Wednesday, August 25, 2010

How You Know It's Time to Go Home

It’s not Bali’s fault.  To be fair, it didn’t have much of a chance at success.  For one thing, even though our fancy Sanur beach resort was supposed to be our last stop before going back to the place we’ve now come to call “Tea Party Nut-Job Land,” because of a weird series of events involving Filipino pirates, orangutans, and sea shells in the shape of John the Baptist’s left buttock, we ended up spending five days in Malaysia at a fancy beach resort there.  Two weeks of crazy travel ending in a beach resort equals really cool vacation.   One week of crazy travel ending in a beach resort and then going to another beach resort equals—well—anti-climax. 

Then there’s the fact that when we first showed up in the Bali we stayed in Ubud, which is arguably the coolest town in pretty much anywhere.  Years from now when I think back to Ubud, I’ll remember circles of men at the fire dance chanting words from an ancient play, a busy street full of markets and laughing women, restaurants where they greet you with scented towels fresh out of the cooler, and waking up in the morning to find monkeys on our porch, searching for food.

Okay, so the monkeys were a little scary—I mean, they’re cute from a distance, but when they’re chasing your six-year-old daughter with bared teeth, the charm sort of wears off. 

But even so:  Ubud was awesome.  Our hotel was surrounded by rice paddies and had a little open-air swimming pool full of cold cold water.   The people were gracious and kind, there was music everywhere we went.  We loved Ubud.

So Bali—or at least our beach hotel in Sanur—didn’t have much of a chance.

Of course, they didn’t do themselves any favors. 

“We’ve given you an upgrade,” the hotel clerk said as we checked in.

“I love you,” I replied.

He looked at me, a little startled.  I smiled.  He frowned. 

“Um,” I said, “Have you met my kids?”  I gestured toward the far end of the open-air lobby where Lucy was doing cart-wheels, Jamie was head-butting Will, and Will was trying to read something involving dragons and boy geniuses. 

I expected this would ease the tension some, but his frowned deepened. 

“Um,” I said, “and my lovely wife?”

The clerk nodded at Ellen, then said something in rapid Balinese to the concierge.  The other man answered back, then rose from his desk and came over to the counter.  The two of them chatted back and forth for a minute, then the concierge gestured toward the kids. 

“These are your children?”

I nodded.  I wasn’t sure what was going on, but despite the concierge’s attempt at a warming smile, I could tell there was a problem.

“Please,” he said, and nodded toward his desk.  I followed him over.

“You have been given an upgrade,” he said.

“That’s very nice.”

“Unfortunately,” he said, “there are rules in The Club.”

“The huh?”

“The Club,” he said, and started typing at his computer. 

Turns out a lot of fancy hotels have a “club” section, an area reserved for special customers.  Sometimes this section has its own pool, sometimes it has a special bar.  Generally the rooms are substantially nicer.  What exactly makes the customers “special” varies from resort to resort, but at our Sanur hotel, that special features was—

“Excuse me?” I said to the concierge.  “I’m not sure I heard you right.”

“No kids,” he repeated.

I looked at him.  He was busily typing away, eyes intent on his screen.  He didn’t seem to be joking.  Then I turned a looked at my kids.  Lucy was still doing cartwheels, flashing her bright-pink designer bloomers (“Francie-pants”—look them up on-line), Will had given up on his book and was strolling the lobby fingering the objet-d’arts on display, each of which stood over a small cardboard sign that said, “Do Not Touch.”  Jamie was—well, I’m not sure, but it looked like he was digging through the garbage.

I turned back to the concierge.  “No kids?” I said.  “Really?”

I’ll admit he was very nice.  He explained that The Club area was set up for couples on their honeymoon, older folks looking for a quiet get-a-way, and other people who generally hated kids. 

“But didn’t you know we had kids?” I asked.

He shook his head, still typing. “Your reservation said ‘Mr. and Mrs.”

“Well, yes,” I said.  “But we also asked for two rooms.”

