Archive for September, 2013

welcome to Borneo

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i arrived at Jarkata’s Soekarno–Hatta International Airport 6 hours early for a flight that departed 10 hours late to Kota Kinabalu: the capital city of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo.  i made my home right there in Terminal 3 nestled up with my pack as a teddy bear and my guitar as a pillow.  the nice flight attendants woke me up every once in a while not to inform me about the status of my flight but to hand me my consolatory box of chicken and rice: a humble apology on behalf of Air Asia for having to endure a free night’s stay on a clean carpet in an air conditioned room.  after spending 56 days in Indonesia i felt i had only scratched its surface but i was also eager to move on.  Borneo has been a much anticipated entry in my travel docket since the very beginning and in just a few hours i would be looking down over the vast blanket of clouds that covers it.

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Kota kinabalu (or simply “KK”) is a walkable town of about half a million.  it’s comprised of a small grid of unique strip mall-like buildings that line the north-western coast that overlooks the 5 islands that make up the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park.  along the water front is a thriving fish market with plenty of fishing boats to sustain it.  other than Malaysians, KK has a large mixture of Chinese and Indian people that both keep to their respective areas.  the downtown area is bookended by two large awkwardly designed shopping malls.  quite an intriguing place considering it was destroyed several times over during World War 2 then rebuilt from scratch in the early 60’s.

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i was very excited to be reunited with my long time French-Canadian travel companion Nicolas who arrived several hours after me.  between my recent jet trauma and his latest traumatizing adventure in Northwest India, we were both looking forward to some R&R.  this of course would entail sharing stories of our travels during the consumption of strong ale, catching up on all the latest American films and sampling the Chinese/Indian/sea influenced food.

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we devoted two whole days of our R&R to two of the smaller football field-sized islands of Sapi and Mamutik to get our fill of hiking and snorkeling.  it was here i experienced my first proper sunburn in months, not only from direct sunlight but from the sun’s reflection off the glistening white skin of the hoards upon hoards of Chinese tourists.

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only after we were good and ready did we embark on our adventure to the sultanate of Brunei.  we first made a mandatory interstitial stop at the duty free Island of Labuan.  there we thought it appropriate to rent motorbikes (i nicknamed mine “Labuan James”) and give the island a thorough traipsing.  we found the place to have an interesting mix of rustic water village communities and industrial monoliths.  it seemed like every road we took eventually dead-ended onto a giant oil refinery or a Halliburton blah-blah.  Labuan also has a very impressive deep harbor filled with a hundred large ships waiting to unload.  the duty-freeness was of course the cherry on top.  you almost cant throw a stick here without hitting a shop selling a wide variety of very inexpensive spirits, chocolate, perfume and tobacco.  from here non-Muslims are allowed to bring two liters of alcohol into Brunei.  i was tickled by the thought of purchasing my favorite gin for half the price i was used to and then consuming it in a small country where the purchase and public consumption of alcohol has been banned for the last twenty years.

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Brunei is a very unique and special place with a fascinating history.  it’s home to less than half a million people, a little more than half of which occupy the main city of Bandar Seri Begawan.  of those, over 30,000 inhabit the Kampong Ayer water village built in the middle of the Brunei River witch also happens to be the largest village on stilts on the world.  the Brunei River and its tributaries act as the main arteries through the city.  they are bustling with water taxis eager to take you anywhere and everywhere.  in the center of town is a giant lavish mosque resting on a circular lake.  at the far end of town is the sultan’s palace perched on a hilltop overlooking all of his subjects.  here i truly felt as though i was in an intimate kingdom.

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on our way through customs we befriended a very nice French/Belgium couple named Hugo and Laure.  for the next several days the four of us marched vigorously from attraction to attraction starting at the water village then continuing on to the mosques and museums.  every place we went was clean, air conditioned and seemingly empty.

we wandered carefully through the water village for hours at a time on its maze of rickety wooden walkways raised above a mud plane.  near one entrance of the water village is a small info center with a few exhibits that glaze over the history and traditions of the Brunei people.  toward the end of the last exhibit we discovered a small paragraph that mentioned a tradition called “Sunat” which involves the circumcision of Muslim females between 40 to 60 days old.  coming from the western world we were understandably alarmed by this.  its description in this museum was quite vague so we decided we might try to inquire further by asking some actual Bruneians about the matter.  working this into a conversation was not easy for me but once on the topic they seemed to discuss it with the ease and comfort of any other mundane subject.  i asked one security guard who turned out to be well versed in the male procedure but when asked about the female procedure he simply said “i don’t know, i’m not a female” as if the question was as preposterous as asking a caterpillar what it’s like to flap its wings.  Hugo had a little more luck when he asked our hotel manager who assured us that the tradition is still widely practiced but he couldn’t tell us exactly what the procedure entails.  i finally resorted to the almighty Google who in addition to amplifying the vagueness produced many claims (including a first hand report) to suggest that their procedure is far less damaging than the ones practiced in parts of Africa.

