Ann Hoffner

Investigating the World

sangat-sangat sedih

Riastaff

In the lobby of the Ria Hotel  photo by Tom Bailey

The trip back to New Jersey has begun! Have finished the first leg; the drive from Kudat to KK. The road is finally dry; still has patches where the macadam has been scraped up to repair holes and years later still hasn’t been replaced, but other than that, a good trip. No tire failures, no overheating problems for Chardonnay. Tonight we are back in Tommy’s hotel in KK.  I did a stupid thing at a pitstop on the road trip back to the city by falling into a concrete drainage ditch that was overgrown with vines. I am badly bruised but ok enough to go for a swim at Sutera Harbour and gaze at my last tropical sunset.

The saddest part of leaving Kudat (other than saying goodbye to Oddly Enough) was taking leave of our restaurant and hotel friends. I’ve attached photos to show them to you. And I learned several new phrases. Jaga kesihatan–take care of your health; sangat-sangat sedih–I’m very sad at heart.

Also sangat-sangat gembila–I am very happy, which Tod and I will be to see friends and family in a few days.

Russians and a Canadian in Kudat

bruce

Bruce in the center, surrounded by Kudat friends. photo courtesy of Bruce Williamson

From the days of our arrival when we found Kudat to be a rather sad and dreary town, we have come to like it. Once the dry season arrived the sunny days improved the town’s appearance considerably. Then there’s the people we met.

We made our last friendship with a Canadian fellow we used to see walking along the road on our way back from the beach. We didn’t know he was Canadian then; just that he looked like a missionary, always wore a ballcap, longish shorts, had grey hair. Not that this makes a missionary look.

One evening last week Tod when was shopping in a new supermarket called Jaya Murni the man approached him. His name is Bruce, and he makes a point of greeting orang asli. He first came to Kudat in 1968 as a Canadian volunteer to teach English in the local schools. He’s now retired from his teaching in Canada, and has started returning here for three months a year as a volunteer English tutor. He was very eager to swim at the beach. As he has no transportation other than a bicycle, we picked him up  for our last two trips. He showed us another lovely beach on the second afternoon, closer to town and at the base of a huge house which is for sale for 2.9 million pounds, and is owned by a couple who run the local World Wildlife Fund turtle saving program! Hm.

Bruce had lots of stories about Kudat then and now, and on the last day,  the eve of Tod’s birthday, he accompanied us to a restaurant in the jungle that has been recently opened up by a Russian. It’s part of a complex which has not opened yet called the North Borneo Biostation. It calls itself a research station and dive resort but from what we can tell, the operation is another South Seas entrepreneurial scheme which falls somewhere between legitimate business and excuse to be in Borneo! The food was good, the breeze in the open-air roofed terrace lovely, and we met another couple with a convoluted plan to bring in a furniture-making business they’ve operated in South Africa over the last twenty years and set it up here in Kudat. But they plan to import Indonesian labor because the local people don’t work hard and want too much money (! labor is so cheap here). They are also Russians. And they did not take kindly to Bruce’s grilling. It seems a bit odd to turn out designer furniture in north Borneo with Indonesia labor. But then, every westerner we meet out here, whether on a boat or on land, has the chance to refine and define their story in a way that suits them. We do it too! It’s a mutual game; most times people don’t call each other on the inconsistencies in their stories.

 

