Sunday, July 31, 2011

A couple of funny YouTube videos

It could have been way worse, Ferris:

Also, here, as promised, is the trailer for the horror flick Mary Poppins (sorry, I can't remember where I saw this and can't do a proper hat tip):

Malaysia Travelogue

Well, I haven’t done a travelogue in a long time; but I found myself in Singapore for an extra weekend, having worked without taking a day off for the previous eleven days. So on the Friday I decided to rent a car and drive through Malaysia.

But it turns out that you have to plan your car rentals in Singapore further than the day ahead, because Hertz and Avis and Hawk and all the other on-line rental car venders sell out for the weekend before Friday morning.

So I went to work, and over my lunch hour, instead of going to eat, I invested my lunch break in Plan B, which was to take the Jungle Train through the Malaysia jungle.

But it turns out that you have to plan your weekend ride on the Jungle Train through the Malaysian mountains early than the day before, because they sell out of tickets for the Saturday trains before Friday at noon....continue reading...

So I went to Plan C, which was Plan A but with some assistance obtained in a manner that corporate policy forbids me to refer to on the blog (can't mention co-workers in personal blogs, you see). There are, it seems, certain car rental agencies who are not easily found by googling, but who can supply rental cars if one knows their number from non-googlable sources. One such rental car had available a single car for S$200/day. I took four or five minutes to weigh the expense against the satisfaction expected to be derived therefrom, and just as I decided to call the guy back and take the car, he called me to tell me somebody else had just rented it.

Apparently, if one plans to live in Singapore, it helps to be a kind of anal, ducks-all-in-a-row-well-in-advance kind of person. So much for my application for a transfer to the Singapore office.

In the end I said, “Ah, the heck with this, I have work to do,” and, figuring I’d just get to KL and see what happened next, I bought online a ticket on a bus that was leaving Singapore a minute before midnight and driving to Kuala Lumpur overnight. Then I went back to work on my budget proposals, leaving the next day’s plans for the next day, in accordance with Jesus’ advice, “Sufficient unto the day is the planning thereof.” (I think I’m quoting that accurately…close enough, anyway.) I figured a 23:59 departure would leave me plenty of time to get the bus company’s office, even after the 9:30 p.m. Singapore / 9:30 a.m. Houston budget meeting I had already scheduled for the evening.

I wound up being a little concerned about whether I really had left myself enough time, as it turned out, because I got a bit leisurely about the way I spent my evening. I had known that I was going to miss my son-in-law’s birthday thanks to this trip, and having noted on the first day the presence of the Singapore Hard Rock Café half a block from my hotel, I had decided to get him a Hard Rock Café Singapore t-shirt as his birthday present. But from years of business travel I already knew that I don’t usually care for the Hard Rock Café, because it’s too bloody noisy in there. So I had put off going until this evening, when I decided to stop procrastinating and get it over with. Well, it turns out that this was a bad mistake, because the New Zealand peppercorn-sauced steak they sell in there is the best thing I have eaten in Singapore by a country mile – and they charged me about the same thing for that steak that all the other restaurants in the neighborhood wanted to charge me for a hamburger. If I’d just gone to the Hard Rock on my first night instead of my next-to-next-to-last, I’d’ve never bothered to go anyplace else in Singapore to eat dinner. (In fact I’m typing this travelogue right now in, yes, you guessed it, a corner booth at the Hard Rock Café, having just paused long enough to watch the truly bizarre half-live/half-animated Shakira music video for “Tango Obsession.”)

But alas, they were having a private party downstairs, and my waiter wound up going down there to help out and completely forgot about me, and after waiting fifteen minutes for my check I had to go up and look for somebody to pay, and then they had to go find my check before they could figure out how much money to put on my credit card, and the upshot was that as my 9:30 meeting came up I was still scrambling around my hotel room trying to get my little travel bag together for the trip. Then I got to talking to my family on internet videochat, and it was hard to tear myself away, and by the time it was done I was very late getting downstairs.

That’s when I discovered that on a Friday night in Singapore, not even the concierge at a luxury hotel can get you a taxi in less than fifteen minutes. I started to worry, especially when it occurred to me that I could wind up with a taxi driver who didn’t know where the bus company’s office was.

