Monday, 21 December 2009

Inilog, Biya and Christo.

Farewell Philippines and hello Japan, but before we go, thanks for the memories. Oh, and the culture shock too. Herewith a brief guide to cock fighting.

1: Ok if animal welfare is your thing then look away because things here are going to get ugly. We're starting off with cock fighting. Nope, that is not two men you dislike settling their differences over a match of fisticuffs. No siree, this here is one of the national obsessions. First up, you're gonna need a cock. Ignore the obvious pun, it gets tiresome. Next up you will need to put your your erm, rooster, on a diet of vitamins and top grade feed and then exercise him regularly. That will include sparring sessions, with a leather glove and then later, with your other cockerels if you have any. This routine will go on for about a year. You will then take your fattened bird to the cock ring pit one Sunday and pit him against another. Your cockerel will be a thing of great beauty by the time it makes it into the ring; it's plumage proud and pristine. And to be fair this bird will be like a cherished pet to you. After all, you have fed it, exercised it, invested in it and groomed it for a year or so. But then again, it might just win the battle you are about to pitch it into. And if it wins, then you're gonna have a whole lot of cash in your pocket. And if it loses, well then the winner takes all. Including your dead bird which will go on the grill quicker than you can say "Bon appetite."

2: So we're in the ring now. Next up you'll need to strap a curved blade onto the left leg of your cockerel. The blade is about two inches (or 50mm if you prefer) long, and it will be sharp enough to carve to a chicken. Literally. Once you get your bird into the ring you and the other breeder will hold your roosters at chest height and get them to go at each other for a bit. Rile them up. Make 'em angry. And vicious. This is done to create a bit of blood lust and crowd will go wild. They'll be betting like crazy. And the roosters will spit feathers. The anticipation of the fight will grow with every feather that comes away on each peck. All the while the Christo (so called because of the way he stands with his arms outstretched in either direction whilst he registers the bets) will be taking wagers from every direction. And the amazing thing is that none of these bets will be written down, they will all be remembered. Every bet, every denomination, every punter's face lest he try and shuffle out the back door if things are going badly. The bets will be placed on either Inilog or Biya. For reference, Biya is the favourite (easy to remember: Beer is Best) and attracts odds of 1:1. Inilog pays a bit better, but not that much better.

3: After the bets are in it is time for a fight. It is a bit like watching The Highlander really. You know that "There can be only one," and you also know that there will be a whole lot of blades and blood. It is brutal. It is cruel. Throw some money in and it is addictive too. The best seats in the stadium are reserved for high rollers. Sometimes they will wager a million piso or more. That's more than GBP10 000.00. Admittedly that is not an every match occurrence by any means. But it can happen. It is big business.

4: But back to the business in the ring. The average match will last about two or three minutes. Sometimes they are quicker, sometimes longer. It is usually not long at all before one of the birds gets the upper hand though. There is a referee present (Coyme's Decision is Final reads the sign, I thought it would be more appropriate to change the "Coyme" to "Death's" myself) and when it looks like the end is nigh for one of the birds the ref will lift both birds up and get them to attack each other again. Invariably the losing bird will be slowly pecked to a bloodied mess before making its way to the kitchen. At the end of the match a final and discrete stab to the heart will be administered to the losing bird with the blade attached to it's leg. We watched the cock fighting in Dumaguete. In the three hours or so were there there must have been about thirty matches or so. We arrived late and left early. According to one local we spoke to, each Sunday there will about 100 matches in that one arena, and every town has one. That is a whole lot of chicken.

5: It is pretty strange witnessing all this at first. The adrenaline the air, the Christo taking bets, the money being exchanged and the gore of the fights. And then there is the fate of the roosters. The term "Nice guys finish last" takes on a whole new meaning. If they are lucky they may die quickly. If they are unlucky they might win and then die from their wounds later, or be blinded in the fight, or indeed even live to fight another day. One cab driver told us he had a rooster that had won four fights, he was grooming it for it's fifth. As for the losing trainer, he accepts his fate dutifully. There is no acrimony or animosity. The cadaver of the losing chicken goes to the winning trainer. Outside on the street the smell of a barbecue wafts gently into the arena. Did we bet? Of course. How much? So little that no one wanted to take our bets, hey, we're travelling. Is it addictive? Kind of yes. But personally the cruelty factor overrides it all for me. I like chickens. Mostly with chilli and a bit of lime, but preferably without the excess adrenaline.

El Nido, Manila

In a whirl and a flash our time in the Philippines has been and gone. Contrary to all the warnings received we did not get mugged, kidnapped, murdered, drowned in a typhoon or incinerated by a volcano. As a friend remarked by email: “You can’t say that the Philippines is boring, that’s for sure.” Instead of certain death, what we did we discover was unparalleled hospitality and landscapes of dazzling natural beauty. Indeed the regrets we share about our time in the Philippines merely stem to the limited time that we had there, one month was clearly not enough. There were so many places that we did not make it to that we would like to have visited, Sagada and Vigan spring to mind a little higher than the others, alas they will need to wait until next time... On reflection it is obvious that Philippines was not the easiest country to backpack, it undoubtedly required a bit more effort and planning than other places we have been; but maybe this is what made it so special. There was a sense of reward in arriving somewhere new, and nowhere could this have been truer than in El Nido.

El Nido sits at the northern tip of the island of Palawan. It is accessed either directly by it’s small airport (soon to be a big airport) which, for now at least, is the more expensive way of getting there. Alternatively you can make your way to Peuto Princessa which is about halfway down the island, and from there your choices are to catch an early morning local bus or an “air conditioned” mini van. Either way a drive of about six hours on dodgy roads awaits. The bus is rickety and the mini vans not much better, so there is not much to choose between the two really. We took the latter of the options due to our arrival time in Palawan, having set out from Cebu airport earlier in the day. It was an eventful day from the outset. The taxi drivers in the Philippines are generally extremely affable and full of good humour.

The drive to Cebu Airport had been no exception and our cabbie, Julian, was an absolute hoot. Julian started off the conversation by asking where we from and then boasting of his dual citizenship. He was, he said, a citizen of the Philippines and a Senior citizen. In twenty garrulous minutes the conversation took in food, politics (there are elections here next year), Filipino family planning (or the lack thereof) and inevitably cock fighting. Whilst cock fighting seems to occupy the status of a national religion here, karaoke seems to be much like the national sport. So it did not seem too unusual when once we were on our flight a Christmas carol competition was announced. Within minutes three contestants had lined up in the aisle of the aircraft to sing a carol of choice to their somewhat bemused fellow passengers. The winner in our books was a little old lady who beamed at the passengers whilst singing “We wish you a Merry Christmas” in short sharp bursts before hollering “Happy Christmas Everyone” and scuttling back to her seat. It beat the pants off the serious efforts of her rivals.

We arrived in Peuto Princessa at about ten thirty with the daunting and dusty six hour drive ahead of us. We made our way to the bus terminal on the outskirts of town, crammed ourselves into a van and then set off through the undulating verdant hills that surround the town. After about half an hour the air conditioning gave up the ghost and it became apparent that the AC actually took the form of open windows. This was nothing new it would appear. In spite of this the drive was pleasant; soon the landscape changed and gave way to a coastal road that offered views of deserted beaches and a sun speckled, crystal blue sea. The road for the first couple of hours was pretty good really, and then, after a lunch of chicken and rice at a road side stall the tar abruptly gave way to dirt.

All in all we seemed to be making fairly good time, and then, on a bumpy stretch of dust and pebbles, the van gave the kind of sound that defiantly says: “I am going no further.” You could almost hear it wave two fingers at us. We piled out the vehicle and made our way to the rear left hand wheel to discover that one of the springs in the suspension had snapped. And so started the long process of trying to fix the suspension system with nothing more than lengths of rope and a small hydraulic jack. Around us, as far as the eye could see, were goats and sheep and the occasional smiling villager. There was no mobile network available. The van was jacked up, then propped on rocks whilst the jack was then used to force the broken spring back up and into it‘s usual position. The errant springs were then lashed together with rope, MacGyver would have beamed with appreciation. He would have sighed contentedly and cracker open a beer. It was torturously slow progress and two hours later, as the sun set for the day, we were back on our way.