Finishing Up

Ann and Mr. Soon

Ann with Mr. Soon in the Ria Hotel Cafe.               photo by Tom Bailey

Every day I learn another Behasa Melayu phrase. It’s an odd way to learn a language, as what I pick up is not necessarily what I would choose but what others think I should learn. Except for my nightly reading of a pocket dictionary, which I thumb through while Tod gets evening groceries. This generally happens on the way back from the beach, when I am wearing a damp sarong over my bathing suit. I’m not sure I’d go into a supermarket in New Jersey like this; it’s certainly not done here.
Tonight I sailed into the Ria Hotel lobby. Two bored-looking Europeans sat in the lobby chairs, and a couple of staff sat behind the counter.
“Selamat malam!” I said to them, and waved. Selamat malam means good evening.
“Ee yah,” said Rell, a non-committal response she often gives. Then, “Apa kabar?”
Ah hah! I’d been hoping somebody would ask this (How are you?) because I’d finally mastered a response I’d heard as an alternative to “Baik,” good.
“Sihat!” I said.
Rell had been looking at something in front of her. Now her head popped up and she laughed. “Bagus!” (also good, but as in, That’s good, not I’m good), rather like she suddenly heard something interesting from a particularly dull student.
I waved blithely and stepped into the waiting elevator.
Yesterday morning Tod and I went for coffee in the Selera Ria cafe below the hotel. We will be leaving Kudat on Sunday, and flying back to New Jersey on Tuesday, so when the coffee ran out in our room we opted not to buy more and just go downstairs after eating fruit and yogurt. It’s sociable, and there’s always a good breeze flowing through the corner shop. This time as we ordered our coffee a man sitting at a table looked up at Tod and said something recognizably Japanese. I looked behind Tod for help from the cafe counter man, son of the hotel owner, but he ignored us. On the table in front of the man sat a black songkok, a cap worn by Muslim men.
“You speak Japanese?” he said in broken English. And rattled off a Japanese phrase (recognizable because we’ve recently been in Japanese but not translatable).
No, we said, we don’t speak Japanese.
We hastily moved to our own table; sometimes it’s best to end these kinds of conversations, or they will go on loudly for too long as each side tries to make a few words intelligible. After we’d been sitting with our coffee for about five minutes, he appeared on the sidewalk outside the cafe, which has screens for walls that had been folded back. He was quite short, quite bewhiskered, quite elderly, and when he turned in profile, quite Japanese. I don’t know why he thought we would speak Japanese, but we made it clear we were American. He was 87, and indicated by miming shooting a rifle downwards to the ground and saying, “Guerilla” that he had come to Borneo as part of the Japanese invasion in WWII. He must have been one of the kids that was mustered up toward the end when Japan’s forces were stretched thin. He said they had killed, or somebody had killed, 356 people. He stayed on, perhaps captured or perhaps he was just here when the war ended. He married a Chinese woman, has 8 children who live in Brunei. And he converted to Islam, probably as cover, but as a friend said today, that’s unlikely if he married a Chinese woman, especially as Kudat was apparently a Chinese town until very recently, when it has become more Muslim.
So maybe he’s not Japanese. Or maybe he didn’t convert. Maybe he just wears the cap. Our friend who has been coming to Borneo for 40 years and said there was no Japanese man here then. Maybe the Japanese fellow came to Kudat recently. Well, anyway, it makes a good story.
Mr. Soon, the hotel owner, gave us his business card today and said if we emailed him in simple English sometimes he could translate it and learn. So we can be pen pals. He would also like a Kindle, as he sees all his guests arriving with them! Does anyone know if you can get books in Chinese for an e-reader?
Oddly Enough is looking good. We are finishing up a last few chores, making her secure and will leave her again, in better shape.

Pandu Perlahan

Opening ceremonies at party at Dewan Tun Mustapha signalling the end of Chinese New Year (photo by Tom Bailey)

Opening ceremonies at party at Dewan Tun Mustapha signalling the end of Chinese New Year (photo by Tom Bailey)

Chinese New Year is officially over. It left Kudat with a BANG, to which we were invited by our intrepid hotel owner, Mr. Soon Kah Khian (he of the Borneo Post article attached to my last letter). He and his wife and grand daughter (5 year old Natasha) picked us up outside the hotel in the evening–we’d been promised a performance by the “champagne” lion dance troupe–and drove us to the Dewan Tun Mustapha, just a block behind our hotel. Dewan means community hall. As we walked down the aisle into the hall, really an auditorium with a stage and red curtain, we were introduced to a bewildering array of people who either shook our hands or held their hand to their chest and said something to us. I recognized the woman who runs the canteen at the boatyard; she shook my hand.