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the mosques we visited were a far cry from the usual cozy modest digs i was use to seeing.  with fine marble, crystal chandeliers, gold plated everything, gushing fountains and elaborate foot washing facilities, no expense is spared here.  during non-praying hours we were permitted to roam freely and relax in the main chambers.


courtesy of Hugo

our last full day in Brunei also happened to be the beginning of the Sultan’s two-week 67th birthday celebration.  the streets filled with spectators to watch the opening ceremony.  hundreds of solders marched in formation, golden cannons blared and jets flew overhead leaving trails of color.  we were even graced with an appearance of the sultan himself who made quite the entrance.

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being some of the only foreigners in town, we were approached, interviewed, filmed and photographed by a couple of local news publications (including this one).  and here is an excerpt of me running my mouth on the evening news.


also, i have been a traveling fool for over 6 months now… woot!

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bug bites and red lights


i spent my remaining 12 days in Indonesia on the island of Java.  first visiting Malang and then Yogyakarta (pronounced like “joke jakarta” and simply nicknamed “Jogja”).  i spent lots of time wandering the endless network of alleys that squirreled about the pockets of compact Muslim neighborhoods, listening to the music of their chants that were constantly a20130827_170629 (copy)mplified from the many mosques.  i gorged on delicious street food while becoming an expert on the various ways to obtain it.  hot soups with rice and chicken, fried noodles with vegetables and egg, skewers of beef parts barbecued over a thin metal troth.  i didn’t realize i had been eating cow tongue until long after it had become my favorite dish.  i could infiltrate a caravan of food carts circled around some benches and stuff myself on dish after dish for less than $2.  i could douse all of it in that molassesy soy sauce of pure ecstasy that i found sitting on every table.  then at night i would hope the black ants would leave me alone long enough so i could get a proper night’s sleep.  many nights they did but others i would wake up violently itching all my skin off.

then i had a change of perspective…

20130829_170946 (copy)i had a very sobering moment of realization upon waking on my first morning in Jogja.  i had yet a another fresh track of itchy bumps running down my arms and legs and there were no ants in sight to speak of.  then the thought occurred to me that just because i am constantly surrounded by angry biting ants doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the ants that feast on my skin at night.  do ants really go to such great lengths to protect their nest that they would go out of their way to leave long trails and even clusters of wounds on a person’s skin?  as horrible and annoying as they are, even ants don’t harbor that much malice.  their time and energy is better spent providing for their own.  whatever was biting me was obviously doing so for means of nourishment.  had i carried a blood-sucking pest half way across Indonesia?  and if so, how many beds had i infested along the way?  i quickly pushed these fruitless thoughts and others like it far from my mind and focused on the current matter.  i needed to get on top of the situation and i needed to act fast.  with my skin marked up and scabbed as it was i was already starting to resemble an unsavory and potentially diseased person.  the kind you might try to avoid in the less reputable parts of your city or town.  even the locals were starting to comment on my declining physical appearance and i longed dearly for an itch-less night of sleep.  the obvious question was, what the hell was i going to do about it!?  look in the non-existent phone book for a non-existent industrial strength laundromat?  perhaps i could go knocking on people’s doors and say “excuse me, i seem to have become infested with blood-sucking pests and i was wondering if i could use your facilities to get all of my belongings to above 130 degrees fahrenheit”… sigh…  i then stood up in a fit of rage and ripped apart the bedding from where i lay.  then something caught my eye and i moved the top mattress to get a closer look.  there lurking in a crease was one honest to God bed bug no bigger than an apple seed.  did i put it there or is this country really so disgusting? (fruitless thoughts… fruitless thoughts).  just then a beautiful idea came to me and this little guy was going to give me all the leverage i needed to put it into motion.  i arranged my clothing onto myself the best i could so that only the new bites would be visible, then i put my best distraught face on and went downstairs and explained to mother that the room she rented me was tainted and had attacked me in the night and that i will be needing to switch rooms as well as commandeer her kitchen to boil everything i own.  she responded to my request with apologetic warmth then sent her son up to my room to investigate the matter and assist me with anything i needed.  i showed him little Johnny-Bug-Apple-Seed and then proceeded to proudly lecture him about all the telltale signs of a bed bug infestation (i had become an expert in the last 10 minutes from the Googling).  not only was he less than impressed, he didn’t understand a lick of english.  i spent the rest of the day boiling all my clothing and meticulously cleaning the rest all the while to the soundtrack of daughter screaming on the floor next to me.  then i went back to my room and sprayed my backpack down with the pressurized bum gun (as it was too big to boil).  i slept a little better that night knowing that i had ruled out the possibility of further blood-sucking luggage pests and hopeful that if bed bugs really were the culprit then it would only be a matter of days before i start to resemble an actual person again.

