I don’t remember a lot of the top of Sumatra, the things I do remember come in patches, so I’ll relate them where relevant.
I think the reason for this is that something I learned later in life during a Permaculture gardening course of all things.
To wit: we remember things better if we are in pain when we learn them.
Strange, but I believe, true.
The example given by my teacher was that of the Maori body and face tattoos.
These tattoos were traditionally carved into them while telling them things they really needed to know, when the salmon run, how to catch a moa etc.
And I think this is why my memory was kind of in and out for the next period.
The previous two chapters related to one nightmare trip, and I was able to put it all down on paper twenty years later with hardly a pause, largely I think because I was in some kind of pain for the whole of it.
So our arrival in Padang did signal a change in pressure, and therefore mental state, for me and Neil.
We relaxed by the beach and did the “we-are-now-off-the-road” things that backpackers have to do, washing clothes, finding the bar, things like that.
While there we met some other travellers, an Irish woman called Win, and two Americans, Gunther and John, both doctors who had studied at UCLA.
Win was a lovely person and filled a stereotype as she wasn’t the most attractive woman.
However, I immediately liked her and looking back, am pleased that I didn’t demonstrate the shallowness, which I saw on that Asia trail a lot, of only talking to attractive women.
Gunther was always being asked if he was German, and this was because he was the archetypal Teutonic look, blonde hair cut in a crew, a handlebar moustache and pale blue eyes.
However, he spoke with a classic California accent where he had lived since the age of two, when his Austrian parents had emigrated there.
John was likewise from California, but looked like an Englishman, for no reason I can lay down in words, but be assured that if he had pulled a grey suit and bowler hat out of his backpack he would have fitted in on the Bakerloo line as if he was born in Surrey.
I think the main reason I remember Win so well was that she was the first person I met, possibly ever, who listened during an argument and admitted when she was wrong.
Neil and I, certainly me, with our degrees fresh about our shoulders, thought we knew it all, and so this behaviour from Win was a revelation.
My inability to admit I was wrong stems largely from my childhood, were I would be beaten and screamed at if I made a mistake, and so this was part of my persona, to always be right, and if wrong, make sure that no one damn well knew it.
The five of us were discussing Asia in general and thus, almost inevitably, the topic of overpopulation came up.
Win was an Irish catholic and though not overly devout, still had the spurs of that religion’s barbarous mind control jabbing her consciousness.
Gunther contended that the problems of overpopulation would never really be tackled till the catholic church was removed from influencing the world’s politics.
Win countered that you can’t just blame the catholic church, and Gunther agreed , but then added that, “not only overpopulation, but HIV could be tackled effectively if condoms were widely distributed without stigma throughout Asia and Africa”.
Win said “Aren’t they?”
And Gunther, said “not really, because the catholic church has told everyone they can’t use a condom.”
And Gunther, said “not really, because the catholic church has told everyone they can’t use a condom.”
Win said “surely that can’t be true?”
Whereas Gunther went on to say, in a somewhat exasperated tone, “well the first bloody thing the pope said when he got off the plane in Ghana was ‘Don’t use condoms’”.
Whereas Gunther went on to say, in a somewhat exasperated tone, “well the first bloody thing the pope said when he got off the plane in Ghana was ‘Don’t use condoms’”.
To which Win said, “Oh, well, that’s pretty clear. I guess the [catholic] church does has a lot to answer for”.
A simple thing, I’m sure you’d agree, but it was the first time I heard someone change their view during an argument when someone else presented a fact.
It was a lesson that I would sadly take another twenty years to absorb.
Having said that, I think also it was part of the process I mentioned at the tail of the last chapter where the trip was changing my mental state, to a less arrogant arsehole.
And the fact that I even noted Win’s change of argumentative direction, shows part of the process.
Mind you no one likes to be wrong, and this was best demonstrated to me by an SBS show called ‘Life Support’.
It was a simply superb send-up of those ‘life style’ shows and one of the characters on it was a well dodgy South African doctor called Rudy.
“Have you ever been embarrassed”, said Rudy, “at a dinner party because someone else is better informed, and more articulate than you?
“Well here’s the solution, sleep with his wife.
“Then next time it happens, you just wait till he’s finished putting you down, then say, ‘yeah, well I’ve slept with your wife.’