Natasha was very excited. She wore a silk Chinese dress and sparkling gold shoes, a pink purse with a girl character cartoon on it, and heart necklaces and bracelets and hair elastics.
Mr. Soon sat in the front row of folding chairs with the mucky-mucks and we sat two rows back. As we could have predicted, the even didn’t start on time, and when it did, the opening acts were speeches! Being that the celebration was put on by the political party in power in Sabah, the Liberal Democratic Party, this could be expected. But we’d been treated to the drums of the lion dance troupe from Kota Kinabalu as they swept into the hall with the TRUE mucky-mucks, the local party members, in the van, and we were patient. Especially as a dragon dance by our local group followed, with the dragon glowing red in the darkened hall and lined with lights as it swayed and circled through the space before the stage.
Kudat’s Assemblyman, as they call the members of the State Legislature (as opposed to the Federal Government), Datuk Teo, spoke in nice slow Behasa Melayu and I caught a few words. Most of the talk by the emcee and others was in Chinese, of which I know nothing except thank you, pronounced se-se (like the first syllable in second) in Malaysian Chinese.
Our speeches were followed by Lucky Draw, with the numbers read out in Behasa, Chinese, and English so any of us could read our slips. This took FOREVER–as you who have been to events can imagine! The prizes were basket of cookies crackers tea, a convection oven, a deep fat fryer, and the grand prize, a flat screen tv! It took forever partly because people had to make it down from the balcony–and also because most of the winners sent their children up to collect the prizes. We did not win a thing. Oh well.
So speeches over, lucky draw started, still no lion dance1 Out came a series of young singers who had quite good voices. Their music was accompanied by recorded instrumental and backup singer tracks, rather like karaoke. Almost all again in Chinese, except for one girl who sang I Will Survive with just the tagline in English! The hall was incredibly echoey and between the singers and everyone always talking, children running around, the singers often seemed to be entertaining themselves. But never mind; Natasha had a great time jumping out into the space before the stage, taking 2-second videos on a phone and jumping back to show them to us. At one point she lifted my hair away from my ear to whisper loudly, “Dance!”
Almost four hours later we got to the lion dance. These big-city fellows made our local kids look pretty amateurish. At one point the back-end of one of the lions, while up on the posts, SWUNG his front-end guy in a circle over head and back down and around, and landed him on the posts again. The dances are pretty ritualistic, but the way the troupes play them out varies. I should look at some Chinese acrobats some time, see if there are similarities.
After the lions left the hall started to empty out, and I stood up. “Fireworks still,” said Mrs. Soon, who had been very gracious to us. Frankly we were quite happy to have Mr. Soon off with his friends. He is quite chatty (even his hotel staff attest to that) and it can be exhausting to try to pay attention over time as his English is less intelligible than his ability to keep it up! Dinner had been mentioned earlier, but it was just as well that it was too late now! Natasha had already gone home with her father, Number One son Jack Soon.
So we followed the local dragon dancers out into the night, where a full moon was clearing clouds high above, amazing us because it had been bucketing down rain earlier, and watched incredibly loud firecrackers boom off a series of upright posts, then nine minutes of continuous fireworks. They didn’t go up very high, and were not as elaborate as American fireworks, but the noise and the smoke and the light and the occasional true boom-boom-booms left me breathless.
Then it was over. We found the Soon’s quiet, elegant, air-conditioned van, drove the block to the hotel, where the staff waited in the lobby to see how we had done.
“Fireworks?” said Rell.
“You heard them?” I asked.
They nodded.
“Boss take us.”
They nodded.

On another note, we learned two quite useful phrases today. Hati-hati, which means take care (or be careful), hati being care and the doubling up adding emphasis and intention. And we learned that one of Tod’s favorite street sign slogans, Pandu Perlahan, means Drive Slow. Tonight as we sailed into the lobby with our Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner I said, “Selamat Malam” (good evening) and Tod said,  “Hati hati,” Rell said “Yes,” then Tod added “Pandu Perlahan,” and Rell said, “Yes, Pandu Perlahan.” which in the context was nonsense. But you could say them together! Careful! Drive Slow!!

The Borneo Post

Oddly Enough in "The Borneo Post"

Oddly Enough in “The Borneo Post”

