear blue ocean? Well, you really can't beat that.

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The place reminded me a lot of the game Myst in that it was incredibly beautiful, but there was nothing to do. I'm glad I didn't stay there, but it's at the top of my list for honeymoon destinations.

Part of the negotiation to get them to drop me off at Kapalai included me staying a night at the Sepilok Nature Resort, yet another of their sibling locations. I took a quick flight up to Sandakan and was met at the airport.

I soon learned that I was the only person staying there that night. I had the whole place to myself; 17 bungalows to choose from and a staff of 40 at my disposal. No kidding.

I took my dinner on the veranda.

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They had elevated wooden walkways too, so I was happy.

In the morning, before leaving for Uncle Tan's Wildlife Tour, I walked nextdoor to the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary.

Here's the climax to my tale, told in Pulp Fiction-esque warped chronology. I started at the end, went back to the beginning, and here I am finishing off in the middle with a bunch of incredible apes.


Orangutans (2.5MB)

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I narrowly missed the ape in the second picture taking a dump in that position. It was something to behold.

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Look at the eyes and tell me it doesn't look a man in a suit.

The sanctuary is an open jungle reserve that provides a supplementary food source to the orangutans. They aren't caged. They willingly come to this spot several times a day to get fed. They're not really wild, but they're not kept either. They're sort of half-wild.

My tour guide was on edge around an ape who goes by the name of Honey Bear. He later explained that he had a long and ugly history with Honey Bear. There's a group of unruly apes, or as he calls them, "the naughty gang," who used to habitually attack guests in the park. He would have to rush in to fend them off, which involved punching and kicking them repeatedly. Honey Bear, the gang leader, didn't take kindly to being beaten up by a human. After retreating, he stared at the guide for several minutes, apparently memorizing his facial features. Years later, when he found the right moment, he leapt from a tree and bit the guide's arms and legs.

I got the sense that someday Honey Bear and the guide are going to have to finish things once and for all.

And speaking of finishing, that just about wraps it up for me. This was another excruciatingly long one. I apologize. I hope you did a lot of skimming. For anyone interested, here's a map of my course through Singapore and Malaysia.

Malaysiamap

May 07, 2003

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tallest Building My Ass

It's 4:30am as I'm starting this. I've been sitting in this small, windowless room for nine hours. At some point during that time, if my brain worked properly, it would have told me to go to sleep. If my brain worked properly, it would be telling me to do that right now.

It isn't that I'm not tired. I'm very tired. It's not even that I have insomnia. I could close my eyes and be gone inside a minute. I just don't.

It sounds stupid, doesn't it?

I've had this problem all my life.

Some kid on Pulau Tioman introduced me to Spider Solitaire. It's one of those dumb games that comes built-in with windows. It should be called Freebase Solitaire. That's what I spent the last nine hours doing. I didn't move. I didn't even go to the bathroom. My back is sore from sitting frozen in the same hunched-over position all that time.

Unhealthy.

To get to Kuala Lumpur, I took the ferry from Pulau Tioman to a small town called Mersing, then caught a bus across the peninsula to KL. I was the only non-Malaysian onboard. It wasn't at all the crowded, sweaty, smelly, bumpy ride I was expecting. It was a brand new deluxe bus with personal lights and fans above each seat. The road was newly paved and as smooth as any road I've been on. The houses we passed also seemed reasonably nice. Malaysia is definitely crawling its way out of the third world.

It struck me during this ride that I'd somehow acquired the notion in childhood, and still carry it in the back of my head to some extent, that you can't live a comfortable and happy life outside the United States or one of its affiliate subsidiaries. Not true at all.

Funny side note: the in-bus entertainment was a Metallica concert video called "Cunning Stunts."

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I saw this resort on Tioman. It was built seven years ago, and as the story goes, the investors ran out of money before it opened. They also found out that their waterfront was a protected marine park, so they couldn't build anything off it. It's been sitting there empty for all that time. The rooms are ready, but no one is coming.

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Fruit bats hanging out in a tree.

Okay, Petronas Towers. According to the Malaysian government, it's the tallest skyscraper in the world, so of course I had to make a day of it. But as I discovered, it has numerous problems:

1. To start with, it's ugly. Two giant ballpoint pens reaching into the sky.

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2. Petronas only has 88 floors. The Sears Tower has 108. The World Trade Center had 110.

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3. There's just no way it's the tallest building in the world. They measure it at 452 meters, counting the full height of the antennas. They measure the Sears Tower in Chicago at 442 meters, but curiously, they decided not to count the antennas on that one. If they did, it'd be over 500. The Sears has a viewing deck all the way up around 435 meters, whereas the top floor of Petronas is only at around 370. But it's a moot point anyway, cause you can't even get up that high. Which brings me to my next point.

4. If you're going to go to the trouble of building such a tall structure, it's a good idea to actually let people go to the top. Not Petronas. All they offer is a trip to their 41st floor skybridge, a staggering 170 meters above the ground. There are hotels in Kuala Lumpur that go higher than that. There are HILLS in Kuala Lumpur that go higher than that. It's like being in any reasonably tall building, except it's worse because you know you're not even halfway up to where you could be looking out from.