This is actually a bit of concern in Singapore, by the way. The taxis are very reasonably priced, and there are lots of them. But I suspect that the high supply has to do with the fact that, whatever exam you have to take to prove yourself competent to drive a taxi in Singapore, it’s clearly nothing like the ordeal you go through before London will let you drive a Black Cab. For example: my second day at Singapore, I hop into the taxi at the hotel and tell the guy, “U.E. Square.” He sits for a moment in confusion, then pulls out a street map of Singapore and begins puzzling over it. Eventually the bellhop comes over, opens the door, and gives him turn-by-turn instructions. Similarly, on my first Sunday in Singapore I went to services at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, then went shopping in Bugis Street, and then caught a cab home…except that the cabbie had no idea where the St Regis Hotel might be; so I (who, fortunately, had been paying attention throughout the previous week’s worth of riding in cabs) served as his voice-equipped GPS: “Turn left in…one hundred meters.”

At any rate, I’m standing there thinking, “What the heck am I going to do if I get in this car and give the cabbie the address and he has no idea where it is? – ’cause I can’t help him this time.” And sure enough, I give him the address, and he looks at me blankly. In desperation I try to think of anything else from the website or confirmation that might give him a clue. “Um…how about, ‘The Golden Mile’ – do you know where that is?” Light dawns, and off we go.

So in the end I made my bus with a few minutes to spare. It turned out to have very comfortable, more-reclinable-than-expected seats; so, once we had passed the jaw-droppingly busy Port of Singapore and made our way through Malaysian customs, I slept soundly until 4:30 a.m. or so, which is when we got to the hotel in KL that is that particular bus line’s drop-off point.

The Port of Singapore, or one part of it -- those boxes, by the way, are all the size of train boxcars

I knew from prior research there were a couple of car-rental places with offices in that neighborhood; but of course they weren’t open yet. So I found a nearby long, flat park bench; I settled in with my light jacket as a pillow and with my arm carefully locked through the handle of my luggage so as not to look like I was begging somebody to steal it, and went back to sleep. When I woke up at first light of dawn, another guy was sleeping on the other end of the bench.

I was still very tired, and thinking through it I decided that, as badly as I wanted to drive myself around Malaysia, (a) the odds were that there would be no rental car available, (b) if I waited until the car rental places were open, the morning buses for the Cameron Highlands would already have left, and (c) honesty required the admission that I probably wasn’t well-rested enough to be safe driving on the left on local mountain roads in a country where the road signs aren’t in English. So I reluctantly gave up on the idea of renting a car and flagged down a taxi headed for the old Puduraya bus station, where I knew that several different bus lines ran buses to the Highlands.

I got my ticket from the first ticket-seller to open his window. My bus was due to leave at 8:30, which gave me a couple of hours to kill; so I followed the signs to the “food court,” which turned out to be a room added up on the roof of the bus station, where local food vendors have little rooms offering home-cooked food of various types. I had a downright delicious breakfast consisting of spicy fried rice with hot red and green peppers (I actually went back for second helpings of this, which seemed to be not merely allowed by, but actually gratifying to, the proprietress), and a couple of hard-boiled eggs, and some of the local coffee, which was as thick as mud but actually quite delicious – not at all bitter, just rich and textured about halfway between American coffee and chocolate mousse. (That is less of an exaggeration than you might think.)

This breakfast was self-serve, and I committed a cultural faux pas: I took a plate, scooped up some rice, and dumped it directly on my plate. Only after I sat down did I notice that everybody else in the place had taken a plate, then taken some big leaf of some sort and put that on the plate, then scooped up whatever their main dish was and put it on the big leaf. I’ll have to go back to my Malaysian cultural experts to find out what kind of leaf that was and what is the purpose of putting a big leaf in between one’s food and one’s plate – I mean, it’s not like I saw anybody actually eating the leaf.

Once I was comfortably full, I asked for my check, since when I had tried to pay to begin with I had been told, “No, no, you eat first and then you pay.” The friendly little guy who’s collecting my money says, “4.50,” which is to say, about a dollar and a half. I look through my wallet and dig out four one-ringgit bills, then check my pocket…no Malaysian change. He says, “No, that’s okay, four is enough.” “No, no,” I answer, “I have it,” and I pull out a five-ringgit note and say, “Just take that.” Then I start packing up…but thirty seconds later he is back, with a one-ringgit note that he insists on giving me in change. So perhaps Malaysian haggling is unique in that you’re trying to pay as much as possible and they’re trying to collect as little as possible??