“Of course, considering the behaviour of most middle class couples on the dinner party circuit, there’s some chance that he’s slept with your wife, if this happens, sleep with his daughter as well, just to be sure.”
Anyway, enough of that, none of us like to be wrong, and there are many reasons for that, but I still admire Win for being able to admit it.
We had a good time in Padang, we hung with John, Gunther and Win, recharged our batteries, and planned out next move.
My stomach and throat recovered (slowly), probably due to the fresh ocean air and not having to sleep next to an open sewer, and slowly the memory of the four days of hell getting there receded.
We, Neil, John, Gunther and I, decided to head for Medan on the East coast of Sumatra and catch a ferry to Malaysia.
This was a journey diagonally across the top of the island and somewhat to my surprise when I went to the mapping software it gave me this message:
“We could not calculate directions between Padang, West Sumatra, Indonesia and Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia.”
Why this should be so, I really can’t say, but I strongly suspect that it’s because we were now about to traverse the real backwoods of Indonesia and that’s saying something.
So we boarded a bus and the headed for our first stop, Lake Toba.
This was one of the most beautiful places we stayed in our whole time in Sumatra.
Mt Toba is an (we fervently hoped) extinct volcano, and our accommodation was on a large island in the lake, which in itself formed a large puddle at the bottom of the caldera.
There was a jetty coming out from the deck below our room and we were able to watch the sun come up over the volcano rim from our beds.
It was everything we had come to Indonesia for.
Also I remember it was the cheapest place we stayed, something that called to my skinflint soul.
Our rooms were 1000 (A$0.10) rupiah a night, compared with the most expensive, 19,000 in Kuta Beach, Bali.
So I was happy again.
The next morning we then had one of the most enjoyable adventures of our whole stay.
We rented push bikes and circled the island.
The island we were staying on was about twenty k long and this fits with my memory as we rode all day around the circumference, approx 50 or 60 k.
And the thing I most remember is defying the laws of thermodynamics.
As the ride went on I got faster and faster.
At 28 I was reasonably fit, and with my illnesses receding I felt good for the first time in a long time.
Plus, I think it was some sort of tension release from twelve long weeks of doing nothing but being stressed over late or non-existent buses, which were overcrowded when they came, not understanding the language well, being ill, all of it was released in a day long ride of increasing euphoria.
There was only one road on the island and not a lot of traffic (another first for Indonesia) and we just rode.
With the green waters of the lake on one side, the spike of a mini-mountain on the other, we really felt we were flying over the surface of the lake.
My legs flew on the pedals and with each k that disappeared under my wheels I felt better and better.
But even then my inability to care about anyone else caused a problem.
John and Gunther had set off with us on the bike ride, but within a short period of time only Neil was within touching distance and it wasn’t till later that evening that we found out what happened to Gunther and John.
From the start John’s bike had been playing up, and after a few Ks, one of the pedals began rattling, then came off.
So he and Gunther, who had stayed with him, walked their bikes into a village and asked if there was anyone there who could fix it.
The villagers pointed them toward a little mechanic’s workshop at the top of the village and they went in, showed the grease-stained man inside the errant pedal and asked if he could fix it.
He nodded and then began fiddling with the bike.
After a period John and Gunther realized that he didn’t have a replacement pedal and was trying to fix the broken one back to the stem.
Then a further time later he began shaking his head and they realized he couldn’t fix it.
So they went to push the bike outside and try to find somewhere else that may have a solution, but then the guy became somewhat agitated, grabbed the handlebars, and tried to stop John taking the bike away.
An argument ensued and eventually John and Gunther understood that although he hadn’t been able to fix the bike, he still wanted to be paid for the time he had spent working on it.
That then led to an increasingly acrimonious exchange between the three of them and finally John wrested the bike from their erstwhile mechanic and began to walk away.
The mechanic then went back inside, grabbed a large machete and returned waving it threateningly at the two of them.
John and Gunther then did what they probably should have done in the first place, paid him some rupiah, and walked away.
Having said that it is difficult to know when to negotiate in the third world over money.
It is important not to pay too much, as respect in two directions is on the line, but likewise, don’t pay to little, as that equally shows a lack of respect toward the vendor.
Anyway, with that sorted out, they still had a non-functioning bike, and Neil and I were by this time a long way away.