So we are famous in Kudat! In my last post I told you about the Chinese New Year (Gong Xi Fa Cai) celebration that took place in front of our hotel. I was hoping that the article that Tod photographed (see attached) would come out and explain the piece of that day that I didn’t tell you. The top photo shows our hotel owner, Mr. Soon, who has recently gone from acting very dour to being our best buddy. In the whirlwind of the day I was introduced to Datin Mary Wong, who along with being a Sabah minister’s wife is also a member of the Women’s Wing of the opposition party in her own right, and to Lorena Binisol, the woman to Mary’s right, journalist, author of this piece in The Borneo Post, Sabah’s English language newspaper. When they called me up for this photo they said, “You will be in the news!” And we were! Mr. Soon, Mary Wong and Lorena obviously all have the clout (in different kinds) that they claimed to have that morning.
Today when Tod and I arrived back at the hotel after lunch the staff greeted us with “We have something for you!” and handed over the newspaper. We wanted to know where we could buy a copy, but the local people get tongue-tie and twisted-up when trying to give directions so they called out, “Boss, boss!” Mr. Soon emerged from the back room and they gave us the paper. We will try to get a full copy, complete with front page. When Tod returned to the boatyard later all the people we knew there had already seen or heard about the article and photos. “It’s a small world…”
Ang pow are red paper envelopes with money inside. Business owners give them out to bring luck–both to themselves and to the recipients. Kudat any pow contained 5 ringitt, about $1.50 us. In KK in 2010 they contained 10 ringitt. You are supposed to keep the envelope for good luck, but we opened ours when we needed some cash… At Chinese New Year you can buy the envelopes already made up from banks.
After Mr. Soon’s lion dance we joined the new year celebration of Mary’s family, which runs the marina down near our boatyard. It was an all-afternoon affair, with more lion dancing (same troupe but much less intricate dancing), feasting (noodles, fish, KFC chicken, chicken satay, Chinese New Year cookies and lots of 100 Plus sweet soda), dancing by a tribal group, and by victims of Thalassemia, an inherited blood disorder that leads to severe anemia and retarded growth which is prevalent in Borneo. The Wong family are patrons of the local Thalassemia charity chapter. There was also plenty of embarrass-the-European-tourist stuff, getting us up to dance and sing. After being at the celebrations of two prominent families, with obvious overlap (Mary and Lorena) and who knows who else, we are now getting treated better even at our boatyard! Before the new year we had a steady stream of wooden fishing boats parked next to us doing all manner of noisy, dusty work. Since that day? The yard crew leaves a nice wide empty space beside us.

Gong Xi Fa Cai

Gong Xi Fa Cai party (photo by Tom Bailey)

Gong Xi Fa Cai party (photo by Tom Bailey)

Chinese New Year (slideshow and music)\Chinese New Year is based on the lunar calendar, so it moves around within January and February. This year, the year of the Horse, began on February 1. Like Christmas decorations in the US, new year decorations have been in the shops for a month; red (with gold lettering) banners, lanterns, hanging decorations, Some of the more expensive hanging ones are tricky to put together.
I expected there to be a big fanfare leading up to the holiday in town, but other than the Chinese temple next door to our hotel, which cleaned and spruced up and hung out decorations over several weeks, nothing was doing. New Years Eve came and went; no fireworks, not even any firecrackers. All the Chinese shops were closed, and the schools and government offices. Town was extra quiet.
On Saturday, February 1, we ate at the cafe below the hotel. We seem to have bought up all the yogurt in town! “Finish already.” And the shops ask if we like it then say they won’t be getting anymore in. We’ll have to come up with a new breakfast scheme, but meanwhile, there’s cold beans–fried eggs–hot dog–toast–ketchup in the cafe.  Like all the local restaurants the cafe’s walls are screens which open up so the inside floor is contiguous with the sidewalk (morning and night we hear the sound of screens being opened and closed from the open-daily photocopy shop below–I wonder what they do!) Halfway through the meal we heard the cymbals and drum which signal the arrival of a lion dance troupe, and everyone rushed to the sidewalk to see a truck pull up in front of our hotel, where the staff had blocked off the street with traffic cones.
Okay, now I am going to fast forward twenty-four hours to Sunday morning, same venue (breakfast combo A and coffee with milk but with glasses of orange juice with curly straws and fancy stirrers in honor of new years), and the sound of cymbal and drum signaling the arrival of a lion dance troupe. Actually, lion dance AND dragon dance. A crowd of families and little children that had been lurking in the streets gathered in front of the hotel, dressed in holiday clothes in every bright color of the rainbow. The dancers jumping off the truck all wore blue t-shirts that said “My World Karaoke” and Kota Marudu, their home town, which is on the route we took to KK but north of the flooded-out spot. The lion dancers strutted around wearing the pantaloon part of their costume, shiny satin striped with fuzzy fur to match the lion head and back cap. Their shoes were covered in gold mesh. I followed the dragon group into the temple, where they stopped at each altar, giving luck and being blessed I guess.
I’ve attached a sound track of the twangy music that accompanies the dances, banged out by other teenagers (it’s all young people who do this). After the dragon wove its way around the hotel forecourt, the dancers dragged out three metal frames supporting a variety of posts topped with pads at various heights. Two boys with pantaloons donned a lion outfit, the smaller one at the front holding the lion’s head over his and using props inside to wag the ears, close the eyes and flap the jaw, and the sturdy kid at the back bent over holding onto his waist, forming the back legs and back. He suddenly lifted the front kid high, and flung him up to stand on the first two posts, then climbed up himself. They capered back and forth over the posts, sometimes pretending to fall off and ending up sitting on the posts dangling a leg casually. A second lion leaped up and they did a do-se-do, and courted each other. It’s a heart-stopping performance. You really expect them to come crashing down, and are almost glad when it’s over! At which time they offer a new year’s scroll to the business owner who called them in. Six other lions suited up and the dragon dancers acted as “trainers,” guiding them into the hotel lobby and pushing them to lie down, then guiding them backwards out again.
The little children love the show. The dancers line up their heads in the street and let the children–even a one-year old in a onesy!–pet them.
But our job here turned out to be, not just watchers but honored guests. The hotel owner, who we’d seen over the previous weeks overseeing setting out potted plants and decorating potted shrubs with fake peonies and chrysanthemums, had made a point of making sure we would be there. He knew we had been to Japan–the staff must have told him. And as the lion dance started up, he called me over (Tod was out taking pictures) and introduced me to three women. One I didn’t catch the name of, one was Lorena, a journalist for the local newspaper and the Borneo Post, and the other, a tall Chinese woman in a pink top, was the wife of the assistant Sabah minister for tourism AND an assemblywoman in her right. Then the hand shaking and hand holding and photo taking began and I was handed a red envelope with money and told to keep it for luck and the Assemblywoman held my hand over it in hers and there were photos and it was all a big do, I’ll be curious to see the article (Lorena took my email address) I’m sure I look very American in the photos, but that’s very much the idea! We were being shown off.
On a note of oddness, people didn’t clap for the dancers.
The dancers loaded up their stands–getting them into the trucks was a huge ordeal–and took off, banging cymbals and drums, for the next engagement. During the day you could hear the sound of the troupes moving around. It made it hard to tell where there was going to actually be a dance, as opposed to just a moving troupe.
This is a travel piece which really should be done in photos and sound.

