A Short Tale Of A Small Victory

On the SummitThere was no way someone could look at this picture and call it beautiful. They’d be hard pressed to know where it was either, except that wherever it was there was plenty of rain. Tropic of Cancer? Tropic of Capricorn? Or perhaps it was temperate? If you look close enough you can convince yourself that it’s on the subtropical slopes of the Caspian Sea.

Maybe there’s a giveaway?

Yes, the Exif data: January 13, 2009. So, you go back through Flickr and Google: Malaysia. Yes, it’s in the Highlands, the Cameron Highlands: tea plantations, faux-Tudor guest-houses, Nutmeg manikins and the best flower gardens East of Wales.

“No,” you think, “the photo is not beautiful. Not ugly, either. It’s an anodyne shot attempting to capture a sweeping view that in the moment was beautiful.” You are correct.

But what of the moment that defined it?

There are two moments actually. Halfway up the mountain Jeff, a red-headed nomad who, like yourself, is running away from who-knows-what, stops to smell some flowers.Nutmeg Mannikin (Lonchura punctulata)

He senses your impatience. The first quarter of the hike you’ve struggled for oxygen. Your out of shape body and lungs demanded surcease, but then your blood reaches oxygen saturation and stopping would send you back into dis-equilibrium.

“Come on man, let’s get up this bad boy,” you say.

“You really should stop and smell these flowers,” he smiles back.

“What a cliché,” you say.

“Just try it,” he says.

Like a petulant child you shrug your shoulders and relent. You even stomp your foot like a child a little bit. It’s instinctive.

You sniff the flower peremptorily and pull away. By the time your olfactory nerves send the quanta of info to your brain and your brain has processed it you are already smiling and leaning back in for another sniff.

But this time you linger and shout, like a child, “it’s, it’s, it’s like cinnamon and vanilla and strawberries!”

“I think we’ll call it strawberry shortcake,” he says. “You really should smell flowers more often.”

Jeff Takes Time Out To Smell The RosesYou pledge to do so, solemnly, like a Boyscout, except you never were one.

At the top of the small mountain you have another sensation: satisfaction. There is also a sensation missing you’ve grown comfortable with, an old friend of sorts. There is no pain. You explain it to Jeff.

“In Tibet I blew out three discs in my back coming down from the Everest base camp.”

“Did you climb it?” he asks, surprised.

“Hell no,” you say. “Was just there, taking in the view.”

“So what happened?”

“Jeep I was in crashed, rolled over. Six people were on top of me but in the rush to get out I was the first. Guess my football instincts kicked in.”

You shrug, humble-like, but shiver as well, remembering the fear, smelling the danger. You continue the story.

“A few minutes after I climbed out the pain hit me. Spent the next two weeks in Nepal and India whacked out on opiates. For two years I tried all kinds of remedies. Finally had surgery in late 2005. After that it was two years of putting my life and marriage back together. I failed,” you tell him with a smile.

“But I’ll tell you something,” you say.

“What’s that?”

“This may not be much of a climb to you! What’s a couple of thousand feet after rock climbing with your bare hands in Thailand, right? But it’s my first substantial hike since the wreck,” you say.

“Can’t tell you how important mountains are to me. Something to their solidity and simplicity, permanent and everlasting,” you say. Then you finish.

“Maybe I’m unusual but they move me. And I feel no pain. It’s been too long since and I forgot how good it feels.”

The Great Albuquerque

No, not the city in New Mexico, but the Portuguese conqueror of Goa and Malacca: Affonse da Alboquerque, to be precise.

Needless to say, I’ve been a bit pre-occupied the last several days, head buried in a bunch of 19th century accounts of travelers running amok–now there is a word with one hell of an etymology, but you’ll have to wait for the book for that story–up and down the Malay Peninsula. And then, there is this guy Alboquerque, or Albuquerque for you spelling Nazis out there.

He was a real piece of work.