In the interim we had met Antonio and Carlos, locals who were going to check out El Nido in advance of a joint family holiday. In typical Filipino style they were not remotely fazed by the break down. They continued to smile, laugh, joke and whistle whilst the van was fixed. They had a carefree stoicism that is typical in the Philippines. “When things go badly, we smile,“ they told me proudly. “After all, there is not much point in getting stressed out, is there?” Back in the van we had travelled about 500 metres when there was another groan from the suspension and it was time to stop again. The knot had slipped, but it had only been a matter of time. The sun had by now completely disappeared. Antonio and Carlos smiled like happy Buddha's. The whistled. The rest of us fumed. The inevitable “If this was Europe… “ was muttered. It began to look very much like that we may be sleeping in the middle of nowhere. A villager approached from a roadside settlement and then offered us accommodation for the night in his small out housing building. We accepted. He then offered to make us rice and bought us drinking water whilst Antonio and I went off to the local Sari Sari store and bought every can of corned beef and sardines that they had. Predictably Antonio refused to accept any money from me, “You are in Philippines, maybe when we see you in London you will help us.” I did not set him straight about Londoners, it seemed that now might not be the time. Rather I argued futilely for a few minutes and then graciously accepted that this was the way it would be. Back at the shack that was to be our home rice was served, the sardines were turned into a curry and I tucked into a local bottle of rum. I had it bought it to share out with the other passengers but they were not much fun sensible, so it fell to me to dispose of the wicked stuff. Later that evening the very same bottle combined with sleep deprivation sent me stumbling into an open drain, but that will be another story for another day. Above us was a star filled night, the kind of stars that you can only see in the absolute middle of nowhere, in places where electricity has not reached. That includes Harare most of the time by the way. But the whole time my prevailing thought was the generosity of the people around us. The villagers housing us for the night were relatively poor country folk. We gave them a bit of cash, but really, even if we had had no money they would still have helped. True, Antonio and Carlos were well heeled Filipinos, but then again I do not know many people who would feed a mini van full of strangers and expect no recompense or reciprocation for it whatsoever.

Behind the scenes the driver of the van had proved that he was a veritable thaumaturge and somehow managed to order a spare part for the vehicle. Where this came from I have no idea, but he and his faithful conductor had been working like Trojans to mend the suspension and at around 11 pm they achieved the impossible. We piled back into the van and continued on our way. In some ways it was a crazy decision, it was pitch black with bad roads and every likelihood of stray animals on the road. Nonetheless we went on with the journey and reached El Nido at an eye rubbing 3.00 am. We found accommodation in guesthouse close to the beach and then went to sleep. The next morning when we went out to the verandah, the full beauty of El Nido became apparent. We spent the day snorkelling at a nearby island, watched the sunset behind dramatic limestone karsts dropped haphazardly into an ocean of multifarious blues and returned to El Nido for an evening by the sea. I spent the next three days diving, including a tunnel dive and a swim with thousands of yellow snappers. The islands and lagoons around El Nido are spectacular, as were diving I did not have my camera with me and felt like my opposing thumbs had been taken away from me. By night we ate on the beach, drank happy hour beers and met up with friends that had made in Malaysia. Before long we were on the road back to Peuto Princessa, this time by bus. The journey was dusty and hot, but the bus infinitely more reliable than the van.

We spent a night in Peuto Princessa and then flew back to Manila, ran around the historical old town city of Intramuros and then met our friends in the city for one last night out. We drank until the early morning in a trendy bar in Malate and then said our farewells. Before we could depart farewell gifts were thrust into our hands which was immensely touching and came as a complete surprise, but then not that surprising when we think back to the continual generosity we were shown throughout our time in the Philippines. At the beginning of our journey through this country Anthony had confidently predicted, “You will not regret coming here.” And how right he was.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009


This is Balut. A chicken and an egg, all in one. Well, actually a duck if you must really be pedantic about it. In most of the towns we have been in whilst staying in Philippines, the lyrical cry of "Baluuuut" has punctuated the quiet of the early evening. I tried one a couple of weeks back. It was not too my delectation, but to be fair this was a mental thing really. Once I got my teeth into it, the taste was not that different from that of a boiled egg. I have to admit that this balut was bought purely for photographic purposes and then ferreted into the bin whilst no one was looking, in much the same way we used to hide brussel sprouts on the ledge beneath our dining room table as kids. Eat up, before it gets cold.

Shoot the Locals

A couple of evenings ago I was down at the promenade in Dumaguete looking for things to shoot. After weeks of beaches that stretch as far you can see and more palm trees than sand, I really needed some new subject matter and a bit of inspiration. I started off by taking a few pictures of an ice cream vendor having a chat with his mate as the sun went down using really long exposures. A couple of curious kids came over and wanted to see the images on the back of my camera. These were children without much in the material sense of the phrase, they help subsidise their parents meagre income by selling peanuts and pork scratchings after school and on the weekends. Materially, they come from impoverished backgrounds. They sprawled out around me in a horseshoe, one of them laying his chin on the wrist that was supporting my camera as I flicked through the images. Their enjoyment at looking at the pictures, droll as they were, was contagious. As they giggled and elbowed each other for room a couple of adults came along to join them. Within a few minutes I had a dozen local Dumaguete denizens all identifying locations that I had been to that day. In turn this lead to a conversation with one of the children’s fathers. I asked him if he would like me to take a couple of images of his family. He was pretty eager for me to do so, then and there, but by this time the natural light was long gone so we agreed that I would come back the next evening at 5 o’clock.

It’s been a while since I did any portrait work so by about three o'clock I was beginning to get a bit nervous and rue the day I made my
agreement. Dutifully though, at the allotted time Nipun and I went down to the promenade armed with a shoot through umbrella, a couple of flashes and a light stand. Over the next hour I shot about forty images of three families. It was frenetic, the kids wanted to be in all the pictures, even if it was not their parents or siblings I was shooting. Their excitement was fantastic, this was a real adventure for them. When we reviewed the images on the back of the camera they were so animated that I spent more time watching them than looking at what I had been shooting. Nipun and I developed the pictures the next day and had the pleasure of handing out a few early Christmas presents in the evening. We did two prints of each image, which at the time seemed a bit over the top. When we were giving out the photos it transpired that one of the lady’s was ecstatic that we had done this. Her husband works in Manila and seldom manages to see his wife and his daughter. And this is a common theme - that’s where the work is. The gratitude we were shown was truly humbling. One of the ladies earns about 100 pesos per day, or about £1.30 to put it in perspective. She cut straight to the point, “For us, we wouldn’t be able to afford pictures like this. It is the small things that make all the difference here.” In total the whole shoot and post processing in Lightroom took up maybe a couple of hours in total. It cost us less than a tenner in printing. And for that we managed to give out three sets of family photos. The feel good factor involved outweighs all of that a hundred times over. And to boot we met three lovely families and I got to shoot something other than more sunsets with palm trees. More images here.

