Random travel stories [text only]

These are a bunch of random travel stories, presented as text only. Enjoy the ups and downs of a life on the road in Asia!

A simple drive to Brunei


Borneo Drinking Surprise!


Got the Indonesian Travel Fever


Lombok highs and lows


Party Boneo Style

>Self Surgery in Sabah

A simple drive to Brunei…

Going to Brunei for the first time was supposed to be easy. As you would probably expect from the section this story falls under this was to be no easy waltz in, waltz out.

My visa to stay in Sabah, Malaysia was coming to an end, so I had to leave the country to get it renewed. Luckily, a fellow Australian, Shane was also in need of a renewed visa, so he hired a car and we left Kota Kinabalu and headed south. Still getting over the flu or some other nasty bug I had caught I was not feeling too good at this point, so I half-slept the entire way south to Beaufort, an hour from the border to Sarawak, the southern state of Malaysian Borneo. So far things were going well. The odd thing about Malaysia is that to travel from state to state in Borneo at least, you must have a passport, as if they are separate countries. So this is where the dramas began.Our first border crossing was south of Sipitang on the Sabah/Sarawak border. It is just like an international crossing. You get stamped out of one state, go through no-man’s land and get stamped into the other. We officially departed Sabah and were waved away by the staff. Nobody was at the second gate, and it looked for all the world like a spare booth for a busy day. We even parked the car beside it and Shane went off to find a toilet somewhere. Nobody said anything, the place was desolate and we were the only people we saw the whole twenty minutes we were there, other than border officials that casually looked at us and said nothing at all. So we continued south, but there was no sign pointing us in the correct direction when we hit a roundabout. Guessing it took us down the best looking road through a swamp and eventually to a dead end. Somewhat confused, we went back to the border gate and asked a random person the directions to Brunei. They pointed us to the correct road and we continued the hour’s drive to the Malaysia/Brunei border. At the border, the official looked at our passports and ushered us into the building where we sat and waited for someone. Not sure what exactly was going on, we were soon greeted by one of the senior immigration officials for Malaysia. She was very polite.

“You cannot leave Malaysia” she said with a smile.

Shane wasn’t so happy and asked he why not

“Well, you are not even supposed to be in Sarawak” she replied

“Says who?”

“Well, look at your passports. You were stamped out of Sabah but not into Sarawak. You must go back and get the stamp to be let in.”

“Can’t you just stamp it?” I inquired.

“No.”

“If I say Pleease?

“No. You must go back.”

“Will this office be open when we return?”
“Yes, of course. Goodbye.”

She refused to budge, even for money so we jumped back in the car, slightly upset at the whole ordeal and headed back to the Sabah/Sarawak border. Up ahead a truck hit a bump and dropped brick-sized rocks all over the road. Shane didn’t see them until it was too late. Trying to miss one, hit he another instead, first it went under the front passenger wheel then the rear with two loud bangs. Seconds later the car slowed down and pulled to one side. He pulled over and I looked out the window, our worst fears confirmed- two flat tyres! We were near a small village, so we drove slowly up to it and changed the front tyre with the only spare we had. That left the problem of the rear passenger tyre still being flat. The villagers were cautious of us, maybe they had sensed Shane’s rising fury and kept their distance. So we carried on, the rear tyre wearing itself off the rim, a pall of white, smelly smoke pouring off it into the now night sky. For thirty five kilometers we carried on, the tyre stinking the car out as it slapped around and around on the rim. Out of desperation, every time we saw an abandoned car from a crash beside the road we stopped to look at it, the flat rim so hot it could not be touched at all. But if there even were tyres, they were always the wrong size or mounted on rims with the wrong number of nuts. With the car making all sorts of unearthly noises and causing a thick, white cloud of smoke out we pulled up to the last town before the border. The locals looked at us and laughed. But they were happy to help at least. One asked what the problem was and took our dead tyre and rim away to find someone to put a new tyre on it. While we waited the curious locals invited us to sit and talk with them, once they discovered Shane was married to a local from the far north of Sabah, they were very welcoming. I was still feeling very sick, possibly the final effects of the dengue fever I caught months earlier so I propped myself up against a pole and sat on the concrete.

Soon enough the guy who took our tyre away returned with the rim and a brand new tyre. Amazingly he had found someone over the border that was willing to open his shop at eight thirty at night and fix the tyre- he didn’t even charge us any extra.

With the tyre fixed we headed off again, waving goodbye to the villagers.

We arrived soon enough at the border to find it closed. The lights were off and the gates locked. The only solution was to sleep by the road in the car. Shane reclined his seat and dozed off right away, obviously able to sleep anywhere, any time due no doubt to his time serving in the Foreign Legion and the Australian Army. Also, Shane has the incredible ability to snore and fart anywhere, any time. As noxious gases, heat and noise filled the vehicle I needed the fresh air so I unwound the window a little. Immediately mosquitoes poured in. Fearing another bout of dengue or malaria I decided I had enough and woke Shane up and put him in the passenger seat so I could drive back to the town of Lawas. With nothing else to do I left him to sleep while I walked about to look for something to do. It was a weekday night so there was absolutely nothing at all except a Chinese noodle shop. With the usual cracked concrete walls, missing tiles on the floor and plastic plates it was nothing out of the ordinary. I sat down for a meal there, then walked around aimlessly for a few hours in the quiet, empty streets contemplating what to do next. In the early hours of the morning I drove back to the border and awaited sunrise. At six, the gates opened and we drove through to the border.
Once checked out of Malaysia by a friendly official, we thought the troubles were over. Not even close! We were now in no-mans land between Malaysia and Brunei. About a kilometer of road later we came to the Brunei border. They wanted to know everything about us and the car, engine number, personal details etc… Also, they wanted thirty Brunei dollars each, or Singapore dollars if we had that. So far all of the borders were free of charge, Malaysia charges nothing for entry and nobody had told us Brunei needed cash, well for Australians anyway. So I called an official aside and asked if there was any other way through as we had no Brunei money on us, and we could not go back into Malaysia to a money changer or ATM until we had checked into Brunei first. They did not even have credit card facilities, so we were totally stuck in no actual country. The official eventually, after much prodding decided we could pay in Malaysian money the equivalent of five Brunei dollars each so long as we passed through the first part of Brunei and into the sliver of Malaysia dividing the two parts of Brunei. With the cash handed over we were stamped in to Brunei and headed south. Other than trying to identify the species of roadkill sprawled out on the rapidly warming asphalt road (one of the animals turned out to be a binturong – a wolverine like civet and another was a leopard cat) there was not much to see. Brunei is about 75% primary jungle, the forested hills undulate pleasantly along the horizon. But soon enough we were to be checked out of Brunei and into that tiny piece of Malaysian Sarawak that seems to have no real reason to exist other than renew our visas. The exit from this part of Brunei is a simple drive-through service and soon enough we were in no-man’s land once more. What we didn’t know was that we needed more cash. The road descended towards a river with a rusty old yellow ferry bringing boats back and forth. The ferry ride over the river was short- in fact the river was barely wider than the ferry! Driving off the other end the journey continued to the border gate once again. We passed through the tiny piece of Sarawak, the living standards very noticeably lower than Brunei and to the final gate- into the main part of Brunei. At the gate we had totally run out of money, and the transit visa would not allow us into this part of Brunei. The border guard told us we had to pay sixty dollars between us to get in, and Malaysian money would not cut it this time. Shane was rather indignant.