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I had a better view from my balcony in Brisbane.

I'm having to get used to being hit on fairly frequently by Malaysian women. Of all things, Superman seems to be really popular here, and they think I look like Clark Kent. I've heard this a couple times, and I've also gotten Peter Parker. I guess the glasses make me look like a mild-mannered alter ego.

One woman stopped me in the street and told me I was American. I agreed. She started chatting me up. I told her I was from New York, and she asked if the World Trade Center had been destroyed. I confirmed that yes, it had been. She told me her sister was going to America and tried to drag me to see her. I told her I was tired and had to get back to my hotel, but she insisted until I finally agreed to meet the two of them at 5:00pm. I really really didn't want to. It was very awkward.

I get back to my room and immediately start stressing about whether or not to meet them. I felt obligated, as an American, not to be rude. But I had a pretty strong inkling that this woman was going to try to marry me off to her sister, and I didn't want to deal with that.

In the end, my conscious and subconscious minds colluded to prevent me from showing up at the designated time. I took a nap and awoke around 10 to 5. I showed up at the meeting place at 10 past. They had left already. It was the perfect, guilt-free outcome. I was there. They just didn't wait around long enough.

Malaysia has a similar ethnic mix to Singapore, but in different proportions. There are many more indigenous Malay people, less of a Chinese presence but still strong, and not many Indians at all. What amazed me is that they all really do get along pretty well. Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindi living in harmony. It's heartwarming.

I asked a cab driver how they managed to coexist peacefully. He explained that if they didn't, they had their heads cut off.

Fair enough.

Shopping for bootleg stuff is really fun. I can get thousands of DVDs for USD$1.50 each. I can get a cartridge with 100 Game Boy games for USD$15. All sorts of imitation clothing and watches are available, though I have no use for any of that. It's a bit annoying dealing with the salespeople, but it's great what you can get. The moral issue has no impact on me. There's just no way Malaysians could afford to buy this stuff at the prices we charge. It's too easy to pirate and it's impossible to prevent.

Anyway, I don't plan on engaging in it other than when I'm in these countries, and I doubt I'll even bring much of the stuff I buy back with me. It's just disposable entertainment for when I'm sitting around in my hotel.

I will probably cave and watch a bootleg of the new Matrix movie if they make one of decent quality.

Has everybody heard about that Chinese actor who committed suicide a few weeks ago? His name was Leslie Cheung. He starred in Farewell My Concubine and some other lesser-known films. He was getting on in years and losing his good looks. Work was drying up, so he decided to end it all. He had plans to meet his agent for lunch in front of his hotel in Hong Kong. She called from her cell phone while he was up at the gym on the 44th floor. He told her he'd be right down.

And he was.

I really admire that. If you're gonna go, make it memorable. And if at all possible, do it with a sense of humor.

I had a great conversation with a Malaysian cab driver named Man. He wanted to move to the US, so he had me explain what salaries are like and how much it costs to live there. I told him that lunch at a restaurant in a place like New York or LA can cost $15, once tax and tip are included. Then I had to explain tipping, which he found mind-boggling. $15 is about what Man spends on food in two weeks.

I tried to discourage him from going. He had that old-fashioned image of America as a happy fairyland where opportunities abound and hard work is always rewarded. I don't know if my efforts did much. That's a difficult image to shatter without letting someone experience it firsthand.

We had a really good talk about the whole terrorist thing. Once he realized I wasn't a Bush supporter, the floodgates opened. Man is a muslim, and like most muslims, he's very worried about the American attitude toward his religion. And well he should be, I suppose. I explained that most of us really don't know much about it, and we don't particularly want to. I told him that when people have money, they don't want to be exposed to people and places that don't, because it makes them feel obligated to do something about it. And I told him that most of us are very frightened by the rest of the world.

I think he was happy to hear me say all that. He gave me his phone number in case I ever got in trouble. He was a really swell guy.

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Went to another Chinese restaurant. It had a vegetarian set meal that included vegetarian shrimp, vegetarian squid, vegetarian chicken, and vegetarian fish ball soup.

Went to the hawker stands in BB Park. There wasn't anything I'd be willing to eat, but it was neat to look at.

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Okay, I'm off to Sipadan in Borneo for some diving. Then Sandakan to see monkeys and stuff.

May 04, 2003

Pulau Tioman, Malaysia
I'm Going to be Someone's Dad

I made it to Tioman by the skin of my teeth. It was one long string of screw-ups that left me in silent awe at the notion that I’ve gotten as far as I have on this trip.

It started with going to bed at 2 am and waking up late. I crammed all my stuff into bags and checked out of the hotel at 7:30 – the same time I was supposed to be checking in for the ferry to Timoan. I caught a cab and made it to the ferry terminal by 8, right at the tail end of when I was supposed to get there. I gave the cab driver the last of my Singapore currency, as I wouldn’t be needing it anymore. Things seemed to be going fine until I got to the counter and found out I was at the wrong ferry terminal. The place where my boat was leaving from was on the other side of the country – a 20 minute cab ride away. By the time I’d worked all this out, it was 8:15 and there was no way I was going to make it there by the 8:30 departure. I would have to spend another day in Singapore. As I was accepting my fate, the woman who sold me the ticket took pity on me. She photocopied my passport so she could fax it to the other terminal, then threw me in a cab. While I was en route, she faxed my passport over and told them I was coming.