In other news we have managed to find a way off the island. Our initial plan was to travel all the way around Negros and then to Iloilo before getting a ferry back to Manila. Time is running low and our options were running lower a couple of days ago. At the 11th hour Nipun managed to find flights to Palawan, and so we’ll be flying out from Cebu on Wednesday and making our way to El Nido at the north of the island. And then on to Japan, the planning for which is currently underway. There is, however, so much to see on Negros where are at the moment. The island is one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been to. In the last couple of days we have been to Dauin where we had hoped to organise a diving trip to Apo Island. Sadly this did not work out so today we headed further down the coast to Malapatan and then walked down the beach for about four kilometres to Zamboanguita. For the duration of the walk we hardly saw another soul. There was the occasional rural village and a fisherman or two, but for the most part it was us, palm trees and sand for as far as the eye could see. In front of us was Apo island, behind a mountain that pierced the clouds. We found our way back on to the road with the assistance of a local Filipino who insisted on bundling both of us on to the back of his motorbike and then continued further south to Siaton. Back in Dumaguete I keep on remembering bits and pieces from the local bus rides we have made recently: the “Fasten (your) seatbelt” signs in the absence of any seat belts, a neon light that flashed “Jesus Save Us” every time the driver used his brakes and blocks of plywood that serve as windows when the evening grows too cold, erm about 25 degrees in these parts! On the dashboard are effigies of Jesus and Mary, which makes a change from the Buddha’s that we have become so accustomed to over the last eight months.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Malapascua to Bohol

"Billy Jean is not my mama..."

After the discombobulating (nice word, eh!) frenzy of Manila we decided it was time to pack our bags again and head for an island retreat. This in itself represented a bit of a challenge, after all, the Philippines has over 7100 to choose from and the largest area of coastline in the world. We decided to start in the Visayas, the archipelago that sits due south of Manila. With our boat scheduled to leave at 4 a.m. we stayed up late and then joined the long line of people queuing to go to Cebu City. Security is a massive concern in the Philippines and as we waited in line our bags were opened, put through a scanner and finally given the once over by a sniffer dog, an cuddly and docile Alsatian in magnificent condition. Having negotiated the check in process we found our accommodation for the journey, in the form of a shared dormitory with about 100 other travellers on neatly stacked bunk beds. The ferry itself consisted of several of these dorms and two restaurants, both with karaoke. Of course. “When you build a new house in the Philippines you make sure that the karaoke machine is installed before you put the roof on. It’s bad luck otherwise,” joked someone we met on one of the islands. The karaoke was on at 9 a.m. when we went for a cup of coffee and still going at 4pm that afternoon when I went to find a bit of fresh air. The same women, horribly tone deaf, was still hollering out Celine Dion. I was previously of the opinion that the theme track to Titanic could not get much get worse than the original. I was wrong.

We arrived in Cebu at about 10 a.m. a day and a half later. From the upper decks of the ferry, passengers threw coins and fruit into the waters below. Here women, children and men waited to catch the plummeting treasure, patrolling the water in small boats. Their dexterity was amazing: a coin would go hurtling through the air and beneath, a woman with two poles and a piece of fabric woven between, would deftly catch it and tip it back it into the boat. In the event that the throw was poor and the coin could not be caught, someone would roll off one of the boats and swiftly swim after the sinking booty before returning to the surface, usually triumphant. We were so caught up in the excitement that we nearly forgot to get off the ferry, which was continuing on to other islands further south.

Once we were off the boat and in Cebu City we made our way to the Northern bus terminal and then caught the local bus through to Maya, an hour and a bit north. The journey was great, passing through small towns, a thunder storm, a funeral procession and sugar cane plantations that stretched away as far as the eye could see. After about two days of travel we finally found ourselves on a banca (an old outrigger), making the 8km crossing between Maya and Malapascua island. Malapascua is a wonderful place to visit. It is still fairly undeveloped, for example there is no ATM and the electricity is only on in the evenings (which is of course more than you can say about Zimbabwe most of the time). There are a handful of resorts and bungalows along the beach, only two of which offer wi-fi, for which they charge the earth. As you walk through the village you see basket ball hoops fastened to the trunks of coconut trees, whilst the speed humps in the road are fashioned from dissected palm trees. Along the white sands of the beach, volley ball nets are strung up between more coconut trees and blithe children skinny dip in the 28 degree, turquoise sea. We found a diving school and did three dives whilst we were there, including a night dive where we saw the elusive mandarin fish do their mating dance and a deep dive on which we saw thresher sharks.

Sadly there are some elements on the island which seemed a little less idyllic. We met a young child who, aged ten, no longer went to school for lack of funds. One version of the story was that his parents had deserted him and run away to Manila where the streets are allegedly paved with gold. The other conflicting tale was that his ma and pa were alive and well, living on the island, but blind drunk for most of their waking hours. So, either way you look at it, he is without family. Nipun befriended him, schooled him for an afternoon and bought him some new clothes. The next day he was back with a friend who also wanted some food and clothes. Where do you draw
the line? Especially knowing the ephemeral difference that you will make. It is very sad, especially when contrasted against the back drop of a paradise where the rich come to dive and eat fresh Adobo and fish. A couple of days later the young child was then verbally abused and physically bullied off the property we were staying at by a foul, insane looking American dive school owner who claimed that the child was a known thief. The American was a crazed bully with a mullet that would have made even the most decadent of eighties pop stars blush. Thief or not, it seemed completely reprehensible the way the kid was treated. It made me very glad we did not do any dives with his company. The negatives are easy to dwell on but most of my memories of the island are good ones, and most of the children we saw were happy. The image of a boy of aged about four dancing through the street singing “Billy Jean is not my mama..” returns to me. He bounced along the road with his friends, making up the words as he went along. In some ways it reminded me of how I grew up in Zimbabwe, the freedom that you had as a child, which seems like an alien concept in the UK. From Malapascua we took the boat back to Maya, the sly looking boat owner telling us not to tell the other passengers that we had only paid 50 peso as he had charged them double. We only got the correct rate without argument as we had been befriended by one of the local touts who took a liking to us. He changed my almost universal dislike of touts, he was affable, helpful and not at all pushy. He had worked in Indonesia, was a carpenter by trade and had returned to Malapascua whilst the recession kicked in. I really regret not having gone on a fishing trip with him, he would have been an interesting person to chat with. Back in Cebu we found the immigration department and extended our visas. Then we left for Bohol for more diving, this time with massive shoals of jack fish forming slowly revolving towers above us and turtles. There are many things that I will miss when we get back from this journey, swimming with the fishes is one of them.

Our time in Bohol was predominantly spent on Alona Beach, Panglao island. The beach faces due south and boasts dazzling sunsets and sunrises. I got up at 5.30 one morning to shoot dawn and was astounded by the number of local people who were already up and about. By 5.45 I had already been asked twice if I wanted to charter a boat for the day. We met up with Anthony from Manila and some of his friends one night and drank far too much Red Horse, ate belut (yup, the egg with the chicken in it) and learnt the Filipino word for whatever - Umshigi. It became a catchphrase for the evening, and is used with the same mocking sarcasm that is reserved for “Whatever” in English. The inspiration came from a street kid that used to visit one of the groups (Raymond’s) work. One day the Raymond’s boss gave the child some money and gently told him that he was becoming a little to regular in his visits. “Here’s some money, but please don’t come back for a while.” The kid pocketed the money, then looked at him, smiled, and said “Umshigi!” The phrase stuck. From Panglao we went back to the port of Taglibaran, visited the famous chocolate hills and went to the cathedral. Taglibaran has a nice feel to it in spite of what the travel guide said, we ended up spending a couple of days there. I also ate more McDonalds there than anywhere else, ever. Why? They have free wi
-fi. At time of writing we are in Dumaguete, it is really hot here. I spent yesterday afternoon following a school leaving festival which was really, really good. The amount of effort that had gone into creating the costumes, the dances and the parade was astounding. And this was just a minor event in terms of Filipino carnivals, not even on the calendar. This nation knows how to party. The food is also getting better and better. Last night we had a whole chicken, barbecued on a rotisserie with a chilli sauce that was so lethal that even Nipun and I were feeling the heat. I really, really like it here. I just need those lotto numbers to come in now. Please?

