Not knowing Moscow from rum seems to make more sense than understanding parts of the world that lay above and below the equator. Those that do not know Moscow from rum are more capable and practical than I could ever be. But, since this understanding can be found, via planes, cars, trains, and buses, I have gained a humbling insight into my size and natural instincts compared to things that are so much bigger and seemingly self-sufficient than I.
Sabah, Malaysia (On the island of Borneo)
Currency variation has become a substantial part of my life. By day three of my adventures I had already spent Japanese yen at a love hotel in Osaka (because I did not feel like sleeping in the airport), Singapore dollars on a couple pitchers of beer in Little India, and Malaysian ringgits on a bus ride from the airport to the city center in Kota Kinabalu.
As Brad and I climbed out of the small Malaysian bus that we waved down (with our thumbs) the woman who pointed us in the right direction told us "welcome to Sabah."
It was a harmonious beginning to the Borneo adventures.
After some questionable Thai food, Ann and Leah met Brad and I at Lucy's Guest House. I felt like I had just seen Annie. Laotian adventures were fresh in our minds.
With this Southeast Asian familiarity came a strange feeling in my stomach. I tried to blame it on the excitement and anxiety that was coming along with the odd combination of people that were convening in this strange part of the world. But, once my most recent meals were coming back up I blamed it on the food or water.
The night of the 21st was one to the worst nights of my life. I visited the bathroom about every 15 minutes. I spent hours attempting to hydrate myself. I asked Ann to get in the bed next to me because I was having sickness hallucinations.
Once the sun rose I made the decision that we all must move to a nice hotel so I could lay on the bathroom floor.
I arrived at the Kota Kinabalu Hyatt on the morning of December 22nd, completely unaware of what a large part of my time in Borneo this venue would play.
We hoped to leave the Hyatt on the 24th. But, on the evening of the 23rd Ann began to complain of an illness. And my sickness was no longer to be blamed on food or water. Only hours later Leah had a similar complaint.
The days that followed were spent in joint recovery. Many rounds of room service and the Miss Universe pageant, that aired on Christmas Eve, provided the biggest excitement.
We all agreed that Miss Russia had the best "Universal" female qualities. Though Ann believed she should have "wore something tighter" during the evening gown portion.
Somehow, Brad did not get sick. He did get on a plane to take a couple of days getting really far away from the den of sickness that was our room in the Hyatt. Luckily, the part of the world we were in provided for a very reasonable bill and on the 27th we regrouped in a lovely guest house.
On the 29th Brad and I began the ascend up Mount Kinabalu. At 4,095 meters Kinabalu is the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia. We left Leah in Kota Kinabalu city and Ann at the base of the mountain.
The two of us were accompanied by a guide, Helmi. Brad and I were eager to get to know our Malaysian guide. He was dressed in the typical accidental hipster village wear that seems to be common in that part of the world. I have met a variety of local guides that come from small villages. Their wardrobe is always an eclectic mix of non-labeled things that would put them at the top of any hip list in Brooklyn.
Hemli fit this role in his faded tapered pants, neon green backpack that hung low on his back, and over sized military jacket.
Within moments of our hike we asked Helmi how old he was. After a few stuttering thoughts he responded, "I forget."
The following hours were spent on a step uphill trek. Rain set in for the second half of the hike. The various shelters scattered along the trail were full of foreigners drinking water, eating chocolate, and hoping to stay dry.
The local guides stood out in the rain, waiting patiently. When their foreign companion was ready the guides tossed their cigarette's on the ground and continued on.
I could feel the air thin as we grew closer to Laban Rata, the provided accommodation where we would sleep for a few hours that evening before the final ascend to the peak.
Brad plowed ahead and Helmi hung back with me. Helmi makes this hike about three times a week. He either acts as a guide or as a porter, carrying supplies up and down the mountain. Meanwhile, I struggled to catch my breath.
We arrived at Laban Rata after about four hours of hiking. Everyone hung their wet clothes on their bunk bed and lined up for the shower.
Brad and I sat across from a Japanese man during dinner who shared the red wine that he brought with him.
My clothes were barley dry when the alarm went off at 1:50 a.m.
Everyone strapped on headlights as we hiked the final few kilometers in the dark, attempting to make it to the top in time to catch the sunrise.
As Brad ran ahead, Helmi proved to be a marvelous companion for what turned out to be the most challenging physical feat I had ever taken on.
I sat next to some British people while trying to catch my breath near the top. We continued on together. As the rocks grew steeper, everyone grabbed hold of the ropes on the mountain side. While attempting to maneuver my way around the slippery granite I became paralyzed in fear. The guide that was accompanying the British people grabbed my hand and pulled me up the side of the rock.
I sat down once more and listened to this other guide tell us that we were getting close and he advised us to take deep breaths. I grew teary eyed.
Helmi and I walked ahead. As we were just meters from the top I continued to sit down and breath. Helmi looked at the peak and pointed saying, “if you want certificate you must go there.” This motivational moment was much more direct and kept me from finding any emotions that would create tears.
Brad saved me a seat where I could watch the sunrise:
I was mostly cold at the peak. While Brad snapped hundreds of photos Helmi and I shared a glance. Helmi looked cold and bored, I rolled my eyes.
