The Joy and the Scourge of Travel

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So you want to travel? The world is your oyster, so go forth and explore as they say, but is it as simple as that?

The appealing romantic notion of life on the road, without a care, pervades many of our daydreams. Travel is the circuit breaker to life’s daily monotonous grind, good or bad experiences, it matters little as long as it’s not at home. It’s the adventure of it all, the adrenaline rush of uncertainty, anything but boring.

I’ve spent the latter part of my life thinking this way. Due to circumstances, I have ended up living in South East Asia for the best part of 10 years and have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to expand my cultural and spacial awareness.

We should all travel if we can. Travel brings ideas and refreshes the mind to new and exciting possibilities and it makes us re-examine the way we look at the world. Home is never the same again; the last missing piece completes the puzzle and illustrates with brilliant clarity; we are all but a product of our own upbringing and environment.

To travel is what every human should do some stage during their life, but of course it’s impossible for most; not everyone has the means or the desire.

Any downside to this quest to explore? Yes, I fear so.
Is it better to seek security or live life to its fullest? A question that truly polarises.
With all that travel brings into our life also comes some unwanted baggage – discontentment.
The more you travel the more you want. I am sure you know or have seen the addicted 20 somethings that spend all their time on the road living out of a backpack, darting from one exotic location to another. The gypsy within, makes us quietly envious of these drifters even if we think it’s a touch irresponsible for them not to settle down sooner.

Of course the elephant in the room is truly money or the lack of it. I have spent tens of thousands on travel over the years but not for one moment regretted the expense. Others will disagree. I, for one, won’t be dying with a bucket full of money in the bank. Many could not bear that thought.

Travel creates the need to travel more. There is always one more road to find and one more beach to wander on.
So what should we do, stay at home and end our wanderlust? Personally, I think the benefits far outweigh the downside as long as all of us realize there is more to life than wanting to be elsewhere. The Joy

When The Wheels Start To Fall Off

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It creeps up on you slowly. Barely noticeable at first until the day you attempt to jump up out of bed and end up rolling out. Getting out of a chair is like raising the Titanic, every joint and spar of the infrastructure creaks, reluctant to leave the comfort of Davy Jone’s locker.
It’s not until I look into the mirror that the true realization (shock) of aging strikes me. Not that I do that very often mind you, maybe once a day as I clean my teeth and brush my receded greying hair. The hair started to change colour way back in my 20s, so I’ve had plenty of time to get used to it.
Must be worst for some; those who spend time putting makeup on. Looking at every crevice and crack in great detail and trying to reconcile the mental image with the physical one.
Apart from a brief look at myself after my early morning shower, I only have to content with the occasional glance from a shop window or the obscure reflection from a computer screen. Not too difficult to deal with. We all get old, but it seems to have happened oh so much quicker than I thought it would. Never mind, the change in appearance I can can cope with more or less, ( I was never an oil painting) it’s the physical decline that’s much harder to handle.

As the years bobble along so does the increasing size of the waist line. I’ve kept reasonable active most of my life, mainly through walking after the active sports stopped in my early 20s, but the weight has increased to the extent you become conscious of the bulging stomach especially when seated and the constant discomfort after eating. It’s comes across as indigestion at first, but becomes more insidious in the mind as time passes by. Hiatus Hernia or stomach cancer?

That’s the problem when you have a little medical knowledge and a vivid imagination, mole hills become mountains. Going to the toilet too often – prostate problems or diabetes. Stiff back, no flexibility – Rheumatoid arthritis or was it all that running I did years ago, wearing out out the joints, a touch of Osteo? Oh well, the days of jumping over a gate with a single bound have well and truly gone.
Is it my imagination I’m becoming a little clumsy or is it the onset of something more sinister, Parkinson or a smidgin of Motor Neuron disease?

Arrh how the mind plays tricks. But it doesn’t play tricks with my eyes sight. Blind as the proverbial bat these days. Anything thing within a metre is a blurry train crash. My constant companion is a pair of never cleaned cheap reading glasses that I invariably look over most of the time when not reading. Way too lazy to take them off. Makes me look distinguish or so I tell myself. “Is that a skin cancer on my left temple?” As they arrive on the bridge of my nose each morning.

It’s not all bad this getting old caper. I long since not worried what others thing about me. I’m resigned to the fact I’m a grumpy old so and so. You know the one at the christmas office party about to retire, always talking about the good old days (as if they ever existed) and complaining about the youth of todays total lack of respect. ( to him of course.)