In a nutshell, Alboquerque was ordered by the King of Portugal to capture Aden, at the mouth of the Red Sea. The strategic rationale was pretty solid: cut off Moorish/Egyptian shipping of spices in the Red Sea and thus cut Venice–who shipped all the pepper and cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg from Alexandria, into the Mediterranean–out of the spice trade altogether. Trade was equally as cutthroat then as it is now.

Affonso was on his way to do his duty by the king when a report came in that the Sultan of Malacca had razed the Portuguese warehouse in Malacca and taken 20 Portuguese hostage, including Ruy de Araujo, it’s commander, or perhaps in modern parlance: the consul general.

It was late in the year and Alboquerque missed the monsoons blowing back towards Africa and Aden and thus decided to avenge Portuguese honor instead by attacking and capturing Malacca.

By an accident of weather, sometime in 1511, the great spice entrepot of Malacca was siezed by Alboquerque, 1,400 of his men and a bunch of German artillery.

The Portugeuse now maintained a chokehold on the single most strategic geographical locale of spice trade–the Straits of Malacca, that 250 mile long sliver of water between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The history of the Far East would never be the same.

Final Thoughts On South East Asia

ReflectionsI just had duck rice for dinner, which will no doubt be my last duck rice for a while. I’m in my hotel room and the usual packing ritual awaits. I can’t bring myself to do it, just yet.

First things first: this will be my last post for at least a week. I will be on a boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean and I doubt I’ll see an internet cafe floating by.

I’ve been in South East Asia for almost seven months now, three of which were spent in Singapore. I’m not ready to leave. And I’m not sure why. Is it because I’m not prepared for India? Or is it because South East Asia exceeded my expectations? I would imagine it is a combination of both.

I remember that first Saturday, July 5th, 2008 when I took this shot of Singapore’s Central Business District and it seems like an eternity has passed since then, both chronologically and emotionally. Have I put the time to good use? Yeah, I have. Seeing the things I’ve seen, doing the things I’ve done and most especially meeting the amazing people along the road have made this leg of the journey special. I never expected to enjoy, much less find a facsimile for paradise in South East Asia. If Lake Toba was the highlight, these last two and a half weeks spent in Malaysia have been eye opening and extraordinary.

(Today’s photos can be found here.)

More after the jump.

I mentioned before that most South East Asian countries are very homogeneous–at least the ones I visited on this trip. But Malaysia is the very antithesis of homogeneity. What makes Malaysia work is its diversity. Take a look at the shots from today, especially those labeled ‘faces of Kuala Lumpur.’ There are Tamils, Malays, Buddhist monks, Westerners and Chinese. They are old, young, men and women, covered and not. But what’s most impressive about Malaysia isn’t its dynamism, it’s that Malaysia has done it Malaysia’s way. No ‘Washington Consensus‘ here. Their economy works for Malaysians and the common good, something it shares with Singapore, although Singapore is all about an open-economy, Malaysia’s is just different. And that’s one of the reasons the country didn’t slump as hard and as long as so many others did during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998. Indonesia has never recovered.

Malaysia is relatively clean, cleaner than Thailand, but not yet up to Singapore’s exacting standards. The countryside is gorgeous, palm plantations, wild jungle, tea farms and many, many mountains. All of it is green, tropical, wet and humid. ‘Tropicalness’ is much more pronounced in Malaysia than it is in Vietnam, or Laos or Thailand–but not as strong as Indonesia, although I didn’t get to see Malaysian Borneo–next time I hope.

And Malaysian food has distinct differences between those of the other South East Asian states. It’s much more Indian and frequently ‘halal’ food is de riguer in most places. Sure, you can find bacon in Chinatown, but that’s about it for pork and other haram foods here. However, the Malay’s aren’t hardcore Muslims. They aren’t Saudis, for sure. Women seem to get on well here. I imagine a part of that is because there is such a significant minority of non-Muslims in the country that hard core sharia law wouldn’t work here anyway.