“So you’re telling us we can’t get in on this visa?” he barked at the guard.

“Step into my office please” the guard replied.

So we were ushered into the immigration office where the guard and an official sat opposite us at a table in a grey, lifeless room.

“I had to sleep by the road, like a dog last night and you’re telling me I can’t get in?” Shane growled once more.

“You must pay again this visa, sir.” the guard replied.

“Why should I pay?”

“Because that’s policy. A tourist visa will cost”

“I am an Australian war veteran, and what will my government think of me being stuck in no-man’s-land between two countries?

I could see the conversation was just going to get ugly, so I stepped in

“Shane, it’s not their fault we were locked out.”

“It’s the same people, they do the same job”

“Seriously, let’s just turn back, we should be able to get this sorted, we have come far enough.”

Shane backed off, and the official and guard shook our hands and sent us on our way. Stamped back into Malaysia we once more headed for the ferry and the gate into Brunei. When we reached it, the guard expected us to pay another transit visa. Shane blew up.

“I have already paid one of these things today! I won’t pay another.”

Seeing the potential for a very bad situation, I pulled Shane aside and said we only had Malaysian money which was fine last time. The guard made it clear it was not fine this time, so we drove back to the ferry and changed Malaysian money for Brunei dollars and returned, only to find a bus full of people had lined up for passport processing. The official called us to the front of the queue and gave us our visas. When we finally crossed back into Sabah the sigh of relief was immense. “Never again” we both agreed…

skunk

Borneo drinking surprise!

I was thinking about this incident today. It involves a load of drinking that ended with a nasty shock – as it often does. So exactly what happened? Glad you asked…

My awesome friend Julio invited me to attend his brother’s engagement party in Keningau, an hour and a half outside Kota Kinabalu in the north of Borneo. It was one of those typical extended family affairs that happen all the time. Everyone was there, all crammed in, around and outside the little house on a small street. The formalities go something like this:

The bride and groom to be sit in front of everyone while the parents or uncles decide on the cost of the dowry and punishments/fines for breaking traditions before marriage. After that, engagement rings are exchanged and everyone claps and gets to work ridding the place of food and alcohol. Beer is always at hand, but a more sinister drink is wheeled out… Le-hing

After consuming my own body weight in all kinds of food from the buffet, Julio’s dad handed me a beer and invited me to sit with the uncles and have a laugh. Meanwhile, the jars of le-hing were being prepared. Six clay jars were lined up, and the older people poked straws made of hollow reeds into them, punching them in hard to break through a layer of leaves. Water was then added to the top so the jars were almost overflowing. So the end product was a jar with water at the top, with a layer of leaves dividing it from the sweet alcohol and rice mix at the bottom. Being the only white guy there (which was very normal for me by now- in fact I dare say some people there had never even met a westerner) they were very curious as to how I would go. So all eyes locked on to me.

“Can he handle it?” one woman said.

Regardless of what anyone says, I had to save face, it was expected of me. I did not want this bunch to look down on me. Let’s say I didn’t disappoint. Or maybe I did. In fact I really don’t know because I can tell you this type of le-hing is so powerful you could probably pour it into your motorbike and simply drive away. As you drink from the jar, the water level drops down. The elders make sure they are all watching how much you drink- it’s something that’s hard to fake, especially when they know if the straw has been raised to only get at the water…

So I took a drink that would impress any of the hardened, wrinkled faces staring at me. It was like methylated spirits mixed with honey. Foul on so many levels, but I had an image to uphold. Several more went down, each time with the locals cheering and clapping, making sure I didn’t cheat. It wasn’t just me, even the grey old ladies in a permanent hunch got stuck into this filthy drink. Everyone was happy, I had consumed enough to put most people there in hospital and was regretting it very much. After a few hours, the party broke up and it was time to head back to Kota Kinabalu in the dark.

Julio had not had anything to drink, so he drove us back down the windy, steep roads all the way back. When on the flat lowlands, he slammed the brakes suddenly.

“What was that? A strange animal behind us!” he exclaimed. “Let’s go back and look at it!”

So he spun the car around and I got a glimpse of it in the headlights as it left the road, waddling along. It was a jack-Russell sized, spiky looking creature with a bushy tail. To me it looked grey. It was confident and walked with real swagger. As is normal for me, I chased it into a ditch, as the entire world tipped and swayed side to side…

“Julio, get my camera, it’s in the yellow bag!” I slurred.

He fetched it as I kept trying to corner the animal.

“Hey, I know what that is, it’s a…”

Too late. It stopped, looked at me with black, angry eyes and let out a threatening growl. My thoughts that it was a porcupine were quickly dismissed when Julio cried out:

“Argh! That smell… I knew it was a skunk, I just didn’t know the English word for it!”

The skunk had sprayed its foul smell all over my legs and shoes. I could not stop laughing all the way back, it was just the stupidest thing ever. For two weeks Julio could not get the smell from his car, and my clothes had to be washed and dried several times to remove the smell.

Who else can say they went out drinking and ended up literally skunked? By the way I never got a picture of it!

Got the Indonesian Travel Fever…

I had felt a little sick the night before, nothing too bad, just nauseous and quite run-down. But today was to be a great adventure- I had booked a liveaboard dive trip leaving Flores in eastern Indonesia and exploring the reefs around Komodo, home of the famous dragons.

As the boat chugged out of the port I felt the urge to lay down and do nothing, in fact I had trouble staying awake. The cool sea breeze was pleasant and the seas were oily calm and deep blue. Fringing reefs and sandbars around the islands gave them a lovely pale green hue. The boat would lurch as it hit conflicting currents but soon enough we were at our dive site.

