Donnerstag, 30. August 2012

Mowglie returns

  Want the full story? Click here to start with Question Authority, Question 3v3ryth1nG! – the post that started this little travel adventure.
Where’s the adventure?

The way into the forest is no joyride to begin with. The van we get to the park entrance is driven by a maniac. I manage to sleep (because I fall asleep like nothing in moving vehicles), but the girls on board actually yell at the driver several times to drive more slowly and safely.
This beats Joseph Conrad, no?
When I arrive: bad news. The trips through the jungle are more expensive then anticipated. Also, it’s too late to do one today, so we have to wait until the next day. There’s not really a way out of the forest after the second day either, that means two more days in the forest than anticipated and there’s no cash machines or credit cards in the village. So it’s a taxi to the next town to get more cash before we get on the boat an hour later. So far, the traveler checks have been a blessing, but I’ve never actually used a real bank. They’re bureaucratic! We are just back in time to grab some ice cream (that melts immediately) and hop on the boat. The adventure commences!

We get onto a long boat, nicely balanced out for weight and soar upstream for the coming three hours. The river does not actually have a name, neither for me nor on a local map. It’s muddy waters are flanked by mangroves and trees in abundance. There is no point where one could decide to disembark, it is too overgrown.

Just when I’m about to jubilate about the fact that we are actually gone from civilization, I see a radio tower and a caterpillar forming some stairs. This is, after all, only a commercialized version of “Into the Wild,” I just hope it is an eco-friendly one. We pass one or two boats along the shore that belong to the native people around called Orang Atli (which means “original people” as we learn later on the track). Finally, we reach the village that is the starting point for most of the tracks. We dock at a floating restaurant in the floating part of the village. 

Floating restaurant on the river without name
 This all feels pretty remote, including the huge insects that fly around the lamps in the restaurant. The feeling disappears once the sales pitch starts. I don’t listen, because we’ve already booked our trip ahead, instead I watch the people returning from a trip who are wet and soaked and dirty. That’s going to be us in two days. Off the restaurant we get onto the mainland and take quarter in a little room. The mood between Susu and me  (you’ve met her as “Sahar” in my adventures from the Cameron Highlandshas become a bit agitated, although I can’t really tell why. She gets agitated that nobody speaks English where we have our accommodation and is angry at me for the strong smell of my insect repellent. The place is full of mosquitoes. Oh, this is going to be fun spending a night in the jungle together, I can tell. 

I get up early the next morning. Most of my stuff I have crammed in my laundry bag and my photo backpack, because I will need the big pack for supplies, sleeping bag and mattress. We’ve all received plates, cups, tin cans, instant noodles, water and bring a minimum of clothes, a light, plus ourselves. I take the camera, too. My other luggage including laptop, passport and that kind of stuff, I leave in a big plastic bag that I tie up at the top and put it at the “front desk” of the restaurant, on the water, in the river, in the middle of the jungle.

That’s what backpack traveling does to you. It increases your sense of who you can trust and who you cannot. Or maybe it just helps you to let go, deep inside of you, of the idea of possessing anything, so the thought of you leaving all material possessions you have in a black plastic bag with some strangers on the water does not actually bother you. If it all drowns, it all drowns, if it gets stolen, you’ll either make sure hell’s lose and the entire village never receives any tourists ever again or – more likely: if it gets stolen, it gets stolen. It’s almost liberating to think of having an excuse not to take any clothes or other stuff with you: “It got stolen, so all I have right now is the set of clothes I’m wearing…but that’s OK, I don’t need more…” With this feeling of the bare necessities and my camera in hand, I get into another long boat up the river and consider myself disconnected from it all, from everything. Everything. 


Into the wild
Nothing but mangroves and trees as we move into the jungle.
 I haven’t told anyone but Caro that I’m actually going that deep into the forest and I get a feeling it’s better that way. Nobody needs to know about my little Mowglie adventure, they would just worry. Caro will be meeting me most likely on the tenth next month in Bangkok. We refer to our status as “stable, yet flexible,” sort of making fun of ourselves and the fact that we don’t know if we are actually going to travel the entire way together. I’ll be looking for flights to Thailand as soon as I’m back and have a “day off”.

Some official checks how much plastic we bring into the forest and lets us know there is a fee if we return with less. We continue up the river that has no name in a boat for several hours. Nobody is up for too much conversation. We’ve briefly introduced ourselves last night. I climb to the front of the boat, stretch out and enjoy the ride. After all, I’m free, ready to live in the forest and write my own jungle book story.

I’ve actually realized that the way I think about my future has changed. I am less concerned about what kind of job I want to do and think more about what kind of life and lifestyle I want to live. That is a big shift in my mind. Of course, the lifestyle will allow for certain jobs and certain jobs come with a certain lifestyle. However, I think more along the lines of “what can I do that allows me…?” or “in this form of existence, how can I?” Either way, I feel the structures of Western society breaking away from me, and I am disentangling from the claws of “should” and “must” in our capitalistic system.

All we see is forest and a steady brown stream up to the next bent, after which we encounter the same sight once again. Funny enough, it reminds me of the Rhine River a tiny bit, but maybe that’s just because it’s the first river I have encountered in weeks and the tree tops are similarly low above the surface of the water. What would it mean to actually live in the jungle like this? I’m only going for an overnight trek, but how would it be to live so remote? 

Jungle? Yeah, bring it on!
Money would hardly be an issue, since food and shelter would be provided by the rainforest. But it would require a lot of knowledge about the forest to make it livable. Safety would be an entirely different issue. Although animal sightings near the trails are rare, there are panthers, tigers and elephants in these woods, not to mention the snakes, spiders and worst of all: mosquitoes! On up side, no hurries, no stress, only figuring out what to eat and not to get eaten, then do whatever you want: clim, swim, walk, build a shelter against the rain, watch the animals and study their ways. Perfect for any biologist. Hm, maybe It could be a way to stay in the jungle! If one was seriously going to do some study, either biologically or anthropologically, that could be an “excuse” to come and live here. If definitely beats the busy and hectic life I lived before, without time to stop and think. By far!

After a few weeks one would probably have a huge craving for vegetables and decent food, but for a while, it might be really nice! Caro and I would have to get some scientific training of course. Then it would be perfect to get to know each other up close and learn the character traits of the other person. It’s incredible how much you learn about somebody when traveling with them. Sahar for example, the German-Iranian girl I’m traveling with, is a rather quiet type, but she gets angry very fast and has no patience. None. She is pragmatic enough, however, to go on the jungle trip together, although our ways will surely part thereafter. She is pretty good at willfully ignoring things that are a nuisance to her.

We arrive at a point as random as any other along the stream and get off. Greeted by giant ants and mosquitoes, we have a last briefing, then follow a trail over a shaky bamboo bridge, into the heart of the jungle.

Inside the forest 
A leach will stay with you for about the quarter of an hour untilit becomes a big black lump. Then it leaves you bleeding for another half an hour while it does not need new blood until three months later.
Taman Negara is a rainforest. Why is it called a rainforest? Because you are soaking wet after you’ve spent half an hour walking through it. The humidity from the air mixes with the sweat of our bodies and soon our clothes have joined an unholy union with our skin. Taman Negara is also a jungle, because in parts the vegetation is so thick, that there is no direct sunlight that can hit the ground.

We follow an old elephant trail that about twenty people pass each day. We are five. For the first hour, we try to at least keep our feet dry, but once we’ve stepped into one of the streams we need to cross, we don’t even care about the water running out of our shoes anymore. Our guide Keg stops every once in a while to show and explain to us the wonders of the jungle: wild ginger blossoms, strange insects, which lianas contain drinkable water and which are poisonous? He picks up a giant solitary ant, grabs it by its legs and points out the juicy abdomen. Then he takes a small bite and smiles. At the next chance I find out that jungle ant tastes a bit like lime, with a hint of Avocado. I’m hungry and so I could eat an entire army of these, literally.