My heart beat app tells me I’ll live until I’m 93, have no idea how it knows. How come I feel 93 now?
Enough whinging. Time to go for my daily 4k walk in the hot tropical sun. Not dead yet, just practicing.

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Murder I Wrote


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The spider slowly descended down its half constructed web looking for a secure place to anchor its next thread. The slim sliver of light that made its way into the darkened room, illuminated the scene; a builder in the spotlight still deciding where to attach his next spar. Such was life in my small dusty half forgotten second hand shop in downtown New Norfolk. Few customers with even fewer sales kept me bored and disillusioned. Life’s monotony was in full display in this ageing shop of mine. Even the bric-a-brac looked tired and bored as my eyes slowly scanned the store looking for who knows what; a habit from years of diminishing mental activity. The odd piece that was sold was soon replaced with something that looked the same, did the same. I gave up a secure job that placed a great deal more on my mental agility to do this. The idea seemed right at the time. But like most things in my life, it hadn’t turned out the way I expected.

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My wife Betty was banging around in the back doing what she did most days – bang around. We had stopped most communication a long time ago and only talked when it became absolutely necessary. We shared an ordinary house in an ordinary street in an ordinary suburb with almost nothing else in common. Life’s like that for some, never raising its head much above the water line, a constant struggle not to drown until.. you know, you drown.

The apartment block across the road was one of those places you aspire to if you are poor but can’t wait to get out if you’re not. Most were investment properties, so a constant stream of unlikely types moved in and out like an army of ants searching for their queen.

A van pulled up, a large nondescript white one. Two men and I think, a woman jumped out and scurried up the low entrance staircase leading to the ground floor units. I say think because it was bitterly cold and all three wore heavy full length coats with their collars turned up in a vain attempt to keep warm. One of the figures, much more diminutive than the other two, was bent over slightly with a hand on the stomach like you see when someone wants to vomit but can’t. I couldn’t see their faces; they were in such a hurry.
The action only lasted a few seconds and my thoughts and sight returned to that spider and its constructive life.

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A day or two later my wife in an unexpected burst of civility drew my attention to a newspaper article about a spate of missing teenager girls. Four had gone missing the previous six months. Not that it’s uncommon with teenagers to run away, but these were well adjusted reliable kids that had never been in trouble and from all accounts came from stable homes. The police were becoming concerned and asked the public for help.

Photos of the four filled most of the page. Innocent faces frozen to a time and place, not knowing what the future had in store for them. My wife muttered something about how terrible it was and hoped they would be found soon safe and well. I wasn’t listening.

My thoughts went back to the day I saw that van.

The bell on the door broke the spell. In front of me stood a burly man, some 6 foot tall, thick necked with strong masculine hands, sporting a ridiculous handlebar moustache and a sort of pointed goatee which made absolutely no sense together. His clothes were baggy and dishevelled, though clean. He gave the impression of an oddity rejected from the Moscow circus.

” Can I h-help?” I stuttered.

He stood there for a moment, eyes surveying, in deep thought. When he finally spoke, it came as a surprise. An unexpected soft cultured voice enunciated.

“Good afternoon, my good Sir,” I was wondering whether you could help me. My colleague and I are conducting a little business in the apartment block across the road and we require a few odds and sods, props that sort of thing to liven the place up. Is it all right to browse?”

“Certainly!” I said.

He walked around the shop muttering to himself, inaudible to me. Returning to the counter often, he collected an eclectic assortment of items. Curtain stays, a set of candle sticks with candles, a roll of packing tape, an old make up artist case, a paint brush, a large brown leather strap, the type you secure a travelling trunk with and an ornate 19 th century Persian ceremonial dagger.

All in all it came to well over 200 dollars, the best sale I’d had in weeks. I was pleased. When finished he paid promptly, gathered his purchases and scurried across the road.
Just as he was about to disappear into the apartment block, a white van pulled up in front. He walked over to it, and after a short conversation with the driver, jumped in and they sped away towards the city.

“Argh, so he was one of the characters I saw that day,” I thought to myself.

A week or two later, I happened to catch sight of the same white van pulling up out front. Two men got out, one I recognised as the man that came to my shop earlier and to my utter astonishment, a young girl with long flowing chestnut hair. My heart missed a beat as my thoughts focused on the missing girls.

“Get a hold of yourself,” I said aloud.

They walked up the flight of stairs to enter the building. She seemed perfectly at ease, laughing and chatting with both men. The other man was not as large as his friend, but like his friend, he wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a foreign circus. Bald as a bagger, wearing a strange peaked Robin hood like felt hat that made him look like a court jester from a medieval castle. He did a kind of a skip and a hop gig as he circled his companions, exuding an abundance of excess energy.

