by Kung Fu Zu 1/17/15
As I stepped out the airplane door on to the boarding ramp, the wind tore off my sunglasses and left them hanging on one ear. In South East Asia heavy winds normally meant rain, but here it was a bright day and blowing like a number 8 typhoon in Hongkong. The tourist brochures had described Sabah as “The Land Beneath the Wind”, and as I straightened my sunglasses, I thought, “Those brochures didn’t get it half right.”
On the short walk from the ramp to the seedy airport building, I noticed several Tai-tai’s mincing along in high heels. They made for a comical sight trying to, simultaneously, hold down their Cheongsams, protect their hairdos and carry several bags of valuables brought back from Singapore.
Although I was only thirty-one, I had been traveling the world alone for almost fourteen years. Thus, I had learned to carry little and move quickly when “on-the-road.” Darting between slower passengers, I was first to reach the terminal and went directly to one of several immigration booths.
As was often the case in such backwaters, the immigration officers were smoking, talking to each other, drinking tea or Horlicks and generally milling about doing nothing to earn their salaries. Indolent and immobile, they eyed the passengers trickling into the arrival hall.
I waited at the counter for a couple of minutes before one officer threw down his cigarette, spit into a nearby trash can and strolled to the booth. In slow motion, he opened the small plywood door, hanging on bent brass hinges, stepped in and sat down.
With a yawn, the man opened a drawer and brought out several rubber stamps and fiddled with them for awhile. Pulling open another drawer he produced several files and binders. He began to methodically place each item on the desk in some pre-determined spot, the boundaries of which were apparent to the official, but invisible to me.
I was considering whether this presentation was supposed to be a show of power, or if the man was anal retentive, when he looked up and demanded “Passport!” I gave him my well-worn passport and waited for him to pretend to study it. He opened one of the thick binders on his desk and leafed through it for about a minute, his eyes flitting between the binder, the passport and me. Grabbing a stamp, he raised it to his eye-level and then, somewhat dramatically, pounded it on a blank page. Tossing the passport back to me, he hollered “Next!”
Having only carry-on luggage I whisked through customs and went out to the taxi stand. Already sweating, I hopped into a somewhat rusty and banged up Corolla with “Teksi” stenciled on the side. The tires were bald. I said, “Kinabalu Peak Hotel.” The driver threw the car into gear and off we rushed at a crawl.
During the ride, I gazed out the window at a scene which was now familiar to me.
It is true there is much beauty in tropical countries. Few trees are so evocative as the palm or as beautiful as the flame of the forest. The constant heat and humidity create the perfect conditions for the lush vegetation, which one sees in National Geographic and travel magazines trying to sell paradise.
Unfortunately, this environment also makes for the proliferation of all sorts of insects, snakes and other disagreeable creatures, which make paradise somewhat less then idyllic. More disturbing is the fact that everything begins to rot very quickly. The stench of decay is something those photos in National Geographic can never convey. To this mixture, one must add an unfortunate habit the locals had of simply dropping, on the spot, anything they had finished with. This could, and did, include such things as chicken bones, all types of paper and plastic as well as the odd broken sandal or bicycle. I saw all of these, plus a dead goat, on the roadside as the taxi rattled to the hotel.
Coming into the town, we passed the Mosque with its bright white marble walls and polished golden dome. It seemed strangely out of place with the general decrepitude of its surroundings. Hundreds of people milled about within its grounds. Some were eating, others gesticulating wildly, but most just appeared to be sitting about dozing.
After about thirty minutes, the taxi stopped in front of the hotel. I paid the driver, grabbed my bags and started up the stairs. Once inside, I walked over to the check-in counter and rang the bell for assistance. While waiting, I took in the lobby with a quick glance. It was much like other hotel lobbies I’d seen in South East Asia, especially in backwaters like this. It had obviously been thrown up quickly and under budget.
The walls were coated with cheap whitewash, ubiquitous to the area. It rubbed off, if you brushed against it. There were dark spots in the corners testifying to a mildew, which would never relinquish its hold. A few colored lights were strung across the ceiling in deference to Hari Raya, and for any unspecified holiday which might come along. The place reeked of mold, stale cigarettes, sweat and pine oil.
A cheap print of some imagined Swiss Alp hung on one of the walls. Several clocks showing the local time as well as that of London, Tokyo and New York hung on another; a sure sign the management wanted to show they were modern and could cater to international travelers. Two men, who I guessed were traders, sat in rattan chairs and had a quiet conversation over drinks. One was, from his clothes, a local Chinese and the other European. They were enveloped in a haze of cigarette smoke, and smiling so broadly that I knew they had to be lying to each other.
My eyes settled on a short dumpy man standing about ten feet from me at the other end of the checkout counter. The man was of a type often encountered in the tropics. A European or American, he was wearing one of those ridiculous safari suits. This one happened to be even sillier than most as it was light, almost baby, blue not khaki or a more earthy color. He had a gold Rolex on one wrist, a gold bracelet around the other and several gold pens sticking out of his breast pockets. He sported gold rimmed glasses and a well-trimmed beard. I wondered, “How could anyone stand a beard in this climate?”
At that moment, the assistant manager came up to greet me and by the time the I had finished checking in, the man in the safari suit had disappeared.