One of the jungle inhabitants we most frequently encounter stick with us and hitch a ride for a while. When you look closely, you can see how the leeches wind up their bodies from the forest floor to catch anything that walks by, then grab the lace of your shoe and slowly find their way up your foot. Although I try to avoid them, I’m not too bothered by the little blood suckers. They don’t carry any diseases and are not too unpleasant except for the bloodstains they leave on you and your clothes. But these clothes are beyond saving already anyway! 

Strange creatures and insects, like this blueish, black-spotted grasshopper abound in the forest.
 The first day of walking actually passes rather quickly. So far, we’ve nearly accidentally stepped on a cobra, which freaks out our guide as I’ve only seen the Muslim population freak out about stray dogs in the village before (dogs are dirty animals in Islam). Otherwise it was nice chatting along the way getting muddy and sweaty and soaked on the hike that is strenuous, but fun. We come by two circular holes in the ground and Keg explains “this is how the Orang Atli catch porcupine.” The holes are nearby a nest. One of the holes is filled with fire, the other is where the animal will try to escape. “One hole is where they dig for roots, two holes is for porcupine.” 

Wet and dirty, we arrive at the cave to rest the night.
Now, for the last hour of our day’s trip, we wrap our backpacks into the one giant black plastic bag we’ve been provided: it has started to actually rain. The rain is not so bad, but the wind that comes with it makes it quite scary: “If you hear a cracking sound, don’t run right away. You have about two to three seconds. Look where the tree is falling, then…” – “then what?” we reply back to Keg’s warning. “Then I hope you make good decision!”. Very consoling.

We do make it to the cave safely, however. Here, we are going to spend our night. About an hour later, another group arrives that we have passed early on the trail. We wash in a nearby river and change our soaking stinking clothes for the night. What a comfort! Then we cook a wonderful dinner with the vegetables and other supplies that we have brought, wait for the porcupine that lives around the cave to come and munch away at the leftovers, then go to sleep. The stone floor is not exactly comfortable, but it’s alright and at least it is dry while it pours like no tomorrow outside and a little river forms through the cave in a lower place. 

A surprisingly sophisticated dinner for common cavemen ;)

Jungle, level 2!

It seems the forest has decided we are ready for Jungle level 2! What a night of rainfall means in the jungle becomes very clear (although actually rather muddy) when we hit the first of what used to be a tiny creek yesterday. It no longer spans more or less a meter, it is more than 4 meters wide and when Keg walks ahead, we realize it is also fairly deep. He has once again wrapped his backpack in a plastic bag and wades through the muddy water up to his chin. There’s no “dry shoes” from here.

We come across three or four of these fun little rivers that have appeared over night. One we avoid by walking over a slippery fallen tree. Several trees have blocked our way so far so that we have had to cut out a new trail around them – if we found a way around. With one, we just had to climb through the thorny branches to get anywhere.
Yes, backpacks in plastic bags really DO swim!
Finally, we stop in front of a dirty moving mass we can tell will be a challenge. When the top of Keg’s head disappears under the water in an attempt to wade through, it is finally time for swimming. I didn’t know you could make your backpack float in a plastic bag! I stuff my glasses in my pocket and continue walking the trail until there is no more support for my feet, dive in and paddle to the other side, holding my backpack bundle in the right. I’m really glad I am well-trained and have swum with clothes before. When I emerge and the streams are running from all over my body, I realize my glasses have chosen to “do the Mowglie” and stay in the jungle forever. I’m not going back to search the swampy water for them. Time to let go off things.

Not only the results from the storm or the increasing smell of human sweat make our second day more intense than the first. We also run into more wildlife than we anticipated or asked for. The “old elephant trail” is still used by those who carved it into the jungle, but nonetheless, we are startled by what sounds like a tank shooting through the thick forest. We don’t actually get close enough to see the elephant, though. The same is true for the source of the sounds we hear about half an hour later. But really, nobody is too keen to get too close to the pack of wolves that howl through the forest. Our speed noticeably increases.

The thickness of the forest declines as we walk down a small hill in what looks like an old river bed. It smells like rotten crab and fish and flies are buzzing all around us. “I heard that the chief of a village nearby died some time ago. Look up, he might be somewhere around,” Keg says with a slight smile at our disgust. Out in the jungle, you cannot bury people, because the animals would dig out the corpse. So they hang up their dead in the trees for their “final rest”.

Can I stay in the Jungle, Balu?
Orang Atli village
Finally, we arrive at our drop-off point, an hour before the scheduled pickup. So we clean our shoes from mood and count the dead. We’ve lost one hat, one pair of glasses, liters and liters of human sweat and some blood to the leeches. But no bigger damage. After a little wild water ride, we arrive at the last stop for today: a local village.

Other than in the last local village, we actually stay here for a bit. There’s a blow-pipe demonstration and we sit down and chat and have some non-verbal communication with the locals while asking Keg questions about their way of life. The girls, wrapped in their Sarongs carrying what should be their small siblings but are most likely their own children, look and laugh at us. They marry when they are around 14, usually boys from nearby villages. In order to be ready to marry, a boy must be able to hunt with the blow-pipe, although it is no longer the main weapon used in hunting today.
Orang Atli woman carrying her baby
Once again I wonder how it would be to live with them. “Do they accept strangers to live with them?” I ask. “If you want to, you can stay here for a month, of course, but you will have to take care of yourself,” our guide replies a little surprised. “No, I mean to live with them?” Now, the little Malay is seriously confused: Why would you want that? You don’t even speak their language?”. “Challenge accepted,” I think in my head, but decide not to push the matter further and lecture him about language learning and cultural anthropology. Instead, I retort to being a good tourist and go home with the others.

Although we’ve picked up several pieces of trash, we decide not to get our bags checked again. Way to keep the jungle clean! The bag with my electronics and everything else is still where I left it. I’m almost a little sad about that, but I don’t have too much time for sorrow. The hostel we stayed at has given away our room and we need to find new accommodation. Sahar yells at the woman who does not understand English, then she grabs her things (she did not want to leave them at the restaurant) and brushes off. We’ve both outgrown the pleasure of each other’s company and haven’t talked in hours. While I try to maintain common courtesy, however, she rushes off to the next place and snatches the last room right before me. I feel reminded of my teenage days when I used to hate people (none in particular, just in general) and wish myself back to the noisy yet quiet huzzle and buzz of insects and animals in the jungle.

I finally find a new place to stay, go to an internet café and decide to go to a quiet place: under the surface of the ocean. I book a plane ticket to Koh Samui in Thailand from where I will go to Ko Tao to learn diving before I meet Caro in Bangkok.

Anti-conquest: For Spain! Or... more like Holland, since this is Malaysia. We would have made some lousy conquerors, though.

Dienstag, 21. August 2012

On the road with the tourist Mafia: Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Want the full story? Klick here to start with "Question Authority, Question 3v3ryth1nG!" - the post that started this little travel adventure!

Organizing a trip to the Highlands has a bit of the feel of dealing with the Mafia. And it’s probably true, I’m dealing with the tourist mafia, most likely. Louis, who works at the front desk of my hostel in Kuala Lumpur, has a friend called “Moon” (seriously?), who works in the Highlands. So Louis calls to arrange a pickup for me the next day as well as accomodation, but cannot reach him, leaves a message on the voice mail. Later that day, I meet Louis’s Dad who used to own the No. 8 Guest House, but sold it to a Pakistani investor with a Japanese passport who used to resell Japanese used cars. The PJ-dude and now owner of No.8 tells me the place used to have trouble in the dorms because people brought in drugs, So he rebuilt and turned the dorms into double rooms.