At any rate, I asked him how to say, “Thank you,” in Malaysian, and so he taught me to say, “Terima kasih.” So then I said, very sincerely, “Terima kasih,” and he answered with a Malay phrase, which, since it wasn’t terima kasih, I didn’t recognize. “It means,” he explained with a big smile, “come again.”

I walked out onto the roof of the old bus station. The sun was about to come up, and I could see the Petronas Towers now in the dawnlight.

The Petronas Towers, just before sunrise (they're the ones that, thanks to the angle, look like a single skyscraper really far away in the center of the picture)

But the local security guys seemed to be disquieted by my hanging out on the roof; so, having still more than an hour to kill, I decided to go downstairs and out for a walk.

The first thing I noticed upon stepping out of the terminal’s front door, were the signs on the doors of all the cabs:

"We really mean it!"

Malaysia is, like China, a bargaining country in which price tags represent merely the starting point of negotiations – I had been advised by one travel website to never agree to the first price offered to me by any car rental agency, for example. And, you know, somehow I don’t think that it usually works the way the haggling over my breakfast price went: “No, no, please take more” – “No, no, I insist that you pay less.” At any rate, it seems the cab drivers have to notify you in advance that the price you see is actually the price they really truly intend to charge you, because otherwise people would feel lied to – “Wait a minute, you actually expect me to pay what’s on the meter?????” This probably means that I should have been haggling about the price of my bus tickets; but I detest haggling and didn’t bother. They were pretty bloody cheap anyway, after all.

Malaysia is nowhere near as rich as Singapore and therefore (the spotlessness of public places being a luxury primarily available to wealthy countries who have lots of money left over after the food/clothing/shelter thing) not nearly as spiffy. This does not bother me, of course, as I am not particularly fastidious and have spent more time than the ordinary American allotment bumming around Third World countries; so my bar is pretty low and Malaysia cleared it with plenty of room to spare. It was a nice time to walk because the city was just waking up, and I like the time of day when a city is just starting to bestir itself. (From which it follows that I don’t particularly like cities that never sleep and therefore never have a time where they’re waking up.) And if I’m going to have to be in a city, then it’s kind of nice to be in a city where I can hear a rooster crow – which I did, on this particular walk.

A pleasant, quiet-looking hotel, though certainly not the St Regis

A parking lot handily close to the Purudaya bus terminal -- about 70 cents, and all day only costs you two U.S. dollars

I got back to the terminal and checked their fancy new, clearly just-installed, flat-screen TV’s that show the status of buses scheduled to depart, laid out just like the screens in any air terminal or train station. And the more carefully I look at those screens and compare them to the ticket in my hand, the more obvious it becomes that my bus is missing. It’s about 7:50, and the screens are cycling through all the buses departing between 8:00 and 9:30, and after about the fourth complete cycle there’s no doubt that my 8:30 bus is just flat not there. This is obviously disturbing; so I hie myself back to the ticket counter, show the guy my ticket, and say, “Has this bus been canceled?”

He looks at me in some confusion. “No, it leaves at 8:30 from Platform 21, just like it says here.”

I say, “But it isn’t on any of the screens downstairs.”

His expression changes to one of compassionate, but amused, comprehension. “Oh, you mustn’t pay any attention to the screens.”

In due course my bus pulled up to the platform. I was one of the first on the bus, and, having learned from bus travels in China that Asian buses have assigned seating, I checked my ticket, which appeared to refer to seat “5A.” But the seats were numbered consecutively, with no letters: seat 1 was first row left side, seats 2 and 3 were first row right side; seat 4 was second row left side, etc. I settled myself cheerfully in seat 5, resigning myself to not having a window seat, which wasn’t surprising considering how late I had bought my ticket.

Within five minutes the entire bus was in a state of mass confusion because nobody could figure out where to sit. The bus driver’s English was extremely limited, and this was a problem because the people on this bus were speaking French and English and Dutch and basically every language you could expect to hear in Europe; but there was not any Malay to be heard. I drew the conclusion that Cameron Highlands makes a lot of money off of people whose salaries are in currencies with more buying power than the ringgit. But alas for the bus driver, who was left to clear up the confusion of a bunch of people whose languages he didn’t speak. So eventually he just started yelling over and over, while pointing at the first row, “One! [points to left-hand seat] A! [points to right-hand aisle seat] B! [points to right-hand window seat] C!”