I wasn’t sure what to make of it . The puzzle in my mind was coming together. Why would such a young girl be hanging around with ageing men? She being so pretty and they so strange. He bought that odd collection of items from me. It just didn’t add up.

I stared at the shop wall. My spider was sitting in the middle of the web waiting for its next victim.

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I was fighting with myself, my head was telling me I was reading too much into this. My gut told me there was a room full of young girls – dead or alive! They were up to no good, I was sure or was I ?

A cold sweat engulfed my forehead. I can’t just do nothing, but that was just what I did. I slumped into my office chair.
Deep down I’m a coward, scared of my own shadow; bad things happened to others, not me. I’m a runner, not a fighter.

Betty walked into the room and stared at me.

“Whats wrong with you? You look more miserable than usual.”

” I’m ok, just tired,” I snapped back.

“Suit yourself. I’m going home to eat. By the way, a white van is blocking our drive. Go tell the owner to move it. Stupid place to park, trying to shove a rolled up carpet square into the back that obviously doesn’t fit.”

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The blood drained from my face, rolled carpet, body inside being disposed of.

I was sure now. How am I going to deal with it…

My spider was examining a fresh victim tangled up in fine gossamer threads as I made my way to the front door.

Gone! Nowhere to be seen. There was an immediate sense of relief not having to confront them, my hands wouldn’t stop shaking. Ohh what a yellow bellied snivelling coward I am. Do something.

Call the police, that’s what I’ll do.
No wait, it’s none of my business. Not my fault they’re over there. They could have been anywhere in this city. Why did they have to be across the road?

Stop it right now, you have a public duty to tell the police. Think of the girls, the poor girls.

No hang on a minute I don’t have any proof, the police will think I’m a trouble maker, trying to get my name in the paper.

Headlines – Read all about it. SECOND HAND SHOPKEEPER FOILS SERIAL KILLER MURDER GANG, SAVES MANY LIVES.

Ridiculous, I’m deluding myself or maybe this will make me a hero.

“TOO MUCH!” I cried out loud.

My head was pounding I was frozen into inaction. Wait until tomorrow now. Another night won’t make a difference. It’s too late for that poor girl in the carpet anyway. I soothed my nerves with these thoughts.

Always been a procrastinator ever since I was knee high to a grasshopper. My dad used to say that boy would take a life time to make up his mind, has a permanent indentation on his backside by spending too much time sitting on the fence.
I showed him though. I made a snap decision to ask Betty to marry me and, well… we all know how that turned out.

I had a dreadful night’s sleep and arrived at the shop early.
My spider was now devouring its victim bit by bit.

The van arrived about nine and to my unbelieving eyes, two young women jumped out with those brutal beasties of depravity, laughing and giggling without a care in the world. The smaller of the two men wearing another farcical hat escorted the two women inside while the other parked his van around the back.

Two more entering the spiders den. I was dizzy with indecision.

This is it. I need to do something now.

Plucking up all the courage I could muster ( almost none), I dashed outside. Seeing a policeman on his passing bike, I frantically flapped my arms like a duck who had been shot in its final death throes to gain his attention.

“Officer, officer I think…I know… I don’t really know but I think there has been a great injustice committed in that apartment building.”

He looked at me with eyes that said, “Here we go, another nutter.” And was about to say something to me when his radio crackled to life.
“All active units need to proceed to 32 Baker Street New Town immediately. Re missing teenagers, suspected multiple homicides in house, suspects detained.”

Without further ado, he gunned his bike and disappeared down the road.

I stood there with my jaw dropped and in shock.
Before I could gather my wits, the burly man with the ridiculous hand bar moustache and goatee that looked out of place walked from behind the building.

“Hello, my good sir,” hand outstretched “ Aren’t you the shop owner from across the road?”

I feebly nodded

“Oh good oh. Those props I bought off you the other day worked like a treat. Pity we have to rehearse here and not in the theatre but those bloody renovations aren’t finished yet,” he cackled. “Beggars can’t be choosers as they say and we actors are surely beggars, ha ha.”

“Actors?” I sputtered out.

“Yes old boy, the girls were having a ripe old giggle about having to rehearse in a flat. Not enough room you see. Had to remove that old Indian carpet because they all kept sneezing due to the dust or cat’s hair or something. Ha, Ha, what a hoot. Every time we killed our victim he’d start sneezing. Ended up in hospital, poor chat with asthma.”

“Murder?” I chocked.