Next to Louis’s Dad sits a guy with long hair called “Moon”. Oh, I’ve heard that name before today. When he realizes who I am, he tells me a van is going to pick me up in front of the hostel the next day at 10, so I can party until sunrise and still get sleep. It’s all arranged. Aha. He has arranged accommodation, too, he tells me. “Does the room have a window?” I ask since I’ve just had several days of windowless existence. He gets on the phone, laughs. “Do you want to kill yourself?” he throws as a reply at me, “Yes, it has a window.” A couple of hours later he will call Louis to tell him that the van is full and I have to catch my own bus from the station at 8.15 in the morning. What? What about the big partying I had lined up? Not.

Mapping out the next destination in the Lonely Planet

For once I arrive at a bus station relaxed. No anxiousness about taxi drivers trying to get in the bus to be the first to offer me their unsolicited services, no “how am I going to get to my hostel?” I know not only is it off-season and touts are rare when I get off the bus, I also know that if I find the guy associated with the place I am looking for, he will bring me there. All the more am I disappointed when the place where he takes me with the van is not located on some sweet spot on a mountain or even atop of it, but in a dead end street with no view at all, just around the corner from the bus stop.

A British explorer named Cameron mapped out the Highlands in 1885, which is why the roads are seamed with tea and strawberry plantations

On the way here I saw the famous tea plantations and I had gotten my hopes up to chill out in this environment for the next few days. Now it appears all tea plantations are actually several kilometers away. Bummer. Oh yes, you’re right, more advance research could’ve saved me from the disappointment, but I couldn’t be bothered with more research than absolutely necessary. Not only does it run counter the idea of reIaxation, it also usually just gets your hopes up higher only to disappoint you even more. I had heard many good things about this place, though. Maybe I had asked the wrong people.

People at the hostel have their own opinions about what's hot and what's not! That's despite good reviews from LP!
I scratch relaxation off the list for a start and decide to book the full program tour of “everything” there is to see in the Cameron Highlands for the next day. Not before I and the receptionist have given my entire luggage a sunshine cure and some spraying, however. This is to make sure all the bed bugs stay out of the room, the room that has no window. Arghs.

When all is set up and down I go to explore the town. There is a little sports festival going on, which is why the town is pretty full right now. While the regular food in town isn’t very impressive, the festival market amazes me. They have Takoyaki, squid balls from Japan which I haven’t had in forever, and of course I have to have some. I munch away watching a ridiculous presentation by the police in order to recruit people. The robbers they have hired, however, are actually more well-trained than the police officers and so the show is a big laugh.
Join the Force: Police demonstrates its uum... skills...
Walking on I hear guitar riffs and beats and realize that I haven’t consciously listened to music in weeks. And I haven’t heard any rock music since Tioman, leave alone live music. I sit down next to a dude who looks like Jimmy Hendrix (and uses that to push his image) and sing “Wish You Were Here,” while he is playing the song on his guitar, supported by music from a record. It’s an incredibly calming feeling. I miss the music.

In India I had discovered Metal (, in Malaysia, Classic Rock seemed to be big!

Traveling with the pack

A stag beetle in the butterfly park. Obviously, I didn't have a hand free to take a picture when the scorpion was on my hand ;)
The tour the next day is great. While most people from the group skip the butterfly farm for an extra five Ringgit, I want to see what the local fauna has to offer and despite a rush (“we have half an hour”), it pays. The butterflies are already an incredible spectacle, but the fact that one of the dudes (apparently the guy Moon called the other day) picks up a scorpion and puts it on the hands of anybody who dares makes the visit a worthwhile adventure.

Equipped like Indiana Jones, I follow the rest of the pack on the "trek"

And off we are to the jungle. It’s a well trodden-path that leads us to the Giant Rafflesia, a plant, no sorry, it’s actually a fungus that looks like a flower, that grows very large here and only exists in seven places in the world. The thing has a very strong smell attracting animals for semination and in it’s last phase is called “elephant dung” for both its form and smell. Use your imagination.

The giant rafflesia is a fungus that only exists in seven different places in the world.
While this is one of the main attractions and is pretty cool, I admit, I have even more fun on the way back. While I had been caught in serious thought on the way in, a little rest at a river suddenly has calmed me down and I socialize with some of the others. There’s an Iraqi-German girl by name of Sahar (or Susu) who is about as lost in her quest to find herself and about as sick of young backpackers with their stupid ever-repeating chit chat and search for the cheapest beer as I am. And there is a girl who is pondering over investing in a hostel in Indonesia, becoming it’s owner.

After the Rafflesia we hit a small aboriginal village – yes, hitting is indeed the right term as we spend about five minutes there, watching halfdressed women sitting in front of their houses with their undressed children – and then go to see the tea plantations. I don’t ever want to do this again. Is there a worse image or ignorance about people’s lives than this? Why not relocate them into a museum right away?

On these steep hills, the tea of Malaysia is grown

The plantation is actually quite fun and after a ridiculous “explanation” of the tea making process, I get some tea souvenirs and we chill out with some chai on the terrace, overlooking the plantations. I’m bummed when I don’t get seconds because they close at 4 o’ clock sharp, I’m even more bummed when we have to leave the place ten minutes earlier. I hate group travel.

Boh Tea plantation
Yet, this must be the first time I am actually socializing beyond hostel owners and since we get along, we decide to meet up for another hike nearby tomorrow. The trek turns out to be an actual trek that gets us a little bit exhausted and provides us with wonderful views over the mountains and later on a wonderful view of the clouds that encapsulate the top completely.

Just a minute before the hilltop became covered in clouds
On the way down, Sahar and purposefully I lose the group of young travelers that had joined us and then tortured us with their repetitive travel stories of full moon parties and cheap beer. We find a place in the tea fields to chill, both in separate places, because we both have our own expectations of a perfect spot. Just when I’m about to relax and accept that there won’t be any hammock lying here but that I can still enjoy it, when I get out my prepared black tea and biscuits, it starts to rain; to pour, actually. We meet up again and hitch a ride on the back of an Indian’s pick-up back to town, where I use the rest of the daylight to practice some Aikido on the porch.

The Cameron Highlands produce most of Malaysia's vegetables. One of the veggy farmers gave us a ride to town.
The night I spend pondering options. Where should I go next? I feel like I am done with Malaysia. It is nice enough, but I can tell that the culture is not quite for me and I want to see other things as well. I liked the Indian influence in the country, but most of the time I do not experience openness from Malaysians, which I partly explain by the Muslim influences of the country. Either way, I’ve already spent longer in Malaysia than anticipated. I also talk to Caro for quite a long time. She gets me out of the dead end that I have once again managed to maneuver myself into, trying to decide what’s up next.

Caro brings me down and I manage to relax. We do more planning in terms of our meeting. She will probably join me in Thailand in about two weeks. Strike! Things can go on! We also talk about what expectations we have and really, I don’t have any. It’s an experiment and we will have to see how it works. For now, we will be trying a travel together and if we get sick of it, we’ll be honest about it. That’s basically it. And it soothes me. I calm down and suddenly I know what I want to do:

I will go to Taman Negara with Susu and do an overnight jungle track, staying in a cave for a night. It’s basically the thing to do in Taman Negara, the national rainforest reserve. I don’t know if I would be doing it this way by myself, but for now I want to go to the jungle and get lost. All gone from civilization. So I hire a van with the tourist Mafia to the jungle and they provide me with flyers and cards on where to go and what to do.

Quest fulfilled, I can go on to the next place!
We’ll be leaving the day after tomorrow, so I use my last day to finally fulfil my quest. I get my hammock out and walk around town. In a little apartment resort village spot, I find two trees and a semi-nice view of the valley. This is it, it won’t get much better. In the sun I read up on the history of Malaysia, think of how this hammock will soon be carrying two people and fall asleep to a pleasant nap in the sunshine. Life is good!