It’s funny to think that I blew right through Malaysia when I left Singapore, heading strait to Chiang Mai. It’s probably a good thing too. I might have wasted a bunch of time here. There is still so much to see. I can’t believe I missed Pulau Perhentian! It’s the one beach I was willing to travel to in South East Asia, mostly because it’s not like Phuket and filled with a bunch of beer swilling hoodlums, or Bali, which is just too overdeveloped for my taste. I found Toba, and for me that is enough.

All the South East Asian countries have their charms. The frank honesty of the Vietnamese, the sweet smiles from lovely Thai girls, glorious Angkor and the mellow Mekong in Laos are but a few. But if it were my choice, I’d recommend Malaysia for the three reasons: prices are excellent, you can see just about anything that South East Asia has to offer in Malaysia and the multi-cultural diversity is just impossible to beat. One never knows what one will see in Malaysia.

Alas, of all the places in South East Asia I loved the most, well, that’s a no-brainer: Lake Toba was simply astounding. But I’m grateful I saw them all, or at least all but two: Burma and the Philippines. Next time, I keep telling myself, next time. And now I am going to go engage in the ritual of packing up, preparing to move on in the hopes that I’m ready for India this time, that I’ll not be too overwhelmed, or get too sick.

I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t a bit anxious. And I’d be an even bigger liar if I told you that I won’t miss East Asia. I will. I’ll miss hearing the languages and the amazing (and sometimes awful) smells. I’ll miss the smiles and I will miss the food. But the first leg of the journey ends tonight and the second begins tomorrow. As the Spanish say, “Traveller, there are no roads. Roads are made by walking.”

Day One, Kuala Lumpur

Hi Mom!Here are some shots from day one in Kuala Lumpur.

It’s really a pretty amazing, organized place. Jeff and I hung out, mostly we just went to Petronas Towers, but the Skybridge tickets were all sold out for the day.

The infrastructure here is great. My iPhone connects to their third generation network quite well, and as it is hacked I can surf the web for less than a penny a minute. Amazing that I can do that in Malaysia but not back home. The super-modern sky train is wonderful. Remind me again why Malaysia can afford these kinds of things but San Antonio and Austin can’t? Oh, yeah, SUVs.

There are a lot of shots in this pool. Lots of the towers, reflections, and this beautiful bird we caught a shot of feeding off the nectar from flowers.

He’s the prettiest one I’ve seen yet here in South East Asia.

I just got word a few minutes ago that my boat will be delayed a day, so I get an extra day here. But I don’t know how to get a hold of Jeff. I guess I’m back on my own. Jeff was a cool guy, really enjoyed hanging with him in the Highlands and here in KL today. I’ll miss him when I leave as he is headed to Australia, but I know I have a friend for life and our paths will cross again. Of that I am certain!

I Love Cobblers

I Love Cobblers

Repaired SandalsI love cobblers. And no, not the peach kind (although those are great too). What I’m talking about are shoe repair men. I’ve got a pair of sandals I’ve had close on a year now. And I had them patched up a bit in Thailand, as the stitching was getting a bit loose and just today I had them resoled, patched and stitched up. All for the grand cost of $3. The stitching in Thailand cost less than $.50. Believe me when I tell you that these shoes probably have at least a thousand miles of walking on them. I’ve already gotten my money’s worth.

But the reason I highlight this–the fact that my shoes are falling apart–is twofold.

One, it’s damned hard to find a good cobbler in America, or at least it was in San Antonio or Austin, that didn’t charge as much as the shoe cost just to fix it.

And two, after reading this I can’t help but to wonder if we’re really seeing a return to more frugal ways. From the story:

A few months ago, as her family’s income fell, Laura French Spada, a real estate agent in Glen Rock, N.J., began dyeing her hair at home and washing the family cars herself. Her husband, Mark, started learning how to do electrical repairs.