“Hang on my old boy, Just had a thought. We need a new murder victim. You would fit the bill perfectly. Can you play dead? ha ha”

With that, I let out an almighty scream of “Noooooooooo” and ran across the road slamming the shop door behind me.

Old Handle bars looked perplexed, “What a strange fellow. Takes all types I suppose.”

On the dirty dusty floor of an old nondescript run down secondhand shop, lies a dead spider.

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Starting Over Again

 

The beginning of the journey

The beginning of the journey

We, last year, decided or should I say I decided and persuaded my wife to relocate to Australia.  I moved to Sabah awhile back to start a life with my new bride having been part of reasonable successful small business in Thailand. I had known my wife for many years via the Internet; the connecting factor being our common love for teaching the English language. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I moved. I wasn’t totally ignorant about the environment I was getting myself into.  In fact, I had been to this part of the world a number of times, but like most ‘holidays’, perception is blinked from reality. Services that you take for granted elsewhere are unpredictable here. General day-to-day living is unremarkable and non stimulating for an enquiring mind. Race-based politics with a dose of religion thrown in for good measure dominates most of the news services, consequently an underlying sense of social tension bubbles under the surface always.  If you don’t belong to the chosen ethnic group, Bumiputra, you’re an outsider for life. Technically, all ethnic groups born here are Malaysians, although in reality a semi unofficial social division exists with a first and second class race base system in place. The chosen ones are given advantages in securing places in universities, numerous scholarships and with employment opportunities as well as financial assistance in the form off special interest rates and other banking privileges.

For these reasons and my inability to work here due to immigration restrictions, I have wanted to return to Australia for some time.  Here lies the problem.

My wife is a principal of a secondary school and apart from my obvious bias she is one of the better ones. In the 4 years she has been in her present school she has lifted the standard up by the boot laces and has gained the school and the state international recognition for her environmental awareness programmes.

She works with the energy of 10 of me and lives and breathes her school and its students although it has taken its toll physically and mentally.

I know she will have a much more controlled existence in Australia with time to do things for herself, but of course this means giving up her senior position and to a certain extent the Malaysian life style.

Moving can be stressful at the best of times. I should know, but fortunately she has been to Australia before, so knows what to expect to some degree; still as I said before, working and holidaying are two different things.

The paper work is finished and submitted and word back indicates things are proceeding smoothly. Zero hour is approaching.
Funnily enough it’s not only her who feels the weight of expectation. I have nothing to lose by returning, she potentially has a lot, but I fret about it a lot. Am I being selfish, only thinking of what is right and convenient for me or am I helping her escape a system that has taken its pound of flesh?
These questions will undoubtably twirl around inside our heads until we leave.

The Not So Super Supermarket

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I am sure most of you have experienced the pleasures of shopping in a modern air-conditioned supermarket with everything you could possibly want on the well-stocked shelves. This is not a story about that. This, my dear friends, is about reality in the deep dark Palm oil plantation country of Borneo.
My local supermarket had, I’ve been told, come into existence a mere 20 years ago, but to the uninitiated, it appears to be at least three score years plus ten. ( older than me)

The owners haven’t felt the need to modernise with a coat of paint or a dab of plaster since construction. The interior has the ambiance of a post nuclear apocalypse, cans and packets of food are strewn across the aisles as the highly motivated staff ( cough, cough) unpack to stack the shelves during all of the opening hours. This would normally not be a problem, but the two-and-a-half-foot wide aisles don’t cope well. Large sections of the supermarket are unreachable on any one visit, so this clever marketing ploy, coupled with the unavailability of most of the common produce on a given day ( tomatoes maybe on a Monday or if not Wednesday or if you’re really unlucky the next week. Lettuce to go with your salad, on the other hand, never arrives the same day) makes you return again and again to enhance the shopping experience.

Yes, it’s a total lottery; as a behavioural psychologist would put it – intermittent positive reinforcement. Nothing like it to make you salivate.

Talking about fruit and veg, the produce, all of it is tightly wrapped multiple times in plastic film. You can look but not touch. This gives the appearance of conformity. The only way to recognise a bulk of it is by colour. Impossible to tell if it’s fresh or not – plastic all smells the same. Needless to say, we do have some little surprises when we open up at home.

The plastic thing reminds me of the time I found cheese with mould growing inside an unopened plastic wrapper. Expiry date was ok. That’s real skill you must admit.