Mittwoch, 18. Juli 2012

Love-Hate: Kuala Lumpur

Want the full story? Klick here to start with "Question Authority, Question 3v3ryth1nG!" - the post that started this little travel adventure!

Welcome to Concretopia

The big KL seems to like me more than Melaka. For lack of time to research, I drop by the No. 8 guest house, the place Caro stayed at back when she was in KL. With the metro it is easy enough to reach, and after some searching I finally find the place. Although more expensive than anticipated, the hostel is nice except for the construction going on and the bed bugs that I find on my second night. Seriously? Again? The search for an alternative is fairly sobering, however. All other places are really expensive or in worse condition than the hostel under construction. Later I will find out that other places are even worse on the bed bug front and in fact it seems pretty hard to find a bed in KL without them.

Concrete Jungle
So far, I have only seen the city walking it’s streets as I couldn’t go up the Petronas towers when I tried on my first real day in the city. My impression is not exactly good. Concrete pathways cross concrete roads going by concrete colored buildings inhabiting places selling concrete colored food (they call it "Fried Chicken") Downtown is full of skyscrapers that either host these fast food chains, banks, insurance companies, construction companies or the oil industry. To be blunt: the city is ugly as hell! And the impression does not improve much when I manage to go up KL tower to get an overview. There are some green spots, however.

KL tower is the nicest AND cheapest way to see the city from the top. Seen from the orchid 
In the Mouse Deer Park I finally get to see mouse deer. To get up to the park feels like an accomplishment already. This very shy animal exists on Tioman island, but has never shown itself to us. Its body looks like a deer, but it is tiny and it’s legs are mere sticks. It is surprising that the thing can actually stand and walk. Their head is also deer like, but that have rodent teeth sticking out of their mouth, which are kind of scary. However, I’ve completed my quest. One more check on my list of exotic animal bingo.

You would be shy too if your legs were no thicker than chopsticks!
At the nearby Orchid garden I have more time to relax. I know that Caro has been here and during a sunny rain shower I sit down to think. Why is she not here? Why are we not doing this, enjoying this together? That is totally stupid. I really want to go our path together, maybe sooner than I thought initially. Instead, she is in Germany working her ass off and destroying herself slowly but surely, although she knows it’s not the right thing for her. 
One of many many many...many shopping malls in KL
 It strikes me as very odd that the West is starting to realize that money really isn’t everything and neither is working yourself to death, leading people to create more sustainable lifestyles. Many people look towards Asian cultures for guidance in terms of balance of life and relaxation, such as Yoga, Buddhism, Zen and all these things. These cultures in turn are racing towards the mighty dollar themselves and have not yet arrived at the turning point. Money has become the mighty measure and progress is symbolized by American brand names and fast food. I keep trying to think of ways to tell these people to stop what they are doing and that there is more to life than money. I don’t want to be part of the system, it disgusts me.

While the outside isn’t too pleasant except for a colorful food street nearby, the hostel has a nice atmosphere despite the construction. I spend quite a lot of time in the lobby simply chatting with people. One guy who looks incredibly relaxed and just arrived from Thailand tells me about this book he is reading and how it explains that 2012 the world is going to change drastically and we are entering a new era. He wears jewellery of glow-in-the-dark stones apparently from some rare Chinese source which he has bought for about 2000 USD. I forget how they are going to help him reach the next stage of all our existence. A British dude who has been traveling Southeast Asia for several months with his girlfriend is taking a month off from her while she writes a book. Although having plans to go and roam the city, I find myself stuck in these conversations usually around and after breakfast. It seems I am ready to socialize again. Maybe I even feel a bit lonely after the island.

Don’t run against the wall, run through the wall!

I also spend quite some time writing e-mails, mostly to my family and Caro, researching and doing other stuff I couldn’t do for a while. I also try to find out how to get a Visa for my trip to China. I find a map of Chinese embassies in Southeast Asia and the only place it shows South of Thailand is actually Kuala Lumpur. I get nervous. It’s not logical, but what if Chinese relations with its neighbors are shitty and there really isn’t a way? It’s a Friday and the embassy closes in three hours. Also, it would cost me a fortune if I wanted to get my passport back before leaving on Monday as I planned. I get frustrated, confused, start filling out forms. For the application, I need an invitation, which means I have to book a hostel. That, however, doesn’t work because the websites will not accept my credit cards. Also, the woman at the reception tells me their printer is not working. That means I have to find an internet café. Fuck.

I’m about to panic, but panicking has never done anyone any good. So I stop. I stop it all. It’s incredible how fast all the chill from Tioman has been washed away by this ugly city. I take a step back and consider my situation. I’m hungry – not a good precondition. And I can’t think properly right now. Caro always managed to get me out of shitty moods and situations when I got upset with packing my things and dissolving my live. “What would Caro do?,” I think to myself. She would stop running into a wall, step back and do something fun instead.

Fresh saté delicousness
And first of all, she would get some food. I head out to food street and get my blood sugar in order. After I’ve done that, I actually find some place with yummy saté and have some more before I dare to have a go for Durian as desert. Durian is a divisive fruit: Either you love it or you hate it. It is banned from metros and buses for its strong smell. The taste is somewhat cheesy and so is the consistency. Like a soft cheese that has been sitting in the sun for too long. It turns out I am not a big fan, but I finish it and I’m glad I tried. Finding an internet café is also an adventure. “Internet café” appears to be code for shady badly-luminated and probably illegal internet gaming and gambling bat caves. None of them has a printer. So I head out to get more relaxation, I try to find a fish spa.

Food makes everything better...even if it's Durian ;)

Kuala Lumpur is known for its multitude of foot reflexology centers, foot spas and fish spas. You stick your feet in a tank and the fish will nibble away on your feet. I walk around for quite a while, going from one shut-down place to another. But I actually find a real internet café and mark it on my map. Finally, in a large shopping mall, a spa place is open, but turns out to be ridiculously expensive. So I decide to go for another desert instead and get a delicious sesame ball filled with peanut butter from "I Love Yoo." Surprisingly relaxed and happy I return to the hostel.

On my way back I receive a message from Caro. Finally, I will be able to talk to her. The first time in three weeks! It is amazing and I am completely unable to stop smiling. We talk a bit about what is going on and although I’ve told myself to think about it for a bit longer, I can’t help myself but to ask her eventually: so, when do you think you could join me here at the earliest? She is surprised but excited and we start to figure it out, actually making quite intricate plans. Three weeks in Southeast Asia? That isn’t much. No problem, so I cancel the trip to China and that doubles our time. She needs to figure out how to pay for the flight. Meanwhile we discuss on how we are going to travel, giving both of us the freedom  to do their own thing and roam around alone if we feel like it. We just want to give it a try and see how we feel. No pressure. I get off the phone and my chill has returned. For the first time in this city, I am happy!

Your home away from home

I’ve left Tioman with the idea of buying a parachute hammock. One of the other guests used to sell them and I had mentioned my original plan to go to the Cameron Highlands and put up a hammock there and relax. Only I didn’t have a hammock yet. Now that Caro and I will be traveling together, it is really time to get one, to get a “bed” for the two of us. Louis, the Philippino guy at the reception is on board straight away when I tell him about my quest. We research different ways to get the hammock until about 3 am. Ironically, they are produced in Indonesia, not too far away, but in the different direction and NOT on my travel list. Finally, we find a reseller here in Kuala Lumpur.

Ticket to the Moon!
The outskirts of KL are actually a lot nicer than the center. My sudden relaxed mood might also have something to do with it. I take the metro in the morning past the University of Malaysia and the area is quite green. Actually, the neighborhoods look a lot like suburban America.  Maybe not the most desirable, but definitely an improvement over the ugly money-ridden center. It’s also not quite as hot here, even though midday is coming up. I get to see quite a lot of the neighborhoods, because I’ve made the mistake to ask a bunch of taxi drivers for directions and trusted them.