Feeling rather sluggish but not actually ill I geared up and soon hit the water. The rest of the group went ahead but maybe sensing something was wrong one of the staff kept a close eye on me. I felt her grab my arm and steer me around a few times once we reached the maximum depth and I felt very distant all of the sudden. The tiny yellow sea cucumbers waving their feeding tentacles out to trap prey, the caves in the rock and the colorful fish all seemed to exist in a different reality, as if I was watching it all on television. As the nauseous feeling returned and fatigue set in rapidly, I had to surface as quickly as I safely could. Once back on the boat I could hardly stand, so I changed, dried off and looked at the meal on offer. Typically Indonesian it was almost entirely sugar and starch. Pineapple biscuits with sugary pineapple (likely artificial) jam inside, plus a great big steaming bowl of two minute noodles mixed with green beans and heavily sugared black soya sauce syrup did nothing to cure this overwhelming nausea. So I retired to the wheelhouse, the captain allowed me to use his bed, more like a shelf with a mattress. I collapsed there and did not move for a full 24 hours while the dive trip continued. During that time a fever like no other set in and my throat became dry. The dry throat set off a severe case of tonsillitis to add to the fun. It was so bad I could not swallow my own saliva, and sips of water were akin to swallowing hot razor blades. But the body has remarkable ways of dealing with this. After a while, when not trying to painfully ingest water I had this odd sense of calm, like there was nothing I could do about it, and I felt wonderfully detached. I could think clearly but my body would not respond. So that is how I was for a full 24 hours, unable to move, sleep or even be fully awake. But nature does call eventually and I felt a fart working its way out, so I let it slip- much to my regret. With all of the strength I could muster I hobbled out with my now full shorts to the boat toilet and totally spray painted the bowl in one go. In a blind panic I washed my shorts in the bucket of water next to the toilet. With smelly brown water now on the floor, the toilet bowl, in the bucket and somehow part way up the wall behind me I turned the taps on and let the scupper holes do the rest and watched in relief as it all washed out over the side. A flush of the toilet sent the murky contents of the bowl out to sea in a billowing brown liquid cloud. I did try to eat, the owner of the company was there, and the divemasters and other guests sat around as a bunch of fresh bananas was passed about. I tried very hard to eat one, and let the skin slip over the side to join a procession of leaves and plastic floating in the current. The owner of the company, a wrinkly hard boiled middle aged lady saw it drift past and went ballistic about pollution and how we don’t throw banana peels over the side and so on.

Seriously?

Anyway, she remained silent after that and the divemaster asked if I wanted to go back to shore. After only 30 hours of feeling like just dying? I agreed to head back, if I had been able to say so I would have done it earlier. So another dive boat eventually passed and I peeled myself up from the floor and was taken to it on the small runabout by one of the assistants. Deposited among a bunch of curious tourists on the boat of another company we headed for shore. I slept most of the way there, still hardly able to say a word to the crowd standing around me.

We arrived on shore soon enough and I met up with a fellow Australian and helpful friend. She called my horrified mother to explain the situation and even let me sleep on her floor for the night. The next morning she drove me to the airport for an emergency flight out to Bali for medical treatment. Still hardly able to walk and extremely nauseous, I made it through the departure procedures and boarded the plane. On the 90 minute flight, I was re aquainted with Indonesia’s sweet tooth. Some sort of sugared deep fried something for want of a better word and a piece of heavily iced cake arrived in a box on the tray in front of me. The man sitting next to me smiled through broken, black teeth. I suddenly lost the appetite I had gained.

Landing in Bali, the scam and rip-off capital of Indonesia I mustered all of the strength I had to get past the dodgy airport taxi drivers and to a more reputable one that would deliver me to the ISOS clinic just out of Denpasar.

The doctor took blood, urine and fussed about in the sterile, white examination room. She seemed to know what to look for but would only talk about the tonsillitis. Apparently not knowing the cause of the intense fever, she prescribed painkillers, antibiotics and a gargle for the tonsillitis and sent me on my way after the receptionist had cleaned $400 USD from my account.

Feeling the fever had almost passed, I was left no choice but to book a hotel for the night and return to Flores the next morning to continue my adventures.

Almost exactly a year later I was back to fill in the gaps from the previous trip, so I booked a liveaboard trip with another company and climbed the steps to a lovely restaurant I had visited the year before. One of the waitresses must have seen me the year before, and came right over to say hi. She leaned in close and almost whispered:
“It’s OK, I won’t tell anyone.”

“Tell anyone exactly what?” I replied, rather curious.

“You know, who you are…”

“And who is that?” I said, more curious than ever.

“I know you’re from Westlife, but you want to keep it a secret, yes?”

I laughed so hard it hurt.

“What’s wrong?” she asked “You were here last year too. I told nobody then”

She genuinely thought I was a member of the Irish boyband Westlife. I looked at her carefully and it was clear she was telling what she thought was the truth.

She took my order and hurried off.

Later that night I went to bed feeling very tired. Well, I felt like that was expected as I had been sleeping on the streets of Lombok, taken two buses and two ferries over Sumbawa and Flores with hardly any sleep at all.

The next morning I awoke feeling very fatigued, but I boarded the runabout that would take me and two other passengers all the way to the mothership, a gorgeous wooden ship with all the modern furnishings and comforts named the Mona Lisa. On the way my condition deteriorated badly and I felt very weak. Not knowing what was happening, by the time I was aboard the Mona Lisa I could not sit upright. I tried in vain to eat the meal in front of me then excused myself, crawled into my cabin and promptly sprawled on the bed and passed out. I missed the first dive of the trip and the skipper suggested I head back to shore with the returning runabout. So that’s exactly what I did.

Back on shore, the company owners Ron and Jan went well out of their ways to help me. It was too late for an emergency flight back to Bali that day so Ron booked me a villa near the road. I could not walk on my own – my body refused to work. When I finally reached my bed I lay down on it and half-slept the rest of the day. For reasons unknown I had to get out of bed to call someone – I think it was for a bottle of water. People were walking past but I could not call out loud enough to get their attention. Night had fallen and I strained to see my watch. I tried my best to get out of bed but my body felt like it was made of lead and under a blanket of concrete. For hours I tried to move and finally rolled out of bed and hit the floor with a thud. Mustering all of the strength I had, I reached for the door and crawled down the steps to the restaurant area, and promptly collapsed. People came rushing over to help and though I could not see them I could hear everything they said and could think once again with absolute clarity. One commented that I had a terrible fever and another massaged my head. It took three of their strongest to get me back into bed where I laid all night. The weirdest dreams I have ever had plagued my attempts to sleep. Psychadelic flashing colors and amorphous squiggly shapes floated about, like a messed up toddler’s drawing. It was painful, the bed felt like it was made of sharp rocks though it was as soft as a cloud. I barely slept and the night felt like it went forever. I would doze for two hours, look at the watch and see only five minutes had passed. This went on all night. Morning came and Ron checked up on me. He bundled me into his car and we headed off to the local hospital. The doctor took one look at me and said he wasn’t going to do anything. Take painkillers and sleep was his advice. Ron then collected my gear and took me to the airport for a flight back to Bali. My shoes and hat were left on the boat, so Ron had found me the only pair of sandals that came close to fitting. I am US size 15, and the largest feet anybody has in Indonesia is about size 10. So that’s what Ron had to get. They were rip-offs of the “massage sandals” that have raised rubber fingers and a plastic ball that sits under your heel. The intention is to massage your feet. I weigh 105kg, am 193cm tall and my feet were far too big for these, all of that weight pressing down on such a small area felt much like walking on upturned football shoes. But that was all that was on offer in the shoe shops! The airport was the next stop so I boarded the plane and once again said goodbye to Flores in exactly the same manner as last time. The inflight food was much the same too, sickly sweet and disgusting.