Friday, 27 November 2009


Well, here we are in the Philippines. Our second to last destination. In six weeks we’ll back in London. Homeless. Unemployed. Cold. And if I know England in January, probably wet too. But for now, Life is for living, and that is pretty easily done in this neck of the sunny woods. For a while we actually debated whether or not we should come to the Philippines. For one it sounded like Manila was submerged by recent typhoons. The Foreign Office is not terribly optimistic on the subject either, adducing terrorism, kidnapping, tropical storms, swine flu and military clashes as reasons not to come here. Of course there is the recent case of the 79 year old Irish Priest, Father Michael Sinnott, who was kidnapped and made to trek through mountainous countryside for a month. Upon being released the priest went on to say that his captors treated him really well and were pretty cool guys. He ended by saying "I have no desire to leave [my work in the Philippines], although I don't think they'll kidnap me again. I think if they wanted to kidnap somebody they'd be inclined to go for a much younger man because I was not able always to hike with the speed, and keep going - I often had to rest while they were hiking."

The uncertainty about travelling to the Philippines also came about from various conversations along the way. For example, I met a gregarious Filipino fisherman in Borneo and told him I would be going to Manila in a couple of weeks. He looked at me sceptically and said, “Have you ever studied any martial arts?” When I confirmed I had he smiled and said “Oh good, that kind of thing helps in Manila.” In the end though, we decided that we wanted to come here, and what a good decision that has turned out to be. We arrived at Clark Airport in the early evening and made our way into the lobby area where a long row of taxi companies hollered for business. There were maybe a dozen desks, all attended by wildly gesticulating and vociferous attendants. It was all good humoured though, done with broad smiles and with none of the animosity that you sometimes get in other East Asian countries. After messing about for a bit we decided to take the bus into town at a fraction of the price. The sunset from the bus was spectacular, a crimson ball of fire dipping beneath black granite clouds and then sudden darkness. We travelled for a disconcertingly long time.
The Rough Guide mentions that the airport is only seven kilometres out of Manila, yet we had been travelling for about forty minutes. The book came clandestinely out of our bag, we conferred in low tones and looked about furtively. Enormous billboards rolled by the windows, far larger than the ones we see in Europe. The traffic grew denser. And then intervention from a stranger, half obscured by the poor light in the bus. “You look lost… Where are you going?” A conversation ensues between us and our inveterately friendly interrogator and a couple of his friends. It turns out his name in Anthony, and he going pretty close to where we need to get to. We can hop out the bus with him and his friends, have a meal with them and then he’ll show us where we need to go. And all the time I am thinking, “This is just too easy, he is far too friendly… What’s his angle? What is really going on here?” The warnings from a thousand conversations and guide books comes flooding back. I fidget with my camera bag, steal looks at Nipun for her opinion and feign disinterest in the conversation, but then, as the bus stops and the conductor announces the stop we agree to join them. The next thing we know we are in a massive mall at Kenny Rogers Roasters, eating roast chicken and his friend, Leia, is giving us travel advice. She is a director of an up and coming travel company specializing in tours around the Philippines and fills up pages upon pages of travel advice for us. Tells us to be alert whilst we are in the Philippines. Anthony smiles continually and turns out to one of the nicest guys we have met whilst travelling. He is not only incredibly affable, he is also impeccably incredibly trustworthy and helpful. We decide to stay quite local to where we are and get a cab with another of the girls from the group called Jen. Jen insists on paying for the cab, nothing will convince her that we should pay as we are taking her out of her way. And throughout our travels in the Philippines these random acts of kindness have followed us everywhere. We decided to meet up with Leia and Anthony the following night and when we got a little lost, two twenty year old Filipino’s accompanied us for half an hour trying to find the bar we were looking for. Not only did they insist on finding the bar for us, they ended up joining us for drinks then dinner afterwards. And I think back to the Filipino fisherman who asked me if I knew how to fight. In some stage of out conversation I asked him why all the Filipino’s I had met were so damn friendly. He just laughed and said, “That’s it, we are a brotherhood.” That is how it has been for us. Sadly, it is not all like this though. The fanatics have their heels in the ground and 57 people were massacred in South Philippines this week. Included were women, children and 27 journalists. But for the few that tarnish the image of millions.

Our stay in Manila was good. The first hotel we checked into had rooms for rent at three tariffs: Four Hours, 12 Hours and 24 Hours. Apparently this is not a knocking shop, after all there is a massive picture of the Virgin Mary in the lobby. Rather there are a lot of travellers in Cuzon who need a place
to wash up and dump their bags for a few hours. Chuck, one of our new companions laughed at this theory, others maintained it’s veracity. We were too tired to care. We got the room for twelve hours, watched the Graham Greene classic “Travels with My Aunt” on the telly and passed out cold. Early the next morning we caught the train across town and then jumped on a jeepney towards Malatte where we stayed for the next couple of days. My impressions of Manila are still numerous and yet still undefined. For one it is massive. Sorry, make that MASSIVE. Between 10 and 20 million massive depending on which statistic you use. The traffic is diabolical and the air is thick with fumes. It is colourful, energetic, has more malls that anywhere I have been before and the trains at rush hour are worse than those of London. McDonalds has long lines of yellow “McDelivery” motorbikes. The restaurants are supernumerary and many of them are Western chains. The Filipino food we have tried is mostly delicious. In fact the only exception to this rule has been Balut, an incubated egg that is boiled and served after seven or fourteen days. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? In the case of Belud they come at the same time. After several litres of Red Horse (local beer, seven percent volume and cheaper than chips) I tried one last night. The experience was short and only half completed. I like my chicken with chips, as opposed to egg.

The balance of our time in Manila was spent exploring the immediate area that we were in. The Bay of Manila has spectacular sunsets, but if you walk too far down Adriatico Street then things begin to look very ropey. There are an absurd amount of armed guards around, and our Pension seemed more like a security camp than a guesthouse, complete with a shaved head, shotgunned sentinel. During our stay Nipun and I got separated on a train (the genius that I am I got off a stop too early) and for the thousands of people around we thought we’d never find each other again. It took a frantic, panic stricken hour. Overall I really liked Manila, but it seems like the kind of town where the El Mariachi quote “Bless me Father, for I have just killed quite a few men” might not be that uncommon.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Sabah, Borneo

“There was not one amongst us whom looked forward to being born. We disliked the rigours of existence, the unfulfilled longings, the enshrined injustices of the world, the labyrinths of love, the ignorance of parents, the fact of dying, and the amazing indifference of the Living in the midst of the simple beauties of the universe. We feared the heartlessness of human beings, all of whom are born blind, few of whom ever learn to see.”

Ben Okri - The Famished Road

For about the last ten years (if not longer) I’ve been meaning to read The Famished Road. The winner of the 1991 Booker Prize, it was one of those books that was always on my wish list; on the list of things to read, the self same list of things that never got done. Last week I found a copy of it in the middle of Borneo of all places. It was sitting unloved on a dusty shelf in a guest house looking well thumbed and creased from spine to cover. Set in Nigeria the story centres on the fairly common African theme of a spirit child, that is, a child who is born for a short time and then returns to the spirit world, continually dying at a young age and haunting parents by returning to earth only to depart prematurely again. Their ephemeral lives are cyclical, a curse to their parents at the indulgence of the spirit that would rather dwell in the world beyond: “to be joyful on the eternal dew of the spirit.” The story is beautifully and hauntingly written, rich in surreal imagery and lyrical prose. I find myself reading and re-reading sentences, paragraphs, pages. The extract above seems to ring true for me, for throughout our travels we are constantly confronted with the “simple beauties of the universe,” and in many ways this journey of ours has made me see this world we inhabit in a much clearer and cleaner light. We have both been asking ourselves what we have achieved, if anything, by bunking off work for a year, the ultimate indulgence of wandering the earth at leisure. And in some ways I think the answer for me is that we are learning to see again, breaking away from the routines that made my daily life in London so familiar and predictable. There are many times that we have felt humbled by our experiences and what we have seen, and the enrichment that our lives have gained is beyond measure.