May have something to do with the leaking freezers. The tiles or what’s left of them next to the deep freeze bubble and burp with what I think is rising damp. The owners do their very best to ignore it by throwing broken down cardboard boxes over it. They, in turn get saturated and disintegrate. Word of warning here; never wear flip flops or sandals. Body weight will force the brown fluid over your toes. My wife says it smells like rats urine. I told her I didn’t think so. Never seen more than a couple of rats at anyone time, the stench being so strong it would rot your socks off. You would need an army of rats to create that smell, but I must admit it’s hard to identify. What does concrete cancer mixed with effluent smell like?

Buying sliced bread is a bit of an art form. I used to, back home, feel the bread to see if it was soft and springy to the touch. Being warm was a bonus because it meant it was very fresh; doesn’t work here though. It’s always hot because it sits in the window with the tropical sun as company.

You know what I think?
I have a sneaky suspicion the uncooked dough is placed into the plastic bags to bake by solar energy. How’s that for efficiency!

Check out is well… slow to…. well you know. The cash registers are only a few feet from the first row of shelves and you thought traffic in Kuala Lumpur was bad! No useless modern conveniences like scanners here.
The shoppers who don’t like carrying too much tend to drop off their growing list of items onto the cashiers counter. So when you arrive to pay for your own groceries the counter is already full with others. Very messy indeed. Oh well I only need to do this 5 days in 7………

Kudat, Two Hotels And The Tip Of Borneo

Tip of Borneo

School holidays, how sweet they are. Looking forward to escaping the clutches of Sandakan City for a few days, we decided to fly to Kudat.

Kudat is the last major town before you reach the tip of Borneo – Tanjung Simpang Mengayau. It’s isolated and relatively small with a population of about 85,000.
It is a 7-hour drive from Sandakan, a little too much for the old car, so we decided to fly. My wife had never been to this part of Sabah and I had only briefly transited on a flight to Kota Kinabalu

To be honest, I was looking for any excuse to fly in the Twin Otter again. It’s real flying and reminds me of my own relatively short experience as a private pilot over 30 years ago in Adelaide. The noise of the engines, the smell of aviation fuel and the rather uncomfortable seats add to that exquisite feeling of the gentle floating sensation you don’t get in a heavier jet aircraft.

“Sit anywhere you like.” I was told when we boarded – it’s that sort of flight. You see the every movement of the pilots, observe most of the flight instruments and the monotony of the job ( for them) after the takeoff and before the landing. Nothing like watching the knees of these young men bouncing up and down like nervous school boys who are longing for the home time bell to ring. It instils a sense of confidence in the passengers, I can assure you!

The flight lasts a mere 50 minutes over low lying mangrove and palm oil plantations – not a lot of jungle left in this part of Sabah.

The airport is really only an airstrip with a single green storey one-roomed building for arrivals and departures. The fire truck/van with its small water trailer has its attendant in an easy chair next to it, whiling away the time, waiting for the airports only daily flight. What a life.

Originally we intended to use these few days to just veg out and relax, but I wanted to hire a vehicle for a day for a little exploring. The hotel we intended to stay in, the Ria, seemed very casual about obtaining any information other than my wife’s name for the booking. They just said to call the morning of the departure to confirm. It’s interesting how you get so used to pre booking online and instant confirmation. This was very refreshing.

As it turned out, close friends of ours were spending the weekend in Kota Kinabalu and decided to come up the day of our arrival to take us to the tip of Borneo. They wanted to stay in the Kudat Golf and Marina Resort, consequently we agreed to stay there for our first night. After picking us up at the airport, we drove there to check in only to find the rooms were not ready. We decided to have a bite to eat at the hawker stalls near the town centre. The ambience and the odour weren’t the best, but the food was superb – a comprehensive collection of local seafood with rice and Chinese tea.

Arriving back to the hotel we were informed that the rooms were ready; gathering our bags we trundled down the corridor when a strange thing occurred. From some 10 metres away, I noticed a man in his swimming gear leave a room that I thought was ours. Not being sure, I opened the door to find to my horror, the room was strewn with clothes on the bed and shoes in the entrance. How embarrassing! My friend’s room was 2 doors down, so they entered using the electronic card provided. There just behind the door stood a man with an electronic card in hand. For a second or two, both men stared at each other speechless – a mini Mexican standoff. The occupant in the room felt indignant that his private space was being invaded and my friend astonished that the hotel should have stuffed up so badly.

What I find interesting is the hotel staff feigned indifference. This only made me mad to the point that the rest of the stay in that hotel was tainted by it.

Another 30 minutes past before we managed to secure our this time empty rooms. I did knock on the door before entering to make sure!

