Apr 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 18 Comments

The Dreamer

The sound of jungle insects reverberated through the dense, humid night air. A slow loris crept along an overhead electrical wire strung between a tall wooden pole and a cinderblock structure where a woman cooked rice and noodles for the few people who lived around these parts. The loris stopped midway across the wire to give us a wide-eyed stare, and then continued on his way, grabbed a low hanging branch, and disappeared into the jungle.

Anda selalu makan yang sama!” I had seen Hairi’s face turn serious just before he yelled the string of incomprehensible gibberish. He raised his hand and brought it down toward his son.

Setiap kali, hamburger, hamburger, hamburger!” Hairi’s hand landed softly on his son’s head, and then gently ruffled his hair. His serious face turned soft and he let out a laugh. Hairi’s wife, Nora, grinned widely from beneath her headscarf.

“My son,” he said, “he always order the same thing. Hamburger, hamburger, hamburger!” He laughed, and his son smiled at us from beneath his mop of messed up hair. A dab of ketchup stuck to the corner of his mouth.

A couple of days prior, while heading up Malaysia’s East coast, I had studied a Google Map of the area to find a place to camp. In the low quality image I could make out a peninsula with what appeared to be a white beach. We decided to aim in the general direction of the peninsula and see if we could somehow drive there.

When we neared the supposed beach spot, we turned off of the main highway and started driving on small roads toward the ocean. Several times we came to dead ends, and several times I hopped out to ask for directions from non-English speaking shop keepers.

“Beach?” I would ask, to which they would confusedly say, “Beats? Beats! Beats?” and bobble their heads around. I took this as a positive sign, and continued driving. Eventually we found our way onto the peninsula and onto a rough dirt road that wound into the jungle. When we finally emerged from the dark undergrowth, we were on a white sandy beach in a hidden bay.

In the shade of a palm tree, a man sanded the side of a rundown fiberglass boat.

“I am Hairi,” he said, “this is my home.” He pointed to a behemoth of a canvas tent in a meadow at the edge of the jungle.  Behind the tent, the meadow curved up into steep embankments covered in tightly packed vines and trunks and leaves.  In front of his tent the dense foliage opened up to reveal a white sand beach with an unimpeded view of several small islands.

We positioned Nacho parallel to the beach so that out of our sliding door we would have a commanding view of the beach and the islands. The setting was beautiful, and as we settled in for the evening we saw a flashlight approaching our door.

“You eat dinner?” It was Hairi. “My family go to town, you come with us?” We jumped into his dilapidated car, squeezing into the backseat with his boys. From their CD player, Alvin and the Chipmunks’ rendition of “You Had a Bad Day” filled the car. Nora habitually smiled while their kids stared at us in silence. A rare cool breeze brushed my face through the open window as we wound through the jungle.

At the cinderblock restaurant we chose a table outside, and then a teenage girl came out and set a smoldering egg carton in the grass beside our table. “The smoke keep the mosquitoes away. But we’re also trying to get our hands on the best ultrasonic mosquito repeller, for its the talk of the town, ” Hairi explained with a smile. He mimicked killing a mosquito on his arm by slapping it, and then he laughed. The smoke swirled around, Nora smiled, and the boys stared at us. Sheena asked Hairi how they were able to sleep when it was so hot and humid. “We open all windows in tent. ” he said.

That night while we slept in Nacho I drifted in and out of sleep. Suddenly my eyes snapped open and I gasped for air. It felt as though I were being waterboarded in some secret CIA prison camp. I rolled over and pressed my face against the window screen, gasping for a breath of fresh air. It never came, and I dizzily rolled onto my back, breathing belabored, hot breaths of thick water vapor. The mattress and my pillow were soaked with sweat. I laid on my back for what seemed like an eternity, our small oscillating fan pushing the watery air over our bodies. I hoped I would adapt quickly to the heat and humidity.

The next evening, over another meal of ramen noodles and rice at the cinder block restaurant, Hairi talked about life in the jungle and about Muslim traditions. I told him that I was jealous of the way Muslims got to wear comfortable silk pajamas to the mosque on Fridays.