They asked around but couldn’t find an answer, so in the end poor John had to push his bike back home the five or so Ks we had already ridden.
That night we caught up for dinner and heard their tale and were generally happy we were leaving the little island tomorrow.
Islands are by their nature insular, and none of us wanted the machete waving mechanic’s relatives visiting us and asking for more cash.
So the next morning we caught the bus onward toward Medan.
Again my snapshot like memory is unclear how far we travelled each step of the journey, but I do remember Neil and I on mopeds, so I’ll just broach that topic a little.
Whether we used them to go forward in our trip, or if we rented them to make some sort of circular day trip, I’m not sure, but I favour the latter, as by its very nature renting a moped means that you have to return it, so I think it was some sort of sidebar day trip.
I mention this because if life was dangerous enough on Indonesian roads when being driven around by a local bus driver, then riding a moped is another league up in nerve-wrack.
We were riding along and a group of local young men on their moped swooping over toward me.
I say group, because mopeds were a favoured method of travel across the archipelago, and like all Indonesian transport, it was overcrowded.
There were three guys on this particular one, but I have heard of more, up to the record, claimed to have been seen and photographed in Bang Kok Thailand, of 14 on one scooter.
I can’t vouch personally for this, but can clearly recall whole families of five on board, sitting in relative comfort.
So these three guys moved in toward me and began gesticulating toward my plastic helmet, which I had looped over my shoulder.
I had done this because when I examined it when renting the bike I saw that it would be no Earthly use in an accident, and obscured my peripheral vision to boot, so was actually decreasing my safety.
So I hung it over my shoulder and set off.
But now these young men were trying to tell me something.
So I slowed down and metaphorically cupped my ear with my hand to understand.
The oldest, who was driving, and spoke quite good English eventually got through to me that it was illegal to ride a moped without a helmet.
This I thought pretty rich and wanted to yell back that I thought the authorities would be better off making it illegal to have 45 people in an eight-seater minibus, but riding along the trans-Sumatran highway at 50k, while yelling broken Bahasa at three young men on a moped is not the time to join the debating society.
So, I gave in and pulled my helmet from my shoulder and put it on.
The three young men then gave the usual Sumatran mile-wide smile because they were able to help an honoured guest in their country, accelerated to 90 and soon were lost in the traffic up ahead.
I rode up next to Neil and repeated what my mobile friends had told me and he put his helmet on as well and went kept moving.
And just to digress slightly.
A friend of mine Julian was a helicopter pilot who worked with various aid organisations throughout the pacific and he was telling me that New Guinea has similar laws, and similar plastic helmets.
One day he saw a guy riding along with an ice cream tub strapped over his head as a helmet.
In Julian’s opinion it would have provided the same amount of protection as the horrible plastic helmets, and he was obeying the law.
So with helmets now firmly on, we did enjoy our ride that day, I think because once more because we were in the back blocks of Indo, the traffic was relatively light, and so near death experiences were limited to one an hour or so.
This was of course a severe stepdown in anxiety from being on the roads in the more crowded areas, around Jakarta particularly.
Ride over, we handed back our bikes and moved on in a bus.
Eventually we arrived in Medan and the next thing I remember is getting totally slaughtered in a dockside bar with an epileptic Dutchman and his German friend, whom we had met in our hotel.
I say epileptic, because he had the mannerisms of those taking Tegretol, the main epilepsy medicine, of continually, moving his head up and down as if trying to swallow something large, and opening and closing his eyes, particularly while deep in thought.
However, being deep in thought, for any of the four of us, soon became a less frequent issue as the Bintang went down.
Indonesia was a Dutch colony in colonial days, Jakarta was originally known as Batavia, and was the Asian headquarters of the first ever limited company, the Dutch East India company.
Thus, many Dutch things were taken to the colonies, and Heineken beer was one of them.
Heineken was rebadged to the local name ‘Bintang’.
It means ‘Star Beer’ in Bahasa and this is appropriate because if you drink enough of it, and we did, you’ll be seeing stars all right.
We had, to the best of my recollection, 6 large bottles in that bar over some hours and eventually staggered home to our bunks the worse for wear.
I think this equates to 18 middies of full strength beer, and it showed.
I mention this carousing because I think it lead to me sleep walking.