The hotel is only average, full of youngish families that entertained their children in the pool. The rooms are nothing special, dated and small. The shower or should I say a fountain with a peeing Cherub which surged to 4 separate trickles between periods of inactivity. (think of 4 young boys relieving themselves into a puddle of water ) Not in many showers can you watch an individual water droplet travel down your body without interference, turn the shower on and wait; a 2-minute shower that took 10. Marvellous!

After freshening up, kind of, we piled into the car for the journey to the tip of Borneo some 23 kilometres away though it seemed further.

Kudat was for a few years in the 1880’s the capital of North Borneo and an arrival point for many immigrating Hakka from China to escape persecution ( Taiping rebellion) or for economic reasons. Many cleared the area for coconut plantations before becoming farmers themselves.
My wife’s paternal ancestors arrived in this way before finally settling in Sandakan a number of years later.

The roads were of a similar standard to else where in Sabah – barely adequate; the reason most people here drive larger four wheel drives, especially if they travel outside of the major towns.

Kudat is still growing a significant amount of coconut, a pleasant change from palm oil. This area is still famous for its coconut virgin oil. The small kampongs swarmed with small unkempt children, mange ridden dogs and traditional local Rungus women weaving baskets on their wooden dilapidated thatched roofed verandas.

Just before the tip there is a long stretch of beach that is now the home to a few tacky tourist resorts of sorts. The beach would have been magnificent in years gone by, but like a lot of coastal regions in this part of the world is littered with mainly plastic objects. Nevertheless if you didn’t look too closely, it was a pleasant enough scene.

There is a car park 300 metres south of the tip with a few nondescript shelters to sit and admire the view. Just before the tip is a large concrete model of the world showing Borneo in all its glory. A plague with a brief description of the site and mentioning of Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation fleet stopping there in 1421 for repair. (He himself was actually killed in the Philippines before this.)

The land finally peters out into a narrow stretch of sandstone jutting into the ocean to divide the South China Sea with the Sulu.

A number of islands can be seen on the horizon, one with a lighthouse and interesting sandstone formations adds to the spectacle. The obligatory selfies were being taken by the 50 or so visitors there at the time which is always a distraction, but it’s isolated enough to find some space away from the masses and go for a walk along the long sweeping beach.

Seafood again on the Kudat esplanade rounded off the day. Great meal, inexpensive, in a ramshackle timber restaurant that hangs over the water / plastic bottles. You can have too much of a good thing. By the time we left Kudat a few days later, I never wanted to see another prawn, fish or scallops during the rest of my life. ( feeling didn’t last long of course)

The following day our friends left to drive back to Sandakan while we moved to the Ria hotel. Compared with what we left, it was like chalk and cheese. A clean, smart and newly painted building in the centre of town. In fact it stood out because it was the best kept building in town. The staff were efficient and polite to deal with. The room was twice the size of the one in the Kudat Golf and Marina resort and a lot cleaner and in better repair. The view out of the window was across some roof tops to the harbour, not perfect but pleasant enough.

We ended up spending 2 more memorable days being driven around to explore both sides of the peninsular. The beaches on the South China Sea side had the least pollution.

To top off the visit, a friend of my wife took us to a local business man who amongst other things produces bird nests for the local market, but that did not interest us. He is the owner of a collection of relics from an old Chinese junk that had sunk only 400 metres form the tip of Borneo over 1000 years ago. He had obtained them off the fishermen that had found the wreck in 2003.

There is something magical to hold in your own hands pieces of pottery and bronze plaques of such age. Who made them? For Whom? Where were they going to? Questions that have no answers; lost in the midst of time.

All goods things must come to an end, so after a seafood meal or two it was time to return via the twin otter.

So, would I go back again? Yes, for the seafood, the hotel and of course the twin otter.

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A Few Days In Malacca

The morning after the wedding’s reception, the alarm decided to relieve me from my sleep. The head was heavy, the half dozen glasses of red wine had seen to that, but I quickly remembered the task at hand for the early morn – find our way to TBS, the relatively new bus station in KL for our trip to Malacca.

Always worried about being on time, my phobia forced us to leave our hotel at 6.30 for an 8 am departure. The trip there involved changing from the LRT to another line, but with no hassles. KL’s underground rail system works very well apart from the ticket vending machines that more often than not, don’t work. The authorities recently have made an effort to make it easier to transfer from one line to another by improving the walking access and multi-trip ticketing, far better than the somewhat disjointed arrangement a few years back.

We arrived with plenty of time to spare and waited for our host and daughter. This station, I must say, is nothing like your average bus station. It’s large, very modern and most importantly for me, clean. Only a few years old, it mostly replaces a facility in Chinatown for those travelling south in the country.