Eventually we grasped the concept; so I got up and moved to seat 5A equals four-times-three-plus-one equals seat thirteen. (I believe I’ve already mentioned that my hotel room here is #1313; apparently I’m undergoing some sort of cosmic susceptibility-to-superstition test.) We all get ourselves sorted out, in fact. There’s only one problem: the bus is only half full. So every time somebody else gets on, we all get the entertainment of seeing them peer at their ticket, then peer at the seat numbers, then squint confusedly back at their ticket, until I take it upon myself to take mercy on them and show them to their seat. This was my public service function for the day, and I flatter myself I did it well. At any rate, in the end everybody got seated and I never tried to put two people in the same seat. So, thanks in part to American take-charge initiative, in the end we were only twenty minutes late leaving the station. (I think that basically the bus driver, who spent the whole time on a walkie-talkie, didn’t want to leave as long as there were unsold seats.)

Now, the drive along the western coast of Peninsular Malaysia is not that spectacular, though the central Titiwangsa Mountains are always off on your right tantalizing you. I mostly dozed, to be honest. But then we got off the expressway and headed for the mountains, and the roads got smaller and somewhat twistier, until we got to Tapah and got onto Route 59. That’s the point at which we got serious about the mountain-climbing. The Cameron Highlands are, you see, 6,000 feet above sea level, and if you’ll remember I had started out on the coast.

The road doesn’t exactly waste time getting you to the top. There are pretty much no straight stretches worthy of the name – the longest straight stretch I can think off was right after the Lata Iskander waterfall, where you go a few hundred meters on a straight line walled on both sides with tiny shops where locals try to make a living selling things to tourists. (Nice waterfall, I admit.)

Lata Iskander

That’s not comic exaggeration, by the way. I really think that two or three hundred meters was the longest straight stretch on the 27 miles between Tapah and Ringlet, except for maybe when we driving past the Sungai Sekam reservoir. I mean, it wasn’t all as bad as this Google Map section…

The last bit of 59 before you get to Tanah Rata

…but it was all pretty much like this:

Route 59 between Tapah and Ringlet

I am entirely serious when I say that, as much as I want and intend to return to the Cameron Highlands at a later date, I don’t see how I can take certain of my children who are prone to motion sickness. They would be absolutely wretched. I’ve driven more than my share of twisty mountain roads, and that’s the most motion-sickness-inducing road I’ve ever been on, bar none. Even I got queasy a couple of times, and I grew up on switchbacking mountain roads. If motion sickness is your curse, then I genuinely fear that the Cameron Highlands are eternally off-limits to you…because you can’t get there except by this kind of road.

It’s also not a great road if you’re scared of heights. Or made nervous by small roads on which large vehicles drive with a certain insouciance of velocity, despite there not always being enough room for said large vehicles to pass each other on the road proper.

Looking down from my seat on the bus at the tops of fifty- to sixty-foot tall trees. This is actually down toward the bottom of the run, where there's not as far to fall as there is further up the mountain.

You know, you'd think they'd slow down more than they do

But for the guy who wrote this post, it was a heckuva fun road. In fact, I’m adding the Cameron Highlands Highway up to Gunung Batu Brinchang to that to-do list. I know, I know, I’ve been on the road already…but I don’t consider that it fully counts, for two reasons. One is that I didn’t drive it my own self. The other…we’ll get to that in its proper place.

The mountains are mostly unsettled, which makes the drive a lovely drive through a series of vistas of unspoiled mountain rain forest:

Titiwangsa Mountains from Federal Route 59

But that’s only until you get to the part that’s properly known as the Cameron Highlands. Way back when, some British folks exploring the peninsula came across this area, high up on the very spine of the Titiwangsa range, where the mountain slopes grew notably less precipitous (though I think it’s still abusing the language to refer to it as a “plateau”), and where the weather could best be described as Perfect Springtime Temperatures All Year Long. The latitude, you see, is tropical, so you don’t get the seasonal temperature swings you find in the temperate zones. But you’re 6,000 feet above sea level; so the temperature really is cool and pleasant and breezy, rather than Kuala Lumpur hot and humid. “What a spectacularly wonderful place to live!” one can’t help but think. Or, more specifically, if you’re a nineteenth-century British guy fresh from India, what one can’t help but think is, “What a spectacular place to build myself a great big giant tea plantation!” Which the British promptly set about doing.

"...plantations of ripening tea..."