“If I wear my pajamas in public, people just think I’m lost or homeless,” I said.

He told us about Mecca, and how every Muslim dreams of making a pilgrimage there. “Have you ever been to Mecca?” I asked.

“I haven’t been. Not yet,” he said, emphasizing the word yet, and then smiled broadly. “This my dream, so I will go one day. My dreams are coming true.”

“One day,” he said, “I was working on the beach. I see big yacht out near island, so I say, ‘okay, I go see.’ So I borrow small boat and I row. I row a long time, and I get to yacht. The man on yacht come out, and he from Scotland. He sail boat here, all way from Scotland!” His eyes glistened in the dim light from the restaurant’s bare light bulb.

“The man tell me to come onto boat, so I do,” he continued. “We talk, and I ask him how he able to come here on boat when it so far away. And he tell me, ‘Hairi, if you want to be like me, you can be like me.’ He tell me, ‘make a list of 100 dreams. Everybody have dreams, and if you write them down on a list, your dreams come true. And after your 100 dreams come true, you write a new list of 100 more dreams.'”

It seemed a little superstitious to me, but I listened on skeptically.

“So I go home and I think about what the Scottish man say. I say okay, I find a pencil and a paper, and I write down my dreams. One, two, three, four – I write down 100 dreams. I hang up my dreams by my bed, and I start to look at it every day.” Hairi paused, placed his hand on his knee, and lowered his head. He stared at us and continued, slowly.

“You know what happen?” he said. “I see that list every day and I start thinking about my dreams. This list make me think, to remember. My first dream is I want to have own boat. But we don’t have much money, so I go and I find old boat with hole in it. Owner don’t know how to fix boat, so I learn how to make fiberglass repair, and I fix boat! Now I have boat!”

He was visibly excited by this, and I suppose there was something exciting in this key he’d discovered. By thinking often about his goals he could more readily realize them with fewer resources when opportunities presented themselves. But it seemed like a small victory. Hairi continued.

“Next, I have dream of being a diver. But to become diver, it cost 3,000 Ringgit! I don’t have 3,000 Ringgit, so I look for other way. I find resort that have diving school, so I decide I try to get job there. I think, if I can work at resort, maybe I can learn to dive. I work hard, and they hire me to wash dishes. So I work, and I ask how I can learn to dive. They say for workers at resort they have dive class for 25 Ringgit. So I take class. I become diver, and resort hire me to bring clients diving!”

By now Hairi was beaming, and Nora smiled proudly at her husband for being so resourceful.

“Next, I have dream to swim with whale shark,” he said. He hummed the tune to Jaws, smiled, and continued. “So one day after we dive with our clients, we taking the boat back to resort and we see big whale sharks! So big! We all jump in water and we swim with them. I touch them, I touch the big sharks with my hand!” He mimicked the touch as though he were stroking a beautiful woman’s hair.

“My big dream,” Hairi continued, “was to touch a battleship. Since I was a boy in school I like these battleships. But battleship is in Hawaii! How do I do it?” By now, Hairi’s eyebrows were raised, as though there was no possible way.

“So,” Hairi said, “I ask at resort, and I find out Star Cruise Lines hiring workers for the cruise ships. I ask for job, and they hire me to clean up on ship. My ship go from Kuala Lumpur to Manila in the Phillipines and back. One day in Manila, there a Star Lines ship that go to Hawaii, so I find someone who work on that ship, and I ask if he want to trade with me. He say yes! So I take ship that goes to Hawaii! When the ship get to Maui, they tell us, ‘Okay, you have two days before ship leave. You can go explore.’ So I get off ship, and I go to harbor where battleship is.” Hairi slowed down as if savoring every word. “I walk to battleship, and I go to the side. I place my hand on it, like this.” He placed his left hand on his right elbow, and pretended to touch the ship with his right hand. He touched the imaginary ship for a long time, as if reliving the moment.

“See? My dreams are coming true. I touch a battleship.” He ended his story and sat there  with a big grin on his face next to his son, who had long since finished his hamburger. Nora looked at him admiringly, as if he had just saved his entire family from a burning bus. And Sheena and I looked at him admiringly too.