Kuala Lumpur is much nicer in its outskirts

Despite its strong Muslim influence, Malaysia is at heart an Asian country and as such, people are not afraid to lose their teeth or wallets (many have neither), but their face. And the streets must be covered in lost faces, because it is actually quite easy to lose face. Any sort of embarrassment will be a loss of face and that includes not knowing the answer to a question, for example when you are asked for directions. So you just give any directions instead and get to keep your face. Hence I circle around, looking for streets with irregular numbering and houses within those that are also irregularly numbers, trying to find the place. In the distance it gets dark. It looks like there is a  storm coming. Half an hour later I get caught in the shower and have confusing conversations with more locals leading me in the wrong direction.

When I finally find the place, buying the hammock feels like taking another small step towards our joined trip, "our" bed. As I step out of the place, I see the train station down the hill, only about 300 meters from where I had gotten off, only on the other side of the tracks.
Double Feature!

Student protest - I have a dream, or do I?

On the way back I decide to get some sight-seeing in and go by the independence square, where I run into a student protest for free education. They are camping in the square living of food and water people donate to them, like the leader of the opposition party from Brunei, who has come by to drop a huge package of cookies.
Tent Village

I talk to some of the people and we discuss the student protests in Germany and the situation in Malaysia. Adam Atli tells me about their idea to provide free classes in the square in order to prove that free education is possible. The free classes are held by either students or professors, actually. Usually they are surrounded , as we are at this moment, by a bunch of police officers. With my camera, I probably give the impression of a journalist, I think and wonder how save it is to be on this square right now. Around the square there are preparations for a royal inauguration in a couple of days. I cannot imagine a couple of tents would look good at a royal inauguration.

Preparations to celebrate the new king (they rotate in Malaysia)
Suddenly, there is a commotion and more people with cameras show up. And these actually do wear signs identifying them as press. Adam disappears and a minister of parliament (from the opposition party) has arrived to speak with the students. She wears a headscarf and a very strict face, but smiles at the students every once in a while. Accompanied by body guards, she makes her way through tent village, then disappears again.

Moments when it sucks not to know the native language:
when Minister of Parliament Nurul Izzah Anwar visits the student protest.
The next moment, a Mandarin class begins and carpets are laid out on the floor. “This is our class room,” Adam explains, who has suddenly returned. “It’s not good if I am seen with somebody from the opposition party. Government will not believe this is an independent students demonstration and claim it is set up by the party.” He is the leader of the group and has been expelled from university for three semesters for disobedient behavior. After this maneouvre, I take him to be a very good tactical player, quite the politician indeed. 

When Mandarin class is over - I can’t seem to remember or even pronounce a single word correctly – it’s only half an hour until Zunar, an acclaimed cartoonist will show up to give a basic cartoon drawing class. He is critical towards government and so his work has been banned. His main subject for the night is the upcoming election. The anger and excitement with which he talks about politicians is amazing. All these people are so angry at their government and so frustrated, yet so peaceful. I wish I had a passion like this. Instead, I’m just a bystander who does not know his place.

Zunar shows graphically how he hopes the scandals around the president are finally going to drive him out of office and possibly into Mongolia. Mongolia? Yes, the president supposedly had a mistress from Mongolia who died under mysterious circumstances involving C4 when she started to demand money from him. The only entity in Malaysia with access to C4 is the military and the president has very good friends in high military ranks is what I am told by a PhD student with the prettiest black hair and nerdy glasses who seems to enjoy translating - which is my luck, and laughing loudly at me - which I am not so fond of. 

This is a good fight, I think to myself. But it’s not my fight. I need to move on and find out what my life is really about. Maybe I will have a better idea when I am dangling in a hammock in the Cameron Highlands, finally completing after a month of travel my initial plan for the first couple of days.


When searching for the protest online later, I found an article on a blog saying that the same night I was there, the group was attacked by thugs. I'm glad I decided not to stay with the group for the night as I had planned. Also check out the pictures of the day ("Thug attack") on the protest Facebook page

Samstag, 14. Juli 2012

F YOU, Melaka!

Want the full story? Klick here to start with "Question Authority, Question 3v3ryth1nG!" - the post that started this little travel adventure!

F you Melaka!

I have finally left Tioman. It took me some time to detach myself from the place. I am not heading to Kuala Lumpur directly, but will try to get to Melaka. Melaka is supposed to be a really nice town with lots of history, however, only worth a day trip. I figured slowly getting used to larger cities again might not be a bad idea. Tim did not say a word about me leaving, no attempts to try and persuade me to stay. I am grateful. He is a liberal soul.

Getting to Melaka, however, turns out to be not as easy as getting off the island. When Aimee who is leaving towards Singapore and I arrive in Mersing, the bus is full and there is no other one that day. Attempts of talking the lady into letting me on the bus standing fail miserably. So I ask for alternatives at “the other bus stop”. Why has a town that only exists to get people on the islands have two main long-distance bus stops?

A lady points me to a local bus going to Kluang from where there are supposedly many buses to Melaka. Aimee is “just around the corner” to see if there is food. The moment I look over to the bus, the driver starts the engine and backs up. Time to go, now. I turn around to where Aime was two minutes ago. I run, get in the bus and take the seat behind the driver.  "Ok, that was spontaneous," I think to myself without but myself to recognize my bravery.  And just like that, I am off. Farewell Tioman!

Kluang, I find, is not only not mentioned in the Lonely Planet, it’s not even on the map. Yay! Not exactly worried, the fact does make me think. Lucky enough, I meet a nice old man on the bus and we start talking. He has Chinese roots, loves Germany, and used to be a medical researcher. Today, he is retired and taking a vacation. It brings him back to his home town nearby, Batu Pahat (the stone mazon’s city), where he has spent the last week watching a Chinese Street opera. Arriving in Kluang, a town whose name sounds like somebody is throwing up a piece of metal, there are of course no buses to Melaka anymore. The place has the charme of a bus station, definitely not a place to get cozy, so I decide to take a little detour and see the Chinese street opera. Sounds cool anyway!
There is a reason some places do not appear on maps!
In Batu Pahat, which also isn't on the map, I check into a cheap, but still too expensive hotel. The guy takes me out to dinner and we have what seems like authentic Chinese street food. There is spicy Chinese salad, fried raddish and squid. All that we flush down with a mix of pineapple and carrot juice, the thought of which disgusts me at first, but it’s actually quite tasty. The food on the main land is definitely an improvement to island food, which was one of the reasons I was happy to leave Tioman in the end. He takes note of all his expenses on a tiny sheet of paper while telling me that he is traveling with one shirt only. He washed it in his room every night. Uhhm, yeah, interesting. Then we get to the opera.

It makes me feel a little better when my strange friend tells me he understands as little as I do. There is a lot of high-pitched singing, angry cymbal crashing and indistinct ancient Chinese talk. Plot? No idea. Characters? Yes, the play has them. Stage…check, but don’t ask me what it’s supposed to show.! At least we get to go back stage, meet some of the artists and although the plot is completely unclear to me, I have a growing sense of understanding. Tired of feeling like his puppet, I stay at the theatre when he goes home. Too much personal contact for the first night back in the real world. After a while I actually start to understand a bit. It’s a love plot, between the main actress with the white painted face dressed as a woman and the other main actress and the other main actress with the white painted face dressed as a man. Too much excitement, it’s time to go to bed.

Chinese Street Opera
In the morning I am ready for another go at Melaka. I have been told there is a bus at 8.15 and one at 10 am. The office opens at 7.30 am and I get up at the crack of dawn, grab a few Pao (Chinese dumplings) on the way only to arrive at the bus stop to find out that the next bus with available seats will be in the afternoon. That does not leave me any time to actually see anything of Melaka without spending a night there. F you Melaka, you don’t want me? I can live without you!

