Sunday, June 26, 2011

After groaning gorillas and carnivorous flowers it’s about time you swam with sharks.

“Ninety percent of the game is half mental.”

-Jim Wohford

After groaning gorillas and carnivorous flowers it’s about time you swam with sharks.

The boat has stopped, now just bobbing with the waves between two of Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands. There’s a large dark mass moving in the sea underneath. The Malay-driver says, “Who want sees big shark, jump in.”

So you do.

Something happened since you began traveling. Fear unraveling, four months ago you’d flail frantically back to sand if the water was chest deep and an errant plastic bag brushed your leg. Now you’re swimming in the ocean with thirty yards of visibility yet still without the ability to see bottom hoping to spot a shark. A big one.

Well, maybe you’re really hoping it’s only average in size, and a small one would be just as good, better even, you can’t really appreciate a creature in person without first observing its young.

Maybe you haven’t overcome fear, maybe you’re just living in the moment more, just jumping first and asking questions later. Treading H2O, asking questions like, “How did the boat get so far away?” and “What‘s the best position to assume in the water so as to not look like prey?” and “Which leg is my favorite, which limb should I offer if the shark is craving Caucasoid?”

The thing about justice is that it nearly always prevails. Last night you had barbequed shark for dinner.

Last week you were cooling off in the Cameron Highlands, discovering why European settlers believed the altitude respite essential, your recent lethargy realized to be the result of humidity. You went from barely being able to sweat through two hour hikes in Penang National Park to ascending a mountain or two a day in the Highlands, always feeling as though the workouts were stunted from all the flower photography. No, you weren’t hiking with horticulturists. The flowers were just that stunning, just that exotic.

Especially eye-catching was the carnivorous pitcher flower. You’re still embarrassed recalling your arousal, it’s not your fault, these things reek of eroticism. Rich colors and sweet nectar attract insects in. The invitation comes with a reluctance to depart, the flower’s insides sticky, bugs drown in the nectar or starve to death before the seductress consumes.

You women, you’re all the same.

The large dark mass moving in the ocean, it’s coming towards you. In fact, it’s swimming directly at you. It’s fast.

In the Cameron Highlands you stayed at Kang’s Lodge, which consisted of dorm beds and communal showers. Some people, especially Europeans, they share too much.

What I want to convey is, if you have a private room next to the dorm separated by nothing more than a cardboard wall and I’ve gone to sleep to the singsong of your hairy Czech mid-forties form belching and farting the past three nights, then maybe, when common sense gives way to my-liver-may-fail-at-any-moment drunk and another traveler is willing to have sex with you, you should splurge on a more private setting.

You know, spend nine dollars instead of six.

Because when you, the Czech Don Juan, start grunting I am going to giggle. It’s as inevitable as stomach acids burning the tonsils every time I hear you flagellate. I could barely contain a chuckle or five when, in response to your affection’s slurred hesitation, you kept repeating, “We can do anything, we are free.”

Your technique to embolden, it was so Euro-over-the-top, a foreigner-seduction cliché, that when it proved effective on the whiskey-straight-from-the-bottle-lubricated Asian traveler I made a mental note. Only get inebriated when in the presence of the intelligent. When tomorrow comes you may have regret, you may be having twins, but at least your progeny’s college scholarships will spare the retirement fund.

That last line, it was a joke. As if you’d ever have a fund to retire on.

Even in the I-can-no-longer-feel-my-face haze of come-on-liver-hang-in-there intoxication someone’s grown self conscious. The bed creaks from a weight-release, the Asian traveler exits the not-so-private room and collapses on a dorm bed aside yours. The Czech’s groans aren’t result of pleasure anymore. He pounds on the cardboard walls.

“Come back, we are free, we can do anything.”

Yes, you can do anything, but why, with infinite possibility, would ’anything’ include jumping into the deep blue sea for shark-sighting with nothing to defend yourself apart from snorkeling gear. Yeah, that rubber strap on the mask hurts when it snaps against the ears, but a shark may require more in the pain department before choosing a different entrée.

The fin accelerating towards you, it transforms into a shell. The sea turtle is nearly as long as you and three times as wide. When it’s merely a meter away you start swimming with it and, incredibly, you both break the surface of the water together, the turtle getting a breath of air before motoring past and back down into the shadowed depths.

Mr. Boatman, he was joking about sharks. When you clamber back aboard he says, “Didn’t think anyone jump if shark, you not so smart, huh?”

The next day you go on a snorkeling tour promising a shark sighting. 100% guarantee. In Southeast Asia there are no refunds. You don’t see a shark. You don’t get your money back. “Yeah, its about fifty-fifty you see shark,” the tour operator tells you on the return journey.

Hmm. So it’s a 100% guarantee that there’s a fifty-fifty chance of spotting a shark.

“Yeah, yeah, 100% guarantee,” the operator responds.

Of what?

“Of maybe you see shark.”

Keep drifting.

View from atop Gunung Brichang, Cameron Highlands.