“But all it said was ‘Mr. and Mrs.’”

“Two rooms, for five people.  Who did you think the other three people were?”

“’Mr. and Mrs.’”

I gritted my teeth.  He kept tapping.  What was he doing, filing his tax returns?  I wondered for a minute if maybe he, too, had a blog, if maybe his was called “Why Kids Suck.blogspot.Com,” or maybe, “Stupid White Men Who Are Even Dumber Than Most of the Other Stupid White” 

In the end, he was forced to compromise.  Since no other rooms were available, we were “allowed” to stay in The Club for one night.  After that, our “up-grade” would be down-graded and we’d be thrown into some rat-hole with the rest of the breeder riff-raff.   As if that weren’t bad enough, for our one night n that Shangri-La they, we were warned to keep the kids very very quiet.

“So as not to disturb the other guests,” the concierge informed me.

“Sure,” I said.  “We wouldn’t want to annoy any guests now, would we?”

As we followed the bell-boy along a palm-lined path, I turned to Ellen.  “I knew I should’ve brought some fire-crackers.”

“The annoying thing,” she said, “is that they clearly upgraded us because they were over-booked.  It was their mistake to begin with.”

Which is true enough.  And it’s also true enough that when Ellen makes a comment like that, things are seriously out of whack.  Ellen is, after all, the kind and gracious half of our dysfunctional little marriage, and seldom has a mean word to say about anyone or anything.

The Club rooms were gorgeous, with a capital “GORG”:  tiled floors, high ceilings, plush beds, big balconies overlooking a terraced series of cool blue swimming pools (forbidden to the children of course).  In short, pretty much the nicest room we’d had during our travels in Asia. 

“Hey!” Lucy said, when she noticed the big French doors.  “Look!  A balcony!”

“Balcony!” roared Jamie.

“Noooooooooooo!!!!!!” Ellen and I hollered simultaneously, leaping across the room and slamming the doors shut just as the two of them, followed by Will, were about to head into the open air, hurling kiddy cooties and noise pollution before them like Pig-Pen at an Ozzy Osbourne concert. 

The kids just stared at us, frozen in their tracks.

“No,” I said, just to make sure they’d gotten the point. 

They continued to stare, trying to cipher why their parents were being even more bizarre than usual. 

“You can’t go out there,” Ellen said. 

“Why not?” Will asked.

“Because—“ I said, then couldn’t figure out how to explain it.  “Because you can’t.”

“Why not?”  This time it was Lucy. 

“Because,” Ellen said, “children aren’t allowed out on the balcony.”

The three of them took a moment to digest this, and then Jamie—who learns quickly, particularly when it’s something his parents would rather he didn’t—said, “Why not?”

“Because,” I told him, “this is the place that hates children.”


Okay, so that’s overstating it a little.  But just a little.  The resort—or at least The Club portion—definitely had a bit of a Vulgaria feel—the land from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where kids are illegal—as though kids were not just forbidden, but hunted down, bagged, tagged, and fried with onions.  It wasn’t just that you couldn’t hear the sound of children, laughing, splashing, farting with their armpits.  You couldn’t hear anything.  There was no noise.  Anywhere.

“Weird,” said Ellen, coming out of one of the bathrooms. 


She held up a hairdryer.  “The instructions are in German.”


She shrugged.  “The signs in the lobby.  They were in German too.”

We looked at each other.  “Now that I think of it,” Ellen went on after a moment, “the guide book did say this side of the peninsula was sort of reserved for German and Austrian retirees.”

I frowned.  “Really?”  I’d always imagined Bali as a kind of laid-back, free swinging place, sort of an Indonesian Jamaica, minus the dreadlocks and that really bad movie about the guys with the bobsled.  After a year in Hong Kong, where every building, every bus, every public toilet almost disappears under a shingling of signs forbidding this or that behavior (Bouncing a ball is illegal?  Really?), Bali seemed like welcome relief.  Now though, I pictured a parade of sun-dried geriatric Germans parading by my chaise lounge in string bikinis and sling-shot Speedos, frowning in that Hessian way because my children were breathing too loud. 