Here was a man with very little resources, who lived in a tent in the jungle, yet he had obtained his own boat, he became a scuba diver, he swam with whale sharks, and he traveled across the ocean to another country to see an icon that he’d only read about in books.

Hairi is the man.

That night, Sheena and I  decided that we needed to at least make an honest effort to drive through China, even though it was financially out of our reach, and thus had not been included in our original trip plans.

The next morning, Nora invited us over to the tent for a breakfast of traditional Malaysian pancakes with sprinkled sugar, and a plastic pitcher of black coffee. We all gathered around the outdoor wooden table and dug into the delicious food as the sounds of birds and insects echoed around the meadow. A dog bolted out of the jungle, followed closely by an angry monkey. Hairi yelled at the monkey and Sheena and I laughed.

“Wait here,” Hairi said, and then disappeared into his tent. He emerged carrying a comfortable-looking Malaysian shirt, or baju melayu, and a traditional plaid wraparound sarong. He smiled and handed them to me. “These are for you. So you can dress comfortably on Fridays like Muslims!” He asked me to stand, and then showed me how to wrap it.

He turned and went back into his tent. He emerged a minute later with a rose-print dress and blouse, and handed them to Sheena.

“Nora made these by hand. We want you to have them,” he said, and then handed them to Sheena. We had been humbled. We made a quick assessment of things we could offer them, and decided on a fresh jar of dulce de leche from Argentina.

For a moment I wondered what would happen if we changed our plan and drove Hairi to Mecca. It would be the ultimate gift, the realization of his wildest dreams, and an amazing experience. It would have really been something. But I have no doubt he’ll make it there one way or another.

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Apr 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 12 Comments

The Coprophiliac’s Fruit

The depth of my knowledge about Singapore up until about a week ago was gathered from the news in the 1990’s, and from reading Paul Theroux books. I knew that the entire structure and inner workings of the city state were conceived by one person, a sort of Wizard of Oz deciding what would fly and what wouldn’t.  I knew that the laws there were so strict, and the punishments so severe, that there was virtually no crime. Chewing gum was illegal, but prostitution was allowed, and vandalizing cars would get your ass repeatedly caned with a bamboo switch. The special insert that the border agent slipped into our passports summed up the essence of the city’s low crime rates:

Warning: death to drug traffickers under Singapore law

That’s right. You cross the border into Singapore with a bag of marijuana and they cut straight to the chase and kill you. And they’re old school about it – their method of choice is hanging. I shuddered at the thought of the unmarked Ziploc bag in Sheena’s backpack containing generic pain killers. I swear! These aren’t drugs!

Bill Clinton stood up for Michael Fay after he vandalized a bunch of cars and was arrested, and I was pretty sure that Barack would get my back if an international painkiller incident were to arise. Of course, even with Bill Clinton begging for leniency, Michael Fay still had to grab his ankles and feel the full stinging force of Singaporean law.

Sheena and I sat quietly on the bus as we entered Singapore, trying not to break any laws. Yes, the bus. As it turns out, it’s illegal to drive a foreign vehicle into Singapore if it is outfitted with a bed and/or cooking facilities. First potential caning incident: dodged. An unusually high number of things are illegal in Singapore, and it’s a costly place.

If you want to own a car in Singapore, you must first buy a permit, good for 10 years, for $75,000. After that, you must buy a new car, and you will pay 200-300% tax on it for the privilege. You are then free to drive your $150,000 Toyota Camry around for the next 10 years before you’re legally obliged to sell it back to the government for a few peanuts and then buy another new car and another permit.

We got off of the bus at the Queen Street Station, and let our noses lead us to the nearest food hawker stands in Little India.  Southeast Asia has been a wonderland of cheap, delicious street food, and we were told that Singapore would be a concentrated paradise in this regard. We quickly found a vast collection of hawker stands not on the street, but in a giant food court on the ground floor of a mall.