New Old Friends

 

Setting up Celtic Castle in the boatyard (photo by Tom Bailey)

Setting up Celtic Castle in the boatyard (photo by Tom Bailey)

We lost friends the other day. I don’t mean they died, nothing that dramatic. It’s just that, well, in the cruising community (I suppose it’s true in any peripatetic group) you make friends fast and you lost them fast too. This particular couple sailed into Kudat the Saturday we had the World Wildlife Fund sea turtle affair at the marina, coming in from Palau (an American protectorate) after wending their way through the southern Philippine islands without stopping on a steel schooner named Celtic Castle–he’s Welsh (greetings to Mim and Tim) and she’s Irish. It’s not that I can give a detailed list of things we have in common (other than boats), or that we would have ever crossed paths let alone been friends back home even if we lived in the same country. We just–liked them. You get up in the morning and look forward to talking to someone. Two mornings ago Tod picked them up from their hotel, deposited them with their bags at the taxi station (the taxis to KK leave only when they are full) and then I met them at the coffee shop below our hotel room. I had coffee, they had the western breakfast #1 with over-easy eggs and beans and a hot dog. We chatted, then suddenly the taxi was there, and they were gone. Off to KK to catch a plane home to Cardiff for seven months. We taught him to say Chutzpah (he’d only ever read it and it came out Chootspah, he said he needed an American to say it properly for him). Was good for a laugh.
But there are others. Last night we ate at a seafood restaurant down on the seawall, built out on pilings and filled on Saturday night with couples and families eating sotong (squid), prawns (udang), chicken (ayam) and fish (ikan) with various fresh choy which sat in big pink washing tubs until it was cooked. The food was all fried, but light. And good. Washed down with Tiger beer. All cost 51 ringgit, or about $17US for 4! We ate with another boating couple who are, from what they say, variously from Glendale, California (both went to the same high school but 12 years apart), Seattle, Canada, and Alaska. Frankly, the places and times don’t add up but the stories boaters tell often have a fantastical quality about them. We don’t know each other’s last names (generally people are known by first name and boat name) or what they do/did on land. You pick and choose what to tell people. I know there’s no one out here who has our full story (whatever that might be). Pat is a retired high school biology teacher, Steve a marine biologist retired from UCLA, and they have been to Antarctica (to dive on and study krill schools). I was quite envious of that. There is something quintessentially American about them; I’m not even sure it’s quintessential, actually. It’s just that one recognizes one’s own tribe instinctually, for better or for worse. The night air was very soft, very dark beyond the picnic tables of diners (it is rare to find an indoor restaurant in Kudat), but we could see the work lights of a bulk container ship that has appeared in the harbor (like the occasional tourists, I wonder how it wound up here) and has spent days doing nothing obvious, except that barges loaded down with timber crop up at odd intervals. Down the esplanade an outdoor karaoke cafe had just a few girls singing. The Malaysians are so good at doing “cover” versions of American pop songs that sometimes it’s difficult to tell them from the original. Not that these girls sounded like that.
The only regret for the evening? None of the seawall restaurants or snack bars had ice cream, and the rest of town was shuttered at 9:30 pm.
The photo shows Celtic Castle in the travel lift being set up beside Oddly Enough.