Landing in Bali I did make it to a clinic, just before my legs gave way and I fell on the floor in the waiting room. I found myself on a bed with the doctor trying in vain to take blood. It wouldn’t flow at first, but soon it filled the vacuum flask, thick, dark and syrup-like.

“You are dangerously dehydrated” she remarked. “You must drink as much as you can or you will die. With blood so thick your heart is lucky to still be working.”

“Wow.” I replied. “I have been too sick to drink…”

She gave me a can of the dubiously named “Pocari Sweat,” an Asian isotonic drink. Then she called for the nurse who wheeled in the one thing I truly hate – the drip. So for the next four hours (at $100 each… again) I was rehydrated though this sinister tube going into my arm.

She came back after a couple of hours. Staring at a printed set of results, she remarked:

“It seems you have dengue fever, and it is not the first time according to the results.” She also explained that the reason I never learned of it last time was that doctors do not like to inform foreigners that they have dengue, as the next diagnosis in Flores will be the first. No doctor wants to be the first, though it is common.

Feeling a little better I checked out, paid the bill and headed to the nearest sort of clean hotel, right next door to a hospital. Checking in, my night got worse as the fever returned, so I dragged myself to the hospital early the next morning and checked in.

Almost immediately I was loaded on a bed and sent up to a private ward where I spent the next five days on a drip. I hate that thing. The nurses refused to let me take it out, and when I did they put it back in again. The worst thing is having to get up to answer the call of nature, dragging it around on its wheels which insist on a ballet performance rather than going in a straight line.

The final day was pure hell. The final stage of the dreaded dengue is a full body itch. It is unbearable, so after enduring hours of it I gave in and called the nurse who gave me an injection on my thigh. This also meant my leg went numb and I could barely use it! But at least the fever had finally gone and I was well on the way to recovery.

Lombok highs and lows…

On arrival at Lombok itself, I stepped off the boat into the warm, dirty water that lapped on the grey sandy beach. As usual upon arriving somewhere new in Indonesia there was a welcoming party of ‘friendly’ locals wanting to help me, for a handsome price of course. Wading through the grabbing hands with long dirty fingernails I managed to convince them I did not need transport nor a helping hand. One particularly persistent individual wore a cheap fake leather jacket, blue tinted sunglasses with his greasy hair tied back in a ponytail. Instantly I felt he was a questionable character to say the least.

“Where you going?” he half asked, half demanded.

“Jalan-jalan, terima kasih” (walking, thankyou) I replied.

“Come to my shop, I have tours”

“No, I want to look around”

He tried to grab my arm and escort me to his shop. I refused and told him to get lost. He slyly sauntered off down the street. This was to set the tone for most of my time in Lombok. I made my way to the local jetty and sat down, locals sending me dodgy grins through yellow teeth. Not a happy grin, but one that seeks opportunity, a way to suck money from your pockets. A European couple were nearby, in a sea of people demanding this and that from them as they tried in vain to wave them away. Once I had gathered my bearings I heaved my pack back onto my shoulders and strolled past all of the “Hello Misters,” “Where you goings?” and “Transports?” and asked a local where I may hire a motorcycle from. He pointed over the road to a run down shop front, so I walked in. Never having hired one before I had no idea what to expect or what to do. The overweight man with yellow teeth smiled a sleazy grin.

“Hello my best friend”

“Uh, hi” I said

“What you want?”

A younger man, skinny with a shaved head and semi genuine smile moved in and took over.

“My name is Deano. You hire motorcycle from me?”

“Well, I need to also get to Flores”

“To Flores from here… Four hundred thousand.” He pointed to a sign on the wall.

“Well, lets do a deal, motorcycle hire and transfer to Flores.”

We moved into the entertaining area, if it could be called that with a semi-outdoor setting on a bamboo platform with some couches, cushions and an television with some Indonesian soap opera playing. Others gathered around, including the seedy fake leather suit man. Deano patted me on the shoulder.

“You are like my brother but from another family…” he grinned in a way that forced me to distrust him further. “I like your watch…” he added as an afterthought.

I managed to force the price down, although it was still a little expensive. He then called his brother over, the real one this time to take me to the ATM. The ATM as it turns out, was a fair distance away as we dodged traffic and headed towards it. Farmers sat in little carts pulled by ponies clip-clopping their way back and forth, taking their cargo of coconuts, hay and people to wherever they were going. On the way, Deano’s brother turned to me.

“Buy me a beer. A large one. Plus pay me an extra ten thousand for this trip to the bank.”

“No, absolutely not.” I replied, furious at his rudeness. “Your brother promised me I would not pay that. Besides, I already paid you.”

“But I want it. Give it to me. Make it a small one”

“NO!”

He fell silent for a while

“But you can get me a pack of cigarettes. I like to smoke.”

You need not be an Oxford scholar to figure out my reply to that demand.

Once again he fell silent and said nothing for the rest of the trip.

Back at Deano’s I paid the fee and was shown to the motorbike. After a look at it I decided the wise thing to do would be photograph it with the men around, so I took photos of every scratch, dent and flaked bit of paint. Visibly stung, the seedy ponytail man grinned and decided to be in the pictures. I now knew there would be no claims of damage, so I went back inside and unpacked some of my bag. Like flies on a carcass, they gathered around to see what I had.

“Give me this. I want it!” one said

“When you come back, I want you to give me that” said another.

“When you come back, give me your mobile!” demanded Deano. In Australia, that means mobile phone number so I assumed that and said OK.

I unpacked what I knew I wouldn’t need such as my fins, which seedy ponytail guy told me he wanted, plus my mask and snorkel, which he also verbally expressed interest in. They pointed at various items such as cameras and anything else saying I should leave them in their care. Absolutely not, I informed them. So I re-packed the pack, told them I would remember everything I left with them and sped off as fast as I could, weaving through the traffic all the way out into the countryside. A sign caught my attention.