Once the sun had risen we began to descend. I could see what I had been hiking through; the hard stone we were walking on. It was the most magnificent thing I had ever seen. The mass of this mountain was frightening. Frightening because it was the biggest thing I had ever experienced.
I felt as if I were off the earth's surface near the peak of the mountain. Standing on the stone brought me to realize how small I am.
Nature felt far more powerful than anything I have ever felt. The sheer vastness of the mountain could have crushed any living person.
Descending at dawn was the closest I have ever felt to other worldliness. And by that I mean being close to something that is far more powerful than anything a human being could ever personally attain.
After about ten hours of hiking that day it felt really good to be off the mountain.
Brad and I met Ann at the bottom. The three of us continued to Poring Hot Springs. According to all the tourist information, a dip in the hot springs is a must after hiking Kinabalu.
We arrived to a bunch of locals, in their underwear, hoping between the dirty "outdoor bathtubs" filled with semi-warm water. Instead of walking away in disgust (as we watched other tourists do) we embraced the hot springs.
Ann got a bunch of beers and we shared cigarettes and French fries.
The three of us made it back to Kota Kinabalu on the 31st. We arrived with just enough time to take a boat to a surrounding island where we went swimming with small jellyfish that do not sting. We drank a cup of Sabah Black tea and watched the sunset.
We rode back as it started to get dark. While approaching the city we talked nostalgically of Alex Stoloff and we were a little quieter than on the ride there.
On January 2nd Brad and I had said goodbye to the rest of the crew and had found ourselves in Ubud, Bali.
We stayed on Monkey Forest Road, in a guest house run by a local who was studying Japanese. When explaining that he did not have any good resources for studying he was one of the first Balinese people to directly ask me to give him something. I got his address and told him that I would send him Japanese textbooks. I am relived to find something useful to do with the many texts I have acquired though rarely use.
And upon our first interaction I began to fantasy about a life with him in which I would gain a true understanding as to where my food and clothes are coming from. And perhaps I would forget what Moscow is while raising a large family in a more than modest home.
This though remained a fantasy. Brad and I ended the first evening on the porch of our guest house, drinking local beers and enjoying the smell and crackle of Indonesian clove cigarettes.
On the second day I watched Kecak dance. The dance was preformed under firelight with a chorus of about fifty men using only vocal sounds to create the accompanying music. The female dancers had posture like graceful cats and brought all audience members to a trace with their eyes.
We escaped the hordes of Ubud health food tourist when we stayed in Batur, near the Gunung Batur Volcano. Over dinner a guy trying to make a transport deal with us, a guy trying to sell us his paintings, and a guy who was running the guest house all joined us. We eventually made a transport deal and bought some paintings.
Once the sunset we walked toward the gamelan music. A couple of people sat outside of a store front, drinking beers and playing these instruments. We were invited to sit down to listen and we were given the opportunity to play.
Bali is the origin of art. This part of the world holds original dance, music, clothes, jewelry, paintings, sculptures, and the most delicious food I have ever tasted.
Balinese people are instinctual artists. This creates the most originally magical vibe I have ever felt from a geographic location. Like anything you could imagine could be created.
In the northwestern town of Lovina Balinese people continued to ask,"Where you from? Where you going? How long you stay here?"
When Brad decided that he would try to out talk the next person who approached us we were left with fresh fruit and a magic mushroom offer.
We drove out of Lovina to go snorkeling on a small island. Stopping at a typical gas station along the way.
Snorkeling held a similar otherworldly, frightening feeling. I looked down into a many abyss that lay between ocean coral. Expecting to fall inside with any incorrect stroke.
There was a small temple on the island. Being later in the afternoon, the island was only shared with those who were working at the temple.
The last full day in Bali was spent (once again) in Ubud. First, visiting the Monkey Forest Sanctuary Temple.
That evening was spent watching Barong Bangkal Dance. This dance took place at an indoor venue with various accompanying instruments.
The gamelans and costumes were as much of a part of the dance as the actual dancers who moved naturally with the sound and their wardrobe.
We were lucky to catch this particular troupe as they only preform within Ubud once a week.
This evening was a tremendous demonstration of the talent and art produced in Bali.
These performers described themselves as a young group of dancers. It was amazing to see dance and music preformed directly in a place where people seem to be so naturally intertwined with it.
One of our last Bali meals was consumed the following morning on the porch in front of the room.
The breakfast was included in the room charge and the man who ran this guest house was more than pleased to lay it down in front of us. This man also wrapped his hands around our backpacks to give us hugs on the way out.
On January 8th we arrived in Singapore for the last part of the adventure. I had picked up Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief while in Bali. This choice inspired a visit to Singapore's botanical garden which contains an orchid garden.
Walking through the Singapore Orchid Garden while reading about the history of this flower and John Laroche's love for orchids, which led to criminal action was an amazing literary moment. Everything felt tangible.
On the evening of January 10th my feet were sore and I had grown horribly sick of the four outfit variations I had been rotating between.
So it was back to Japan for a little bit.
"This time tomorrow what will we know?
Will we still be here watching an in-flight movie show?"
-The Kinks, This Time Tomorrow