A Matter of Minutes

Kunk Fu Zoby 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. • (1459 views)

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13 Responses to A Matter of Minutes

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    Well, actually, you don’t know what the final result was. Maybe he persuaded her that he was really doing a deal in Sabah (which I believe is what used to be known as British North Borneo back in colonial days) that had to be kept secret. (Of course, the deal could have involved buying sex, which could be why they were smiling, but hey, a deal’s a deal.)

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Yes, Sabah was known as British North Borneo and was run by the eponyomous company. Labuan, an island just offer Sabah, was the Japanese army headquarters for the area in WWII and there is a war cemetery on it. Plenty of Australian soldiers’ remains.

      Perhaps more interesting is Sabah’s neighboring State, Sarawak, which is also part of the Federation of Malaysia. At one time it was run by the “White Rajahs”, the Brooke family.

      Between them, Sabah and Sarawak, squeezed the Sultanate of Brunei down to a very small space.

  2. Anniel says:

    Master Kung Fu: I took the opportunity to read your post aloud to my 18 year old grandson, just to see his reaction, and because I loved your descriptions of where you were. He was like me when he said he felt like he had traveled to Southeast Asia with you, saw what you saw, smelled what you smelled and met people he might never meet otherwise. So your story became a very good teaching tool for both of us.

    Thank you very much.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Thank you, Anniel, for your kind words. I am glad you and your grandson enjoyed my piece.

      I have led a somewhat unusual life having seen and experienced things not open to most people. Many years ago, my father told me I should write some of these things down. As a result I stated taking down notes about events which might be worth recording.

      Most of what I write about happened 20, 30 and sometimes 40 years ago.

      Given the tremendous economic growth which has taken place in S.E. Asia over that time, the setting for “A Matter of Minutes” has disappeared.

      I am thankful for what I have seen and when I saw it. I hate the homogenization which is taking place in the world.

      • Anniel says:

        Master Kung Fu: My late father-in-law had a degree in Animal Husbandry and wound up as a Dairyman. He told me that homogenization was the worst thing one could do to milk because people really need their milk fat to be in different, naturally-occurring sizes. I think he was right about milk, and homogenized
        people and places are another sad byproduct of our society.

      • Anniel says:

        And, yes, yes, keep recording and sharing your “unusual” life.

  3. Jerry Richardson says:

    KFZ,

    I very much enjoy your vivid descriptions. This one is choice:

    My eyes settled on a short dumpy man standing about ten feet from me at the other end of the checkout counter. This 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?”

    I sympathize with how you feel about inadvertently revealing Berry’s indiscretion. However, you did nothing intentional to harm or discredit him—he did all that for himself. In a manner of speaking I think it is justice when a cheater gets caught due to an innocent comment from someone harboring no ill-intent.

    When this sort of thing happens, I am reminded of two important principles: 1) The inevitable truth of unintended consequences, which non of us are immune from, and 2) the truth in the Bible verse: “…and be sure your sin will find you out. —Numbers 32:23 KJV”

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    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!”

    That’s an interesting thought, Mr. Kung. It could also be that some cultures view service differently from others. I remember hearing a story about a local Seattle company which has since expanded quite a bit, including to the east coast: Nordstrom. They’re an upscale store with a special emphasis on customer service. I’m not sure how things are now, but they took “the customer is always right” to near extremes.

    Well, when they expanded to New York they apparently found that they couldn’t find any New Yorkers with their same sense of customer service and congeniality. So they had to bring workers from Seattle to staff the stores and train employees. To some extent, it really is a Northwest thing to be polite. (And apparently it is a New York thing to be a rude jackass.)

    All jobs include drudgery. There are sad-sacks in any walk of life who take out their unhappiness or sense of not be appreciated on the customer. It sounds as if you were an interruption of his coffee break.

    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.

    That’s a very interesting description, Mr. Kung. You’ve brought home a country through your words…and given me some solace that I haven’t missed all that much by staying home most of the time.