(When I first saw those acres, or rather square miles, of tea-festooned mountain slopes, I found myself instantly humming, with all the reverence of Mr. Banks himself, the line, “…plantations of ripening tea.” Which reminds me of something else I’ve never blogged, namely the YouTube video that is a fake movie preview for the supernatural terror thriller Mary Poppins…I’ll blog that one after I finish this travelogue.)

They grow much more up there than tea now – with their year-round springtime, their ridiculously rich soil, and their ample rainfall, the Cameron Highlands are the agricultural epicenter of Malaysia, growing orchids and cabbages and all manner of other vegetables, including so much watercress that they actually export it in quantity to China. At the same time, with their spectacular views and perfect year-round weather, the Cameron Highlands are something of a tourist mecca, as you can tell from the fact that right smack in the middle of Tanah Rata (which means "flat land," thus proving that the applicability of any adjective is always a matter of local context) one finds a Starbucks. This is a Starbucks where I can testify that the décor is exactly what one finds in the Starbucks in Singapore or Houston, where I can testify that the venti mocha tastes exactly as it does in any Starbucks in Singapore or Houston – and where I can testify that the price is also the same as it is in Singapore or Houston, even though everything else sold in Malaysia is in effect a 50%-off bargain.

The Tanah Rata Starbucks

Though I do give the Tanah Rata Starbucks team full marks for an unusually creative, and I suspect quite effective, use of their fireplace.

Well, that's one way to use your wood-burning fireplace to heat your room

Now, my intention when the day started had been to try to buy a ticket on the 10 p.m. overnight bus that Unititi (hey, no snickering from the peanut gallery on that one), according to the internet, runs directly from Tanah Rata to Singapore. So, having stopped along the way at Starbucks to refresh myself and my iPhone e-mail cache, I went straight on to the Tourist Centre to get my bus ticket. But alas, it turned out that the internet lied; they don’t run the overnight one anymore. This meant that, if I wanted to be back in Singapore on Sunday morning so as to leave myself time to go to Bintan, I would have to catch a bus back to KL and then get to Singapore from there. And the last bus out to KL was a 3:30 bus…which, I was most unhappy to learn, didn’t leave me enough time for a taxi ride up to the top of Mount Batu Brinchang, on a little one-and-a-half-lane dirt road that is the highest road in Malaysia and that gets you up to an observation tower sitting 6,667 feet above sea level.

And that’s the second reason that I’m not willing to check this road off my bucket list – I didn’t make it all the way to the top.

[Pauses to indulge himself in a moment of bitter silence]

[Recomposes himself to continue]

Sorry about that. By the way, if you want to know a great reason to consider hiring a car rather than taking a bus to Tanah Rata and a taxi the rest of the way: the five-hour bus trip to Tanah Rata from Kuala Lumpur will cost you about $10 to $12 in American money (at current exchange rates). But the last ten kilometers? Well, the local authorities have established set rates for the cab ride from Tanah Rata to the top of the mountain, and THAT bit will cost you $27 to $30 (of which said local authorities no doubt get a healthy cut). So that’s a good reason to be able to smile at the taxi drivers as you go by the central taxi stand with a wave and a cheerful, “Guess I’ll drive it my own self, boys.”

Well, I spent a pleasant enough hour or so eating lunch and wandering up and down the very touristy but still quite enjoyable main street. I bought some of the local tea, and I tried to buy some clothes for my wife, except that I couldn’t find any in her small size (Malay women don’t seem to be as petite as Chinese women often are, and there are way fewer Malaysian Chinese than I had realized). I tried something called “starfruit juice,” which is very tasty as long as you’re swallowing it and then hits you with a surprisingly nasty aftertaste the moment you stop. I decided that as long as you could chug it an entire glassful at a time rather than sipping it, it would be a net positive experience. I found, on the wall of the tourist center, a page of surprisingly amusing little quick-hit jokes, and took a picture of them so that I wouldn’t forget any. Only after I was back in Singapore, when I wanted to tell Rusty the jokes and therefore opened the picture, did I discover that my iPhone had messed up the focus and they were mostly unreadable. Still, I could rescue a few, along the lines of…

Q. How can a woman keep her husband from reading her e-mail?
A. Put it in a folder marked “Instruction Manuals.”

Q. What do you get the man who has everything?
A. A woman who can tell him how to use it.

WIFE: Have you watched the young newlywed couple next door? Have you noticed that every time he gets home he kisses her with all the passion of a Hollywood movie? Why don’t you ever do that?
HUSBAND: Oh, I’d love to, but I don’t know her well enough.