Tired and frustrated I get on a bus to Kuala Lumpur (KL) that leaves in a couple of minutes. At least there I will have decent internet and can communicate with Caro again. Or so I think. On the way out of the hotel I’ve downloaded my e-mail on my cell phone and Caro is going away to Ostfriesland. She needs a change of pace away from all the stress and the computer. It makes me feel a bit sad that we probably won’t be able to talk. I would have liked to raise the idea of her joining me soon. But maybe it will help her to become her own self again. After that, she might know what she wants, too.

Dienstag, 19. Juni 2012

Castaway on Pulau Tioman

Want the full story? Klick here to start with "Question Authority, Question 3v3ryth1nG!" - the post that started this little travel adventure!

Castaway on Pulau Tioman

What started as simply jotting down notes of the places I have been has changed in Tioman. I felt more inspired writing about this place than any before, so it actually reads more like the chapter out of a novel. Let's call it realistic travel fiction ;). If anyone is in contact with publishers who might be interested in material like this, you have my email! :)

March 28

I've grown wild in the two weeks on the remote Tioman Island ;)
“Take the bus at Boogey station to Jahor Baru. It’s my home town, just across the border. From there you get a ticket to Mersing. If you are lucky, you can get the last ferry to Tioman. When you are on the island, head straight to Juara Beach and stay there, you will enjoy it. If getting away is what you are looking for, Juara Beach is your best bet.” I soak up the words of the Malayan guy at my hostel reception like a sponge. “Man, I just realize, I haven’t done an island vacation in a long time. I should go to Tioman some time soon myself.” That’s it, he’s sold it. 

I cannot wait until I get to the Cameron Highlands to chill out in a hammock there. I’m off to Malaysia. Tioman Island! I change around 450 $ in cash, because there are no ATMs on the island. That should suffice for a little bit over a week, unless I decide to learn diving, which might just happen. Let’s see how long I last away from everything. I really need time to sort my brain out, calm down. I’ll take as much time there as I need.

I start to apply mosquito repellant for the first time in Southeast Asia after I get bitten severely on the bus. This is not Singapore anymore! The roads are more shaky, the landscape more rough. The border crossing is surprisingly easy, however. If you are ok with the fact that your bus drives away as soon as you hop off. It wouldn’t be so unsettling if you knew another one was coming in fifteen minutes and that this was standard practice.

I miss the last ferry in Mersing. There’s sure to be some guy with a fishing boat to still go over, right? Yes, apparently. He wants around 80 Dollars. There are seven of us, so that would work out. One of us tries to talk to him, negotiate. Suddenly the boat man decides he does not want to go anymore. He’d rather stay here. So we are stuck in Mersing.

The only reason this town exists is really because the ferry port is here and it brings people to the islands. It’s ugly and uneventful. For lack of other excitement, Alison – the Canadian girl I met at the border – and I go to Chinese food after an Odyssey of finding a bed-bug free bed in Mersing. THE Lonely-Planet-recommended backpackers place caused us to revulse (people that stayed there later tell me they moved to sleep on the floor because the beds were so disgusting). We find different hotels, then meet up under the eyes of what must be Mersing’s entire Chinese community to have some veggies and sea cucumber. I use the wifi-opportunity to say my goodbyes to the civilized world before going to bed. It’s about three hours before I have to get up again and catch the ferry. It’s hot, it’s steamy and I am not looking forward to wake up in the middle of the night.

March 29

The ferry is surprisingly punctual – leaving at 4 o’ clock. Inside it’s cold due to the air condition and a couple of Japanese divers are sleeping on the leather benches. I pull my Science Fiction book, The Lifecycle of Software Objects and ponder over philosophical questions of mind development, my relationship to Caro and a vague decision whether I should try and learn how to surf on the island. I decide that a sexual relationship with a robot / digient is no more problematic than an emotional one, although highly more stigmatized by society, that freedom and freedom to make mistakes is an essential part of any relationship and that I want to stand on a surfboard on Tioman. Then I fall into silent slumber until heavy waves wake me up.

We've arrived. At the dock, "Bushman" is waiting to pick us up. He runs the place Allison is staying at, "Bushman's." That’s great, because it means I get over to the other side, Juara, as fast as possible and at a third of what a regular Taxi would charge me from Tekek. Bushman drops me off at Beach Shack… or Beach Hut… or Beach Shack Hut “They change name again, this Beach Shack,” Bushman assures me.

The Beach Shack from the ocean

I walk into an open, low roof porch area through the dark and feel the breeze of the sea around my nose as I approach the deck.

Sunrise over the South China Sea
My feet on the wooden planks, I realize the ocean is right there in front of me and I have arrived just in time to witness the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen, as the bright disk slowly crosses the line of the horizon over the ocean and paints the sky in a wonderful array of oranges and purple. Two figures sit at the side of the porch, staring in amazement at this magical spectacle. One is an older, gray haired man with stubble covering his face. He is very thin, wrinkled and incredibly tanned. The only thing he wears is a pair of board shorts. On the sun chair next to him is a smaller woman with shoulder long, black, slightly curly hair and a facial expression that makers her look a little like a monkey. Her skin is brownish and her smile spreads across her entire face and beyond as she takes photographs of the picturesque scene. Bound by the view myself, I somehow manage to confirm this is the right place and they run it. I’ve met Tim and Izan and this is enough introduction for us. Together we continue to watch the day break and the sun move up the brightening sky, reflecting on the calm water of the South China Sea before a slight rain begins and washes away the stupor spell, slowly waking us from the dream that is this sunrise.

Chalet with beach view

But the sun does not keep me up for long. I’ve hardly slept the night before. After I drop my heavy backpack (I travel with way too many things, did I mention?), I have just enough time to set up a tiny bookshelf and admire the view from my honeymoon chalet that looks down on the beach front. Then I fall into pleasant slumber on the giant bed that sits in the room like a fairytale with its thin blue layer of mosquito net cover. The sound of the ocean carries me over into the land of dreams, but careful: sharp rocks at the bottom!
The "honeymoon" suite. Basic, but wonderful!
I wake up from a pinch on my arm. What? Rocks? No. Mosquito? How did you get in here? Oh no. This is not a mosquito. I see a little black something scrawling over my pillow, trying to hide in the dark. It looks like a tick. May I introduce? The Cimex Lectularius. Oh, so this is what bed bugs look like, I think as I unsuccessfully try to squish the little bugger on the bed. It won’t budge, then it disappears. No way, that’s not cool, come back here, you took my blood! Don’t let the bed bugs bite, I was told. As I look around the edges of the mozzy net I become fully aware of the intensity of this encounter with my new six-legged friends. Hitchcock’s The Birds comes to my mind as I look up and see black creatures hovering over me, staring down only to wait for an inattentive moment to attack. Chose your battles! I get my clothes on, open the window to let in some light and indulge in a mass killing. My hands bear the bitterness of the murder as I leave the room to wash myself clean in the pacifying waters of the ocean.

Somewhere beyond the sea

I have the Shack nearly to myself. There is an Australian couple here that helps out. There’s also a Scandinavian couple, but they never come out of their chalet. It’s pretty much all mine, except for the boys, Tim’s nephew and a friend of his: Azeen and Jay. Paradise is mine!

swing low
But when has man ever been happy in paradise? Feelings of relaxation and a strange tenseness go back and forth in me, just as the hammock rocks me from side to side at the beach front. I worry about overspending my budget, which I have done indeed so far, then frolick at the beauty of the islands with its palm trees. I worry about what to do with my life, then stare at the waves and try to find the patterns in their movement. Most of all my mind is bothered by the fact that I am on this island by myself. Isn’t it paradoxical? I venture out to be by myself or dive into the adventures of live and then long for the vicinity of a girl. A girl back there, that is, back there where home was, only weeks ago. Already I am considering skipping Central America and taking her to South America in July. STOP. What nonsense. There will be no computer, no cellphone, no contact over the next few days, maybe weeks. Maybe that will knock some sense into my head.
I go to bed at nine. I have moved to a different chalet. It’s dark, I am tired and there is nothing else to do anyway. Wonderful. Nothing to do!