    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.

    Wow. That sounds like a third-world country, for sure. A country of slobs. There’s just a different outlook on life in some places. I have a friend who traveled in the Middle East and India and said it was typical for the desiccated corpses of babies to be littered along the sides of roads. They were either abandoned or died young. You never knew.

    There’s an attitude about life that we, in America, probably mostly take for granted. Rich or poor, there’s a certain ethic that says we shall be neat and orderly and not act like a bunch of hillbillies. Even the poor can keep their dirt floors clean. But last time I was at Kmart, I think we’re losing that ethic. It now seems more common to just be a slob.

    They were enveloped in a haze of cigarette smoke, and smiling so broadly that I knew they had to be lying to each other.

    Hahahahaha. Great line. That sounds like it comes from a good detective novel.

    There was also the unmistakable tinge of musk mixed with Dial soap.

    Thank you for giving me that image (smell, actually) which I’ll not likely forget for a while.

    Poor Barry. What as schmuck. Him, not you.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      That’s an interesting thought, Mr. Kung. It could also be that some cultures view service differently from others

      I think much could be written about the Malay culture’s view of work as well as the question of how the populations of former colonies view Westerners. In this case, I suspect that both points contributed to the man’s actions. But I think a more fundamental reason might be the type of people who work for a governmental bureaucracy.

      There’s just a different outlook on life in some places.

      Much of Asia has a very different view of civil society than that in the West. There is a reason Singapore has such strict laws regarding litter. The old Chinese view was simply, that anything outside of “my own house or garden did not concern me and was not my responsibility.” People should remember that one of the greatest “goods” European colonial powers brought to their colonies was civil works such as sewage drains, etc.

      Thank you for giving me that image (smell, actually) which I’ll not likely forget for a while.

      I know what you mean. It has stayed with me, these thirty years.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        A nice example of the sort of public works provided by Western civilization can be found in the scene in Life of Brian in which Reg asks what the Romans have ever done for the Jews, and they proceed to list them (including roads and aqueducts, of course). Later, their ultimatum is that all Romans must leave within a specific period of time — except for all those involved in supplying all these public goods.

        Incidentally, this problem applies to Africa as well as Asia. There is a famous joke about the post-colonial Asian showing his post-colonial African friend his nice mansion, and explains by pointing to all the roads and other works still being built and saying, “Ten percent — me.” Later he visits the African, who shows him an even better mansion and explains by pointing to all the roads and such that haven’t been built, saying, “One hundred percent — me.”

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        But I think a more fundamental reason might be the type of people who work for a governmental bureaucracy.

        Yes. Government bureaucracies are known for spawning slouches and rewarding sloth.

        I like the Singapore laws regarding litter — or at least the idea that they are strict. You’ll never mistake me for an environmental wacko. But I have no problem at all in making people who litter do some community service time picking up litter off the side of the road. I don’t want fines. I don’t want any other sort of penalty or harassment. I want these Cretans to take a kind of “ownership” of their community. It’s not something to be shit on. If they want to live in a pig sty, they can do so in the privacy of their own sties. And if they had to spend some time picking up trash, it may help to change their attitude about just what constitutes the domain in which they live.

        Okay, repeat offenders can be caned. Maybe Singapore has something like that.

        And three cheers for European civil works. England, in particular, brought civilization to a lot of backward and barbaric lands. (Such an idea would truly make our repulsive Marxist President enraged.) India (and North America) are still the better for it. Had the British colonized South America, no doubt it wouldn’t be the backwater that many of those countries are.

        I have to laugh my ass off at the way we screwed the French at the end of the American Revolution by patching things up with the British. We knew who our kindred spirits were. I’ll say it again (I never tire of saying it): Adams was right. Jefferson was wrong.

  5. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    If anyone has interest in a brief history of how/why the Chinese immigrated to S.E. Asia as well as their effect upon that area, this is a very informative article.

    http://www.atimes.com/southbound-china-taiwan-third-china-21st-century/

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