You go first, Frodo.

The sun setting in Pulau Penang.

Welcome to Malaysia.

A beach in Penang National park

A canon ball tree.

Pitcher flowers

Carnivorous pitcher flowers, they're not trying to seduce you, they already have, in the Cameron Highlands.

At the Perhentian Islands; the water quality is the best I've been in.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Fat, happy and inflatable.

“Yesh, yesh, the men hash all the wives they wants and can beat ‘em and the womens can’t do one thing ‘bouts it, not one thing, and the gov-a-ment says if Muswem you always Muswem, you no change, not ever. Vewy, vewy bad for womens.”

-A Chinese-Malay overstating the many advantages of the Islamic faith in Malaysia after proudly telling me all about the economic success of the Chinese in the country despite the Muslim government’s favoring indigenous Malays over ethnic Indians and Chinese. (Government scholarships are awarded pursuant to academic success only if of indigenous-Malay race, economic policies are geared towards putting more corporate wealth in indigenous-Malay hands, and you won’t find any non-indigenous-Malay police officers despite 15-25 percent of the country being made up of ethnic Indians and Chinese.)

Fat, happy and inflatable.

Between morning beach jogs and afternoon snorkeling sessions in Thailand’s gulf I entered Malaysia tan and taught, the June 2011 model darker and sleeker than ever before. Then I walked around Pulua Penang, Malaysia, the oldest of the British Straits settlements--older than Singapore and Hong Kong--and got a whiff of what they refer to as ’hawker food’. A spare tire was quickly added, front and rear bumpers expanded, the trunk extended for additional cargo space. Side airbags, child’s seat, rollover bar and reinforced steel, check, check, check. I went from Ferrari to minivan with a five-star collision rating.

Crispy chicken, roast pork, barbeque beef, it comes from small stalls that line the streets selling little more than their particular specialty. Some of the best food is found in the dingier alleys, feet from dumpsters and snoring drunks. The entrée or, more aptly, the gold bullion you can eat, always sits atop a mountain of rice, which is often saddled by a mound of odd-looking boiled vegetables, which surround a cup of soup. These plates cost 3-4 ringgit or, to spare you a ‘currency exchange’ Google search, about $1 USD.

With shared-bathroom-mattress-thinner-than-three-nickels accommodation to spend $20 dollars a day is to become obese. Somehow I manage to spend close to $30.

The extra expense, it’s all for you, I care about your well-being and know that when grandpa is behind the wheel that Southeast Asian sun glare is bound to catch him by surprise and you’ll thank me in midair for the added inflatable raft lining the undercarriage from axel to axel as you’re launched sea-bound off the Penang Bridge.

To go from six-pac to I-can-no-longer-see-my-testicles-without-the-help-of-a-mirror in seven days is a perfect Buddhist metaphor. Everything depends on everything else. If a Ko Tao, Thailand resort-owner thinks that, in addition to the bungalows, he owns the cove they’re situated next to and curses for ten-minutes in Thai while motioning as if to strike me for what he perceives is trespassing, I can’t help but laugh. In turn making him angrier. Which brings embarrassment because there are young, beautiful women about. Who, ten minutes prior to my being the soundboard for this very un-Thai Thai’s lifetime of frustration, turned my thoughts carnal with their bikini-clad company. There is no identity to identify with, only an amorphous mass that’s thoughts, emotions and physicality are molded by the environment surrounding it. When I’m near inexpensive food that doesn’t just dance with the taste buds, but waltzes to a perfect Dancing With the Stars scorecard, I get fat.

Ahh, the impermanence of it all, the transitory nature of everything gracing the Earth. You want to call that amorphous mass self? Get over yourself.

What nonsense. Which is why I'm now a Muslim.

Crossing international boundaries continues to bewilder. A foot north of a man-made imaginary line lie wats, rice fields, the quest for sanuk (fun) and a tolerance of--even a national reverence for--katooeys (ladyboys). Traveling south of the same boundary that, even when I squint and look at it as if it’s a Magic Eye poster, I can not see and suddenly mosques rule the landscape oozing distinctively odd--even what many Caucasoids consider eerie--intricate chanting. It’s stern, non-rhythmic, and emanates at all hours of the day. It may be near midnight, you’ll be caught off guard, then put on guard, you’ll consider calling in an air strike. That’s how edgy western media has made you.

But seriously, get me the Secretary of Defense stat.

A bit south of that illusive line and the Southeast loses its sex appeal. At the beach women wade in the ocean in full chardor and veil. Even in Penang National Park, a rain forest where one discovers sweat glands on the back of one’s hands and elbows, a heat-box so humid three-feet long monitor lizards need to escape into the sea (I thought they were committing mass suicide by drowning but these beasts have mastered the dog paddle), I pass by women in full Islamic wear. Their husbands leading the way, shirtless and smiling, and who knows, maybe under all that cloth their wives are carrying a similar expression.

After all, if the master is happy so are the servants.