“Gengga Waterfall →”

Curious, I followed the road. It wound its way up the hillside, past a small village and into the hinterland. Rainforest, typical of the New Guinean/Australian style that Wallace had described grew thick on each side, with the odd cacao or banana plantation amongst it. On the edge of the road grasses and lianas competed for light while inside the forest looked dark and forbidding. The odd black swallowtail flitted among the vegetation while small swiftlets wheeled and banked over the road, several nearly hitting me in the face. The road twisted and turned over streams full of plastic and paper and through more small villages and tiny stores selling basics including fuel in glass bottles literally by the liter. Locals in general see streams as a place to throw rubbish as it gets carried to the sea anyway, or in this case piled high either side. Streams are also sewers. Eventually I saw a sign for the waterfall pointing off the road and down a dirt track. I followed it past gawking villagers into the village itself. Asking about the waterfall brought squeals of laughter from the village children, but it was clear the adults did not trust me. Judging by their looks, nor did I trust them. It was the same sidewards glance I would get everywhere. No smile either for most of the time. They pointed me in the direction of the waterfall, so I sped off down the rocky, dirt path and arrived in a small car park. The sign said parking was 2000 IRP. About twenty cents. Several men sat in a shelter made of bamboo, and one asked me if I wanted to take a guide to the waterfall. His name was Udin. Actually a kind man and very easy to get along with I decided to stay and talk with him. He said there were no snakes about at all. Snakes by now were very conspicuous in their absence. Also, for the first time I had stopped the motorbike and noticed the forest that covered the hill in front of us was deathly silent. I asked about the birds.

“Not many” said Udin, “But there are many frogs.”

What happened to the birds that Wallace had described? Where were the calls from the jungle? Something wasn’t right as the only sounds were the cicadas, crickets and the odd Tokay gecko grunting in readiness for a noisy night. Deciding to stay near the jungle, I booked Udin’s guest room. Built from woven bamboo and hardwood poles on stilts overlooking the rice fields and jungle it was quite a nice place, but with no electricity. Udin came with me and told me it would be nice to have dinner together at six thirty, so I decided to explore for a few hours and find some electricity to charge my cameras. Udin’s wife suggested I go to their son Adi’s place, as he had electricity I could use. So I went back to the village to find Adi’s house. Being largely a strict Muslim island many of the women and young girls were covered up in Hijab outfits and the Mosque was at the centre of town. Swiftlets flew in and out making loud chattering noises which echoed through the village. I stopped to ask some women where I may find Adi’s place. They looked at me puzzled. A man came over and asked what I wanted. His expression was friendly, but by no means sincere. He seemed to have other motives as he patted me on the back.

“Adi’s house.”

“What for?”

“His mother told me I could use his electricity.”

“There is no electricity here” he said with a sarcastic smile, but not in a joking manner.

I looked around and saw power lines going into all of the houses. I could hear radios and the Mosque even managed to send a prayer over its speakers.

“No electricity here. No Adi, go to the next village, twenty kilometres away.”

I looked at him, not believing a word of what he said. Wanting desperately to get away from him and his sleazy, sarcastic manner I drove out, swerving around chickens, dogs and children back out onto the main dirt path and up the hill. Some teenagers sitting under a shelter called out to me, so I stopped and said hello. One of them asked where I was going, and I told him I needed electricity.

“You are welcome to use my power point” he said in broken English mixed with Indonesian. I took him up on his kind offer just as the power went out. Plugging everything in anyway, we sat down to talk. I had all of the usual questions such as where I was from, how long was I staying, where was I going and where I learned to speak Indonesian. An old lady with a wrinkled face smiled at me and asked if I was married. I laughed and told her not yet. She laughed and suggested there were many nice girls in this village. Coffee came out, the usual sediment-filled Indonesian style consisting of 50 percent raw sugar. The sugary liquid tasted nice, but too sickly sweet as the inside of my mouth began to wrinkle like old Ibu’s face. The teenager that lent me the powerpoint told me of his friend Anton that grows excellent coffee and was coming over to visit in a few minutes. Soon enough, a man appeared on a motorbike. He had long hair in a ponytail and I instantly felt comfortable that he was genuine and kind. He looked at me and extended his hand. I shook it and said…

“Hi, Anton!”

He jumped back in fright, and looked at me and asked in perfect English “How did you know my name?”

“I just did, I had a feeling your name was Anton. I know these things.” I said, hiding my laughter.

Obviously reeling from fright, he stared at me while I tried to keep a straight face.

“Haha, your friend here told me you were Anton, and you make coffee!”

Anton relaxed and laughed a genuine laugh and sat down under the shelter. He told me he lived nearby and to follow the signs to his house the next day to see his coffee, cocoa and vanilla garden and spend the day looking around. I could not refuse, so we shook hands on meeting up the next day.

That night I needed to try and find some animals. As I ate dinner with Udin a bird called nearby with a short “Hoo.”

“We call this cat bird. It has eyes like a cat and sometimes makes a sound like ‘chop chop chop’…”

I knew he was talking about two different birds. The one that makes the chopping call is the Large Tailed Nightjar, which I am already familiar with. It lives on the ground, looking much like a fallen stick by day, and when night comes it sits in the open or flies about like a giant swallow in slow motion with curious flicking wing beats and snaps up flying insects. The bird that makes the hoots was something else, possibly an owl though my field guide showed no owls at all in Lombok. That was the last of the bird I heard, so after dinner I went out to look for reptiles and amphibians in the rain. Gigantic frogs (Limnonectes kadarsani) sat on the road, but in the rain I dared not get my camera out. Brown with some black barring they launched out of the way when I got near and continued noisily crashing through the grass until they were a long way off. Also about in numbers were the introduced Asian Black Spotted Toad and Crab Eating Frogs, as well as the ever present Tokay Geckoes in every palm tree. But other than the mysterious giant frogs that I never could photograph, all of the other animals I saw were introduced.

The next day came and I packed up, had breakfast with Udin and went over to Anton’s, following the signs through the narrow village paths, around chickens, past giggling children trying out their little English skills they learned in school.

“Hello Mister!”

“Hello good morning!”

I returned their greetings with “Selamat pagi” (Good morning!)

They squealed in delight and discovered they were embarrassed, turning to skip and laugh off into the cacao plantation nearby. Up a small dirt ramp the motorbike went and along a thin path behind the houses. Finally I eased the bike over a thin wooden plank over a drain. Anton was sitting peacefully outside his house and waved a greeting with a warm smile. We began talking. I asked Anton if I may interview him for an online documentary. He agreed, and though he did not ask I said I would give him some money for his time, about five dollars- an average day’s pay. He smiled and told me that would be plenty. This was a great test, most people would have seen the possibility and tripled it. Anton clearly was happy not to get it. This, if nothing else warmed me up to him. Soon the friends and relatives gathered around and I switched on the cameras to begin the interview. He spoke of how he wants to create jobs in the village, bring tourists in and sell local, organic produce. He spoke of the importance of looking after the forest and not spraying chemicals as well as the animal sounds you can hear way off in the jungle where the only other sound is rushing water. He spoke of deer, civets and monkeys, water buffalo and the flying lizards. I asked about the birds, and he said when he was young in the 1970s there were many birds such as cockatoos, parrots and many more. The jungle was loud with them. Now there were none except for in the remotest forests which were vanishing fast with encroaching rice paddies and other farms plus the growing population that needs housing. He spoke with a real awareness of the environment in a way that I had never heard in this country so far. He wanted jobs for everyone plus a clean, healthy village. Nobody else I met seemed to care about tomorrow. He poured me a cup of his famous vanilla and chocolate coffee and showed me his art work. Coffee gift-cups made of bamboo and carved with local designs and topped off with a lid were his specialty. He included various coffee blends in them, only wanting a very reasonable price for them when visitors come. I tasted vanilla beans, dried cacao beans and smelt the freshly dried coffee.