Few places that we have been to so far have been quite as beautiful as Borneo. We spent just over three weeks in the Malaysian state of Sabah and for this period of time we decided to hire a car and make our way around at our own pace. It has to be said that the car we ended up with was more like a motorbike with four wheels, a gutless contraption that we decided not to drive over 80 km per hour lest the wheels came off, literally. Going uphill, of which there were many, we were continually fighting between second and third gears, whilst the down hills were taken with one foot constantly hovering above the brake. The tyres, mostly bald, were cause for grave concern whilst the engine went through half a pint of oil every two days. Having said this though, it was great to drive again and our death trap car did us proud. We travelled to the Tip of Borneo in the North, to Sandakan in the East and then down south as far the town of Semporna. We drove through the Kinabalu National Park, home to South East Asia’s highest mountain. We watched with horror as our punctured tyre was mended by enlarging the rupture and then ramming a pliant piece of rubber into the sundered tyre. “Is that safe?” I asked. Though in truth I did not want an answer. It was a true adventure, and a real highlight of our journey thus far.

Our journey started in Kota Kinabalu, the sprawling state capital of Sabah. KK as it is commonly referred to is a good place to stop for a few days. Whilst is not crammed with immediately obvious things to do, it has a friendly vibe to it and the abundant local restaurants serve cheap and delicious food. There is a second hand clothes market that has all the frenetic energy of Harare’s Mbare, and if we were not backpacking I would have been in there like a shot. “Look at this eh! One careful owner you say? Done!” Next to this is a fruit market which joins onto a craft village, and then, the jewel in the crown: the Filipino food market that opens up a six each evening. Here, for far less than a fiver, you can dine on a combination of massive prawns, spicy chicken wings, barbequed tuna steaks. The air is thick with charcoal smoke and redolent of grilled seafood. If it was Europe, Health and Safety would have a word to say. It is not though, and the smoke and the swirling smells combine to create an enigmatic setting. Set on about an acre of land the market is crammed with vendors, each with fresh fish from the harbour and slabs of chicken coated in chilli and lime. Reflecting on it I feel like Pavlov’s dog, the saliva forming at the corner my mouth.

We hired our car from an execrable lady who was overtly intent on trying to get us to hire a car that was way beyond the budget we had agreed. It was a battle of the wills to get what we discussed on the phone with her, and we witnessed the same shameless routine a couple of weeks later between some other travellers and herself. Once we were on our way our first stop took us right up to the Northern most point of Borneo. We travelled through the cloud penetrating Crocker National Park mountain range, through verdant rice fields and finally into plantations of palms that stretched back as far as the eye could see, cultivated for the production of palm oil. After about a five hour drive we reached the town of Kudat and checked into a hotel with no running water which was a bit of a surprise. We ate in a roadside restaurant that was showing European football on one TV and a British B grade horror movie on the other. No one spoke English but the crowd were glued to the gratuitous movie in which a blond strumpet is hunted down mercilessly by a group of hooded up Essex style chavs intent on ruining her day. We drove on to the Tip of Borneo, forty five minutes north, for the sunset. The drive takes you past deserted beaches with turquoise seas and along deeply rutted dirt roads, thick with mud from the equatorial rains and lined with palm trees. The Tip of Borneo is magnificent and being there for sunset, more or less alone, is just one of the reasons why it was so worthwhile having a car for this trip.
Perched on a furthest extremity of Borneo you can see both the sunset and sunrise from the same point, though sadly we missed dawn owing to heavy rain and indolence the next day. Instead we explored Kudat, with it’s broad promenade and clock tower with four clocks, each of them stopped at different, incorrect times. The town is mostly dependent on fishing and the boats were in with the morning catch, the men weighing their catch before it was put into boxes of ice and loaded into trucks.

Back in the car we headed through to Kinabalu National Park, along roads that were lined with the road kill of countless dogs. One, standing over the fresh cadaver of it’s friend, ran straight at our car, rabid and crazed and frightening in it’s aggression. We narrowly missed it, but I got the feeling it’s days were numbered. Mt Kinabalu (4095 metres) is the highest mountain in South East Asia and the journey was marked by a fairly steep and consistent incline. As we got closer to the mountain we became enveloped in cloud and the car engine faltered between second and third, inexorably climbing slowly uphill to the high pitched scream of an engine that is enormously unhappy. Alarmingly there were no road signs indicating that we were on the right route so it was some relief when we pulled up in the National Park. We found accommodation half a kilometre away and explored the immediate area around the mountain. The ascent is open to any that wish to climb the mountain. Typically it takes roughly two days. In our case we came, we saw, we said “no way.” There are many who take this climb very seriously however. Each year Mt. Kinabalu is hosts an international Climbathon, the current record being 2 hours and 45 minutes to ascend and descend the mountain. It has to be said that these athletes’ are made of far sterner stuff than your humble narrator. That evening our neighbours were boisterous and noisy. At about two in the morning I ventured out onto our balcony to have a word. A thin layer of cloud lay below us obscuring the land below, whilst above the sky was clear and bright with stars. It was beautiful, and our neighbours had gone to bed anyway so the tranquillity was complete. The next morning we did a walk of the botanical gardens and one of the numerous trails in which an abundance of orchids and pitcher plants flourish. We met a couple who were about to climb the mountain, laughed at their expense (though no doubt the climb is an unforgettable experience) and then we were on our way again. Our journey that day was an easy one, a mere hour and a half to Ranau. We stopped at the War Memorial which commemorates the Sandakan Death Marches of World War II, for further information. The Death March, which saw the deaths of about 1800 Australian and 600 British Prisoners of War, is sometimes referred to as Australia’s Holocaust. It is a fair point, the cruelty and loss of life was immense. But Australia’s Holocaust? That does kind of overlook the estimated 10 000 aborigines murdered in Queensland alone between 1860 and 1930 by colonial settlers. The War Memorial is beautiful though and has been loving reconstructed from the disrepair to which had fallen by a Thai living in Sabah. In the entrance area he displays the somewhat poignant legend “The Difficult Takes Time, The Impossible a Little Longer.” Under the impression that my mother had lost a brother in a Japanese POW camp we went to a few War Memorial sites in Borneo and searched for his surname amongst the plaques. It turns out that after all it was her uncle and I had his name wrong anyway, so needless to say that bit of family history went undiscovered.

From Ranau we continued our drive through the lush countryside of Sabah, across wide muddy rivers and hills lines with palms. In places one side of the road would have completely disappeared, having subsided and crumbled away. We passed through the dingy town of Telupid, contemplated lunch there and out of respect for our stomachs carried on driving. After a few more hours we reached Sepilok, the sanctuary which cares for orphaned and psychologically fragile orang utans. We watched these beautiful primates feeding for a couple of hours and then continued onto the town of Sandakan. Sandakan is a fishing village which is known to be quite beautiful, though as we drove into the town it was impossible not to notice the shanty town on the outskirts. The next morning I went down to the docks at about five o’clock and marvelled at the abundance of sea food that was being hauled in from the boats. Every type of fish I could think of was on display, including (rather sadly) some large rays. They look a lot more graceful in the ocean.

We set off once more, went to another War Memorial where we continued looking for the wrong person, and then drove through to Semporna. A new feature to the drive were the supernumerary fruit stalls that lined the road in places. For about 20p we bought enough bananas to keep us going for three days. We finally got into Semporna that evening and then set about trying to arrange a dive for the following day. Our confident approach of “We’d like to dive at Sipidan Island tomorrow” had us laughed out of town. As one of the world’s premier dive sites you need to book a couple of months in advance. We did however manage to arrange three dives at nearby Mabul, which were fantastic. The highlight for me was an artificial reef where enormous schools of jacks and barracuda swam amongst the constructed structures beneath the waves. The dives were really good and the variety of fish and coral was fantastic. Next dive site, Apo Island, the Philippines! Having spent a bit of time in Semporna it was time to start heading back to Kinabalu. This entailed largely retracing our steps as many of the roads in the South of Sabah are in very poor condition owing to logging vehicles and heavy rains. Along the way we stopped at Madai caves, famous for it’s harvesting of birds nests which are then used to make birds nest soup. Predictably the caves stunk of bird excrement and we stepped in many dark and dank puddles that I am happy to forget about. We had planned to stop at the coastal town of Lahud Datu, which received a favourable appraisal in the Lonely Planet. After an hour in the town however it became apparent that the place had the charm of medieval dentistry. We got going immediately after eating and drove straight through to smelly Telupid. By this stage night had descended and the driving became a bit unpleasant. For long, sinuous stages of road we would get stuck behind long trucks carry palm oil, upon overtaking we would be reminded that our car had the acceleration of nonagenarian and then suddenly the road the would turn to rough gravel or a long backlog of traffic would indicate a section of road where only one lane was usable. There was the usual problem of people not dipping their lights and the sight of Telupid was greeted like an old friend. The friendship was brief however and we set off early the next morning and made our way back into Kota Kinabalu in torrential rain. Our trip around Sabah was at an end, but it was such a memorable expedition. That night we dined at Pizza Hut, which is even worse in Kota Kinabalu than it is in the UK. After a few more days in KK we were back on the plane and flying to our next-to-last destination: The Philippines.