Particularly alarming are the women wearing all black. All one can see are the eyes. They’re dark too.

My new faith is going to take some getting used to.

Keep drifting.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

If an entry is titled ‘I’m just faking it,’ will anyone respond with the sophomoric ‘That’s what she said’?

“An American? Like, so, um, am I, like, speaking your language or whatever?”

-This quote came from an Aussie traveler of all people, a country who, by her own admission, has yet to produce a great, internationally renowned mind yet has managed, as noted in retort, to have stolen all recent leading male movie roles.

If an entry is titled ‘I’m just faking it,’ will anyone respond with the sophomoric ‘That’s what she said'?

Having entered Laos knowing little about the country I anticipated a swift exit, a stay not more than a couple weeks. After the hustle-bustle-keep-your-hands-inside-the-tilt-o-whirl-at-all-times of Vietnam languid Laos inspired, the locals less loco, the travelers more traveled. You know, maybe it‘s okay to stop and enjoy the wind through the little hair left on your head as the sun lowers over and eventually melds into the Mekong River after swinging in a hammock all day. Just make sure you take some pictures, dammit.

After thirty days a visa extension was considered until that Caucasoid psychosis reared its haughty head, its tongue slithering to and fro and up my nose cooing in one ear and then the other that ‘the great affair is to move, to see, to do; the Almighty doesn’t reward loiterers.’

Why then do the Laos people seem so content?

It must be faux serenity. Without wealth accumulation, without sufficiently distinguishing oneself among one’s peers in beauty and title, one can only pretend for happiness. If you don’t have prestige and a new cell phone and the woman that dates men with prestige and a new cell phone then there’s no hope for you, none at all, and you might as well be Laos.

With Bin Laden’s termination resulting in the collapsed demise of Islamic extremism the world over a visit to a Muslim nation is in order. Heading to Malaysia via Thailand, I come representing the U.S.A. conquistadors, the saviors of the Arab world, we saved Islam from itself there and if you’re lucky we’ll do the same for you here. Got any oil?

That ridiculous liberal jab, it wasn’t me or even the Caucasoid psychosis, but the last traces of the artificial Laos ‘live and let be’ philosophy leaving the core, the Laos way of life unconcerned with the strife of other nations, that’s disinterest is so complete ignorance rules the day. North African turmoil, it’s dukkha, it’s terrestrial, impermanent, it doesn’t matter. It’s just another distraction from The Eight-Fold Path, just another bungee cord keeping one earthbound. The silly simple Buddhists, they’ll never be revered or feared and, even worse, they don’t thirst to be.

With a fifteen-day visa-free stay from a Thailand land border crossing I give myself four days at each of Thailand’s most Caucasoid-spoiled gulf isles, Ko Tao, Ko Pha-ngan and Ko Samui. Upon reentering Thailand everything becomes too easy, too pleasant, the overnight train going from Nong Khai to Bangkok is so relaxing I actually sleep, the train to Chumphon leaves within hours of my arrival in the capital, before I can finish a plate of fried rice in Chumphon I’m whisked away onto a overnight ferry to Ko Tao. Quick, easy and inexpensive, surely I’ve traveled shrewdly having not crossed more than a couple Caucasoids during the thirty-six hours it takes to get from the Laos-Thai border to a Thai tropical paradise, a place where I can take leg-numbing time on the toilet whilst taking in the turquoise-ribboned sea from an island bungalow.

Reaching the third island in the chain, Ko Samui, I realize I only look like a vagabond, that I’m just a wannabe drifter. After sleeping in A-frame mozzie-asylums in Ko Tao and Ko Pha-Ngan I’m forced to pay more on Ko Samui’s chic Chaweng beach. And gag, barf, swallow, gag and barf again, the luxury excites me. The fan works, the toilet flushes, there’s even a mirror in the bathroom.

Yep. I definitely look like a vagabond.

Keep drifting. (Even if I’m just faking it.)

Entrance to the Konglor Cave, Laos

Congratulations. You've made it 20 meters into Konglor. Only 7,480 to go.

Another cave (of sorts); at the Xieng Khuan Sculpture Park outside Vientiane, Laos.

That's one big lying-down Buddha; the pose at his death.

This is making me uncomfortable.

Back in Thailand and suddenly there are three wats per block, Nong Khai Thailand.

At the Sala Kaew Ku Sculpture Park in Nong Khai Thailand, created by the same exiled Laos sculptor of Xieng Khuan.

That's one big Big Buddha (disciple).

Ko Tao, Thailand, looking towards Ko Pha Ngan

Ko Tao sunset

Cruising around Ko Pha-Ngan on motorbike and I couldn’t pass up this silhouette.

A Ko Pha Ngan sunset

Ko Pha Ngan, looking towards a protected marine park (which in Thailand only means you have to pay people under the table to visit and construct a resort). 

Another Ko Pha Ngan sunset. Enough already.

Same horizon ten minutes later; every worry I've ever carried sat with the sun.