Sleep walking is a little understood thing and almost every example of it is worth relating for the sheer strangeness of the thing.
I remember a time when my mother and brother went down to Sydney to help our aunt move house.
Typically of my family, my brother was expected to work hard with no reward and criticized for everything he did.
They arrived at about noon on Saturday and went straight to work.
This labour of packing, loading, driving, unloading and returning then proceeded virtually non-stop over the next three days.
On the Tuesday night at about three am, my mother was in slumber when her bed lurched and she awoke to find my brother trying to lift it.
She said, “What are you doing David?”
And he replied, “You know I’ve got to move this bed.”
Then he went back to trying to lift the bed, with my mother in it, bodily, on his own.
My mother realized he was sleep walking, so she got up and told him he could do it in the morning and shepherded him back to bed.
Another tale of the night travels happened to my friend Dave Smedley.
He was helping his dad to tear down the old garage and build a new, larger building on the site.
His friend who lived across the street from them was helping and they worked away on it for some weekends.
Then one night Dave was in bed when there a knock on the back door.
With a muttered, “what the hell?”, he got up and went down to the door.
He opened it to find his friend from across the road standing there.
His friend said, “Oh, is Dave there?”
Dave at first thought he had smoked too much pot and had warped into the famous Cheech and Chong sketch, “Dave’s not here, man”, but then when his friend (whose eyes were open, but quite vacant) just stood there gaping, he twigged that his friend was sleep walking.
But the amazing thing was how he had got there.
Dave lived on a very hilly street, the road was the floor of the valley as it were, with all the houses set back from it, up extended and quite steep driveways.
His friend had got out of bed, walked down his driveway, across the road, up Dave’s driveway which was a maze of reo, lumps of demolition debris, concrete mixers and god knows what, then picked his way across Dave’s backyard, around the side of the house to find the back door in the dark.
He then knocked on it, and when Dave himself answered, asked if Dave was there.
Dave, like my mother before, shepherded his friend back through the maze, marvelling as he did so at his friend’s somnambulant ability to not break his leg, and home into bed.
The next day Dave’s friend had no recollection of the incident.
Now this night in Medan was the second time I had walked in my sleep.
The first, in my share house in Leichhardt in the inner west of Sydney, involved me getting up, walking down the hall, outside, scrabbling at the garage door, then coming back inside, down the hall, turning right instead of left and going to sleep again on the bed of my flatmate across the hall.
Thankfully, my flatmate, a nice gay woman, wasn’t home that night as she would have been non-plussed, to say the least, at me coming in and getting in her bed without so much as a by-your-leave at two a.m.
I likewise had no recollection of this incident, with the exception of waking up in Sanda’s bed, the entire events of the night before were related to me the next morning, by my other flatmate Sue, who slept at the front of the house near the garage door.
Again, very mysterious.
So back to Medan.
My mummy-like perambulations were related to me by Neil, who had stayed up to have a last cigarette before retiring.
I came out of our room, said Neil, stood near him and began running my hand through my hair.
Neil looked up at me and said, “Do you want something?”
I didn’t reply.
Then I seemed to make a decision, reached down, grabbed Neil’s water bottle, turned on my heel and went back inside.
I put his bottle on the floor next to my bunk, got in it and went back to sleep.
Neil came in, stared down at me for a moment, and then realized I must have been sleepwalking.
He got my bottle, filled it, put it where I could reach it, picked his up and went to bed.
The next morning he told me about the incident and we docketed it away under the Bermuda Triangle-like topic of sleepwalking and began to make preparations for our ferry ride.
I might add in closing the topic, that for the manyeth time that trip I was thankful Neil was there and I hadn’t slept walked my way out onto the streets of Medan looking for a water bottle, god knows where I might have ended up, under a truck most likely.
So we packed up, heaved our gear on our backs, a process that I was by now coming to loathe, and made our way down to the ferry port.
Needless to say it was nothing like catching a ferry from Manly across to Circular Quay, with its, Sydney’s, clearly labelled embarkation pathways.
The whole area was a vast, rambling, train, bus, ferry interchange with elements of a Clydeside shipyard thrown in.
We bought our tickets, finding the ticket office an achievement on its own, and then began a genuine trek down to the water’s edge.
We walked around trains, some stationary, some moving gently.