The Transnational bus arrived on time. I sat with Lili and Poh with her daughter Karin across the aisle. Word of warning here. Never sit between good friends as you spend the time being talked across, it feels a lot like playing piggy in the middle. I jest, of course, it was not really a problem and made the 2.5 hour trip fly by, even if both ears are still ringing.

Malacca lies on the West coast of Peninsular Malaysia roughly half way between KL and Singapore. It has a long, interesting and varied history. This is not immediately apparent, as you bus in; the outer areas have a lot of modern construction, housing as well as business. This leaves an impression of an economically growing vibrant city.

I have previously been here a number of years before, but recognised very little at first. I was told a lot of people investing here are from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Tourists abound, so there is a very significant major hotel presence, very grand for a city of this size.

We arrived at 1030 and were picked up by Poh’s niece, Joyce and taken to a small Chinese restaurant on the side of the road near the coast. The very congenial owner greeted us with a broad smile and after much chatter in Chinese, a course of food was decided on. I’ll admit now on most occasions I allow my wife to decide what to eat. If it was left up to me, I’d eat the same old boring stuff every day. I am not that adventurous when it comes to trying new food, but when forced to, I usually enjoy the experience. This was no exception. The food, apart from being inexpensive was of high quality. The ambiance of the surroundings and the owner’s ancestry’s looking forlornly down upon the diners added to the culinary experience.

Our hosts live about 10 kilometres north of the city centre along a road full of old abandoned mansions and multi-storey high rise. I fear the old buildings with their large grounds will in time, create a great wall of towering condominiums. They are too much to maintain for the average private owner and are only saved from demolition, if business is interested in utilising the size for commerce. Some of the local banks have done just that in the centre of the city, but unfortunately there are more mansions than interested parties.

Poh and her families’ houses are just a street back from the sea. The ambiance of the area is one of peace and quiet; only the occasional dog barking intruded, no cacophony here.

After meeting the family and a quick shower, we ventured first to a coffee shop to try the local brew and watch ‘kaya’ being made. ( a coconut, sugar and egg yolk spread ) The golden brown treacly substance is smeared onto a piece of toasted bread or bun and served with local black coffee. We watched it being made in a back room. Two ladies sitting over a metal stewing pot, the ingredients heated over a low gas flame and stirred for 3 hours to get the right consistency. It is very sweet, fattening but scrumptious. After a short walk to view the straits and its shipping, we ventured back into town.

Half way there, the traffic started to grind to a halt and it soon became apparent this was no ordinary jam. As we crawled along at walking pace a long line of parked and par king cars snaked for a hundred metres or more in front of us. The reason, you ask? The world famous ( for this place at least ) Klebang coconut milk shake. Yes, the world here was grinding to a stand still for a milkshake. I don’t know about you, but for me to line up dozens deep, it would have to be something very special. I was to learn later that Malacca inhabitants won’t give another thought to waiting in a long queue for an indeterminate amount of time to get into their favourite chicken and rice ball or satay celup restaurant. Nothing like good food to create your routine and habits. We did some general sightseeing and shopping, then returned for the evening Mother’s Day dinner.

The old Portuguese Fort encompassing St Paul's church - Wikipedia

The old Portuguese Fort encompassing St Paul’s church – Wikipedia

Malacca is steeped in history. Going back 500 years, it was a strategic outpost, one of three ( the others being Singapore and Penang) due to its location on the Straits of Malacca. It controlled trade that passed through the very narrow waters between Malaya and Sumatra. This all changed in 1511 when the Portuguese arrived and overthrew the local Sultan. The European presence in the region was increasing due to the spice trade which led to increased colonisation of the region.

Fortaleza Malacca

Fortaleza Malacca

The Portuguese built A Famosa ( fort, only the front gate exists today ) and remained for about 130 years with limited success as traders until the Dutch in cahoots with the Sultan of Johore replaced them, though even today there is still an enclave of Portuguese descendants.

" Red " Centre of town

” Red ” Centre of town

The Dutch for their part built the ” Red Stadthuys” administration centre of town that can be still be seen today though these days, it consists of museums and various churches.

Eventually 180 years later, the British replaced the Dutch, who had agreed to accept some land in Java in exchange. There they remained until independence in 1957.

The eclectic blend of European and Asian buildings makes Malacca the interesting place it is. The old part of town has very narrow honeycomb streets that were never designed to cater for motor vehicles. Most are one way and frequent traffic jams are common. There is a mixture of trendy modern business with traditional Chinese family homes. The old buildings are generally narrow, deep terraces with roofs made of rows of unique corrugated clay red tiles. In the oldest buildings, the original plain dutch facades are hard to find being replaced later by Classical, Chinese and Malay additions.