On wall of ladies’ room: “My husband drives me crazy – he follows me everywhere.”
Written just beneath it: “I do not!”

TEACHER: Why don’t you ever comb your hair?
BOY: No comb.
TEACHER: Well, borrow your dad’s, then.
BOY: No hair.

PETER: What should we do today?
PAUL: I’m not sure. Let’s think…
PETER: No, I’d prefer to do something you can do too.

Which reminds me of a line I saw in some Asian equivalent of Star magazine, where the famous (in Asia) celebrity being interviewed in the article said, “Marriage is a ceremony where the man loses his bachelor’s degree and the woman gains her master’s degree.”

But before long it was time to get onto the bus. I sat back, prepared to relax…but that was before I knew that we had a bus driver who dreams of Formula One racing.

We roared down that highway. At one point, we caught up to a sports car and had to slow down. (I’m not making that up, though I think the driver was taking his time and enjoying the scenery.) At another point, we passed a motorcycle…on a curve…with oncoming traffic. (I’m not making that up, either, though I admit that the motorcycle had three people on it and was cornering conservatively.) I had my iPhone out so that I could take pictures, but I didn’t get any, because by the time I could see the shot and point the iPhone, we’d already be cornering again and it would be too late to get the picture. Eventually I just set the iPhone on video and taped about eight minutes or so. We had already gotten most of the way to the bottom and therefore we were already past the really huge drop-offs, I’m afraid, and I certainly wouldn’t say you should watch the whole video. But it will give you an idea of the pace we were making – and of how much rattling the bus was doing as we made that pace.

And you’ll notice that, despite the fact that there were no straight stretches and the bus was tearing down that mountain as though the driver had backed over a bunch of Hell’s Angels’ motorcycles on the way out of the parking lot, somebody still passed us.

This bus dropped me off at the KL central transit station, or, in Malay, the “Stesen Sentral Kuala Lumpur.” One of the interesting and (to me) amusing things about the Malay language, actually, is that (a) they borrow lots of words from English, but (b) they change all the spellings so that, in effect, they spell with a Malay accent. Here, for example, is what the nice young waitress at the Panettone restaurant gave me when I asked for cream for my coffee:

What you put in your coffee if you don't like it black

(If you have to eat at the Stesen Sentral KL, by the way, I strongly recommend the Panettone, specifically its “chilli” tuna pasta with a side of garlic bread, a coconut pastry, and a cup of good coffee, all of which will cost you six dollars or so.) I didn’t ride express buses around Malaysia; instead, each time I climbed onto a “bas ekspress.” And I presume that, if one is going to find oneself riding in a passenger car in Malaysia, one would prefer to find oneself riding in a “teksi” rather than in a car belonging to the “polis”.

Also, I didn’t get a picture of one, but every so often I would see an ominous yellow road sign that simply read:


I never figured out exactly what that meant, but I presume it was never good.

I decided to try going back to Singapore on the train rather than by bus. This was a mistake. They didn’t have any sleeper cabins left; so I bought a seat in coach, having misread the timetable and thinking that the express train was a three-hour trip instead of a seven-and-a-half-hour marathon. Then the 11:00 train that was supposed to get me to Singapore at 6:30 a.m., was forty-five minutes late. I was tired and cranky and full of fury with myself for choosing to travel on inefficient government-owned trains rather than the buses provided by the hyper-efficient free market (my libertarian prejudices having conveniently excised from memory the twenty-minute delay with which my morning had started). But at least coach was mostly empty; so I had two seats to myself. Thanks to experience gained in flying the fourteen-hour LA-to-Melbourne flight in coach, I already knew how to set up my laptop bag as a place to put my knees, and I therefore turned those two seats into a bed suitable for sleeping in an extremely tightly-tucked fetal position. Every hour or so I’d wake up, slide the laptop over in front of the other seat, and turn myself around with my head facing the other direction so that I could sleep on the other side; and that’s how I spent the night.