“Maybe we should switch hotels,” I said. “What’s on the other side of the peninsula?”

“Drunken Aussie college students.”

“Then again . . .”


Dinner didn’t help.  It was already late, so instead of our usual routine of wandering the streets until we found something that looked good, cheap, or both, we decided to eat at the hotel restaurant and make an early night of it.  We knew this would cost us, but it seemed the best option at the time.  Besides, we reasoned, hotel restaurants are usually very nice.

And this one was too.  Sort of.  Right next to the beach, it featured a long tent-like structure under the swaying palms.  The only problem was that it was breezy, so they’d lowered a series of thick plastic sheets to block the wind.  Which would have been okay, had the plastic not been so sand-blasted and scarred as to be opaque, making you feel as though you were sitting in a styrofoam cup.  We could hear the surf, sure.  But see it?  No way.

The food was okay though, and not overly expensive, particularly as we made the children share a pizza.  Between the protein and the wine, we were feeling a little better, a little less cranky.  Then Ellen stopped mid-conversation and stared.  I looked at her, waiting for her to continue, but she didn’t.  Finally, I followed her gaze.

Across the sidewalk, back toward the main body of the hotel, stood two huge—I dunno—gryphon-dragon-phoenix-type thingies, their green figures shining in the glare of two ground-level spotlights.  I’d noticed them earlier, but hadn’t spent any real time thinking about them.  Now, though, Ellen couldn’t seem to take her eyes off of them.

“What?” I said. 

A rueful smile creased her face.

“What?” I said again. 

“Look,” she said.  “Look carefully.”

I did.  Two winged dragons, dark green with gold and red trim, highlighted by halogens.  I looked back at Ellen. 

“I don’t get it.”

She was still smiling, or maybe it was more of a grimace, it was hard to tell in the refracted light of our particular styrofoam cup. 

“Can’t you tell?” she said.

I looked again, more carefully this time.

“They’re facing the hotel,” she said.  Away from us.”

And then I got it.  All night I’d been looking at the dragons the wrong way, thinking they were direct toward us.  And I couldn’t understand why their faces were so peculiar, why their eyes seemed so strange, why their mouths were pursed like that.  Now that Ellen pointed it out, though, I understood that what I’d thought were their shoulders were actually their haunches, that what I’d assumed were eyes were just decorative paintings on their hind quarters.  And what I’d thought were their mouths were . . . well . . .

“Wow,” I said.  “That’s the largest sphincter I’ve ever seen.”

And detailed, too.  Elaborately so.  As we could tell, even from ten feet away, because—you know—of the two very bright spotlights shining right at them. 


This isn’t to say that Bali was bad.  It wasn’t.  Every where we went their were palm trees and rice paddies and sandy beaches.  Stormy-faced god and goddess statues stood on every corner, and the Balinese had decorated them all in white and black plaid skirts and golden sashes.  Below each---and sometimes in random trees or along fences—folks had left hand-size baskets woven of palm fronds and filled with rice, flowers, and burning incense:  offerings to the gods for good luck. 

So Bali wasn’t bad. 

But we were.  We were tired—tired of traveling, tired of hotels, tired of restaurant food.  The kids were tired of being away from their own beds, tired of not being able to play with their friends, tired of having to get breakfast at a buffet every morning.  Ellen and I were tired of them fighting over which channel to watch as we took our morning showers, and tired of walking past dusty market stalls and having folks try to sell us stuff. 

Indeed, we were sick of stuff, which is saying something.  Whereas we’d spent roughly 80% of our waking hours in China and Vietnam buying artsy little crapola for our friends and family back home, in Bali we could barely focus our eyes on any of the beautiful wood carvings, woven placemats, or shell necklaces. 

The one exception to this rule were the prominently displayed carved wooden penises that seemed to be everywhere—and I do mean everywhere:  we must have seen 10,000 of these things in 4 days.  Ranging in size from infantile to gia-normous, they were nearly as detailed as the dragon butts.  Some of them were attached to bottle openers or carved ashtrays, but most of them were just, well, standing there, if you know what I mean.

