Monday, April 23, 2007

Perhatian Island

I didn't come to South East Asia to hang out with Euro backpacker kids, but turns out that what tropical island paradises are full of. I was hoping for topless island girls or large breasted mermaids, but it was just lots of Jack Johnson and overpriced booze. Not really my scene, but I ain't a hater. Spent several days and waaaaaay too many ringgits lazing on the beach, playing volleyball, burying each other in the sand, snorkeling, drinking buckets with straws, and doing all the status quo stuff expected of 20 somethings on white sand beaches.

Good times and glad I did it, but a far cry from the 38 hour bus rides and explosive diarrhea that are the hallmarks of an Ian vacation. I'ma skip the full moon parties, magic mushroom milkshakes, and spring break hedonism of Southern Thailand and head straight to Burma. Military juntas, imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winners, closed boarders, restricted provinces, Myanmar sounds like my kinda place. I'll be posting from Bangkok while I sort out visa stuff, but prepare for another long blog hiatus. Even if they do have the internet and even if this site is not one deemed inappropriate for the masses and blocked, I'd be scared to write anything less than completely flattering about the government and the fine job they are doing in Myanmar. As great as a story as it would make, I'ma do my best to stay out of Burmese prisons.

Crazy Giant Animals

Now I'm a city kid and don't get that much exposure to flora. Pigeons, rats, cockroaches, and people's pets are pretty much the only animals I encounter on a regular basis. Still though, I like the zoo and know lots of stuff 'bout lots of critters. I didn't know anything about Malaysian jungle science fiction enormous mutant animals though. Inch long ants. Yes, one inch. An Ant. Insane. Super gianourmous spiders too. Stuff that is supposed to be big and is isn't really all that crazy. Orangutans and Komodo Dragons in Sumatra were was big as I knew they'd be. Kangaroos are too big, but everything else in that petting zoo place in Australia was just what I expected. Saw a huge centipede, but I'd seen them before in the Smithsonian's Insect Zoo. I was pretty obsessed with the inch ants, but not so much so as to be inspired to write and entire blog.

I don't like scary movies 'cause I start thinking and worrying about monsters and stuff. For a few days I won't sleep well and don't like being in unlit, uncrowded places that are conducive to being gotten by monsters. Monsters ain't real though, and I know my fears are irrational and unjustified. Being scared of something real is different.

Was strolling around the hillside ocean view chalets (a chalet is a fancy word for a hut on stilts) where I was staying admiring the gorgeousness. A lady came on her porch saw me and we shared our awe for the spectacularity of where we where, then she asked me if I'd seen the lizards. I replied that I hadn't and she told me that they were huge: 2-3 meters. I smiled and nodded as she was older and clearly crazy and/or really stupid. There is no such thing as a 3 meter lizard. That's ridiculous. Maybe she meant to say 2-3 feet. She prolly got startled by one and overexaggerated its size. That's fine, but a 9 foot lizard is just preposterous. Later while eating breakfast on my porch I saw a lizard. It was good sized, head and body as big as a cat. With the tail it was prolly 2-2 ½ feet. Maybe 3. Certainly not 9. Silly lady.

A few minutes later I heard something off to the side of the porch. I looked over and DEAR LORD!!! It was surreal. Humongous on a scale that doesn't even make sense. Like Giantworld on Super Mario 3. Tried to get a picture, but the thing heard me and got the bejeezus scared out of it. Too big to be agile and quick like the lizards that crawl on walls and ceilings, dude stumbled, slipped and fell in a ravine, and ran under a neighboring chalet. Didn't measure, but if I had to guestimate I'd say 6 feet. Maybe 5'3" or maybe 6'8" I dunno. Wasn't the length so much as the girth though. I'm a 34 inch waist and it wasn't no smaller than me.

Found out later it was a monitor lizard. The internet doesn't have anything impressive to say about Varanus salvator, but whatever. I got photographic evidence of the other ones

Malaysia wins the award for world's most ridiculously oversized animals. And I didn't even make it out to Borneo, that's prolly where King Kong and Mothra and them come from

Develop: under-, -ing, and -ed

I experienced Malaysia as the the model of progress and as backwards little brother. Went from being impressed with its cleanliness and sense of security to noticing its litter problems and fearing pickpockets. All in a matter of two weeks. Crazy how quickly you adapt from one reality to another. Got me thinking about what is taken for granted at various stages of development:


Underdeveloped countries - One of the most interesting things you'll experience. Lots of lots of stories for the folks back

Developing countries - Kind of a crapshoot. Sometimes you have to pay a few coins. Sometimes you have to pay for toilet paper. Sometimes you can sneak past without paying. Just kinda depends.