“Do you want to see how I farm?” he asked

I could not refuse, so he packed my bags inside his house and we set off on the motorbikes to the farm he has. He, with the workers led me through cacao, banana, pineapple and nutmeg plantations covered by the forest canopy, plus through some local native fruits and medicines. The tops of the trees had been cropped to allow them to branch outwards for maximum yield. The trimmed bits had new growth grafted on to make them produce even more. Obviously very long, hard work to maintain, he invited me to sit under another shelter and try more coffee, this time it was to be the raw product.

WATCH THE VIDEO OF THE NEXT DAY (new tab/window)

After my time with Anton and the motocross champion was over I decided to move on to see what else Lombok had to offer. I headed off into the rapidly fading daylight, looking for a place to stay the night. I passed village after village, the seas lapping the shore gently, framed in coconut palms. Idyllic indeed but there was no time to stop and admire it all. Rushing around achieved nothing, I ended up somehow on the side of the mountain at a dead end. Tracing my steps back I followed the coast once more as the last of the sunlight faded away. The road headed inland and I followed it past rice paddies and small farms. The insects by now had become active and my eyes were regularly smacked by every kind of six legged creature the island offered. Putting the visor down was no use, my breath fogged it up so I couldn’t see. So I soldiered on, taking yet another wrong turn that looked right at the time and headed inland further. So I backtracked once more, finding the coast road again and eventually, very tired and hungry I arrived at Bellanti village.

I stopped the bike under a small pondok (shelter) next to a small general store. The owners and people from all around including a bunch of children were around me in an instant, full of questions. I answered in the best Bahasa Indonesia I could muster. Eventually they understood I was looking for a place to stay, telling me there was nowhere here. But they did cook me up a huge meal of fried rice and noodles I bought. They added eggs and sauce to it for a big meal indeed.

“No human could eat that…” one lady said to another

Challenge accepted! I thought to myself.

They all watched in horror as I finished the entire lot. A man was sitting next to me, his foot badly swollen with a large, crater like ulcer on it. I asked him what caused that.

“Ular cobra!” he replied.

The most feared animals here are without doubt the snakes. This man had been bitten on the foot by a spitting cobra. He was walking home from the farm in the evening and stepped on it without seeing it. His bare foot was quickly bitten. For a month it had swollen and the venom had got to work on his flesh which had become partly gangrenous in that time. Luckily he was over the hill as far as the worst part of the bite was concerned and well and truly recovering, though it was not a pretty sight. Make no mistake, these people are tough!

A girl, maybe five months pregnant was there. It was clear that nobody trusted me (typical small village mentality here and just about anywhere) but she offered that I could sleep for the night at her parent’s place and lock the bike up safely there. It was either that or nothing else, so I accepted. It was only a short walk away. I said goodbye and thank you to the villagers and followed her to the house. Some of the local boys had gathered around in pure curiosity and the girl opened the shed so I could lock up my bag and motorbike, she said if I didn’t it would all be gone very quickly.

Other than nuclear and biological weapons, torture and boy bands, the next worse thing to be invented by humanity are the squat-toilets. The dreaded feeling of impending doom came over me as I felt nature getting ready to call as I spoke with the locals. I asked the pregnant girl where I may find a toilet. She ordered a young boy to show me where it was. I was pointed to somebody’s house and taken into a bathroom/laundry and suggested I just go on the floor and hose it away into the drain on the corner. Obviously they thought I needed to fire off some liquid only. So I rushed back out and said

“No, not that kind of toilet, the other one!”

“Ok, wait a minute…” she said and led me over the road into a random person’s house. Nodding and smiling and saying thankyou, I walked past them and their shocked expressions as they watched television. With a nod from the girl who stayed at the front doorway, I went into their bathroom. In the corner was the dreaded squat toilet. I hate the things, there is never any paper to dampen the “splashback” that always comes back and hits you dead center. Also, one uses their hand to wipe clean with a ladle of water. But none of that is all that much of a big deal as my feet slid about on the greasy floor. I tried not to think of the cause of the said grease as I wondered how any human could even fit in the tiny cubicle. You see, Indonesians are small people, the average size is well below six feet. I am six foot four, so I needed to be some form of gymnast to position myself above the “device.” I then used all of my very limited contortion skills to execute the maneuver required to hit the watery target with the payload. After the job was over, I felt relieved for so many reasons and thanked the still shocked family on my way out. The father muttered a short, stunned blessing to me as I stepped back into the dark street.

The girl pointed at a small pondok. “This will be where you sleep tonight.”

Obviously the village did not trust me at all. This is sort of a test to see how I would react. So I tried in vain to sleep, the young men from the village shared the pondok and we told stories and joked for most of the night. But sleep never came. The hard wooden planks prevented any chance of it, while swarms of mosquitoes buzzed about my face. Then there was the horrible unwelcome feeling I had in this village, I have never ever felt unsafe in Indonesia, even walking the less safe parts of Java alone at night – and for that matter the “hot zone” of near civil war Papua. This time I felt like I would wake up to a knife in my back, despite the relative friendly curiosity of the locals.

The next morning I sat up, red eyed and bitten all over by the nasty insects, but no knife. I even checked. Everyone headed off to the day’s activities while the pregnant girl asked me to meet her parents. So I was invited into the house and sat down next to her father. As her husband was away, I asked about marriage customs in Lombok.

“We marry very young compared to you.” she replied. “Usually if you are 22 and not married you are considered strange. In fact many of us are married while still in school. When you finish school you are expected to start having children.” She put her hand on her heavily swollen belly. “I am 24 and will become a mother later than most of my friends. I am a school teacher so I had to finish my study first.”

She laid down a meal of noodle soup with eggs and searing hot chilli on the floor in front of her father and I. He looked at me and smiled. She looked at me and I could tell there was a burning question.

“I know you from somewhere…”

I was slightly shocked. “Where would that be?” I asked.

“You’re from Westlife! I knew it! What are you doing in Lombok?”

“I’m not from Westlife!” I said, totally blown away. I looked at her to determine if she was joking. She most certainly was not.

The meal was one of those double-burning chilli meals that Indonesians all over are so fond of. I hate the stuff and battled to eat it at all, her and her father gulped it down as if it was nothing. But it was time to head on, I thanked them both for their kindness and headed back to return the motorbike.

The trip back was rather uneventful, I zipped through the heavy traffic, barely missing several collisions and closing gaps between cars, but soon enough I was back where I started, and Deano was there waiting for me.