Sunday, 15 November 2009


Since the last post from Johor Bahru and it’s “seedy appeal” as Auden would have put it, I went through a brief stage of feeling really flat and unenergetic. I had brain overload, I felt fatigued and generally run down. Like I had been in an art gallery for too long and my brain had cramp. I am not sure if this had anything to do with arriving in Singapore. For one our hotel there represented the best accommodation we have had in months. A proper hotel with glass elevators and posh restaurants and air conditioning. A shower with hot water at such good pressure that it could be used for sand blasting. A bed so large you could have set up a six man tent on it and still had room for a game of volley ball. Plush carpets and movies on the telly. A kettle. You get the picture. It was hard to leave that room. But we were on a new island, in a new country and in a new city, all three falling under the name of Singapore.

We made the crossing from Johor Bahru and across the causeway into Singapore by bus. On the Malaysian side the new Immigration, Customs and Quarantine complex is very much trying to keep up with the Jones’ next door in Singapore. Costing a mere US$293 million (or there abouts, who‘s counting?) and completed in 2006, the exterior of this enormous edifice is sleek and modern, whilst inside water cascades down a sheet of backlit glass and marbled floors gleam as you make your way down through customs and towards the waiting buses. Upon arrival on the other side of the border everyone was turned out of the bus to go through customs and immigration on the Singaporean side and have their bags scanned for contraband. And then onto a second bus which took us to Queen Street bus station. We thought we would stand for the journey into town, which turned out to be a bit of a mistake. Singapore maybe small but it was still well over an hour before we reached our stop. Our bus driver was wildly erratic to add to the adventure, braking and accelerating at will and cursing anyone audacious enough to jaywalk in the road ahead. “Jaywalking… Hmmph.” A maddened shake of the head. And then rapid acceleration towards them and sudden breaking to make his point. At first it was amusing, after an hour just wearisome. And my mind continually returned to the Paul Theroux remark that a city without jay walkers is like a city without artists. For good measure, jaywalking is illegal in Singapore. Freedom of speech and thereby expression is much the same.

Singapore still confuses me a little. In some ways I liked it, in other ways the sterility of the place seemed all too apparent. The typical complaint is that it is a bit clinical and has no sense of history or culture of it’s own. In some ways this is an apposite criticism, but then you get out what you put in. And because we were primarily there to meet our friends Keith and Monique for a bit of a knees up it has to be said that we did not put enough in. We did not for example, see any of the sculpture that is publicly displayed around the island. There are works by Salvador Dali, Henry Moore and many acclaimed local sculptors. Nor did we see the Buddhist cremation rites or make it to the Hindu temple or any of the famous churches. The world renowned Singapore Zoo went unvisited. And we missed the break dancers and in line skaters at the City Hall MRT. Nonetheless we did spend a bit of time exploring the city, which consists of wildly opulent shopping mauls, hotels and restaurants. I am sure that we spent most of our time in places that most Singaporeans would not be seen dead in. One of our first thoughts was that Singapore is not cheap, but like most places, with a fistful of money it could be a blast. And it seems this is a concession that most tourists to Singapore are happy to make. We went to Raffles Hotel with Keith and Monique and drank a jug of beer that cost 66 Singapore dollars, or to put it in context £33.00. Yup, that's right. One jug, thirty three quid. Thanks Keith, Monique!
It is safe to say that if a bar in London tried to charge me that amount there would be talk of fisticuffs. Raffles, however, was so rammed with punters swilling cocktails that we could not get a table inside. Likewise beer prices vary throughout the day, between 12 and 3pm a pint will set you back £2.50. The price goes up throughout the day and by 8pm the same drink will cost you £7.00. Must be that it gets more expensive to make it as the day goes on!

It is all too easy to carp on about the negatives of Singapore, but there were many good things about the place that were immediately obvious too. Poverty levels appeared to be quite low. The food could be cheap, plentiful and delicious if you avoided the quayside restaurants. It was clean. It felt very safe. And in places it was wonderfully colourful whilst architecturally elements of the place are amazing. Of personal interest there looked to be a massive and healthy photography community. For all the things that I liked about Singapore though, the same niggling doubt kept on returning to me. That was that it felt like they had taken the Asian out of Asia. And that was enough to keep the wind in our sails as we flew out to Borneo.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

After the sticky humidity of Taman Negara’s jungle and it’s leaches, mosquitoes and vipers, our next stop in the Cameron Highlands was a welcome succour. Sitting at altitude which varies between 1300 and 1800 metres the Cameron Highlands is Malaysia’s largest hill station. It is not too difficult to see why; the temperature sits between 10 and 21 degrees the whole year around. The air is fresh and cool and the rain comes in torrents that dissipate as promptly as they appear. It is an area of stunning beauty, lush, verdant and fecund. The area takes it’s name from William Cameron, the surveyor who first mapped out the area. Shortly after Cameron’s expedition the Cameron Highlands became home to tea plantations, flower and fruit farms. Swiftly flowing rivers dissect green valleys and dense forests climb mountainous terrain. Wild animals and many reptiles live in these jungles, whilst an abundance of orchards and flowers grow naturally in the area. Culturally, the town is typical of Malaysia with Hindu temples, Mosques and Churches all built at close propinquity. We stayed in Tanah Rata, one of the three main towns in the area. The towns, sadly, are a bit tacky and detract from the beauty of the highlands. Large Tudor style apartment blocks dominate the some of the closer hills like warts on an otherwise unblemished face, whilst slightly further out of town hideous concrete developments blight the hills they are built upon. This is not to say that the area has been irredeemably lost though. A short walk out of town will bring you to the famed jungle trails, whilst along the roadsides strawberry and flower farms abound.