We went up onto overhead gantry walks, looking for all the world like a giant’s mechano set, we took off our packs and lurched under overhangs of various sorts, from shopfronts to fettlers workshops.
One would normally think that finding a ferry is easy as you obviously just go down to the water’s edge and there it is, but as described, even finding something as large as the Malacca Straits wasn’t easy.
Eventually we got there and went into the waiting area till we were allowed to board.
I do remember thinking that an odd thing about the area was that this was an international border, the entering and leaving point for Indonesia, and security was non-existent.
But further thought on the topic reminded me that this kind of fitted as well, as no one wants to get into Indonesia, secretly or otherwise, they only want to leave it, and since the ferries out of Medan only go one place, Malaysia, I guessed that any border security would be at the other end.
Time came and we got on board and settled into our first comfortable transport for some time.
This was a modern, catamaran ferry, based on a design that came out of Tasmania, of all places, and was becoming the standard world wide.
Additionally, we were in first class, so sat indoors, upstairs and watched, alternatively, the ocean flying by outside, and a Charlie Sheen movie on the big screen at the front of the lounge.
What’s more, I’m guessing due to cost, there were no locals in our lounge, and so I was spared clouds of clove cigarette smoke billowing about my head, racking my throat dry.
So it was a generally pleasant trip, but about half way across I was absently rubbing an itch on my left forearm when I realised that I had been rubbing it a lot that morning, I looked down and understood why, bed bugs.
Obviously the previous night in our Medan fleapit they had emerged from the mattress and made whoopee with my soft western skin.
I have never been bitten by bed bugs before (or since) so I don’t know the form, but these ones were like every other bug in the third world, super bugs.
The way they had worked was to bite me, then move on a body length, approx 2mm, then bite again.
The bite number varied, I’m guessing in some places they were full, and in others I had moved in my sleep, displacing them from their banquet.
I examined my arm and discovered that the bites I had been scratching ran around my forearm, under my elbow and resurfaced trekking in orderly fashion across my bicep.
I got up and went into the gloriously luxurious toilet, and took off my shirt.
Under the harsh glare of the fluoros I could see how comprehensively I had been bitten.
The tracks ran everywhere, even as I know saw, down from my hairline, across my nose, around my cheek and down to my neck.
I looked like a zombie freshly sewn together by an Igor–like character in a Transylvanian castle.
I went back to our seat and questioned Neil about two things, “did he know that my face looked like a recently produced baseball?”, and “did we have any calamine-lotion-like unguent in the medi stores?”
The answer was “no” to both, though I did see him grinning slightly for the rest of the trip, so knowing his sense of humour (warped), I strongly suspected that he was enjoying my fall from any semblance of
However, despite my resemblance to a fright night character, the bites weren’t overly itchy and we continued our waterborne passage across the Straits, until Malaysia, and the Asian continent proper hove into view.
We docked and got our things together and made our way into a new country.
The port was called Sitiawan, and from the start we knew we were in a place where things were done differently.
To start with we didn’t have to bribe our way in, as we had had to do when we touched down in Bali at the start of this trip.
Malaysia is more developed, but a lot more boring than Indonesia.
The country as a whole didn’t make much of an impression on me, for a few reasons.
Firstly, we only spent three days there, and secondly, as stated, I was already in London playing rugby in my mind.
So really Malaysia was just another place to get through on our way to Singapore and a flight to Europe.
Even the capital Kuala Lumpur I have no memory of, though we certainly passed through it.
Indeed the best memories of KL I have are some digital photos taken by my friend Russell when he visited twenty years later, so that gives you some idea of the low key nature of the place.
Think of it as a tropical Canberra, boring and you only go there if you really have to.
The things I do remember though were worth it.
Not far from Sitiawan was a tropical insect zoo, it sounds flesh-crawlingly creepy, and it is, but as Neil and I were both in that field of study we went for a look.
It was really quite amazing, butterflies the size of ham sandwiches in all colours of the rainbow filled the avery, and leaf litter scuttlers like small off road vehicles tickered-tickered about on the ground and we spent a morning there quite fascinated.
However the main event in that place was the scorpion pit.
Inside this were many hundred large black scorpions going about their business.
As we looked in at them I was truly, truly thankful that it seemed the only thing the gods of travel hadn’t visited upon us so far on this trip was one of these in the bed.