March 30

When I wake I hear the rooster cry to announce the crack of dawn. I stand by the window with the wind blowing from the sea until the sky starts to slowly illuminate. I move to the restaurant porch and watch yet another sunrise that sends it’s rays through an array of purple and orange clouds. “That must be the most beautiful sunrise I have seen this year. It’s spectacular,” he boasts as he passes me a cup of Earl Grey. It’s easy to believe him. The rooster cries again to finish off the scene. What a cliché!

"The most beautiful sunrise ever"
I head down to the beach to practice some Aikido and get rid of the rising thoughts of “I wish I could have shared this sunrise with her”. I tear my skin on the sand, I sweat, I drip. It’s wonderful. The dip in the ocean stings on my skin, but I feel alive, SO alive. I’m exhausted and yet I have so much energy in my body. I get some clothes on in my room and throw a quick glance at my cell phone. Caro has written a supportive message. “It hurts me to know that we are living parallel lives right now. I miss you. But you are doing the right thing and I would do it just the same way. I hope you are enjoying YOUR life right now.”
I am!
And since I am indeed, I don’t feel compelled to answer right now, although I appreciate the support. Instead I take my fresh Guava juice and breakfast with Tim.

Tim on a fishing boat
Tim is a weird character. He’s the generation of my parents, young during those wild hippie years. Except, while my parents never quite made it into the scene and shied off at the hash to begin with, Tim was an acid-dropping hippie all the way. Or so he says. The classic rock music, the look of his worn face and body and the slightly anachronistic habit of calling anybody “dude” make for a coherent picture, throwing in the surfer culture reflected in his board shorts as well. When he was young, Tim would work on a lobster trawler during off-season and spend the surfing season on the board. The low ceiling restaurant shelfs carry pictures of surfers and trophies. What a life that must have been! Then again, there’s been times where he and his four-headed family survived on 100 Ringgit from muzzles they collected and sold in the market.
We talk about money and how people get too stuck on it and lose themselves over trying to get more and more. That was my problem, too. Not trying to get more money, but loosing myself in the task of finding myself. My lifestyle was too busy and too hectic to really get in tune with myself. “You’ve lost yourself. If you find yourself, your new journey begins.” He throws me a worn, yellowish brown book. “Kook,” it says on the cover. “This is written by a guy who’s had enough of it, you’ll like it.”

I skip through the pages and read a sentence at random:
“We need surf, or dance, or yoga, because it reconnects us with our animal bodies. For a little while we practice moving through the world with rhythm, with an intention of efficiency and power. Without it, we become just a bunch of walking heads.”

I think of my Aikido practice on the sunlit morning beach. Tim invites me to a trip into the jungle that afternoon. He and the guys will make some wood. Maybe in two days the waves will pick up for some surfing lessons. I’m on board!

Into the jungle, equipped with a chainsaw

Tim and I slowly move into a working relationship. Having proven myself useful on the woodmaking, he asks me for help on other small works. Michael and Megan have gone off to China to teach English there, so Tim can use a hand. Not that he doesn't have enough personnel. There's a guy who takes care of the property, rakes the beach and keeps the walkways clean. Tim isn't exactly happy with his work morale, however. In fact, he doesn't think too much of workers in Malaysia in general. Nobody seems to show any motivation to get things done or advance. That's also the impression I got. Everybody is trying to work as little as they possibly can. Instead they sit around bored or watch TV. Anything, as long as you don't have to work. This is also true for Azeen and Jay, Tim's nephew and his friend. Granted, they're only nineteen and with the prospect of army service coming up for them in two months, they try to get as much holiday out of their stay as possible, understandably. Still, Tim can use somebody with motivation. I get food and or accommodation in return, depending on the tasks.

The team after 2,5 hours of making wood: all dripping sweat except for the scout.
I'm the mozarella white something in the back.

Room is scarce, as more guests are arriving. With the recent weather changes that saw more rain and the prospect of having to move to a tent, I speak with Tim. He has a new, unfinished place with no electricity and only half the building has a roof. But it’s dry and it’s free if I help out. On top of that, it is also a little more remote, somewhat down the beach, so I get some quiet area for myself while the place is bursting with people.

Half a roof is better than no roof ;)
From then on, I spend half the day training my arms and other muscles doing work for him. A particularly good training session is the day that the cargo ship arrives. It only comes once a week and this time Tim has lots of stuff coming in that he ordered from the mainland. Everyone from the village gathers at the pier to unload the boat as fast as possible. Tim didn't even ask if I can ride a motorbike a couple of days earlier (I've only rode one once before, when I was 16). I didn't protest either, so today, after I've had a couple of days of practice bringing stuff back and forth, he hands me the keys to the old machine with the side car and sends me off to the pier to load the bike. We're in a hurry, because the boat wants to leave.

As is usually the case with this old bike with wonky gears, the chain jumps off when I go too fast in the third gear. It happens at the most inopportune moment. Just when I am about to turn the corner, the bike chokes, I miss the corner, wheel the bike into the mud and jump over the handle to the front so I don't hurt myself. Grant! A local woman with a head scarf on a scooters stops and helps me to pull the bike out of the calves deep mud. I'm not the first to miss this corner. Pushing the last bit back onto the street, I burn my leg on the exhaust. It makes me laugh at my own stupidity.

At the pier, unloading about 400 brick stones that somebody has brought in is one of the rare opportunities to get friendly with the local islanders. So far they haven't been too social, hardly crack a smile when you greet them in the street. The woman on the road was the first friendly encounter outside of Beach Shack. In the chain from the boat to the pier where we all gather the dust of the bricks on our sweated bodies, we exchange encouraging smiles. Later on, they offer me a drink to cool down and regain energy while Tim rides off to unload the bike at home.

"Illegal immigrants" coming to Pulau Tioman.
Found the log with crabs floating towards the island while snorkeling on the beautiful reef.

The other half of the days on tioman is a bit more pleasant. I bathe in the sun, sip fruit shakes and devour the book or play Nada with some of the other guests. Nada is Tim’s favorite game in which you throw dice and count numbers until you either stop or you get Nada. Nothing counts. You suck. Tim’s an ass to play with, too. He hardly ever stops, always wins high numbers. He rubs the dice on every part of his body for good luck, every part, then makes sarcastic remarks before, while and after you play. I love it. “Animal body,” I think. When he pinches me, it’s the first time I realize the strength in his arms. Surprising, as they look more like matches than arms.

Each night I go to bed, I wander off in my dreams to a place far away, where a girl lies waiting for me. Thoughts about her occupy most of my free time, whether I’m on land or in the water. I begin to lose track of time. I am starting to realize that living MY life might mean not living a life with Caro. After a few days I find out the WiFi password. I check my mail but decide there’s nothing important and I will keep pretending I haven’t been online. No new text messages, either. It feels good to just be unavailable for now, really good.
It’s just much more fun to go out on a fishing boat and drag in dinner than sit at a machine writing emails.

Fixing a net on a fishing boat
Work is slowly getting more intense, I’m actually considering taking a day “off” on the weekend to think. One of the new guests is starting to occupy some of my thinking time as well. Aimée is a German girl. She has been here before. She fell in love with Tim’s pet monkeys, although “we think of them as friends, not pets,” as he insists. I don’t trust the monkeys, so I don’t really care what he calls them, but she’s in love, clearly, spending nearly her entire day with them. Aimée seems to be a nice girl and we get along. She gives me some tips for Malaysia, we flirt. She’s kind of cute, too. My thoughts wander off to Germany much less in this company and I catch myself feeling a bit guilty about that.