Raining and the Philippines

 

Mr. Wong's Road in the rain

Mr. Wong’s Road in the rain

Many of you are pinwheeling through a classic big east coast snowstorm. Think of it turned to rain (and the same number of inches) and it’s probably what we are getting in liquid (as opposed to crystal) precipitation. At night the sound of frequent downpours on the tin shop roofs across the street wakes me up. The dirt road into Penuwasa, our boatyard, grows new potholes and the existing ones become craters overnight. Our puny road clearance means that even the shallowest holes leave us scraping and banging across, though so far we haven’t scraped into the engine pan or anything crucial, just the front bumper. We call the road Mr. Wong’s Road, after the manager of the yard, and wonder why he can’t spread dirt or scrape the surface; the prices he charges for space would be more than enough for road maintenance. A steady flow of vehicles passes in and out; taxis, private vehicles, cars dropping off and picking up the women who work in the fish processing plant at the far end of the yard. Propane trucks and delivery trucks. All pass through a narrow gap in the tin fence, guarded by a man and his family in a tiny shack selling bananas and papayas. When traffic comes in or out he raises a boom made from an aluminum pole with a concrete weight attached. On a wet day like today the air smells of fish and wet sawdust.The yard is so soggy that when the dogs sit they hunker down with their bottoms an inch above dirt. I can’t say I blame them; the dirt/sand surface must be suffused with any number of nameless chemicals and dusts after years of boat repairs. The black mildew streaks on the town’s concrete buildings show up. The rain is such a constant feature, often it’s as if the air particles form water droplets on the spot, that people in town have largely given up using umbrellas. The green and black algae I clean off covers on the boat reappears overnight. Its spores must be very hardy.

Even the cream-colored rooster that hops up the 14-foot ladder periodically to peer in at Tom working looks bedraggled.

Irritating the rain may be, but it is not dangerous, as it is in the Southern Philippines, where the people who were left homeless by Typhoon Haiyan (known as Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines) have seen their lives and livelihoods and homes once again destroyed, this time by rain from Tropical Depression Agaton, which ripped up and down the island of Mindanao over several days. It retreated and weakened, but is now thought to be strengthening for another run at the island, which is home to Muslim communities which have suffered discrimination at the hands of the government of the largely Catholic nation. Some 800,000 have been affected by Agaton. Kudat is less than a hundred miles from the bottom most islands of the Philippines, but Borneo is known as The Land Below The Wind, because it is too close to the Equator for the earth’s rotation to spin up circular storms, which typhoons, cyclones, and hurricanes all are.

So the northeast monsoon will continue. If we ask a local about the weather, we’ll likely hear, Oh, this is so unusual! But I recall weeks of grey drizzle when we were here four years ago after New Years, and islanders (Borneo is an island, though a large one) are very good at sussing out what they think you want to hear and then saying it.

Meanwhile, we’ve been here long enough that our hotel staff and Nancy our waitress at the golf club restaurant are patiently teaching us Behasa Melayu phrases they think are useful. Selamat Petang–good afternoon. Tiga kosong tiga–which is our room number (3 0 3).  Hujan–rain. Panas–hot (as in, every drink on the menu comes as either hot (panas) or sejuk (cold–made as panas with ice in it).