Developed countries - Bathrooms are just bathrooms, what are you talking about?

Crossing the Street

Underdeveloped countries - What an adventure!! For some reason traffic lights aren't too popular. Just kinda pick and time and go. In addition to the cars, trucks, and buses that you're used to; there are horses, dogs, bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, and all sortsa stuff zooming around. Best to do like a little kid and hold somebody's hand. Or walk next to an old lady, she's been doing this for years.

Developing countries - Jaywalk everywhere except crowded intersections where you use the crosswalk like everybody else

Developed countries - Drivers are busy talking on cell phones, fooling with their CD/DVD players, putting on makeup, eating, drinking, and other such non-driving activities. Everyone drives really fast, keeps 2-5 car lengths away from everything, and slams on their brakes and honks if anything other than a red light distracts them from their non-driving activity (there's a squirrel, some guy looks like he might be thinking about jaywalking, the car 60 feet in front of them started to merge into their lane without signaling for 45 seconds beforehand). There are accidents all the time, but nobody cares because they all have insurance.

Communication Barrier

Underdeveloped countries - Unless you're some place where you're paying in dollars, nobody speaks your language. You speak theirs. Sometimes because you are a dumb foreigner they SPEAK LOUDLY. IN SHORT SENTENCES. SO YOU UNDERSTAND. But you don't. This can either be very frustrating or very funny. I recommend going with option B. Smiling and nodding, pointing and grunting, facial and hand gestures, that's all you really need. If you have pictures of your family that's always a big hit. A map of their country is nice for you to show where you've been and where you're going.

There's a fairly high likelihood that someone will want to play the do you know game. It goes something like this:
"Sah Co-na-li"
"Yes, Sean Connery"
"Da Bi-ools"
"Yes, the Beatles"
"Mi-aw Jo-an"
"Mi-aw Jo-an. Ba-set"
"Ah yes, Michael Jordan"
It's pretty annoying, but remember that your are making their day and doing your part to make the world a better place through cross-cultural exchanges.

Once in a while you'll get someone who speaks English and they will talk your ear off. Be prepared to offer your opinions on international politics, explain everything about your country they don't understand, and listen to their theories on everything. You'll learn a lot, and can be certain that every word you said will be repeated for friends and family for years to come.

Developing countries - Learn the basics: hello, thank you, how to order food, and numbers so you know how much stuff costs. If you ever find yourself in a situation where this is insufficient, try to smile and nod it off, and if that doesn't work just run away. Otherwise you cause drama. They are self conscious about their lack of language ability and so are you. At best this means awkwardness and mutual embarrassment. At worst it means a random person will be enlisted to translate and a large crowd will gather. The onlookers won't offer to help, nor will they joke around and lighten the mood as that is something only ignorant people who like in shanty towns do. Developing country folks just stand there transfixed, suddenly made very much aware of their worthlessness. Too economically advanced to heckle and enjoy the humor inherent in the situation yet too curious to ignore it and walk away. The whole exchange makes everyone present very insecure and for those being observed the experience can be a scarring one.

Developed countries - Everyone speaks English. If they don't, try the next person. Don't bother flipping through your pocket dictionary and mispronouncing things. Stick with hello, thank you, food, and numbers. Old people and folks who don't get out much might think your attempts to speak their language are cute, but they're not. Take that gumption and earnestness to a less developed country, they love foreigners being interested in their culture. Just speak English here. Not slang or idioms, but clearly pronounced standard English.

Buying Stuff

Underdeveloped countries - "Hello my friend!" "Okay, yes?" people will appear from everywhere. Lots of confusion that some attempt to remedy with helpful arm grabbing. Everything is offered and everything promised, a crowd of loiterers lingering about takes notice, the entire universe is focused on you and your infinite amounts of rich country money. "Okay, yes?" "My friend, my friend" Don't ever show up at the bus station unsure of the name of that city and consult your map/guidebook. Always know exactly what you want and how much it costs. Then go fight everyone who disagrees with you. If they can rip you off it means their kids won't go be bed malnourished that night, so be ready for battle. Hesitation is the weakness they pry upon, stick to the game plan and do not be deterred. Always remember that they are professionals, this is their job and despite what they tell you they won't sell anything for a price that doesn't yield a profit.