Dawn was coming up as we worked our way across the causeway from Malaysia into Singapore at the Woodlands checkpoint.
The coast of Singapore at dawn, from the railway causeway

The Woodlands Checkpoint, where trains from Malaysia end their journeys into Singapore

And I walked into the St Regis planning to get my breakfast and then head for the ferry in order to cross over into Indonesia and spend the day on the beaches of Bintan Island, which is supposed to be quite lovely. But then I realized something. I realized that I wasn’t planning to spend another day scrambling hither and yon because I really wanted to. I was only going because I didn’t want to get back to Texas and then wish I had. And in the end I decided that, while “wanting to go” would have been a perfectly good reason to spend more money and another day out sightseeing, “being afraid I would regret not going,” was just not good enough.

So I ate my breakfast, and I videochatted with my family some, and then I went to bed and took a nice long nap, and then I went out to have a very late lunch and write this travelogue.

And while I may eventually regret not having gone to Bintan, I haven’t started regretting it yet. Malaysia was enough, this time around. Maybe if I ever come back to Singapore, I can bring Helen; and then she and I can go see Bintan together.

UPDATE:Some information from a born-and-bred Malaysian:
The one thing that Msia doesn’t lack is banana leaves. The leaves you saw are fresh banana leaves. Lots of Msian dishes are cooked or served on fresh banana leaves. You will also find food or snack wrapped inside banana leaves, and the leaves will serve as a “holder” to keep the content inside. The appropriate explanation is that the leaves will infuse the content with a subtle, grassy aroma. Realistically, this is a tradition passed from earlier generation because… getting banana leaves is much cheaper than buying a bowl, hehehe
The same source tells me that "!" on a road sign just means, nonspecifically, "Beware!" Which makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, at least.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Hi from the Cameron Highlands in Peninsular Malaysia

Very fun road coming up here. Now it's off to take a taxi to Mount Brinchang, 6500 feet or so of hairpin two-lane road above sea level.

Just as soon as I finish my Starbucks mocha, that is. (Yes, of COURSE there's a Starbucks.)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

I'm hard at work on turning my Chinese wife into a redneck... you can see from these pictures taken on our day out at the family ranch in Oklahoma.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A purely, utterly enjoyable nine minutes


By the way, Jeremy is responsible for one of the all-time great television lines, when in discussing the virtues of the Porsche 911, he listed as one of its advantages the fact that (unlike other supercars) it has a back seat and therefore can claim to be a family vehicle. Now, the leg room in the back seat of the Porsche 911 is -- and I am being generous here -- approximately three centimeters. But Jeremy dismisses this cavil with the contempt it deserves:

"I mean, obviously, you'd have to have fairly, um...thin children -- but then you would have. [portentous pause] Because you've got a Porsche 911, so you'd have a thin wife."

Monday, July 25, 2011

Now THAT's an invocation

Thanks to Alden Cruz for this awesome videoclip, which, I feel compelled to warn my Liberal General Readers, includes a preacher with a deep Southern accent and Baptist intonations, and NASCAR. But at least no deer get shot in the clip; so you might be able to make it all the way to the end...

I note that there were people in the YouTube comments who considered it blasphemous. Nonsense. If you can't thank God for the things that bring joy to your life -- which, I can testify personally, a smokin' hot wife most certainly does -- then you aren't a Christian at all; and as far as maintaining a "reverent tone"...well, the guy I'm supposed to spend my life imitating spend a lot of time outraging the "reverent" sensibilities of His time's religious leaders, and taught us to address the Almighty God as "Daddy." So to be quite blunt about it, you will have to search far and wide to find a more thoroughly and admirably Christian prayer than this one. Pray on, Brother Joe!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Excellent beer commercial

Not in Kansas anymore

You know how triskaidekaphobia renders it fiscally unwise for hotels in the United States to even have a thirteenth floor?

Well, apparently folks in mostly-Chinese Singapore have never heard of that particular superstition, as my room number here at the St. Regis is 1313.

'Course, there's probably no hotel room in town numbered 4444...

My kind of bucket list...and one of 'em I've already checked off

Of course I now want to make sure I drive on every one of these roads before I die. The pictures, and descriptions... [sighs despondently at the thought of more years spent in Houston].

When I saw the title, "World's Scariest Roads: Most Wonderful Mountain Passes," I thought two things: (1) "This is going to be awesome," and (2) "I'm going to say they don't know what they're talking about if they don't include El Espinazo del Diablo, between Durango and Mazatlán, as I imagine they won't."