“What’s the deal?” I said.

Ellen just rolled her eyes.

“I’m serious,” I said.  “We haven’t seen anything like this anywhere.  Why Bali?”

I’m sure we could have found out easily enough—by asking someone, or even cracking open the index to our guide books and looking under, I don’t know, “weird willie obsession”—but we just couldn’t be bothered. 

None of which is to say that we didn’t have any fun.  We did.  We spent three or four hours a day in the hotel pool, frolicking with the kids and thanking god that most of the Germans were wearing one-pieces.  We wandered up the beach some, taking in the parasailors and brightly-painted fishing boats. 

We had some good food.  There was a nice English-style pub down the road from our hotel, and hotel itself had a breakfast buffet that included—I’m not making this up—chocolate-covered strawberry and banana pancakes.  

And right outside our down-graded up-graded hotel room—which was, I must say, a dump—stood a beautiful straw-roofed pagoda surrounded by a cool dark goldfish pond.  It—the pagoda—was carpeted with woven straw mats and triangular pillows that you could lean against as you read, or chatted, or napped.  I love watching goldfish, and I love the smell of straw, so this place quickly became one of my favorite spots on earth. 

So we did enjoy ourselves.  Really we did.  And eventually we even stopped referring to our hotel as “The place that hates kids.”


But . . .

I don’t know what it was.  Maybe it was just that we’d seen one crazy nice hotel, one crazy nice beach, one crazy nice country too many.

Maybe it was just that we were tired—two-and-a-half weeks on the road is a long time, especially with three kids who think that having an raspberry contest in a the middle of a fancy restaurant is an appropriate way to pass the time.

Or maybe we were just ready to get home—home home, in Virginia, not Hong Kong.  Ready to get back to our own beds, our own toys, our own friends.

Or maybe it’s not that we wanted to go, but that it was time to go, whether we wanted to or not.  Because maybe when you’re sick of these things—the hotels, the beaches, the people, the food, the countries—maybe when you have to struggle even to notice these things, to not feel blasé about them—maybe then it’s just time to get out of Dodge, whether you want to or not.

I don’t know. 

What I do know is that we’ll go back to Bali someday.  Simply put, we haven’t done this country justice:  we need a good two, three weeks to roam the entire island, get out of the tourist areas, sample more of the food, really see the people, really try and understand the place (and their weird obsession with willies).  Our last morning there, an elderly Frenchman came over and tried to play with Will and me (don’t ask).  Anyhow, once I’d determined he wasn’t a child molester, he seemed friendly enough and we got to talking about our countries and our travels.  And he told Ellen and I about this amazing place, way up in the hills of Bali, were there were no tourists, no airplanes, no jet skis and souvenir shops—“Just,” he said, and then gestured with his hands and looked up at the sky, “just—stars.”

So yeah, we’re going back there.  I know that for sure.

And then there’s this:  after our last morning at the resort, after we’d stuffed our faces with banana-chocolate-strawberry pancakes and swum in the pool one last time, after we’d packed our bags and knelt to look under the bed, after we’d paid our bill and left a nice tip for the help (including our favorite concierge), I took a minute and wandered out of the room and across the path to the big pagoda surrounded by a fish pond. 

Settling on the straw mat, I inhaled that dry-grass smell one last time, wondering if I’d ever be here again.  Below me, dozens of brightly colored fish curved and slid through the dark water.  I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the big surprises for me in Asia is how I’ve come to love these fish.  I love their colors, their bulk, love the way that muscularity glides through the water—so silent, so graceful.  So peaceful.  You can be anywhere in Hong Kong, in Tsim Sha Tsui on the peninsula or even in Central, at some restaurant full of noise and heat and waiters hustling by with steaming trays of dim sum—you can be at one of those restaurants and have to go to the bathroom, and follow a hall toward the back that takes you to an open-air sink and men’s on the left and women’s on the right, and there, right there in the middle of this massive city in this busy region on this gigantic continent—

--right there you’ll find a small pond with a tiny fountain in it and a dozen orange and black fish sliding back and forth in crystal water.