Hope your weather does not get too sejuk.

Flooded Out!

Looking out at flooded fields south of Kota Belud. Up ahead the river has breached the road.

Looking out at flooded fields south of Kota Belud. Up ahead the river has breached the road.

Yesterday was supposed to be a big day; down the 180 kilometers to KK where we would buy odds and ends for the boat, including compounding material for cleaning her hull, get new tires for the front of our little car (same as the old one but green) and meet with Jean Francois, a marine businessman in the city who expresses interest in Oddly Enough and has been patiently waiting to meet with us. We are not quite sure who he’s acting for, but that’s okay; any prospect is welcome, and he’s here.
We collected all our gear out of the hotel room and stuffed it into the back of the car and left after Continental A breakfasts at the cafe below the hotel; it would be called a kedai kopi (shop coffee) like the one at the other corner of the hotel if it just served coffee and tea and baked goods, and closed at noon.
The trip started well, exempt we noticed an increase in a shimmy that had come into the front end. We didn’t really want to talk about it between us, as if talking about it would make it something bad (rather like not going to the doctor will keep away an ailment you already have!). Finally I remarked that the front was vibrating a lot, and Tod averred that it was. Soon after that we began to climb into hills; some of the ascents are marked 10% grade, which is pretty steep; and the temperature gauge jumped up. A boater who took the bus to and from KK remarked that it was “almost always” air conditioned, except for going uphill when the driver turned it off. We turned ours off now, and the temperature stabilized.
There wasn’t too much traffic on the very narrow windy road, and though the night had been rainy, and we could see mists of rain on the mountains, we got only showers, which was good, because our windshield wipers weren’t wonderful. We drove out of the mountains past the scene of a very recent accident (we knew because the cars parked along the road had passed us minutes before); one vehicle was on its side in the deep concrete-walled drainage ditch and another, a pickup truck, was upside down on the slope just ahead. Nasty.
The descent swooped down into rice paddies where new green shoots grew in recently flooded fields, alongside ready-to-harvest paddies decorated with old flags, plastic bags and fabric scraps on sticks to keep away the birds. The road crossed many streams, and all were full of muddy rushing water draining out of the hills. We passed the turn to Kota Belud, where they train miniature horses and where James, our rental guy, warned us that the villagers beheaded people who hit them on their roads. Don’t know if he was teasing us or not.
A few miles beyond we began to encounter strings of cars parked along both sides of the road, which now sat almost at level with the paddies. Looking out at the paddies now we saw sheets of muddy water, with leafed branches being pulled along showing strong currents as the water, actually a flooded river, ran along the road barrier, sometimes crossing to the other side through culverts and alleviating the pressure.
But at some point, the pressure could not be stopped and all that water began crossing the road surface. We turned back and tried the only other road south–it ran through Kota Kinabulu, and was also flooded, even deeper; here we encounter vehicles backing up toward us out of it; and with James’s words going through our heads we turned back, checked on the first road, found that some pickup trucks with high road clearance were getting through, and the bus to kudat got through! But our little car, which bottoms out in puddles, would never make it. So even though we were two-thirds of the way to the city, we had no choice but to turn around and drive two hours back to Kudat. We were caught between mountains and the sea, and no usable road.
There are no gas stations along this route, but we had a jug of water and topped up the coolant with it, stopped at Kota Marudu for nasi goreng (fried rice) with egg, and mie goreng (fried noodles with curry) at an outdoor restaurant. Our nerves were on edge but we needed food. And headed back into the increasingly hilly country. Our front end was now jumping and hopping, but when I’d looked under the car at Marudu, nothing looked out of the ordinary. We knew we had balding tires, and they were odd low-profile. In the hills the temperature gauge rose when any load went on the engine, even with water topped up, so we tag-teamed turning the ac on and off and opening the windows, turning it on and closing the windows as soon as we reached peaks and started downslope. We talked openly about the car, now that we were on the home stretch, and texted James when we had cell phone service. Called the car a piece of junk between ourselves. How James would have to send someone up with another one for us. Bad maintenance. Etc.
We made it to the top of a rise about a mile and a half from our hotel when I heard a “piaow” sound.
“Turn off!” I said, and Tod turned onto a convenient stretch of dirt outside a school. When I got out I could hear children chanting.
The tire on my side had simply given out. We could see where the rubber had worn away to the steel mesh. This was deja vu all over again. We hauled our gear out of the back, retrieved the spare and the jack and the handle, replace the tire. The other front tire looked as bad. If it blew we would be out of luck. Except that we could roll the wheel down the hill to the tire repair place next to our hotel; would be a long walk, but doable.
So we were LUCKY. The tire could have blown anywhere. Both tires could have blown. There usually seems to be a reason for things happening. We weren’t supposed to go to KK. The tire peacefully blew close to “home.”
Then again, James said all we had to do was call him if something happened to the car and he would come collect us.
Except, I suspect, on the far side of a flood.
Last night and today we told people; our hotel staff, two pilots at the airport today where we went to see the bi-weekly plane take off, locals at the boatyard. And each person said in response, “Oh yes, this is the rainy season. It floods.” “Can’t get through.” “Still flooded today.”
Nobody said that when we told them we were going to KK!