Sunrise is the time to think.
While it's still cool and windy.
It’s not even been a week of true isolation. Isn’t that a bit early to start forgetting about her? But wait, isn’t this MY life? Why am I still caught in what I'm "supposed to" do instead of doing what I want to do? Everything seems to be dragging me away from that life that is mine. I just want to sit and read the book Tim gave me. I almost feel too social playing games two consecutive nights. Not to mention the work. It’s strange. Again, the questions hit me: what is MY life, really?

I've lost track of how long I've been here when I hit my motivational and emotinoal low. Painting logs in the mid day sun, I catch a scorching sunburn on my back and don’t realize until the end of the paint job. My quest to find soothing Aloe Vera remains unfulfilled as the entire island seems to be completely devoid of it short of a Danish family who gives me a thick layer straight onto my back. The night before hadn’t been much better.

With lots of people coming in and little space, Aimée moved to the unfinished shack as well, occupying the other, half-roofed room. As I somehow expected, I did not catch much sleep that night. Scared shitless from some noise, she cried for my help in the middle of the night. The gunfire was indeed somewhat disturbing. Images of Lord of the Flies come to the mind on this remote island.

So, rescue the girl. First I moved to her room, realized she didn’t have a mozzy net (or roof), then got her to move to my room. I spread the net over the make-shift-matresses, but that doesn’t leave too much space and so we lie snug together. I put my arm around her in an effort to get comfortable, but with her tossing and turning, listening for new noises, the night remains more or less sleepless. Hence it is surprising, but not too much of a shock when we get a visit from what we think is a monkey. It looks at me, draws back, then looks at me again. Strange noises on the wooden planks. Yes, I admit, this is somewhat scary, but the figure disappears.
Nothing to steal in this room, for sure.
Aimée is determined to spend the next night at the restaurant terrace, which I welcome as she is actually going on my nerves by now, a feeling that will increase over the next days. It might be unfair to her, but she has become a mirror for me. Only she is showing everything I want not in a woman and missing everything I have found in Caro. The following night I sleep sound until about 3 am, when again somebody jumps up to the open part of the roof and stares in. Yes, it’s somebody. We’ve been told by the neighbour, who himself looks a bit like a monkey, that there aren’t any monkeys on this part of the island. None as large as I described them on the entire island, actually. However, somebody tried to break into the neighbours house the night before. Time to move and move on. This is not the life I want!

But then the waves pick up a bit and so does my reading. Tim is busy and I venture out into the wild waters of the ocean with the boys on boogey boards. I’m not incredibly successful, but it is good to feel the power and force of the ocean. Animal body. The Kook has come to Mexico to learn surfing and he’s brought along his girl friend to give the relationship a real try. I haven’t, I’ve gone off by myself . . . I miss her smile. “What a wonderful woman I left there,” I think, indulging in memories of the imaginary photo book we created, for the safe keeping of moments together that we want to remember. Right now, I’m writing only in my own book.

Got surf?
Tired of waiting for a really good surf, the boys and I get Izan to show us some basics of surfing on a day when Tim is on the mainland. The waves are probably no higher than two feet, but it’s fun nonetheless. For two hours we paddle back and fro, smashing ourselves into the waves, attempting to catch and ride the flow of energy that runs through the water. The long boards are much easier to float on than the bogeys, although I have some issues with balance. Once the wave picks up the board, gives it the speed and raises you above the water level, however, there is no more wobbling! It’s all fun from there and the waves give us a smooth ride to the sandy beach. Right on, dudes!

I’m starting to grow weary of the place. I feel ready to move on, in many different ways. The easiest sign to notice: I long for different food, as the greasy fried rice and omelets are not only starting to bore me, I wonder how healthy I can keep my body this way. Fruits and vegetables are rather rare on the island. Everything needs to come by cargo after all.

The work is busying me a lot and I haven’t had time to do any thinking recently, except immediately related to what I am doing. The project Tim does is somewhat disturbing to me and so is the thought that I am supporting it. He is building new chalets down the beach in an area where right now, there is a swampy biotope with a river running into the ocean slowly. It’s filled with water plants, monitor lizards, dragonflies, butterflies, there is a weaver bird’s nest and the other day we found a python the locals had slashed. It pains me to see how this environment is going to disappear. Tim says the government has agreed to dig out the riverbed deeper, so the biotope might be able to come back and reclaim the landfill, but I remain doubtful.

Without roof, the power company doesn't install electricity.
Without electricity it's a pain in the ass to build a roof...

It reminds me of the surf book I’m reading. The protagonist feels bad about the quickly built tourist resorts where land was only developed in order to attract tourists. Of course, he is part of it all, “asking for a campground, a restaurant or two and an airport to fly in.” Really, traveling like this does not seem sustainable and it is bugging me that I am not only part of it on the tourist side at this point, but also on the development side. Tim is destroying the natural land patterns while at the same time buying red light bulbs so as not to disturb the turtles from finding their nesting grounds. It’s paradox.

The rules for these little crawlers are easy:
Centipede, one pair of legs moves at a time, poisonous.
Millepede, two pairs of legs move at a time, not poisonous.
I take an afternoon off to do a little hike with Viveka, a Dutch girl staying at the Shack. We walk up through the jungle and an array of spiders, insects, lizards and all other kinds of creatures until we arrive at the waterfall we aimed for. It is a beautiful setting and we have some very good conversations on traveling and life. She helps me to realize that I have come to not live my life, but spend my entire time working for Tim. When we return home much later than expected and later than Tim had hoped I would come back so we could do some work, I decide it’s time for a break. I will work tomorrow, then stay as a guest for a bit, I tell him.

Tim is not too pleased about it. I’ve told him before that I am restless and I think he knows what is coming. But he doesn’t say a single word, does not complain, although I can tell he would like me to work. What a beautiful relation. It’s that easy. I dictate the terms again, but I’m not going to use that. I need time to think.
The next two days are actually amazing. With work off my mind, I manage to relax again and the first time after a long while, I escape the train of thought that whistles “I miss her”. Instead, I have some clear thoughts about my relationship with Caro. I’d been hoping, deeply hoping, that she would still like the person I would change into through the travels.

When I go out for a long morning swim into the ocean, it comes like a revelation to me: I don’t even want to develop into somebody else without her being by my side. I don’t! There is no point in us leading parallel lives. Not at all. Wouldn’t it be much better if instead, we traveled together, changed together, lived together, not in one but many places? I don’t want us to drift apart and if we are serious about this relationship, what is the use in deferring it? If we are not serious about it, then what is the point of keeping this alive at all – and if I’m not serious about it, why exactly am I planning my life with her in my head right now?
I've made up my mind. I will call her and ask her to join me. Not now, I need a bit more time for myself. I’m not quite ready for the company yet. I am playing with the idea of giving myself four more weeks of single adventure. Doing it right now? Something in my mind screams – NO, not yet. What about all the limitless fun? Find out who you are, go enjoy your freedom, do some wild experiments, get drunk, stoned, get with some women! I don’t know what to make of that yet.

What I do know is that feel a growing sense of: “I want to share my life with that woman” while other things become less important. What if she is my key to finding who I am? What if I am hers? Or maybe we are not the others’ key to anything. Maybe we find each other this way, maybe we find we are not actually made to spend our lives together. But we can still help each other on our searches until our paths separate and maybe one day join again.

Footprints in the sand...the rest is silence

I step out of the water and walk along the shore, one little step after the other, searching shells for a necklace I want to make. The waves touching my feet wash back and forth the thoughts of her and me living our lives together. Tomorrow afternoon I will take the ferry back to the mainland, towards a place where I can place the adornment around her neck. It’s time to move on.