The Cameron Highlands became our home for about five days. We stayed at the ever-hospitable Father’s Guest House, the blackened sign post nailed to a tree trunk displaying a Bob Marley look alike, seemingly crucified on the trunk of a pine tree. Father’s was comfortable, the owners affable and full of honest, practical advice. The restaurant and coffee area was unobtrusively social and the second hand bookshop had Ngugi’s River Between and Marguerite Yourcenar’s brilliant Memoirs of Hadrian, the latter of which I am currently battling through, dictionary in one hand and with Wikipedia open to assist me with my rusty history of Antiquity. But back to the Cameron Highlands, we could quite easily have spent a fortnight there. There are multiple walks to do through the jungle, a golf course should you feel so inclined and tours of the tea estates and the Mossy Forest. I spent a bit of time attempting to keep up the cultural front, visiting the Sam Poh Chinese Temple with it’s 10 000 mosaic Buddha tiles and the Hindu Temple in Tanah Rata, where the admonition of the priest for not removing my shoes still rings in my ears. Having upbraided me he promptly disappeared. I had rather hoped he would show me around but it seems this was not to be. After seven months of vaunted temples, churches and museums my usual avidity is beginning to wane, but I continue to make the effort in the knowledge that this time next year I will no longer have these opportunities. And at each turn I am rewarded and I feel enriched by the experience. Of course, being in Malaysia, the Cameron Highlands is host to all sorts of mouth watering restaurants, serving Dosa’s and Tandori’s and Murtabach and a frighteningly wide selection of roti’s. It is also home to some less appealing establishments, MarryBrown’s for example, serving wretched Halaal deep fried chicken to songs by Nickleback. Or the Lord’s Café, a worn out tea house that sells “Beef Bacon” for breakfast (am I missing something here?), Cheese Cake that actually tastes of cheese. Adorning the walls a picture Mary Magdalene stares gloomily across from her wall at a dirty copy of a Van Gogh opposite, beneath which well thumbed copies of Readers Digest gather dust. Or indeed (and maybe the most detestable and appealing alike) the ineluctable Starbucks Café where locals and foreigners alike, surrounded by the best tea in Malaysia, go in for exorbitantly priced but very mediocre coffee. Alas the forests of Cameron Highlands seem to be under threat. There is rampant logging in areas, whilst poachers make regular forays into the jungle taking with them rare snakes, orchids and natural plants. I found out that one of the men I working at the guesthouse was involved in trafficking snakes to Germany and bitterly regret not having done anything about it. On one hand there is the moral dilemma of knowing that this friendly, smiling man would stand to lose his job and source of income if I had reported him. On the other there is the sheer outrage and contempt I have for the destruction of the forest and the abominable cruelty involved in smuggling animals abroad. I wish the latter sentiment had prevailed.

For our last day in the highlands we went on a tour that included the Boh Tea Estates in the hills North of Birchang. In spite of the rain that was lashing down the beauty of the estates was still very apparent. A rather uninformative tour of the tea curing process was included, but the real value of the trip is just being among the green valleys with neatly clipped tea trees climbing up the undulating valleys. We stocked up on ginger and lime tea bags and then continued on to the strawberry farm for chocolate and strawberry waffles. Had the rain been less persistent and time a little freer, a full day tour of the tea farm would have been very worthwhile. The estate is steeped in the history of J A Russell’s family who set up the enterprise in 1929 and whose progeny are still involved with the estate to the present day. They’re rich now, you better believe it.

The World Heritage site of Malacca with it’s clay red buildings and surprisingly authentic China Town was next. We seem to be on a bit of a roll with guest houses at the moment and our accommodation in Malacca is without doubt the best place that we have stayed in so far. It is spacious, clean, comfortable and welcoming. The owners, Raymond and Mani, are supremely friendly and refreshingly interested in getting to know the people that stay with them. It was down to their superb guesthouse and unrivalled hospitality that we ended up changing our stay in Malacca from two days to one week. Nestled on the Malacca River, the town of the same name (or alternatively Melaka) was the greatest trading port in South East Asia in the 15th Century. Unsurprisingly it became the focus of interest for many successive invaders and the cities rich blend of cultures reflects this. There are remnants of the Portuguese, the Dutch and of course the English. Add to this the Chinese, Islamic and Buddhist denizens of the town and the diversity and invigorating multiculturism of Malacca begins to take shape.

The vibrancy of Malacca is not just limited to the multicoloured temples and buildings however. Beneath giant trees the din of parrots in the evening is deafening, whilst along the banks of the river locals line dance to an assortment of music.There is even a cameo appearance by the Tourist Police, dancing to “Rock Around the Clock.” To add to the music that abounds on the streets, garishly decorated yellow cyclo’s patrol the streets playing anything from Michael Jackson to Metallica. Guided river boat tours plough through the water, the progress of the boats preceded by a sound that is akin to a sudden downpour of rain and had us starting up to look out of the window. Our time in Malacca was spent avoiding the oppressive heat of the day, immured in the guest house between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. We were up early to explore the ruins and Dutch graveyard at Bukit St. Paul (St. Paul’s Hill) and the wonders of China Town with it’s melee of Chinese and Hindu temples, mosques and nearby churches.

The ruins of St. Paul’s church are particularly enigmatic at dawn. A ghostly white statue of St Francis Xavier, one hand missing from his marble wrist (Sharia 1, Xavier 0?) surveys you loftily, whilst behind the empty shell of the cathedral dominates the hill. As any guide book will tell you St Francis Xavier was briefly interred here after his death in China. His posthumous stay in Malacca was brief however, nine months later his remains were taken to Goa, where they are to this day. Behind the deserted church old Dutch graves have a commanding view of the city below, where Chinese locals practice Tai Chi and swordsmanship in the early light of the morning. Likewise the Chinese cemetery atop Bukit China just outside town comes alive in the cooler hours of the day. The cemetery, straddling the hill for positive feng shui, is rumoured to be the largest Chinese grave yard outside of China. In the evening the contrast of joggers limbering up and stretching after a run offers an amusing contrast to the cold graves that punctuate the hill like many decaying teeth. The old town of Malacca has enough to see without leaving its narrow streets though. The lanes with their Chinese lamps. The old dilapidated buildings, vibrantly painted yet whose walls are pitted by age and roughly textured.
The Chinese temples, filled with devotees lighting incense and impaling offerings of cigarettes before the effigies. The substantial Malaysian Christian community and the grand (and some equally quaint) churches. Malaysia’s finest charm for me has been it’s enervating multiculturism and acceptance of one and all. This is embodied by it’s food and more importantly by the proudly Malaysian people; a common thing to hear when chatting to a local is “My family were from China / India / Timbuktu but I am Malaysian. And nowhere is this multiculturism more apparent than in Malacca.

The days drifted by and we were so happily ensconced at Raymond and Mani’s that we would stayed there longer had they not been fully booked the following weekend. Reluctantly we packed up and were on our way once more. We caught a series of local buses first slightly up North to the seaside town Port Dickson and then deeper South to Johor Bahru and then the godforsaken fishing village of Kukup. Port Dickson is a local retreat for those living in Kuala Lumpur. It is a fairly soulless place, but to be fair if we were to do it justice we would have needed a car. It’s redeeming factor was meeting Addy, a twenty five year old local to the area who had studied sound engineering in Leeds and who worked as a music journalist in KL. He went completely out of his way and helped us find accommodation, took us to the very worthwhile food market that evening and then later on an expedition to find beer at the El Cactus Mexican restaurant.
For all Addy’s helpfulness he was not too hot at distances, his five minute walk to the pub took closer to 45 minutes, uphill, both ways. The following day we went to watch the nearby ostrich racing which was outrageous in it’s cruelty and for the sorrowful condition of the ostriches. It was an unparalleled low as far as seven months of travel goes, an abysmal experience all round. The nearby lighthouse was, however, a lot more satisfying. The less appealing flip side of this walk was that the early evening descent was marked by mosquitoes the size of canoes. Slap your back and you’d get two at a time, then you would have to roll them off your fingers like fat, bloated slugs. On both evenings we ate at the local Pizzeria, run by a garrulous Austrian called Tino. Tino had been settled in Port Dickson for 15 years, and we got the feeling that whilst he didn’t rue the day he moved there, he wasn’t exactly ecstatic either. He sat at our table each evening, eagerly asking us questions ranging from Europe and London to our impressions of Malaysia and Thailand. He seemed visibly thirsty for conversation, but he was good company and offered us some helpful information.
On reflection it was down to his personality more than his pizza that we ate there two nights in a row. One of his ambitions is to climb Mt Kinabalu in Borneo with his son. “I’m Austrian. We see a mountain and we have to climb it. That’s the way it is with us,” he charismatically chuckled. Two nights in Port Dickson were more than enough and we headed South to the town of Seremban before getting a connecting bus to bustling Johor Bahru which is on the border with Singapore.

The next day saw us travelling ever further South to the fishing village of Kukup. I am inexorably drawn to fishing villages. They are a light bulb to my moth, nectar to a bee, a mountain to an Austrian. If money were no object, I’d live in a fishing village. I’d have a boat, a Jack Russell and I’d be happy as Larry. In fact, Happier. This would be on the condition that that fishing village was not Kukup. Or anywhere near that cursed village and it’s su
lphurous waters. The great war photographer (and a kind of personal hero if I were to have such a thing) Robert Capa once described Hollywood as “the biggest pile of sh*t I ever stepped in.”