The city of Singapore has 250 malls. But more importantly, each of these malls has a bustling collection of food hawkers arranged in food courts, selling cheap and delicious food. For a couple of dollars you can stuff yourself on your choice of Chinese, Malay, or Indian food. For each of the four days we spent there we would walk to a food court when we got hungry, scout out a stall with tasty looking food, and commence gorging ourselves. The experience usually left us in a food coma with the sweet burn of chilies on our lips and the smell of curry excreting from our sweat glands. But not every time.

One evening, after having enjoyed a nice plate of spicy noodles and a bowl of clay pot soup, we wandered around looking for a dessert stand. There was only one, so we sat down. Sheena ordered tapioca, while I asked for the grass jelly cocktail. You heard right. Grass jelly cocktail. I assumed it was code for something tasty, so I ordered and waited.

Sheena took delivery of an appetizing chunk of steamed cassava root bathed in coconut milk, while mine consisted of a pile of shaved ice covered in stringy goo and some pieces of fruit cocktail.

“It can’t actually be grass,” I assured Sheena. “It’s probably some kind of confection that looks like grass.” She looked at me with worry in her eyes. I wore a reassuring smile, but deep down I was frightened.

First bite: oh yeah, that’s not sweet. No sir, this is actually grass. Grass jelly is indeed jelly made out of grass clippings. Not sweet at all. Boy, the shaved ice really makes it a lot worse than it needs to be. Who dreamt this up?

“Mmm. Grassy,” I said, a piece of long grass hanging out the corner of my mouth, caught up in my four day beard. Sheena recoiled and made a gruesome frown.

“You have grass all over your face.”

I managed to eat half of the bowl, hoping that at some point I would break through some invisible culinary barrier, emerging into a kind of understanding with my grass jelly cocktail. It never happened, and I stopped more for Sheena’s benefit than my own so that she would stop dry heaving every time I scooped a giant spoonful of slimy, icy grass into my mouth.

While Sheena and I were in Kuala Lumpur, we spent a good deal of time hanging out with the city’s two Volkswagen clubs. We made friends with a casting director and VW enthusiast named Terence, and spent our second week staying at his house. On our penultimate night in Kuala Lumpur, Terence brought us out for a crab dinner with his sister Margaret, who was visiting for the weekend from Singapore to see an F1 race.  And so it came to pass that we were invited by Margaret to stay in her family’s condo in Singapore. This was perfect, since our home on wheels had been declared illegal.

On our last night in Singapore, Margaret and her friend Jeannie invited Sheena and me out to the red light district to eat durian fruit. We had heard that durian fruit only smelled like rotting flesh, but that it tasted rich and delicious. There was only one way to find out.

We loaded up in Margaret’s car and drove to the red light district, finding an illegal parking spot directly across the street from a street corner stand piled with thousands and thousands of enormous spiky durians. From across the street, the smell pressed itself into my nose like a three hundred pound messy-pants wrestler sitting directly on my face. Margaret smiled and said that she liked the smell, but I remembered the day before when she had scolded her husband, Bruno, for bringing a durian flavored muffin into the house. I brought this up to see what defense she could possibly come up with.

“Yes I like the smell, but I don’t want my house smelling like that. That would be disgusting,” she said. It all made sense now.

We sat down at a table near the sidewalk and Margaret and Jeannie walked over to order us the best durian available. This was, after all, to be our durian devirginization. They came back smiling, while the durian man followed them carrying not one but three fetid, stinking spiky balls. He set them on the table and gave each one several whacks with a large knife, exposing the yellowish, putrid flesh covered seeds on the inside. They reminded me of the bulbous growths attached to an orangutan’s hindquarters, a trait that didn’t help to redeem the fruit from its atrocious smell.

We each took up a fleshy ball in our hand and Sheena and I looked to our hosts for guidance. Without hesitation they devoured the flesh, smiling and rolling their eyes in ecstasy. Sheena and I looked at each other, and then started in.

At that moment, I knew what it was like to have a rotten, decomposing skunk carcass inside of my mouth. The smell was bad, like being stuck in a small cardboard box with no air to breathe except for hot, humid flatulence pumped into the box through a warm, semi-decomposed pork bung. But the taste, the taste was something unspeakable, something extraterrestrial. It was a collection of rotting animal carcasses tossed into a boiling pit toilet, and then distilled into a soft paste, which we voluntarily placed into our mouths.

