Gong Xi Fa Cai

Trip Start Jun 19, 2005
Trip End Jun 19, 2006

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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

We were sitting in an airport coffee shop seeking to spend our last baht as we awaited our flight from Bangkok to Penang, Malaysia. Airport coffee shops are very good places to blow money. Having exchanged the equivalent of a few day's room and board for two cups of mediocre brew, we were talking about what we might want to see and do in Malaysia when, in a careless moment, H made a casual comment about the fact that neither of us had been ill in so long. Within 24 hours Mike was laid out, sick as a dog in a cavernous hotel room in Penang, staring at the ceiling fan as it stirred the sticky air overhead. Was it inevitable, just a matter of time, or did H's prideful remark summon the wrath of the travel gods? We shall never know, but suffice to say there will be no further commentary of the kind. Thankfully the illness passed, so to speak, in a matter of days, and with just 72 hours to explore Penang we set out to see the sights.

With countless unimaginative signs defacing it's crumbling colonial buildings, denying the city any modicum of charm, Penang struck us as decidedly shabby. While dodging traffic in our quest for a sidewalk, let alone something to actually see or do, we discovered Malaysia's epidemic - mall mania. On just about every corner of every city we visited on peninsular Malaysia we found ourselves in the shadows of these glass and steel edifices to conspicuous consumerism. From Muslim women wearing headscarves as they browsed Victoria's Secret outlets, to young couples window-shopping at Gucci, Versace and The Body Shop, the contrasts abounded. The only thing that reminded us that we weren't in Kansas anymore (besides the fact that we were actually in a mall) was the fact that Malaysians crawl the malls until well after midnight. The oppressive heat and humidity convinced us to overcome our aversion to self-contained shopping complexes and personal shame over our own travel worn garb, and with the first breath of blissfully cooled air, we were sold. But we soon learned that too much of a good thing can indeed cause frostbite when we shivered through our first full-length feature film in a Malaysian movie theater. In the arctic chill of the stadium seats we discovered yet another cultural morsel - movie-going Malaysians have a tendency to engage in constant conversation, perhaps in order to keep warm. Our practiced glance-backs failed to translate, and while they were entirely ineffective in quelling the conversation, they were returned with genuinely friendly greetings.

With only three weeks to explore Malaysia, we knew we needed to be efficient, so we opted to limit our mall time, and ended up spending a couple days online and in travel agencies, making plans. With seven months of spontaneous travel behind us, we found it difficult to commit to any semblance of an agenda, but paralysis soon gave way to purchasing. We ended up with no less than eight regional plane tickets each, and a schedule that actually required us to know where we were going. While the credit cards were still warm we went with the momentum and pulled the trigger on the Big Ticket - Bali to Mexico City. Having realized over the last few months that we'd really like to learn a language during this year away, and drawn by the idea of settling down a little before we go home, we've decided to go to Guatemala. Guatemala? Didn't we say we're flying to Mexico City?

In our distorted way of thinking, we assumed that since Mexico is right next door to Guate, we'd just save a few bucks on the tickets and find our way south via local transport once we arrived. At this point in the journey it tends to be enough just to get to the right continent. Tickets in hand, we got online to look into our options for the last leg of the journey, which was not the afternoon bus ride we thought it'd be, but rather a 30- hour marathon. Are we travel-savvy or what?

We did manage to make it from Penang to Kuala Lumpur, a modern metropolis which we used as a home base for a weekend excursion to a really quaint little town called Malacca. We strolled Malacca's cobbled riverside walks and were enchanted by its British Colonial architecture. It was there that we began to see the colorful preparations for the upcoming Chinese New Year celebration (year of the dog, of course). Red lanterns lined many of the streets and added a festive air to the warm evenings. We also noticed in Malacca a phenomenon that has held true throughout Malaysia - an apparently harmonious co-habitation of diverse racial, ethnic and religious groups. Malay, Chinese and Indians, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims all call this country home, and while tensions certainly exist, Malaysia seems to be doing a remarkable job of keeping the peace.

Back in K.L. for a second time we made our way to Borneo (specifically Sarawak, the Malaysian side of the island) and then via Twin Otter plane deep into the interior to Bario. This tiny remote village carved out of primary jungle is home to the Kelabit people, an indigenous tribe that has maintained a great deal of its traditional ways of life. The extraordinarily friendly people of Bario often leave the village to seek out educational and professional opportunities unavailable to them at home, but they tend at some point to return. We met and spent hours chatting with many locals who spoke perfect English - a rare and precious opportunity for a level of interpersonal and cultural exchange that language barriers often preclude. The woman who greeted us at the airport took one look at our passports and asked, "So, Bush or Clinton?" When we shared our preference she offered to pray for us, and suggested we take a knee as well. We knew Bario was for us!

While there are some contemporary conveniences (generator-powered lights in the evenings, a public telephone in town and even some satellite televisions), modernity has done little to disrupt simple and serene rhythms of daily life in Bario. We stayed with a local family in their longhouse, eating delicious meals prepared with plants that our hosts brought from the jungle to their open-fire kitchen, and mountainous plates of the world-famous Bario rice that we helped to harvest. We spent long languorous days following small trails through the dense foliage, visiting surrounding villages, basking in the generous hospitality of the locals who always seemed genuinely pleased to see us. It was an amazing week and we were acutely aware as our plane ascended above Bario to return us to "civilization" that the logging road we saw inching its way toward the village will almost certainly and irrevocably alter life in Bario.

A couple short flights later we were in Kuching, on the southern coast of Sarawak. We spent a couple days wandering around town, ventured out to a nearby orangutan rehabilitation center, then a bit further a field to spend a couple nights in Bako National Park, known for its bizarre proboscis monkeys and vast areas of well-marked hiking trails (we actually managed to hike for two full days without getting lost - a record for the direction-impaired duo). We arrived back in Kuching just in time for Chinese New Years. A local guy promised us that by nightfall "this place is going to be Baghdad, in a good way," and he wasn't kidding. We're pretty sure a couple SCUDS found their way in amongst the massive and innumerable firecrackers that exploded throughout the night, and when we went for a morning run, the streets were thick with the red paper remnants of a very raucous CNY.

We're now back in K.L. and tomorrow we head on to Solo on the island of Java, Indonesia. In a mere two weeks time we will meet up with the illustrious Kristin Kennedy for a beach blowout in Bali, Portland-style, our last hurrah in SEA before we repatriate in LAX for two hours en route to a three-month stint in Central America.

Until we write again, here's to all the dogs (and dawgs!) out there - a very very gong xi fa cai!
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