Other folks have given up paying people to walk their dogs, have begun ironing their own clothes, and cutting their own and their kid’s hair. As the article notes, these types of service jobs have been a mainstay for our “service” oriented economy for quite a while and this type of behavior will no doubt hurt many people who relied on people that had more money and less time. What’s even worse is these “service” jobs were those very entrepreneurs who’d been laid-off back in the nineties that politicians applauded. Talk about a big “oops!”

And it now seems people have more time and less money, or maybe just less time and less money. So I wonder, how will the cobblers (and others like them) fare? Will prices fall as more people decide that maybe they don’t need a new pair of Cole Haan sandals, or dress shoes, or even high heels (the guy who fixed my sandals was working on a pair of high heels for a Chinese lady when I dropped them off this morning) that cost $150 just because they have a small hole in the sole and instead go see a cobbler? Will TV repair pop up? What will people do when all those high-end flat screens are on the skids? Or cell-phone repair me? (I’ve seen them in Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.) What will people do when their microwave is on the fritz? Do people even have the skills to repair these things in America anymore? And let’s not talk about computer repairs. Those are simply outrageous. But how many just out of college kids that majored in an IT related field are going to open up cheap shops to replace the Circuit City repair facilities? Or Geek Squad? Talk about getting hosed! Might there actually be new opportunities for the “new frugality” as some have taken to calling it?

What would you do, now that money is short? Buy new shoes or get the old ones fixed?


Tea!Today I went on another jungle hike, this one through the jungle to a tea plantation, not up a small mountain. Jeff and I had a blast. (Jeff’s the guy I met on the bus from Cambodia to Thailand.) We met a wonderful couple from the UK and France and hiked together. Along the way we saw lots of flowers, a small snake (hey, you take what you can get), a really cool lizard, a water fall and a massively huge millipede. Plus a cool wasp.

The highlight of the day was running around through the tea plantation and then having fresh tea.

All of today’s photos are here, and there are a lot.

My favorites are the lizard. He’s a beauty. Any one that can identify him please do so in the comments.

This flower.

A kitty, and this one of me looking like a goof-ball.

We hitchhiked back from the tea plantation to Tanah Rata. It was a breeze getting a ride.

Good stuff, all around. Now I am off to have ‘steamboat,’ yummy!

Not A Lot, But Still Something

On the SummitAs many of you know I injured my back in a 2003 car accident coming down the Himalayas into Nepal. Due to the injuries I haven’t hiked a mountain since then. Until today, that is–a nice jungle hike up a mountain. I climbed to a height of 1,784 meters. Now, that isn’t much. But it’s a huge achievement for me personally. Of all the things I missed most that I lost due to my injury hiking in the mountains and running were the top two. And now, I can hike again.

(Today’s photos can be found here, I especially like the bee flying out of the flower.)

I am sore and I will feel it tomorrow. But I am looking forward to feeling those good aches, those aches when you know you’ve accomplished something, even something minor as a four hour hike up a small mountain and then down again.

It’s been too long since I looked out from the top of a mountain and surveyed all below me. It’s a great feeling and I’d forgotten just how good it is!

So, here’s to baby steps! I may climb the Matterhorn yet, someday. Always dreamed of doing that perhaps I still may.

A Good Day In The Jungle

Jungle TrailI’m certainly feeling much better. I took a rather vigorous hike in the Taman Negarra Pulau Penang today (Penang National Park). As a matter of fact, it’s the most vigorous hike I’ve taken since I injured my back in 2003. This is a damn good sign to me. My back doesn’t hurt, nor do my ribs–although my muscles are tight as I type this and I will be sore tomorrow, but these are all good signs.

(About two dozen new photos can be found here from today.)