Kudat Entertainment

Maulidar Rasul (Birthday of Prophet Mohammed) parade in Kudat. (photo by Tom Bailey)

Maulidur Rasul (Birthday of Prophet Muhammad) parade in Kudat. (photo by Tom Bailey)

We’d finished with the boat for the day. A rather typical day as far as the routine we’ve settled into; I yawn myself awake, Tod goes off to get Johnnie set up on whatever is the day’s project (painting now–it’s like a house, you do stuff to sell which you should have done to live in it!) while I boil water for coffee, slice lady-finger bananas and open yogurt. We spend the morning mostly feeling disenfranchised because it’s Johnnie working, not us–hard to get the renovators’ habit out of our blood–then lunch at the golf club (today I had sweet and sour prawn, Tod can’t seem to get out of the fried rice rut) with the usual lot of families and young couples chattering away over their food. I get to spend some afternoon time on my writing; this afternoon was unusual for not drifting into grey rain. Briefly saw some new friends we made yesterday at an event put on at the marina by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) local reps, a Canadian married to a Bruneian who was overseeing sea turtle preservation work aimed at local schoolchildren (who listened to speeches in Bahasa Melayu, learned about turtles, and made installations out of plastic water bottles while the adults played pass-the-parcel and sang karaoke and gave out prizes). Said new friends being sailors who recently arrived from Palau (an American protectorate in the north Pacific) and the Philippines. We may see them again, maybe not, you make friends rip-roaringly fast out here because you lose them fast too. It is nice to talk to boaters but it stirs up thoughts of cruising again which are shaken off by the next morning!
So at the end of today we wandered out to buy bananas and chinese cabbage, and to sit on the sea wall of a massive esplanade that runs around the harbor, making straight edges and right angled-turns to the landfill that was used to form it. Somebody had big plans for little Kudat; it is falling apart and like much of the town, disconnected physically from the neighborhoods around it.
But people come here to look at the water. As we did. Sometimes young men giggle at us as we pass. Girls are likely to say “Hello.” The other night we passed a woman fishing with her teenage daughter and a young child, and each time, the teenager yanked the child to her and frowned at us as if we might snatch her.
Actually this evening, we dangled our legs over the concrete wall and watched the crabs. Which emerged from the water when we weren’t looking. We’d see one on the rocks below, look away, and suddenly there were two. Or three. Or five. Amazing. The miracle of the crabs!
Hah. Big entertainment in Kudat.
p.s. wrote this piece last night. Went to the post office this morning to mail some post cards and found it closed. It is Maulidur Rasul, birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. Or as I read, maybe his death date, as his actual birth date isn’t known. It is a public holiday and accounts for the prolonged calling of the muezzins last evening when we were out and about. Each mosque call starts at a slightly different time, and as they use outdoor horn speakers the sound is quite tinny. Very low-fi. Kudat has a mixed population; lots of Chinese, and tribes people, so other than some shops being closed, there’s no evidence of any activity linked to Mawlid, as it is called for shorthand. Active celebration would be with a parade, but even in mainland Malaysia parades are unusual. The parade was eventually held a week later. I heard the sound of singing and drums and cymbal moving up and down the streets of town. Found a parade of the kampong (village) people in their best dress marching behind banners and instruments and singers. The event was upbeat anyway, but our presence on the sidelines gave them a chance to laugh and call out to us.

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