And you’ll breath deeper.  And longer.  And your pulse will slow—and you’ll just know that you’ve added three years to your life.

So now, sitting in Bali on that open-air pagoda, I watch these fish and breath deep and feel the anticipatory stresses of packing and travel leave my chest.  I watch as the red and blacks slip past the oranges, as the pure whites glide by the red and whites.  A giant black one slips out from the shadows and makes his way back and forth among the rest.  He’s huge, maybe five or six times the size of the rest of them, so big he takes your breath away.

 “Big dumb fish,” I say, “don’t you know you don’t belong here?”

I watch him for a while, observe the way he seems never to touch the other fish though he passes them so closely, indeed, seems to disturb their patterns, their swirls of motion. Where did he come from? I wonder.  Why is he so big?  Is he cruel?  Do the others fear him?  Might he not actually feed on them every once in a while?

These are silly questions, I know.  A friend of mine once told me that fish memories only retain information for three seconds.  “Hey look,” said my friend, imitating the large grouper we were admiring in a restaurant tank.  “A castle.”  Then—seconds later—he did it again: “Hey, look!  A castle.”

Which would be a miserable life, of course:  who wants to live with no past, no moments, only the now? 

But then again, I suppose, there are times when such an approach is good, when it’s best to live in where you are right now, not thinking about your next move or mistakes you’ve made or whether or not this hotel or that beach is as good as the last one you were at.

Maybe.  I don’t know.  But I stay there as long as I can, resting on that woven mat, shaded from the warm Bali sun by that straw roof, watching those gorgeous, muscular fish gliding back and forth, their colors flashing in the afternoon light.  And most of all, I watch that big black fish—that giant black fish, so anomalous, so unnecessary—drifting in and out, searching, restless—until he disappears into the shadows as though never there at all. 

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Our Intimate Relationship with Borneo

I want you to know that it wasn’t meant to be like this.  When we decided back in March that we were going to spend a week or so in Malaysian Borneo, we set out to rough it.  We booked “rooms” at some camp out in the wild:  looking at pictures on the internet, what we saw were rustic huts, up on stilts, with what looked like one wall missing. 

“Cool,” I said, “We can get malaria.”

“There’s no malaria in Borneo,” Ellen said.

“Then we can just stay up all night with mosquitoes buzzing our ears.”  Just to make sure she knew what I meant, I leant toward her and went,   “Neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.”

She swatted once, then clicked to the registration page.  “You want to see wildlife, right?”


This time she connected.  “Ow,” I said.  Then added, “Yes.”  Our friends Joe and Jennifer had told us about the wonders of Sabah, how you could see orang utans (closely related to, but not exactly the same as orangutans), proboscis monkeys, monitor lizards, and snakes big enough to eat a large baby, which was fine with me because Jamie was still refusing to poo in the toilet. 

I’d always wanted to visit Borneo, every since I’d seen the video for Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like a Wolf,” with its scenes of dusty noon-day cafes, steaming hot jungles, and women in bikinis crawling around on all fours.  Subsequent research that told me the video had actually been filmed in Sri Lanka did little to dampen my passion for Sabah—which likely tells you a thing or two about logic, sex, and the nature of my brain. 

Anyhow, we were all set:  for six days we’d rough it in Borneo, lulled to sleep by the croaking, chirping, and howling of Malaysian wildlife, forgoing the usual four- and five-star hotel buffets for a breakfast of mealy toast and roasted pebbles, lathering our legs with Deep Jungle Off in a desperate attempt to tame mosquitoes the size of large bats.  This was just what the doctor ordered—that, and cloroquine—to cap our year in Asia.