Developing countries - At first glance the myriad of touts aggressively vying for your attention may seem similar to the shopping experience in poorer nations, but then you realize they are all peddling the same thing at the same price. Occasionally someone will take advantage of your ignorance and scam you, but for the most part you pay the same as everyone else. Market forces have set the price and there are currently twice as many vendors as necessary. Attrition is inevitable, and you as the consumer decide who stays employed. Whichever $2 dinner special you choose will be equally delicious, they only difference is which food stall owner's kids will get to go to college.

Developed countries - All major credit cards are accepted

Saturday, April 7, 2007


I had kinda of a vague idea of the route I’d take this trip. Figured Hawaii to Sydney to Bali across Java up Sumatra to Singapore and through Malaysia and Thailand to Bangkok. Nothing concrete, no dates and no tickets. If I like a place I can stay for a while and if I meet someone cool I can tag along with them. Just going with the flow and seeing what happens, that’s how I like to travel. Some folks plan everything out, reservations and to do lists and schedules to keep. Striving to meet self-imposed deadlines seems like a stressful way to spend a vacation to me though.

All I knew about Sumatra was volcanoes and orangutans. I wanted to see Krakatau and ride on a bus for a long time. And see an orangutan. Those were my only requirements. Krakatau costs a lot though. About half a week’s budget just for the admission fee. And its far from stuff. I’d take 2-3 days. And I only had a little over a week left on my non-extendable visa. So Krakatau’s out. Figured I’d spend a few extra rupiahs and fly from Jakarta to Padang to maximize my remaining few days in Indonesia. ‘Cept that didn’t work out. So I got my first long ride on a bus.

Must’ve slept through the Padang stop, but I got off at the next town. After 38 hours on a bus, I wanted to stretch my legs a little so I did some sightseeing. The one cool thing was closed ‘cause of damage from the earthquake the week before, so I went to the old fort/zoo. I like zoos and met some kids there. Only one spoke English, but no lingua franca was necessary to appreciate pythons eating birds. After the zoo we all went to eat some Padang food. Pading food means put a whole bunch of bowls full of stuff on your table and you grab what you want and shovel it and some rice into your mouth. With your hand. Your right hand though, ‘cause you wipe your butt with your left. Eating Padang food is fun. Not as much fun as pythons eating birds, but still. Had figured I’d spend the night in town and head to volcanic crater lake the next day, but the guy who spoke English was going to visit his parents and my volcanic crater lake was on his bus route. So I hopped on his minibus and a few hours later checked into a lakeside bungalow. One of the most beautiful sunsets I’d ever seen.

The next morning after strolling through rice paddies and electricityless huts in the jungle, I was stopped by a guy teaching an English class by the lake. He was an outdoors type who taught the kids the English names for all the local plants and animals. Sometimes he would take his class on hikes and clean up the trash people left behind. I was a most welcome guest speaker, and the kids had a blast asking me questions. That afternoon I met up with the teacher, and to show his appreciation for helping him out, he took me up to a waterfall in the jungle. Then we hung out at his parents’ elctricityless hut, drank some tea, and ate the nastiest bananas I’d ever had. They weren’t sweet at all, tasted more like potato or yucca or something. The next day I headed out to the other famous crater lake.

Within 16 hours (a blink of an eye in Sumatran bus time) I was checking into my Batak cottage. This lake was huge. Huge. So big it has an island in it. An island the size of Singapore. A country sized island inside a lake in a volcanic crater. Sumatra is awesome. Hung out there for a few days until the urge to spend another dozen hours on buses careening over potholed mountain roads became too much to bare. Orangutans at the orangutan rehabilitation center, and then on to the big city where I was supposed to catch a boat for Malaysia. Turns out all the cool stuff in Sumatra is way way way north of where you’d catch a boat to Singapore.

Arrived in town and started to shop for a hotel. I never paid more than $3.50 a night, but these places were asking 5 bucks. The audacity! I was hot and had been riding buses all day so I headed to an air conditioned shopping mall to cool off. Met some college kids who wanted to practice their English. Last time that happened, I had a pair of Beijing tour guides for a week. This time I scored free room and board for 3 days. The last night was the 30th anniversary of my host parents. We all sat on the floor and ate with our hands. After dinner we had a Cosby family moment with their 2 daughters and 4 sons each giving a little speech about how much they loved their parents and how appreciative they were to be a part of the family. Least that’s what I thought they were saying. That was the gist of my speech and it was well received.

Wound up overstaying my visa a little and even using my best tricks was unable to convince the immigration guys that it really was only 30 days. I had few of ‘em going for a while, but eventually they got out a calendar and counted the days. Had to pay a healthy fee, but no regrets. ‘Cept maybe for losing 430 pictures. That kinda sucked. Oh well, y’all don’t get any accompanying photographs until Malaysia is all.