I booked a small villa to stay in near what was left of the beach, and I hated the fact that Deano followed me there like a fly.

“Cockfight tonight. You come?”

No thanks Deano, I will be OK without it.

“You must. Traditional here in Lombok.”

“I’m sure it is, leave me alone now.”

So Deano left, making sure he gave me the ticket to Flores and telling me to be waiting by 7:30 the next morning for the transport to the ferry.

He turned back, trying one last time to make some cash from me. “Come shopping. You buy souvenirs for people back home.”

“No thanks Deano.”

He turned back, dejected and walked away. I did not feel sorry for him in the slightest after all the tricks and scams I caught him out on already. It had been a journey that had let me down immensely, from the horrible, obvious sleaze to the lack of animals Wallace had described, added to that the many feral animal introductions from nearby western Indonesia. I was so relieved the next day after swatting all of the mosquitoes that had found gaps in the netting over the bed and made my way out to the waiting area for the transport. My time in Lombok was nearly over, but I was not out of trouble yet. Lombok was to haunt me for much longer… (See the Indonesian Travle Fever story)

Party Borneo Style…

My expatriate Australian friend Shane needed help building a shed. He lives among the Rungus in far north Borneo. They are a tribe that occupy the lowlands, especially in the Kudat region. Shane married one and now lives in a village or kampung. While working with the Rungus on this construction, I made friends with many of them, we would go fishing after work, hunt the squirrels which they eat and generally have a few laughs.

The Kampung is a world apart from what Westerners are accustomed to. It’s muddy, rubbish lays about all over the place and you have to be careful not to tread on the chickens and dogs running around. The Rungus, unlike most of the other tribes of Borneo live in a communal house, called a longhouse. This one is around thirty five meters long and along the front is a shared, covered balcony. Each family lives in a unit within the longhouse, their front door opening to the balcony. Things are done differently here.

Animal welfare does not have the same weight as it does in Western culture. One time I arrived late in the afternoon. A young boy was standing there with a badminton racket. I stopped to watch him in wonder. Without warning he leaped up into the air and swung it. There was the sound of impact and tiny little bat, dead and mutilated fell to the ground. Shocked but not angry, I approached him and asked him in Malaysian what he did that for- and noticed several more laying on the ground around him.

“We just do this” he replied.

“Do you have a reason, do you eat them?” I inquired.

“No.”

“Well…” I continued “Do you know what these bats eat?”

“No”

“They eat many, many mosquitoes and stop them from biting you at night.” I replied.

I could see this was a big revelation to him, and he was clearly thinking about this as he walked back inside the long house and hung up the racket.

Lunch times were fun on the construction site. Some of the guys make marble guns. These are powerful weapons. Powered by alcohol and a piezoelectric clicker, we shot a marble through three layers of corrugated metal roofing. So at lunch we would set up bottles and have target practice or try to knock coconuts down from the trees. The real reason they made these was for hunting squirrels and mouse and barking deer, sometimes they would bring the meat down to the site to cook up for breakfast before work.

One evening I was packing up the work site alone and a young guy from the village drove up beside me, and in Malay told me there was an engagement party up the hill, and to come alone. This seemed fairly odd at the time, but sounded like fun. If there is anything these people know how to do, it’s party!

So I jumped on my motorbike and navigated the treacherous dirt road to the small village in the dark. As soon as I got close I could hear local pop music, people laughing and drinking and a general fun time being had by all. Stepping off the bike I was welcomed in by some of my friends. The custom here is to drink. Shane had some stories of how popular alcohol is here, and their remarkable ability to consume it.

One party I held, there was this guy that arrived and drank enough rice wine to kill a normal person. He staggered out into the garden, vomited and passed out. As if nothing had happened, he woke up an hour later, walked in and drank a whole lot more then vanished again.

This reminded me of the footage of an African honey badger I saw. It attacked a deadly puff adder, got bitten, killed the puff adder and collapsed, apparently dead. Some time later it showed signs of life, woke up and shook itself off, eating the deadly snake and sauntering back into the grassland like it was the normal thing to do.

So with that in mind I stepped into the longhouse with a cheer from the mass of people inside (being the only white person in there) and was promptly swallowed up by the party. A Tiger beer appeared in front of me. Olin, a wiry, hard working friend of mine and shirtless as usual patted me on the back, calling out “Aromaiti!” which literally means “party” which was followed by another cheer from the assembled crowd. So that beer was quickly consumed and I was invited into one of the units. Olin and his close friend Tetong asked me to join a circle on the wooden floor. This was the realm of the men only- women were not welcome in these men’s gatherings. Instead they sat outside on the balcony and gossiped and watched some others singing and dancing. Someone had brought along a television with a karaoke set up. Karaoke has revolutionized village life in Borneo. Everyone seems to want to be some sort of star and everybody sings. Usually they are songs on VCD by local artists in traditional ceremonial wear, or a more popular modern artist singing an overly emotional song. It is now unusual not to hear karaoke playing every night anywhere in Borneo.

The drinking circle was in full swing. Local home grown tobacco cigarettes are rolled either in the bark of a tree or dried, rolled up grass. These were passed around to go with the drinks. Not a smoker myself, this is one of the rare cases I will make an exception. I was already welcome within the village, but it is important to take part in activities like this if you are to get full appreciation. The local tobacco stung the inside of my mouth and throat, so I didn’t fully inhale. The men clapped and laughed, then the true horror arrived.

Tapai is a distilled rice wine. It is served at room temperature and tastes largely like methylated spirits. In short, it is disgusting. You could pour it into the fuel tank of your motorbike and drive away I suspect. They all seem to know how foul this liquid is, yet they all drink it. So naturally when the cup arrived from the person beside me, Tetong reached over with the bottle and topped it up. They all stopped talking and watched. I held the cup up to my mouth and took a decent mouthful and swallowed it quickly. Have you ever seen a frog try to eat a stinkbug? If so you can imagine how my mouth felt. But you must not show any discomfort, that seems to be the entire purpose of this futile game that you cannot actually win. One of the men from a nearby village, Mr Ben clapped his hands, already having largely replaced his blood with tapai during the course of the evening so far. A funny man, always keeping everyone entertained he reminded me of a scarecrow; tall, skinny and wrinkled by the harsh sun. Maybe he was a little too happy, I found out he had just gone through a nasty divorce.

A few rounds later and I decided to see what was happening outside. On the balcony the party was in full swing. The population of the longhouse was five times the normal. More beer and tapai appeared in front of me, always with a watching crowd. I couldn’t let them down, so I had more and more. Things started to become strange. Time slowed down, the longhouse was happy and buzzing with life. Already, people were passed out on the floor. Mr Ben had found his own patch of balcony. A styrofoam takeaway container was stuck to the side of his face and a dog was licking him. He stirred, stood up (with the container still in place) and called out “Aromaiti!” and staggered off, not to be seen again for the next few days.