Then, sometime in mid-April, I was in the kitchen doing the dishes (I try to do this every month or so, just so that when Ellen complains about how hard she works, I can frown sincerely and murmur, “I know just what you mean,” before handing her the scrub brush and nudging her toward the kitchen.)

--Anyhow: I was in the kitchen doing dishes, sometime in mid-April when Ellen called:  “Paul.”

“Yes dear,” I said.  (I try to call her dear every month or so, just so that I can—oh, never mind . . .)  I went into the living room, where she was hunched over her laptop. 

She just pointed at the screen.  Settling next to her, I pulled on my glasses.  She was at a site run by the US State Department, looking at a travel advisory: 

U.S citizens should consider the risks associated with travel to eastern Sabah in Malaysia due to the threat from both terrorist and criminal groups. There are indications that both criminal and terrorist groups are planning or intend acts of violence against foreigners in eastern Sabah, notwithstanding the Government of Malaysia's increased ability to detect, deter and prevent such attacks. The Abu Sayyaf Group, based in the southern Philippines, has kidnapped foreigners in eastern Sabah in the past. Criminal elements are also responsible for kidnapping and piracy committed against foreigners. Of present concern are the resorts (and transportation to and from them) located in isolated areas of eastern Sabah, including Semporna and the islands of Mabul and Sipadan. Please avoid or use extreme caution in connection with any travel in these areas or locations.

I sat back, rubbed my eyes, and looked at the posting again.  Then I looked at Ellen.  She was frowning.  She’d spent the better part of every evening during the month of March planning this particular leg of our trip.  It was hard to tell if the look in her eyes was fear, sadness, or just plain anger. 

“Huh,” I said. 

She nodded.  There wasn’t much else to say, really.

We mulled things over for a few days, trying to figure out if this was a recent warning based on recent activity, just a casual warning—“You better bring your umbrella; it might rain.”—or a dire threat—“Go only if you want to see members of your family drawn and quartered and served on a really big pizza.”  Did, we wondered, the warning apply to the part of Sabah that we were in—yes, we were in the east, but we were in the north east, and most of the activity described seemed to be happening in the south east. 

Eventually we sent an e-mail directly to the consulate in Malaysia, asking for their assessment of the situation.  The reply we received—after six days—wasn’t really very helpful:  “The threat is real, if not imminent.  While we would never prevent American citizens from traveling where ever they wish, if you choose to go to Eastern Sabah, please do use caution.”

Long story short (like I ever do that!), we finally decided that we weren’t comfortable taking our kids into a region where pirates were doing more than saying “Arh,” and handing out balloons.  Were we on our own without the kids, the story might be different, but there are some things so stupid that even we won’t do it. 


Which is how we ended up at the Rasa Ria hotel in western Sabah.  Of course, “hotel,” isn’t really the right word.  More like, I dunno, maybe “big fat fancy mansion for a lot of rich people who might as well be in Flagstaff for all the contact they have with Borneo”?

Now I want to be fair:  connected to the Rasa Ria is a reserve for the rehabilitation of juvenile Orang Utans.  I mean, if you’re going to be a big fancy hotel that makes bucket loads of money, the least you can do is dedicate some small portion of that money to weaning gangsta apes of their addiction to fermented bananas and Green Day. 

And trust me when I say that the Rasa Ria is a fancy hotel.  Imagine a place where, when you pull up in your car, they welcome you by striking a gong.  Imagine a hotel with one of those fancy pools that twists and curves through stands of palm trees, where you can get drinks with little umbrellas brought to your chaise lounge, where there’s dawn to midnight childcare, where they not only come into your room in the evening, fold back your covers, and leave little mints on your pillows, but tiptoe back in as you’re drifting off to sleep and massage your temples. 

This was, to put it bluntly, not just the nicest hotel we’ve ever been in, but a hotel so nice that I actually broke into hives just crossing the threshold. 

“We don’t belong here,” I whispered to Ellen as we followed a team of bellboys carrying our luggage to our room on a solid gold chariot.  “I have family who drink wine from a box.”