About six months later, I was at home in Singapore listening to the BBC World Service when my doorbell rang. When I opened the door I was greeted by Paul, a Swiss friend, and one of Paul’s more flamboyant “girlfriends”, a caramel skinned Malay named Saleha.
She stood there, all tits and hips, in the most garish nylon leopard skin print body stocking I had ever seen. The garment was clinging so tightly to her figure that it was clear she was the only thing underneath it.
Her lips, already thick, were made bulbous by blood red lipstick. Heavily applied electric blue mascara was highlighted by coal black eyeliner. She had thick black hair that could only be described as “big”.
It was all too much for a 5’ 2” frame. And her appearance was all the more notable when juxtaposed to that of Paul’s. He was about 6’3”, with curly, light blond hair, pale gray green eyes, snow white skin and was a good 250 lbs.
As they stood in my doorway, I couldn’t help but thinking, “True love”. It was obvious they had just taken a break from carnal pleasures. Both had shining eyes, and roses in their checks. There was also the unmistakable tinge of musk mixed with Dial soap.
Guessing they needed a break before resuming their sport, I was about to invite them in when Paul asked “Would you like to go for a drink with us?“ Now, I didn’t relish being seen in the company of the leopard women, but Paul was a good friend and I hadn’t seen him for a couple of weeks, so I accepted the invitation.
Paul suggested we go to the Pigeon Coop to hear Calvin and the Cantonese Cowboys. This was a group of Chinese businessmen who dressed up in boots, blue jeans, cowboy hats and shirts and played Country and Western music five nights a week. It was all slightly bizarre.
As we entered the bar, we were greeted by the voice of Calvin belting away at “I’m an Okie from Muscogee” and customers yelling at each other in order to be heard. As my friends and I walked to our table, Saleha’s attire elicited a pronounced effect. Numerous pairs of lustful or disgusted eyes, depending on whether one was male or female, followed her to her seat.
We ordered drinks and sat back to enjoy the scene. Within a couple of minutes we were approached by Jim, a large bearded Californian I knew from the American Club. I introduced him to Paul and Saleha, who fluttered her eyelashes demurely. Jim told me he was there with some friends and asked me to come over to meet them. Since Paul and Saleha were clearly busy with each other, I agreed and excused myself from the two lovers.
Jim’s party consisted of twelve or thirteen people, mostly couples. He began to introduce me to each moving from left to right. About mid-way through the introductions, I turned and saw a bearded man extending his hand. He had a broad smile on his face. Before Jim had a chance to mention his name, the man said “Hi, I’m Barry” and vigorously shook my hand.
I am one of those people who never forget a face, but often cannot recall where I have seen it. But this time I knew immediately where I had encountered the man standing across from me. Before Barry could say another word I smiled and said “Hey, I’ve seen you before.” Still shaking Barry’s hand I went on, “Weren’t you at the Kinabalu Peak Hotel in K.K. last Hari Raya. You were wearing a short sleeved light blue safari suit and gold rimmed glasses. I also seem to recall you were wearing a gold Rolex and ID bracelet and had a couple of gold Mont Blanc pens in your pocket”.
I was rather proud of this feat of recall and beamed down on Barry who stood across from me with a somewhat puzzled look on his face. No doubt, he was amazed and flattered that someone, he had never met, had taken such detailed notice of him. He then stuttered, “Ah, ah, ah, ni-ni- nice to meet you”, withdrew his hand and collapsed back into his chair. I continued to meet the rest of the party and, the formalities having been observed, everyone started chattering again.
After about fifteen minutes I told everyone how pleased I was to have met them and went back over to Paul and Saleha. They appeared to have been discussing the finer points of the Kama Sutra and hadn’t missed me one bit. I understood.
I started telling them about the amazing coincidence of running into Barry when there was a stir across the room. I turned to see what was happening and noticed the woman sitting next to Barry spring up and storm out of the room. Barry followed closely behind her. Looking back to the group, I noticed Jim motioning for me to come over, so I trotted over wondering what had happened. As I approached, I noticed everyone looking up at me with expressions ranging from anger to suppressed glee.
“What was that all about?” I asked. In between laughs, Jim said, “That was Barry’s wife. He told her he was in Saudi Arabia for business over Hari Raya.”
I froze, mortified, as it dawned on me what I had done. I had possibly, probably, destroyed the marriage of a man who had never done me a bad turn. A man, who, thirty minutes before, I had not known. Since I had seen no girl, or boy, for that matter, around him at the hotel in Sabah, the thought had not crossed my mind that Barry was having a dirty weekend, better said, dirty weekday in K.K.
I mumbled some excuse saying “Had I known, uh.. I mean what are the chances?” and staggered back to Paul and Saleha. I told them what had happened and they were likewise startled. “That’s the problem with being married,” opined Saleha, always to the point. No illusions for her.
Later that night, as I lay in bed, I couldn’t stop thinking about the evening’s events. I was near convinced that kismet had been at work. It was almost cosmic. How else could one explain it? What were the chances of such a thing happening?
The odds were long, but not long enough for Barry whose fate had been sealed, in a matter of minutes, by our presence in that small hotel lobby on Borneo. • (1500 views)