Their stingers were frightening just to look at from some metres away, and their claws made one involuntarily cross your legs against the thought of a double grab at your funzone in the night.
But even that was put in the shade by a truly amazing feat performed by a local Malaysian woman some years after we were there.
She lived in the scorpion pit for a month.
She did it to show that they weren’t as bad as they were perceived.
This is true, as their bite, while gruesomely painful, is not lethal, and since they were part of the eco-system, this brave woman went in their to show them in their better light, and to try to stop the wholesale scorpion killing that went on any time one of them was encountered in the wild.
The footage of her time in there was quite amazing.
She has to shake her sheets out before she went to bed, then hope not to roll over on top of one of them after she went to sleep, as they moved back in as soon as the sheets had settled.
When it was time to cook, she had to open the cupboard doors carefully, remove any scorpions that were in her pots, or nesting in her bags of rice.
Once that was done she then had to be careful that a scorpion didn’t wander into her saucepan, or she would be eating them as well.
All in all it was an amazing thing to do and she got to the end of the month without too many bites.
I, then and now, admire her courage, I couldn’t have done it.
The next morning we left Sitiawan and headed south toward KL and then Singapore, and on the way visited the only other place I remember from Malaysia, the Cameron Highlands.
I think this region sticks in my mind because it was a cooler, temperate, mountain region, that for all the world resembled Hampstead Heath in London, or perhaps the mountains of Yorkshire or Scotland.
To find it nestled within easy driving distance of the equator was quite a disjunct.
The region is famous for its tea, and most of the tea drunk in that part of the world comes from there.
I still retain in my mind after all these years the rows of tea following the contours of the rolling hills, in ruler-like fashion, like a vineyard in France.
Also, I think the chilly crisp breeze flowing over the highland was the first we had felt in nearly three months, so this also aided in making the place stand out.
And adding to the beauty were the extensive roses.
I’ll slip in a quick horticulture lesson here.
If you visit any vineyard in France or California, you will find at the end of each row of vines a rose bush.
This is done so that the farmer can see if any insects that may attack the vines are present, as they go for the rose bush, with its coloured petals, first.
And so it seemed that the founders of the tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands had followed the same plan, and there were rose bushes all over the place.
Thus the crisp mountain breeze came to you redolent with the scent of tea and roses.
It was an intoxicating experience.
Finally, I think that the process of mental change that had started on the road to Padang, then noticed fully on the beach there, was continuing apace, and I was for the first time starting to appreciate beautiful things, and not be embarrassed about saying it.
Just to put that into context, later on in this trip I was walking with Neil and another friend from Sydney, Misha, in the hills of Scotland in the Autumn.
The trees were in their full glory of colour change, with yellows, russets, auburns, reds and browns filling the vision with true beauty.
I was brought to speak, and said: “You know guys, I’m not a poof or nuthin’, but these trees are really beautiful.”
So apologies to any gay readers of either sex.
I put that in to highlight that although on the way to higher mental things, I still retained the vestiges of my Australian yobboness, and couldn’t even use the word “beautiful” without a qualifier protecting my manliness.
So we enjoyed our day on the roof of Malaysia.
At the end of the day we boarded our bus and headed back to the backpackers, thence on the road to Singapore.
Many have travelled that road throughout history, Singapore holds the most strategic position in all of Asia, at the oceanic cross roads of the exotic East, and so had over time developed into a major entity.
It was once part of Malaysia, but soon became so rich in its own right, that the burghers of the town began to resent paying tax to the poorer Malaysia and so succeeded and became an independent country, like Monte Carlo, Moldova or San Marino.
Despite all this economic muscle, it is a really boring place.
It is infamous for flogging, with a reinforced riding crop, anyone convicted, or even accused of, graffitiing a wall.
You cannot spit out chewing gum on the street without incurring a heavy fine, and littering will get you executed.
However, despite the heavy-handed crime control, there were obviously backhanders going toward the inspectors of cheap accommodation, because whoever set up where we stayed should have been prosecuted.
Our accommodation was in a three story terrace and the sleeping arrangements were a new one on us.
Each floor was carpeted with mattresses, you checked in at the front desk and then went in search of a mattress that didn’t have a backpack on it.