I got to the ferry terminal, paid the cab fare by credit card, went through customs and security clearance, got tested for SARS, then ran to the boat in record time. I don’t know how long they held it for me. I couldn’t bear the guilt of looking at a clock.

So I sat down on the boat and fell right to sleep. It was a nice ride.

Four hours later the boat arrives at Pulau Timoan, a tiny little island with a scattering of ramshackle huts along the coastline. It was the location for the mythical Bali Hai in the musical, South Pacific. I go through immigration on the Malaysian side, screwing up only slightly when I realize I forgot to fill out my declaration card. No big deal. I do that all the time. My passport is almost full now, by the way.

I get off the boat and onto the jetty, only to discover I have to pay an entrance fee. Of course, I have no money in either currency. I explain this to the guy with the tin cash box and fold-out card table. I ask him if there’s an ATM nearby or if he can take credit cards. He gives me a look like maybe I didn’t notice his tin cash box and fold-out card table, then suddenly feels compassion for the poor retarded man and waves me through.

As I’m walking down the jetty, some locals surround me and ask me where I’m going. I tell them I need to get up to ABC, the area where all the cheap resorts are, and they tell me I have to take their ferry. I tell them I have no money. They explain that their boat is the last one today, I have to take it, and they’ll accept Singapore currency. I explain again that I have no money and need to find an ATM. I suddenly become invisible. I was okay with this, because I was certain they were lying and it would be easy for me to get up to ABC once I had cash.

So I finally reach the shore and the only place I can get to from there is the big fancy resort 300 meters away. I haul my bags over, head to the cashier, and pull my wallet out to give her my credit card. That’s when I realize my credit card is gone.

Fortunately I have a back-up card, so I use that to get 200 Ringit, or about $50 US. It’s enough to last me a couple days, but I’m still screwed if I don’t get my main card back. I have no mailing address, so I can’t get a replacement, and the card is my complete and total lifeline.

I’m pretty sure I left my card on the boat, so I convince one of the resort employees to drive me back to the jetty. I get there just as the ferry is heading back for Singapore. I search under my seat and find the card. The clouds part and a holy light shines down upon me.

So I’m back on the jetty and all I’ve got left to deal with is how the hell to get up to ABC. Indeed, those guys were right. There is no other way to get up there other than their boat. Timoan hasn’t heard about taxis yet. The security guys at the jetty don’t speak any English, but they smile politely and tell me to wait there for another boat. It takes me about an hour to figure out that they don’t know what the hell I’m doing there or where I want to go. So I walk over to the fancy resort’s golf course and find a guy who can speak English. He takes me down to the beach and hails a friend of his who is fishing out on the water. He convinces his friend to give me a ride up to ABC in his speedboat for 30 Ringit -- about $8.

I hop into his tiny little boat in a massive swell with my laptop, camera, and various other digital paraphernalia that doesn’t like getting wet. I spend the whole thunderous ride clutching my gear to protect it from the spray, then nearly break my leg hopping off onto the dock.

After that it was only a twenty-minute walk with all my bags to a resort with vacancy. I’m in a nice little hut that costs $11 US a night, surrounded by mosquito netting, typing away in the dark. I have one electrical plug, so I have to trade the fan for laptop power.

To make a long story short (too late), I’m a colossal moron. I somehow managed to stumble through the day successfully, despite doing absolutely everything wrong. This is why I like traveling alone. See, I can do all the dumb things I did today and feel fine about it, cause no one else has to suffer the consequences along with me. I’m happy to wait all afternoon for a boat that’s never coming or walk indefinitely in the hot sun with forty pounds of luggage toward an uncertain destination. It doesn’t really bother me. But if I had someone depending on me to know what the hell I’m doing – well, we wouldn’t be getting along very well right now.

I’m looking forward to married life someday.

I’m looking forward to being someone’s dad.

People should regard this trip I’m on the same way they regard a man with no legs climbing Mt. Everest. I am battling an enormous handicap.

I read that when they were searching the private gymnasium of one of Uday Hussein’s now legendary palaces of deranged excess, they found he had big blown-up posters of W.’s daughters on the wall, amidst all the pornography.

Now that’s downright twisted.

The Malaysian Ringit is the first currency I’ve encountered that has a fixed exchange rate against the US dollar. It’s a solid 3.8 at all times. It fluctuates against every other currency except the US. Apparently they got sick of it dropping all the time. I didn’t know you were allowed to do that. There must be some kind of penalty. Anyway, it’s certainly a favorable rate. Meals, hotels, and transportation are all about the same numerical amount that they’d be in dollars, so everything is around ¼ its normal cost. Hi ho!

The reason I’m updating again after posting nothing for the last week is very simple: No TV. It’s either this or sleep.