20130901_005050 (copy)several evenings later, looking and feeling a lot better, i emerged from my hotel and instead of turning right in the alley like i’m ‘supposed to’ i decided to turn left.  i got no further than twenty steps when i was greeted by three Indonesian gentleman who strongly urged me to turn around.  i quickly calmed them down and made it clear that i knew exactly where i going.  you see, for whatever reason situated right next to the backpacker neighborhood is a small red light district and tonight it was bumpin’.  spread out amongst the squirrelly maze of alleyways are a dozen or so “VIP Karaoke” rooms.  Indonesian men of all ages line up outside and wait for bouncers to usher them into the dim neon lit air conditioned rooms filled with young attractive women in skimpy outfits.  it has its charm on the surface.  i might even go so far as to call it adorable.  but the deeper into it i ventured the more bleak and desperate it became.  i had of course come here for one reason and one reason only.  to procure some “black wine“… or anything stronger than the weak beer i had been drinking for the past two months.  i was working off the logic that if you want an inexpensive stiff drink in a predominantly Muslim country then you should look in the areas where the laws of the land are not held in the highest regard.  when i came to realize that the super secret shop from which i had recently purchased it was closed i decided to ask a bouncer at one of the karaoke clubs.  after a bit of confusion followed by some gentle persistence followed by more confusion i was cordially invited to sit at a table already occupied by two gentleman when my black wine and a glass arrived moments later.  over the past several days i had become used to its sweet anise flavor so i was more than delighted when one of the gentleman filled my glass.  then he said to me “so you’re the guitar player”… i guess any foreigner who wanders into town with a guitar strung about him is bound to cause a stir.  “why yes i am” i said, to which he countered “i have a guitar, will you play for us” to which i countered “i would love to”.  to my surprise he handed me a well kept classical to which i tuned and began to play.  after impressing them with one song he motioned to his minion who then fetched him a full bottle of Johnny Walker Black and three glasses.  he then poured us each a glass and told me that he would refill my glass after each song i played for them.  i was a little dumbfounded.  i hadn’t tasted real whiskey in months and now my 20 years of guitar playing was suddenly going to gain me access to as much of it as my heart desired.  so i played and he poured.  every several minutes my music would get completely drown out by a wave of awful karaoke accompanied by a gust of cool air every time the doors to the club would open to let the next batch of men in.  it was hard to tell exactly what was going on in there but at the very least i knew it involved karaoke being sung mostly by the girls.  the men i was sitting with seemed important and well respected.  not only could they produce Johnny Walker out of thin air, but whenever one of the girls would come out on what i assumed was a break they would excitably throw themselves onto them and shower their faces with kisses.  did they own or manage the place?  were they pimps?  i made it a point not to ask too many questions.  the girls also seemed quite uncomfortable with my presence.  when one man made an attempt to introduce me to one of them she took one look at me, screamed and ran the other way.  i did my best to mitigate any direct brutal ego damage caused by the incident by focusing immediately back on my guitar playing.  i played all my original songs, then i played through all the parts of songs i had recently made up trying my best to pass them off as full songs, then when i was completely tapped of original material i played the only non-original music i knew which happened to be the handful of Nirvana songs i taught myself when i first learned to play guitar.  the timing was perfect because the Johny was near empty and my fingers were quickly losing their athleticism.  we had drawn a crowd by this point and i had them all singing along.  i thought it appropriate to end the set with “Rape Me” to which we all screamed the lyrics at the top of our lungs.  i think if Kurt Cobain were there he would have fully appreciated the irony.

the next morning i awoke with a feeling i had not felt in a very long time.  a true honest to God hangover.

oh, and i did some tourist stuff too… Yogyakarta is centrally located amongst many historical sights including:

Borobudur – a 9th-century Buddhist temple…

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and Prambanan – Borobudur’s 9th-century Hindu cousin…

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flashy turquoise helmets both protect you from and keep you from seeing the low hanging doorways

flashy turquoise helmets both protect you from and keep you from seeing the low hanging doorways

and a “Kraton” – Royal Palace in the center of town filled with gazebo after gazebo of beautiful Gamelan instruments!  this brought me back to my collage days when i was in a Gamelan band.  hey look i even dug up an old recording of a song we did called

Lutung Bingung.

i played the bonang on this track.  that’s the nipple-pods-like instrument down in front.

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on my 8th and final day in Jogja i made preparations for my eight hour train ride to Jakarta.  when i was in the final stages of packing my bag i noticed one healthy full grown bed bug spring from it onto the bed.  i tried my best to fight back my urge to cry as i watched it leisurely stroll across the sheets.  it crawled proudly as if it was well aware of the fact that it had defeated me.  in a fit of anger i flicked it onto the floor with my room key then thrust my foot down upon it hard and with extreme prejudice reducing it to a dark red scuff mark.  then i shouldered my pack and left the room slamming the door shut behind me.

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