Once you found one, you put your backpack on it and that was your bed.
There were something like forty single mattresses per floor and no, or at best a vanishingly narrow gap, between them.
So walking in and out involved tip-toeing along, trying not to walk on someone else’s bed as you went.
This was hard enough in daylight, but at night it was a nightmare.
Since usually a third of those staying had some sort of dysentery, your sleep would be interrupted by one of your floormates, sprinting for the toilet at three a.m and to hell with who they trod on.
However, we were learning to take most things in our stride now, so we found a couple of mattresses near each other, threw down our backpacks and then went out to see a bit of Singapore.
We visited the zoo and saw the only Polar Bear on the equator, wondering then as now, at the phenomenal cost in energy to keep the enclosure down at arctic temperatures.
We then toured the town a bit, but there wasn’t much to see, as Singapore is largely just a big industrial port.
We then went out with a contact I had gained from my lecturer at teachers college, Mike.
He told me to get in touch with a Singaporean student, now a qualified teacher, who rejoiced under the name Len.
This was his real, Asian, name, and was a happy coincidence for him when he went to study in an English speaking country, as his name would transpose easily.
I mention this, because there have been some really unfortunate names.
The medal winning student in the Veterinary faculty one year was the unfortunately titled Coq Liq Kew, which when announced at the award ceremony was done Anglo style as “Liq Kew, Coq”.
I also read in a book about the same area, it was a novel, so I can’t attest to the authenticity, but a chinese character in this book was called “Fuk Yu”.
So Len did all right compared to those.
Now if you follow this story through the upcoming chapters to the British Isles you will learn a lot about hot curries, but I was about to get my first lesson there in Singapore.
Indonesia does have a lot of hot food, Rendang curries are probably the best known, but I don’t recall eating anything that was particularly noteworthy in the heat stakes.
But all that was about to change, Len took us to a large food court, presented us with a small keychain that said “Singapore” on it, and then helped us to order.
Neil’s order as usual involved a number of dishes, and the working of overtime by half the kitchen staff, but I was not sure what to order, so Len got me a black bean and curd laksa, which he was having himself.
While he ate it with enjoyment and talked about his new career as a respected professional teacher, with frequent mentions of Mike’s great tutelage, I stuck my spoon in the dish, and had my first mouthful.
I turned purple and small wisps of steam began to come from my ears and cheeks.
Mother of fucking god.
I looked at Len, but his lovely olive skin was largely unchanged.
I looked doubtfully at my bowl, whilst throwing every container of water on the table, including the flower pot, down my throat.
I quickly began wondering if I had by some chance been given a bowl of nitric acid.
So the meal continued with Neil and Len talking easily, and me making the odd croaked announcement between throwing liquid down my throat.
I finished the bowl (eventually), and then we said “good bye” to Len and headed back to our floor dwelling accommodation, with me trailing a small cloud of steam behind me.
On the way, partly because of my newly installed internal combustion, and partly because it is an iconic Singapore thing to do, I asked Neil if he wanted to stop in at “The Raffles” for a beer.
The Raffles is short hand for The Sir Stamford Raffles Hotel, the priciest place in Singapore, named for the Englishman who founded most if its modern day infrastructure.
He agreed and we stepped into the cheapest part of it we could find.
I grabbed my beer like a drowning seafarer grabbing a life jacket for two reasons.
One, I was still burning inside, and two, it was time to tell Neil that my trip was over and I wanted to leave him and head for London.
To reiterate briefly, the original plan was to “do” Indonesia, then Malaysia and Singapore, then travel back up the west coast through Burma to India.
But of course, now I was in no mood, or condition, to face this, so I told Neil that it was time for me to go to Europe.
He nodded, then said, “It nothing I’ve done, is it?”
“No”, I replied, “really it comes back to those psych questions Marayka asked us in Java, you remember them?”
He nodded, and I went on, “Well my answers mostly concerned rugby, so I think I want to just head off to London and get settled, find a club and get on with it.”
He nodded again, then said, “Yeah, I understand, parts of this trip have been hard haven’t they?”.
I nodded in turn, with some vehemence, then we ordered another beer, drank it, then headed back to our terrace.
The next day Neil began getting ready to move off on his own.
He was going to head up the East coast of Malaysia to a turtle sanctuary called Terrenganu, and meet up with a scientist he had worked with on the Great Barrier Reef.