Ellen gave me a look.  “You’re wearing a shirt that says, ‘I’m with stupid,’ and has an arrow pointing to your crotch,” she said.  “I think wine in a box is the least of our problems.” 

Okay, so I’m exaggerating slightly:  we’ve been to places on par with the Rasa (as I like to call it) before:  the Brown in Louisville, the Palmer in Chicago, some fancy-schmanzy Japanese-style place in San Francisco that I can’t remember the name of.  Even our last hotel in Vietnam was pretty cool—also on the beach, also with a huge buffet, also with a fancy pool and nice waiters who would serve us Vietnamese coffee as we lounged under palm trees. 

The difference is that, by the time we got to our fancy hotel in Vietnam, we’d already been in-country for two weeks, had forged our way through the heat and dust of Hanoi, had trekked cross-country to get to Ha Long Bay, had taken dragon-boat rides in Hue.  And even when we were at our ritzy hotel, we made a point of going into Hoi An almost daily. 

In other words, in Vietnam, we felt like were getting to know the country:  we’d interacted with merchants and tour guides and taxi drivers and waiters and hawkers on the street and the roughly 6,000 people who wanted to touch Lucy’s hair.  I’m not so stupid as to claim that—after a mere 14 days—we knew Vietnam.  But at the very least, we were starting to get a good sense of it—of the people, the food, the values, the priorities, the daily life of folks.

Not so in Borneo. 

The first evening we were there, Will and I were standing by the dinner buffet, checking out the options.  There was roast chicken, prime rib, Swedish meatballs, crab legs, six different kinds of soup, sushi, spaghetti, and on and on and on.  Everything my little heart could desire, complete with a chocolate fountain at the dessert bar. 

“Is this all Malaysian food?” Will asked. 

I glanced at the gigantic platter full of meatballs.  I’m not much of a fan myself, but I have to admit they looked pretty good sitting there, surrounded by grilled vegetables and some sort of prawn-cracker type thing. 

“Yes,” I said. 

He looked at the placard in front of us, then at the meatballs, then up at me.  Swedish meatballs?”

I frowned at him.  “Are we in Malaysia?”

He nodded.

“And is this food?”

 “Yes,” he said. 

“Need I say more?”

Seriously, the sad thing about all of this is that I really can’t, finally, name a single Malaysian dish for you.  Sure, we had some “real” Malaysian food a few days later when we were in Kuala Lumpur, but by then we were already thinking about Bali, and would have stuffed a pickled goat into our mouths if they’d put it on a plate with garnish.   

This is not to say that we came away with absolutely no sense of Borneo.  We discovered, for instance, that when Borneons greet someone, they place their right hands on their heart.  This, I think, is pretty cool, although I have to admit that more than once when I was greeted in this way I was carrying Jamie on my right arm and thus used my left hand to touch my heart, something that caused more than one person to stare at me, cover their eyes, and flee in horror.

And, of course, we spent one steamy morning in the nature preserve attached to the hotel grounds watching orang utans branchiate above our heads.  Which was pretty cool.  Hotel grounds or not, the rainforest that they took us into was the real deal, filled with thick foliage, moist earth, and surreal sounds, including one high, keening drone that continued the whole time we were there.  We sweated like crazy and took maybe 2000 pictures between us—even the usually unimpressed Will took nearly 100—but dang if we didn’t get to see our ancestors eating bananas and having pee fights. 

And on one fine day, we signed up for a trip south to see Proboscis monkeys.  Now I know what those of you who’ve seen me in person are thinking:  Proboscis monkeys?  Those simians with the huge snoz?  And you paid for this?  Why not just go look in the mirror and save yourself some money? 

Because, smartass, my kids have already seen my huge snoz, and have ceased to be impressed with it long ago (emphasis on “long”).   And besides, Ellen and I were hoping that by getting off of the compound we’d have a chance to see some of the real Malaysia, beyond the bikini-wearing masseuses doling out sunscreen by the poolside. 