A small audience sat and watched the traditional Rungus dance. One of the men, who we all knew as “Uncle” was in the full traditional outfit, leading a line of dancing ladies, his face old and wrinkled looking ahead and showing no expression, arms out horizontally either side, hands at right angles to his arms with the fingers pointing up. His back was rigid and straight and he shuffled his feet- the only visible sign of movement. The traditional outfit is a thick, heavy belt-cross-sarong that is tasseled at the bottom, supported by two straps that come off it, cross over at the chest and back and sit on the shoulders. It is black with intricate embroidered gold, white, blue, green and red symmetrical patterns running down the straps and around the belt. The whole outfit is topped off by a beautiful hat. If you folded a napkin in half diagonally and rolled it halfway starting at the wide, diagonal end, then touching the rolled ends tip to tip you would have a fair idea of what this hat looked like. It is heavily embroidered and worn so the remaining triangle is at the front, point upwards to show the design off. Meanwhile, my friend Rowan had arrived as he learned of the party. He came in, was given a drink and sat down. With a lot of catching up to do, he downed several drinks in quick succession. Uncle finished his lap of the dance floor, loosened up and came back to life, smiling. He handed me the outfit. With a sense of great honor I was fitted out- a huge mark of respect from the Rungus and a clear sign I was trusted and welcome- not something that comes automatically in these small villages. So I began my dance to the sound of the local metal gongs. Having been taught the traditional dances of the Dusun and Kadazan to the south, it did not look all that different to me, so I stuck with what I knew, starting out with Uncle’s style. With the dancing ladies behind me laughing, I executed the “bird dance” which involves slight swaying and moving up and down with the outstretched arms imitating a bird’s wings. Everybody was laughing. So I finished my lap and handed the outfit to Rowan who did the same.

The party was now ending and those that weren’t in a coma on the ground were staggering out to the cars and motorbikes. It was time for me to get back to Shane’s house, and Rowan agreed. We both struggled to stand upright and managed to climb onto our motorbikes. I remember driving back with the road tilting and swerving all around me. Rowan managed to drive into a thicket of trees. Shane’s house is on a hill. Between where we were and the house is a great big dip in the potholed dirt road. Either side of it is an even steeper drop into the trees. A slip off the narrow, steep road could cause severe injury. I aimed the bike as best I could down the hill and made it up the other side to Shane’s doorstep. Rowan looked at the dip, aimed the bike and passed out. He awoke miraculously just before he hit the house.

Later I found out that the Rungus dance is laughed at by the other tribes as it looks like a scarecrow, yet the Rungus laugh at the bird dance because they see it as a women’s only dance. Maybe I should have asked first!

Self surgery in Sabah

I hate ingrown toenails, I really do. Once they begin there is only one course of action – remove the side of the nail. Often this fixes the problem permanently. While living on the edge of the jungle in Lahad Datu, in Sabah, Borneo I had one begin to form.

The worst thing was the impossible task of keeping it clean. My presence in the area revolved around going in and out of the jungle to photograph and document all of the animals I could find. So every night it would get wet from the swamps and wallows and dirt would always get caught up in the already infected toe. So something had to be done about it. I was living with the wonderful Dosis family, and their daughter is a nurse at the local hospital, so I was invited to go to the hospital for treatment. This is where the fun truly began…

Pearl asked me to be there at 2pm when she started work on that day, so I jumped on the motorbike and rode to the hospital. Apparently this is the “new” hospital. The walls are flaking away and the outside is covered in long vertical stains from its premature aging, no doubt due to building funds being taken as “commission” by higher authorities. The old hospital is considered “bad” so use your imagination.

Once inside I asked around to find the emergency department. I was directed down a corridor and into the emergency room. Leaning against the flaking walls were various people from the surrounding kampungs (villages) with missing fingers, broken bones and other ailments. So I sat for a few minutes and Pearl appeared and called me over to the sign-in desk. The lady behind the desk was surprised to see me, as I was the only westerner there, and maybe the only one for the last month or two. So she took down my details and RM 50 and asked me to sit and wait back inside the emergency room. A passing nurse asked me to sit somewhere better than the floor and found a nice chair.

So there I was, stared at from all sides by everyone in there. This really drove home the fact I was an outsider. Do you stare back? Pull a face? Sing and dance? Anyway, before I could decide how to react, the doctor came and asked me to go into a room and sit up on the table.

The room was old and worn out. Like everywhere else, the paint on the walls was falling off in large sections, the floor was covered in vinyl and lumpy while the operating table/bed was ready to collapse. Pearl prepared the equipment while the doctor looked at my foot. He was a fairly young doctor and muttered to Pearl in Bahasa that he wasn’t sure what to do.

“I’ve had this done before” I replied. “You must cut away the bad side of the nail, right to the base where it grows from.”

“So we take out the whole nail?” asked Pearl.

“No.” I said. “Just the edge.”

So the doctor asked “How much do I take away?”

“Just three millimeters” I answered.

Pearl prepared the lignocaine for the injection, filling up the syringe. The doctor stabbed it into my toe, this way and that, emptying a vast quantity of the anesthetic. It stung like crazy for a short time then went almost numb. He pinched it and grabbed the scalpel. As he was about to cut I could still clearly feel the side of my toe. So Pearl refilled the syringe and pumped another load of lignocaine into the toe. With the feeling all gone, the doctor resumed.

“Wait a minute…” I said “Do you have scissors?”

“No, funding cuts. We do not have.”

“This is supposed to be done with scissors” I replied.

“We do not have any in the hospital at all. I will use the scalpel. Now, how do I do this?

This is something you NEVER want to hear from your doctor when he has a sharp scalpel flashing in the fluorescent lights. I’m just glad it wasn’t something I heard before general anesthetic!

“OK, I will give you instructions step-by-step, and had you told me I would have brought my own scissors!” I reluctantly sat up and told him as he listened with great interest, following everything I said. (The customer is always right… right?) “Now… cut this edge, continue down parallel to the edge of the nail and right into the flesh at the base. You need to also cut the flesh and expose the growing part of the nail…”

Pearl was clearly amused but kept a straight face most of the time.

“Is this OK?” asked the doctor

“Yes, you’re doing fine. OK, so now get the tweezers and yank out the growing part of the nail. Make sure you get all of it. Any leftovers will grow in little annoying spikes and might cause more damage later.”

So he fished about with the tweezers and pulled all of the living nail out. Wiping the sweat off his brow, he asked if I wanted any more nails done. I politely declined and he left the room. Pearl bandaged up my toe. I thanked her, told her it was fun and we should do this again some time. Rain was brewing and thunder rumbled in the distance. I had to race back to the house before the rain fell.

This is literally the first time I have ever had to instruct a doctor during an operation. Let’s hope I don’t need major surgery any time soon…

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