Sheena ate one seed, nearly wretched, and told out hosts that she would be unable to continue. I wanted to understand how people could willingly go out of their way to eat this, so for the sake of anthropology forced myself to eat the flesh of five or six enormous seeds. It never got any easier, and my throat twitched with each putrid mouthful.

Following our durian experience, we grabbed a table on a busy corner in the red light district and ordered Chinese food from a heavyset Chinese woman wearing too much makeup and a dress several sizes too small. All around us old men openly dined with their hookers, while young girls in tight dresses walked around the tables like sharks looking for prey. I, with my three lady friends, quickly established myself as the restaurant’s alpha male and was not approached by any hookers.

At the coaxing of Jeannie, a local of Singapore, we ordered a giant bowl of frog legs in black sauce. Why we were still listening to Jeannie’s culinary advice after the durian incident was a mystery, but the frog turned out to be quite tasty and we happily devoured the meat off of every tiny bone. Margaret, however, found the very idea of frog legs to be utterly revolting. With every frog leg, I watched from the corner of my eye as Margaret’s face turned gray and the corners of her mouth turned down. It was sweet revenge.

Singapore is a melting pot, and we left town having made new friends from all reaches of the globe. We had wandered through exotic barrios, eaten mouth watering ethnic food, and admired the city’s modern architecture. And although we had escaped without having to endure a bamboo cane to the bare buttocks, we had unexpectedly endured a far worse punishment.

“Durian,” our French friend Séb would later tell us, “is like a poo in the mouth.” And so it was that we rode the bus out of Singapore with our heads held high and a faint hint of poo on our breath.

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Apr 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 13 Comments

The Apprentice

“I think team Apec was totally corny. The way that the girl flung her arms around-”

“Cut! Can we roll that again? Listen, the team’s name is ‘Apex’, not ‘Apec’,” the director said.

“Oh, okay, sorry about that. Apex? Got it.”


“I think team Apex was totally corny. The way that the girl, like, flung her arms around and said that she was going on her honeymoon was really over the top. I definitely preferred team Maverick.” Yeah! Nailed it!

Sheena and I stood in the wet parking lot of Studio 16 in Kuala Lumpur.  The camera was trained on us as we stood in front of Lavern’s hippie bus, painted like something out of a psychedelic acid trip.  Somehow, after a little more than a week in the city, we had landed on an episode of the Malaysian version of The Apprentice.

The day had started off normally enough. I had parked Nacho in the driveway of the house where we were staying, and put on my VW surgeon’s gloves. During our last few weeks in Argentina our water purification system had sprung a leak somewhere under the floor. I had made the floor hinged so that almost the entire water system could be easily accessed, but there was one section under the rear seat where it was inaccessible. The leak, of course, sprung under the rear seat.

I started by removing the seat, and then went to work enlarging the opening in the false floor where the heater poked through. This would allow me to access the leak and get Nacho fixed right up, and would put an end to the water pouring out under our floor. Around midday we got a message from our new friend Teng Tsen.

“You’re going on TV tonight. Start driving to the IKEA, and someone will meet you on the freeway to show you where to go. There will be lots of Volkswagen people there, so bring Nacho. Dress business smart.”

I looked at Nacho. The rear seat was missing, the heater was balanced on its side, and the battery and inverter were delicately stacked on top of one another to power the Dremel tool, which was sitting next to a half-cut hole in the floor. Tools, wires, tubing, and tape were all stacked on the counters, and the various cabinets and storage boxes were all open and disheveled. Nacho wasn’t going anywhere.

With Nacho down for the count, Sheena and I put on our only clean clothes.

“Hey Sheena, what does business smart mean?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think these sandals are business smart?”

“Uh, probably not. Maybe you should wear your running shoes.”

Once we were business smart in our jeans and semi-clean, slightly wrinkled shirts and tennis shoes, we loaded up with our friends Seb and Soizic into Lavern’s hippie bus and lurched and sputtered onto the freeway.