And we did.  Driving south, through Kota Kinabalu toward Penampang, we rolled past low hills and thick brush, weather-beaten homes with pick up trucks and Toyotas in the front yard, rusted basketball hoops, billboards advertising hotels and restaurants. 

“Dang,” I said to Ellen as we glided along.  “It looks like Virginia.”


The monkey trip was a hit, though.  Pulling up to a long boardwalk leading into the jungle, we marched toward a base camp where they fed us a few small snacks, tried to sell us some really cool masks and carvings that I now wish we’d bought, and led us to a long boat which they steered up the river.

Our guide, a small man with a thick accent, cautioned us about getting our hopes up.  “They are very shy,” he said of the Proboscis.  “We may be lucky.  But maybe not.  Who knows?”

We were lucky.  After trolling up the river for maybe 5 minutes, we saw several groups of makaks and two or three monitor lizards the size of either a really small Oscar Meyer Wienermobile or a really large Oscar Meyer wiener,.  Ten minutes after that, our guide pointed to a distant tree, bare of leaves.  We looked.  Strewn among the far tips of the branches were either squirrels’ nests or really really huge bags of laundry.  We got out our binoculars.

Sure enough, they were proboscis monkeys—orange-furred, with white spots around their eyes and those unmistakable noses.  We watched them for a while, concentrating hard getting some good shots with our cameras.  Soon enough, our guide started the boat again and we moved further downstream.  We were satisfied:  we came, we saw, we took fuzzy gray pictures of monkeys with huge noses.  What could be better?

And then we rounded a bend and everyone in the boat went, “Ahhhhh.”  Not two hundred feet away was a huge tree, right by the river, filled with monkeys.  The boat’s driver steered us as close as he could without running into the trees and shrubs overhanging the river bank.  We just stared. 

“Seven,” said a Filipino doctor at the back of the boat.

There was silence, then his wife said, “No, I see eleven.” 

“That one,” the guide said, “has a baby.”

We stared in silence again.  The monkeys were so close we could see the different shades of fur, the features of their faces all without binoculars or zoom lenses.  True, none of this was completely clear, but even so. 

“Fifteen,” someone finally said. 

But there were more than that.  One branch alone held three, all lined up as though having a meeting.  On the opposite side of the tree were three more:  a male, a female, and a baby.  And every time we thought we’d counted them all, some bit of branch or vegetation—or what we’d thought was vegetation—would move, and we’d have to add another to our total.

We probably stayed there a good half hour, taking pictures at first, then passing around the super powerful binocs Ellen and I had purchased in the Cheng Du airport—you could read a newspaper at gate A5 from A31—then just sitting and watching, simply enjoying the cool evening, the broad, white sky, and the unfazed monkeys staring back at us calmly, then ignoring us completely.

After that, it was back to the base camp, passing several herd of water buffalo cooling off in the water.  We had dinner there, then our guide insisted on taking us back on the river to see the fireflies.  We did, were duly impressed, then motored down toward a village not far from where we’d left our van. 

Climbing out of the boat, we followed our guide through the nearly pitch darkness along a number of bamboo walkways.  We passed a school, then made our way onto a paved road.  I had Jamie on my shoulders and was sweating even though it wasn’t really that hot.  I could feel his fingers on my ears, stroking what little hair remains on my head.  In the distance, a chime sounded and we could hear Muslim chants blasted over a loudspeaker.  The smell of smoke and cooking came from somewhere nearby, and all in all, as we marched down that road in the black night, I found myself wishing we had a few more days in Borneo, that we had more time to get out of our hotel/resort/compound and get to know the people a bit more, the food, the culture.

But alas, we didn’t.  In another day or so, we’d head off to Kuala Lumpur, then it was down to Bali for what was to have been the relaxing final leg of our journey—indeed, of our year in Asia. 

So no, there was no more time to explore Borneo, no more chance to get to know anything other than this dark road, this smell of bamboo and palm fronds, this croaking of frogs and chanting in the darkness.  This was it. 

And we all know who’s to blame.  

Duran Duran.