Mind you, it wasn’t like I went hiking up a several thousand foot mountain, just a moderate hike in a hilly jungle setting. Good stuff. I’m ready to move on, ready to hit the Cameron Highlands tomorrow and I reckon by the time I get to the Himalayas I’ll be up for some decent hikes. After almost six months of walking everywhere, losing 30 pounds–I’m at a trim 185 once again–and eating lean Asian cuisine I’m in pretty good shape. Now, the real test will come when I am on the ship to India when I plan to quit smoking. But I digress . . .

I grew up hunting and fishing half of the time in the Brush Country of South Texas and the other half in the Hill Country of Central Texas. My father taught me how to spot wildlife and to this day it’s one of the greatest gifts he ever bestowed upon me. (I prefer not to hunt now, but just to observe, although I have no animus towards hunters–so long as they eat what they kill.) Now, searching for game in South and Central Texas is pretty easy. I’ve got the ‘eye’ for it. Most of the flora is either russet colored or Prickly Pear green. The key is to search for movement and I can spot a rabbit, bobcat or white-tail in a second.

But, as I learned in Belize in 1999, looking for wildlife in the jungle is something of a much more difficult task. Everything is green or bizarre colors that still manage to make the jungle overwhelming. The jungle is always moving. Leaves, coconuts falling, animals with brilliant camouflage make spotting wildlife, even birds, in the jungle quite difficult.

And today was no different. I managed to see two birds, one a a type of heron, the other I assume is a type of plover, or shore bird of a sort. I saw three beautiful monitor lizards and got good photos of two of them (here and here). But the real joy came about halfway through my jungle trek. I sat down to have some water and lit up a smoke. A few minutes later a small nut hit me in the head. I looked around and assumed it fell from a tree. Stuff is always falling from trees in the jungle. But then a minute or so later it happened again. Puzzled, I looked more closely. Focusing my eyes and letting them adjust to the dense foliage around me. And there he was: a young Long-Tailed Macaque not eight feet away from me getting ready to hurl another seed at me. I fancy he smiled at me, as I was now in on the joke. But still, it was an odd encounter. There I was, face to face with a cousin both of us intelligent and inquisitive creatures and I can only assume he clearly wanted some tobacco. (I’ve been told they like it by several people here in Malaysia and in Indonesia.) Soon his mom showed up and shooed him off.

It was the highlight of my day.

As for tonight, I’m going to relax, have another bowl of won-ton mie at the soup stall up the street and some more of this wonderful coffee, then read a book and sleep.

It’s good to be healthy and fit again. And I am ready to move on. Penang, I am happy to say, has grown on me–although I doubt I’ll return. But then again, who knows where my journeys will take me. I’ve given up taking them. They take me. I’m just along for the ride.

More Penang Photos

Dancing DragonSorry that all you are getting are photos right now, but as I said, I have a 2,000 word story due by Monday morning, New Zealand time. I did manage to spend some time zipping around Penang on a moped (no water buffaloes around these parts) and I visited a few pretty interesting sights. A went back to the Tamil Temple, this time I went around to the front. The photos are pretty nice, especially with my new lens, which allows me to get some nice close ups. I also visited a Cantonese House and took lots of people photos. The zoom lens allows me to take great shots without it being so damned obvious I am taking a photo of the person. And I shot a few more silly signs.

Here are some of the shots I like the most:


Chinese Temple Guardian.

Another Temple Guardian.

An old man.

Another old man.

An Osama bin Laden look alike. (And this is not my label, this is what the locals call him.)

Finally, this Tri-shaw. Just a nice look.

You can see them all here.

Silly Penang Photos

Medicine and Liquor? I took some silly photos around Penang today. I got a new lens for my camera, a 55-200mm, that I absolutely stole the price was so good. I’m still toying around with it but I am looking forward to finally being able to take some sweet bird photos.

Here’s what I took today:

“Howdy,” Malaysian style!

A guy walking.

A close up of an ashtray.

A kid waiting for water.

An old man, very tired and worn out.

And a sign advertising ‘Chicks and Furniture.’ They obviously need to make some additions to the chronology here, adding: ‘Divorce and Furniture Removal Not Included.’