He made his arrangements for this, while I started making mine to fly to Europe.
We met back at the terrace that night, and he informed me that he was off on the morrow.
The next day I walked with him to the bus station and saw him off, with the upmost relief that I wasn’t boarding another Asian bus, then walked back into town.
I had three more days till my flight would leave, and was kind of at a loose end.
But even so I was somewhat surprised when I sat on a bench overlooking a little park and burst into tears.
If I was a commercial author I would end things here on a suitable dramatic point, and leave the reader (hopefully) gagging for the next chapter to find out what was going on, but I’m not, and probably never will be, an author at all, but a chronic bullshit artist who saw fit to inflict his choleric moaning upon the internet.
So I’ll go into now, what was happening?
Well, as far as I can tell on looking back there were immediate and life long factors at play.
In the immediate, I had nothing to do, and nowhere to go, in fact the reason I sat on the bench in the first place was to figure out what to do next.
Neil’s bus had pulled away at ten or thereabouts, now it was near eleven and I had, as stated above, three more days to hang around Singapore, we had been to the zoo and there were no real tourist activities to do in that city, so I was like Marvin the Paranoid Android from the Hitchhikers Guide, “severely stuck for something to do”.
So I sat on my bench and thought it through.
My backpackers was for sleeping only, and not much of that with the nocturnal comings and goings of various toilet-bound others.
There was no common room with a table tennis table or even a TV to watch, so there was no point in going there.
If I had been an alcoholic, as I would become later in life, I probably would have found the cheapest bar in town and sat in there drinking for the next 72 hours, but I wasn’t, so that was out.
And as the minutes passed on that bench, I became sadder and sadder, then the tears started, and looking back I feel that the reason for this torrent was that it was the first time in my life I was alone.
Much later I would read a tremendous book by Stephanie Dowrick called “Intimacy and Solitude” and finally come to understand that there was a difference between being alone and being lonely.
But on that bench I was both.
And I’ll just fill in the background to illustrate this.
I lived with my parents in the forced labour camp of the family home from birth to the age of twenty.
I finally escaped and moved to Sydney and went to Uni, this filling my life, both mentally and geographically, for the next three years.
From the hallowed halls of academia, I then moved to Canada and was met there by my friend from soccer days, Darin.
He helped me settle in, I quickly got a job with Greenpeace, then in short order a good friend, Sean, and a girlfriend, Deb.
Deb is a wonderful woman, we became closer and then married.
We came back and lived in Sydney together for the next 18 months, and my life was full with my work with Greenpeace, my soccer with Sydney U, and home life with Deb.
Then my terminal immaturity and dysfunctionality brought our marriage to an end.
Deb went back to Canada, and I moved into a share house in Leicchardt, in Sydney’s inner west, with Gav, Sue and Sanda, and enrolled again at Uni to do my teaching diploma.
This likewise filled my time and I had no moments for reflection and then when that finished I teamed up with Neil and we set off for adventure in Asia.
Thus, with his departure, I was alone for the first time in 27 years.
And all those feelings of loss and grief for the childhood brutally stole from me by my parents, grief also for the way I treated Deb combined in that one moment on a bench in Singapore.
I was alone, I was desolate, there was no one to come and help me.
In a weird way this was a trauma and a help, since there was no one around who knew me, I could cry without being labelled a sissy, which is what had been beaten into me as a child at both home and school.
I cried for some time, I’ve no idea how long, but eventually I must have come to an end, then I got up and went back to the backpackers.
Whilst there I met two female travellers, a Swiss and a German, and they were, like me, waiting for a flight, and so I began to do things with them.
I sadly now can’t even remember their names, which is a pity as they were saviours in my life in that time.
All unknowing, by simply giving me someone to do things with, my sadness lifted and I began to feel better.
We went in a cable car up somewhere.
We went to the “beach”, a hideous grey-yellow strip of greasy sand next to the main shipping channel, and we talked.
With their help I got through the time till my flight was due.
And so that’s where my Asian experience ended, but the journey inside my head was just getting moving, whatever was happening, I was shedding the carapace of arrogant arsehole and that’s got to be a good thing.
Next stop Frankfurt, Germany, of all places, as greater change from Asia as one could wish.