The town has many churches, temples and mosques – all interesting in their own way and its diverse inhabitants complement the feeling of something unique.

Unique Mosque

Unique Mosque

The evenings meal was in part prepared by the adult children of the family to show appreciation for their mothers’ efforts. Most of the children live and work in other parts of the country or overseas and made the effort to be there for their mothers as well as for the Vesak day celebrations, the Buddha’s birthday.

We were asked if we would like to walk in their annual parade the next evening and accepted the invitation without question.

The following morning saw us exploring the old St Paul’s Church on top of a small steep hill in the historical centre. Upon ascent, you are greeted by St Francis Xavier himself in all his marble glory. ( he was interned here for a short period of time after his death). Built by the Portuguese early on in its occupation for its Catholic population, only the outer walls and Apse of the church are now intact. The interior walls support many tomb stones of the local Dutch and Portuguese dating from the 16th century, but unfortunately for me, not in English. The Dutch converted it to Dutch Reformed where it remained as a place of worship until Christ Church was completed in 1753 in the Stadthuys.

Old Portuguese Gate

Old Portuguese Gate

After investigating the tombstones behind the church from the English period, we ventured down to the remains of the Old Portuguese fort. Not a lot to see but interesting all the same. My attention was distracted by a group of people using what I could only describe as a golf shaft-cum-telescopic rod with a frame to hold a telephone on, so one could, by stretching the arm and rod away from the body, take the perfect self-indulging selfie. Really, I could think of better ways of taking photos without looking ridiculous. Anyway each to their own.

The old fort that was unceremoniously blown up by the British is continuously being rediscovered, the foundations at least, each time they excavate old car parks and building lots. Some of these areas are quite a distance from the remaining gate meaning this must have been an impressive structure in its time; at one stage it housed the entire Portuguese population in Malacca.

That afternoon we prepared for the Vesak precession. The participants wear all white, so that proved a challenge to find a clothing combination that came close. My wife and I had a slightly offbeat look, but came close to looking the part.

We drove to Poh’s uncle’s place to collect a bus with 40 other devotees that took us to the site to assemble. Due to anticipated traffic issues, we left early and arrived with plenty of time to spare. In fact, time to try out the famous local celup satays.

The dining tables are round with a circular metal container sunk into the centre. This pot contains a mixture of what looks like peanut sauce and oil. Underneath the table is a gas flame to keep the contents simmering. The idea is to go to a large bank of refrigerators and choose from an assortment of skewers with either chicken, pork products, seafood or various vegetables. The food is then placed into the boiling sauce and cooked. Occasionally, the staff add more sauce into the mixture and gives it a stir. The smell of peanuts permeates through out the premises. Simple, effective and delicious and when finished, the waiting staff just tallies up the empty skewers left and you pay for what you eat.

After dinner, we all looked forward to our impending walk. With 42 floats in the parade, we were assigned to number 19. I assumed for some unknown reason this was just going to be a jaunt around the block. How wrong I was.

The night was hot and sultry. I was sweating profusely before we even began. The start was slow due to the sheer number of people involved. I won’t attempt to estimate the numbers, but it would have been in the thousands. This stop start affair meandered through the older sectors of town with large numbers of people lining both sides of the streets to pay their respects to the Buddha. Small gifts were handed out to the crowd with children being the main beneficiaries. Almost all were of Chinese descent apart from a small sprinkling of overseas tourists.

The walk lasted two and a half hours and all of us were foot weary by the end, the atmosphere – the sounds and sights and the sense of community made it a fulfilling and tranquil experience.

The last full day in Malacca was spend eating and talking with our new found friends. One last surprise awaited me though. An evening meal was arranged in a popular open air restaurant. Our group who had been doing a little last minute window shopping were the last to arrive. And there on the table in front of me was, to my utter surprise, a Klebang coconut milkshake.

Famous Coconut Milkshake

Famous Coconut Milkshake

Everyone, by this stage, had heard I would not get into a line up for a milkshake, but someone made the effort for me.
This simple gesture typifies the great hospitality and generosity shown to us for the few days we were in Malacca. I extent my deep gratitude to Poh and her family members who went out of their way to make our experience an exceptional one.

The next morning we bused it to the new KLIA2 terminal (another post) and returned to Sandakan.

Is that milkshake worth lining up for, you ask?
All I’ll say is go to Malacca to find out.