March 8, 2010

Stuck In the Middle, Penang, Malaysia

It seemed as if everyone had boarded the plane. There was an open seat next to me on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Penang, and I was feeling pretty good. And then three-hundred and twenty pounds of late, hard-breathing man stepped onboard. Jesus, I thought. What a kick in the pants. Takayo and I were a good twenty rows back, but I knew. I knew. He didn’t so much sit down, but let gravity pull parts of his body between the armrests. The remainder of him spilled into the aisle and upon my shoulder like a mudslide.

“Hey,” I said to Takayo. “You wanna switch seats?”
She just smiled like the sunshine and went back to her book. After landing, I peeled myself out from my neighbor's armpit. It was time, I felt, to grab something to eat, and something very strong to drink.

Kenny Rogers had found a home in the Penang Airport. Even with a plug from Seinfeld, the Roaster’s chain had all but tanked off the face of the Earth -- or so I thought. Of course we had to eat there just to say we had "the best chicken in the world." But I wondered: If the Kenny Rogers sign hadn’t scorched out my rods and cones, would we still have eaten there? I wonder.

We would be staying on Jerejak Island, just off the coast of Penang. Jerejak was once a leper colony, and after that a prison. I’m usually not a sucker for history, but I was sold. The resort of today was built on top of the old leper colony. After a lunch of the best chicken in the world, we taxied over to the ferry dock. There was a sign welcoming me to the island, which I thought was pretty classy. Naturally, they spelled my name wrong. A bunch of kids were playing volleyball along the shore when our ferry docked. I figured that it was all a show. The managers probably made them play whenever a ferry rolled in, but I like that sort of thing. So many places today just don’t care enough to build the illusion.

The front desk clerks handed us red drinks with sliced fruit along the rim. Our bags were piled into a compact car with the doors ripped off. They drove us up a steep hill to our duplex bungalow. Our balcony overlooked a dense forest, and there was a long throwing spear on the wall. The next-door neighbor was alone, but spent much of her time talking on the phone. She got her rocks by slamming the door seventeen times an hour. SLAM! We starting counting after it became ridiculous.

That first night, Takayo accidentally bumped the shower knob all the way over to HOT and liked to damn near burn herself to death. She jumped out just in time. Steam billowed out from the bathroom like nothing I had ever seen. Neither of us could get near enough to turn it off. I grabbed the tribal spear off the wall and stabbed the water off.

It rains a lot in Malaysia. We had a clear afternoon and decided to walk the ‘Prison Trail.’ Well, I decided to. Takayo was against it, but went along anyhow. It was a dirt road along the edge of the island that led to the old prison. At least that was the theory. There was a string of abandoned houses with busted windows. Then the trail became muddy. We had been arguing about something earlier in the day, so now she had more ammunition.

“We can walk along the edge here,” I said.
“I hate you right now.”

We kept going, hoping the prison might be just around the next corner. Remnants of a crude brick structure sat by the water’s edge. It could have been anything: A pirate’s stash house, a fisherman’s home, a guard post. The path became progressively muddier.

“I hate you times three.”

Little did I know, the trail was not finished. By the time we sighted the bulldozers, she was already up to hate times seven. We headed back. When we finally peeled off our shoes, one of us (I can’t remember who. I’ve blocked it from my memory) had changed the name of the ‘Prison Trail’ to the aptly named, ‘Hate Trail.’
There was a nice little spa at the top of a hill, overlooking the forest and waterway. We both had a massage, which took some of the edge off after the Hate Trail. Perhaps the worst thing about staying on a small private island is that you are at the mercy of only one restaurant. It served Malaysian curries, large hunks of charred lamb, and a purple soup with corn, cubes of black gelatin, and ice. As colorful as the food was, we were entranced by the monkeys that stole food from the buffet. The employees chased them away when they could, but there were just too many to keep in check. They ransacked the trash and climbed the buildings, looking for victims. An Asian man, a guest on the island, threw rocks at some monkeys one day, as if he had nothing better to do. We decided to consider him an asshole, and let karma take care of the rest.

On the last day we hiked a trail into the forest. We passed what might have been the world’s most dangerous obstacle course, full of barbed wire, malaria-filled mud pits, and bone-jarring drops. I could see some gung-ho corporate manager screaming at his employees, making them perform ‘Leap-of-Faith’ trust building exercises. They’d come out stronger all right, but at what cost? We passed the obstacle course and found the Flyingfox zip line. A suspension bridge crossed over a jagged stream, and up to the highest platform. From there it’s down, down, down. We strapped a harness tightly around our groins and jumped from the platform, hurtling over a gully. Aside from the poor circulation, it’s not a bad way to spend a morning.

With our bags packed and out the door, the sky opened up just before we reached the ferry dock. The waters became choppy and the ferry was delayed. I rested against my pack, taking in the smell of the rain and the wispy sounds of palm fronds slicing together in the wind. We would head over to Georgetown, Penang for two days, and then fly to Langkawi. But first, there was the ferry. It was nice, I though, having a seat of my own. Sure, I might have flown here in the armpit of a 320 pound man, but I wasn’t going out that way.

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