Clearly here was a man that had never been to Kukup. Much of the town is built over the muddy banks of the ocean inlet and rests onwooden and concrete stilts. There is the overwhelming stench of drying fish in the air. Furthermore the town is redolent of sulphur, which is not really surprising as when you use the toilet you peer through the bottom of the bowl and down into the dark brown banks of the ocean bed below. Making your way along the walkways it is not unusual to see dirty shower water or worse dropping from the bowels of one of the houses. On arrival I was assailed by a podgy and surly adolescent thrusting his hand at me and saying “Give me money.” He then tried to grab my arm. I dispatched him with a few blunt words and a look of malice, yet ten minutes later he was back again. With in the space of an hour he approached me four times. My threats grew more and more animated. As it is he proved to be one of the more friendly people in town. In general we got the impression that Kukup was a little insular. It was a local town for local people. And apparently a hoard of Singaporeans who come across at the weekends. Of course this is a massive generalization and some of the people that we met were helpful enough, if not exactly effusive upon seeing us. The happiest signs of life in Kukup seemed to the ubiquitous Salamanders that basked in the mud beneath the stilts, blithe, fat, bloated and seemingly as happy as pigs in the proverbial, of which there was no shortage.

Having retreated from the fishing village, that hateful light bulb, the comforts of Johor Bahru seem wondrous. The streets here are very much alive and no more so than at night when neon lights turn the town incandescent. Food markets abound and sell all manners of delicious snacks and meals. You can buy a snake or two for virility should you wish (personally I don’t but it seems that many do) and all sorts of other charms and medications. The barber shops allegedly sell women along with their haircuts, whilst I was offered “jiggy jiggy” whilst waiting for Nipun outside a 7/11. Aphrodisiacs are big business here and unsurprisingly the city has a tawdry reputation as Singaporeans flock across the border to escape the clinical and Draconian rules of that city, where even jay walking results in hefty fines. Lets not split hairs, Johor Bahru is a veritable Sodom, but it sure beats Kukup.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Friends Re-United

Entry back into Malaysia was a sobering experience. Halfway through our flight I was handed the usual arrival card and customs gumf, attached to which was a bright yellow slip of paper that mentioned the extremely high probability of a premature death should you be found bringing any drugs into the country. It goes without saying that we were not carrying any illegal substances, nonetheless that slip of paper seems to weigh you up with a cold gaze and say “Don’t say we didn’t warn you.” And then it winks and says “So did you pack your bags yourself then? And no one tampered with it at all did they?” Upon arrival in the airport terminal a couple of hours later a large video camera surveys you, and if you are not already panicked enough, another piece of brightly coloured, cautionary literature is thrust at you. It tells you that H1N1 is alive and well and living in these parts of Asia. Furthermore if you have a temperature or flu like symptoms you are probably going to die unless you repair to a doctor post haste. If the illegal substances and our in- house executioner doesn’t get you, then thebird flu will seems to be the message.

We made it through customs unscathed and in record time, then jumped onto the shuttle bus into KL, dozing along the way whilst incandescent neon lights and high rise buildings silently slid past. By the time we got to Sentral it was midnight, which was kind of bad news as we had not booked any accommodation. On account of the hour we took the first place that had vacancies, right above the reggae bar . Alas there was to be no “kinky reggae,” for it appears that the Reggae Bar actually plays drum and bass. It plays drum and bass of the crap variety furthermore and the room itself was as clammy as a steam bath. The bedroom walls were grim, dirty and stained and smeared with blood along one wall (suicide!?). Never a good sign for a comfortable nights sleep. Still, we were exhausted. We jumped into the sorry-looking steel framed single beds and then tried to sleep. For about two minutes or so this seemed to be going well. And then the DJ downstairs began to holler into his microphone. The beds vibrated, the window (facing out into a public corridor) rattled and the bedbugs awoke from their fitful slumber. It started off with a couple of twitches, then both of us systematically slapping ourselves. When the light went on a little later Nipun was sitting up in bed fully dressed, a pair of long blue and black socks rolled up each arm and a set of air plugs protruding from each auditory canal. If we were not so bad tempered by this stage it would have been funny, though as it was the hysteria was confined to the type of tears and out pourings of rage. I battled on trying to sleep, Nipun left the room and reappeared three hours later having taken to the streets for a feverish walk rather than endure the confines of our room. We checked out of the guesthouse at five o’clock the next morning, the Indian caretaker good humouredly admitting that he would rather sleep in a ditch than one of the rooms in that place. By this stage our lassitude was such that we just smiled wanly, scratched our wounds and disappeared into the soft light of morning, the streets empty save clutches of lady boys making their way home and the first denizens of the new day.

In “Little Dorrit” Dickens remarks that “One always begins to forgive a place as soon as it’s left behind.” I would have been quite keen to have put him up in the KL Backpackers Travellers Inn for an evening and seen if he revised this line. And indeed KL in general. The first time we were there I loved it for it’s architecture, the steel and glass skyline and the trains that hurtle overhead, banking left and right as they bend their way through the city. The second time around though I found the city oppressive. Little India was authentically filthy and China Town seemed to be a giant flee market catering for tourists. There were an abundance of homeless souls on the streets and the number of beggars we saw was depressing. In some cities you expect to see poverty, but in KL for all it's wealth and glitz, it is a nasty surprise. In Petaling Street (the pedestrianised drag of China Town) we saw an old homeless man assaulted by a gang of bullying shop keepers. The shop keepers, healthy young and muscled slapped the old pariah across his face with a wooden cane before sending him hurtling with a kick to his stomach. No doubt he transgressed some line (petty thefy maybe?) and this was just rough justice, but on your second day in a new town this kind of thing does little to make you love a place. Various other manifestations of pent up anger (a young woman, her foot bloodied and smeared, kicking her boyfriends motor cycle to pieces, an aggressive verbal confrontation between two passers by) made me feel that KL was just too claustrophobic for us. On the plus side some of the Malaysians we met in KL was supremely affable, in fact a casual encounter with a stranger can leave you chatting away for a half an hour. And of course the food in KL is wonderful, be it from the street markets or some of the restaurants where an ambrosial feast for two will set you back a mere £4.00. It was a relief however when David and Yolanda, our friends from Holland, sent us an email mentioning that they were thinking of heading out to Teman Negara, one of Malaysia’s national parks. We got the next bus out of town and headed straight there.

Taman Negara covers over 4300 square kilometers, which twice the size of Luxemborg or triple the size of Surrey, depending on your preference. It is a swathe of primordial jungle, dating back 130 million years. Given it’s geographical location the jungle in Taman Negara has eluded the ice ages and volcanoes. The trees and natural growth are so thick as to be impenetrable in places, the ants look as if they were raised on anabolic steroids and the leeches that abound the jungle floor are quicker than an Olympic sprinter when they detect you moving towards them. The journey into Taman Negara took the form of a bus as far as Jerantut (three hours from KL) and then a boat ride up river for three hours in a small dugout powered by a 40 HP outboard engine. The journey upstream is wonderful, verdant jungle climbs the valleys on either side whilst occasional water buffalo’s drink from the river and monkeys make whatever noise monkeys make in the trees. Wiki answers was not this much help on this particular one:

We spent four days in the jungle with David and Yolanda, trekking and walking the jungle canopy by day and watching a box set of Heroes by night, the four of us crouched around our laptop whilst the night exploded with jungle sounds around us. On about the third day three of us developed a dodgy stomach which must have been down to the food as they don’t sell beer, a matter of some considerable consternation at the time (the beer that is). It was really good to see them again, and then we were on our way once more, bound this time for the Cameron Highlands, famous for it’s tea, forests and the great explorer Jim Thomson, who went for a stroll in the Highlands and never returned.