Sure enough, near the IKEA Stephen waited for us on the side of the freeway, and then pulled out in front of us to lead the way to Studio 16. When we arrived the parking lot was full of old Volkswagen Beetles. We parked and were led to some tents where the cast and crew were eating Indian food. We settled in, filled our plates, and sat around looking business smart. Just then it began to rain, and soon it became a downpour.

While we ate, sheltered under the tents, we were brought up to speed. For this episode of The Apprentice, two teams had created marketing campaigns to promote the new Volkswagen Beetle. We would be in the audience, and would watch the teams present their commercials to some executives from Volkswagen, including a guy named Simon who apparently designed the new Beetle.

The production assistant poked her head out of the studio door and told us to get ready. We would walk into the studio in single file while the cameras rolled, and then we would sit down. My television debut! Should I strut, or maybe do more of a saunter? Should I smile? No, smiling doesn’t look very bad-ass. I would look straight ahead, dead-eyed like a catwalk fashion model. Yeah, that would look awesome. Oh man, this was going to be great! I’m going on TV! I’m going on TV!

Just then the awning above me reached its water-holding capacity and buckled, sending several gallons of rain water directly on top of me. Everyone stopped and looked at me. I felt like Carrie after the bucket of pig’s blood ruined her prom glory. My eyes looked left, twitched to the right, and then left again. My face still held a relic of a grin on it from when I was thinking about how awesome I would look when I walked in like a catwalk fashion model, but the grin had turned into a strained grimace. My matted hair stuck to my forehead and my business smart shirt clung to my back like a bag of pudding.

“Umm, I think it’ll dry in time,” someone whispered.

“All right everyone, enter on THREE…TWO…ONE…” The production assistant poked her head out the door, and then disappeared. The first person walked in, then the second and third, and then I was standing in front of the door. I looked around to see who wanted to go next, but everyone looked back at me expectantly. I clasped the door handle in my clammy, wet hand and pulled it open. My waterlogged business smart tennis shoes carried me down the aisle while I stared blankly ahead like some kind of emotionless, rat-like catwalk fashion model. I went to the front row, swiveled, and splashed down into a chair.

“Pssst! Pssst!” It was the production assistant. “You can’t sit there. That’s where the client sits!” she whispered.

Oh damn. The proverbial catwalk fashion model has twisted her proverbial ankle and proverbially fallen off of the catwalk into the crowd. I slowly stood up, looking as cool and business smart as possible, and sauntered back into the second row where Sheena sat patiently waiting for me to stop making an ass of myself.

The two competing teams took turns standing in front of first a new yellow Beetle, and then a new black Beetle, performing their commercials. After about an hour the teams had finished performing, we had finished our requisite audience shots, and it was time to leave. Everyone stood up and started filing out the doors when the production assistant pulled Sheena and me aside.

“Would you stay behind so we can shoot some additional material with you?” she asked.

“Of course,” we said. Aha! I must have nailed the dead-eyed catwalk fashion model impersonation after all! My TV debut was going great!

Back in the parking lot, the director asked us to stand in front of Lavern’s bus and tell him what we thought about each team’s performance. After explaining how corny we thought Team Apex was, the director had one more request.

“Okay, okay. Now we want you to look into the camera and say ‘You qualify, Beetle up!’ can you do that?” We were supposed to point at the camera with both fingers when we said “you qualify”, and then transition to two thumbs up when we said “Beetle up.” And all this after I had just gotten done reprimanding Team Apex for being corny.

“All right…ACTION!”

“You qualify, Beetle up!” we echoed.

“CUT! You were pointing while she was doing the thumbs up. Can we roll it again? Pointing first, then thumbs. ACTION!”

“You qualify, Beetle up!” we repeated.

“Wait, wait, I messed up again,” Sheena cried. “I pointed, but my thumbs were up at the same time like little guns. Let’s do it again.”

“Okay, two…one…ACTION!”

“You qualify, Beetle up!”

The last time everything went perfectly. We were in synch like a well-tuned boyband, our fingers pointed in harmony to the rolling camera, and then deftly transitioned to the thumbs-up position to the backdrop of our cheesy smiling faces. Our TV debut. Let’s just hope that the footage is lost in a building fire and never sees the light of day.

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