But to my delight, the very last mountain pass on the list? El Espinazo del Diablo. The pictures are hopeless, though. At the bottom of this post I'll attach my own description from my old Mexican travelogue, written back when, on a family vacation (yes, for a family vacation I once drove the kids from Austin to Mazatlán in a Ford Windstar), we stumbled, utterly without warning, out onto the Devil's Backbone.

At any rate, I want to drive every mile of every one of the mountain roads on this list (I have no interest in the Lena highway, as that is mere mud with no mountains).

  • Col de Turini, France. The only thing is, since this is probably the world's most famous road rally stretch and, thanks to television shows like this one, amateur hotshots come from all over the world to roar up and down it as fast as possible...well, I'd probably have to rent a Ferrari in order to avoid getting rear-ended on the hairpins. That's a really fun video, by the way. In fact the whole Top Gear series is a blast and well worth watching. Thanks to Top Gear there's a road on this list that I wouldn't otherwise have known about, namely...

  • The Transfăgărășan, Romania. Don't miss the Top Gear video, which includes a fascinating few minutes on the "People's Palace," the insane domicile of the insanse Nicolae Ceaușescu.

  • Stelvio Pass, Italy -- I haven't driven this one, though I did once drive the nearby St. Gotthard Pass in a rental car...on September 12th, 2001, grimly aware that I was trapped in Europe with my children stuck in West Virginia with my grandparents.

  • Before we leave the Alps, let's include one that really represents homage to the Tour de France: l'Alpe d'Huez. Given that this is on the list thanks to the world's elite cyclists, it would be inappropriate to do this in the ease and luxury of an automobile. I therefore propose to rent a moped. I will not, however, go so far as to ride it (in honor of Tour spectators) wasted out of my mind, nor, in honor of Alberto Contador, punching passersby in the face as I pedal. (Tim Moore, quoted in wikipedia: "During this year's clean-up operation, down in a ravine with the bottle shards and dented emulsion tins, a body turned up. He'd fallen off the mountain and no one had noticed. When the Tour goes up Alpe d'Huez, it's a squalid, manic and sometimes lethal shambles, and that's just the way they like it.")

  • Leh-Manali Highway, India. I particularly like this picture:

  • El Camino de la Muerte (the Road of Death), Boliva. More properly the "North Yungas Road." Of course it's the traffic that makes this road so deadly:. There's a special driving rule that applies only to el Camino de la Muerte: it's the only road in Bolivia where you drive on the left, not on the right. This is so that you can look out your window to see where your wheels are:

  • Los Caracoles Pass, between Chile and Argentina.

  • Russian-Georgian Military Mountain Roads. Beware of that link, though, as several of the pictures are grossly mislabelled -- the muddy and snowy ones are the Lena Highway, and there's even a tropical-forest-festooned shot of el Camino de la Muerte, which is no doubt astonished to find itself in Georgia rather than Bolivia.

    By the way, just when exactly did we give the Russians permission to build military highways in Georgia? And why hasn't Governor Deal done somethin' about it?

  • 郭亮村(Guoliang Village) Tunnel Road, China. This one is so cool. Can't wait to get there. And just think: driving in China is an adventure even in the coastal plain. Just think of sharing that road with Chinese truck drivers and motor scooters. Wheeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (Just teasing, that road's a one-way road driven only by taxis and little tourist vans. It isn't really dangerous, just a fascinating road in beautiful country.)

    Actually, I think the best thing about this particular stretch of road (except for the tragic bit), is the story of how it got built. From Wikipedia:
    Before the tunnel was constructed, access to the nearby Guoliang village was limited to a difficult path carved into the mountainside. The village is nestled in a valley surrounded by towering mountains cut off from civilization. In 1972 a group of villagers led by Shen Mingxin decided to carve a road into the side of the mountain. They raised money to purchase hammers and steel tools. Thirteen villagers began the project. The tunnel is 1.2 kilometres (0.75 mi) long, 5 metres (16 ft) tall and 4 metres (13 ft) wide. Some of the villagers died in accidents during construction. On 1 May 1977 the tunnel was opened to traffic.
    Never let it be said that the Chinese lack initiative. The full story can be found here (where we find out why everybody in the village shares the same last first name) and here, along with a delightful postscript that observes that once mainland China opened itself to Western tourism, thousands of currency-endowed tourists made their way to Guoliang, thus making the road one heck of an investment.

    Here is some video, by the way.

  • Taroko Gorge Road, Taiwan

  • The old Italian WWI military roads (now drivable only with motorcycle) up to Refugio Papi perched on the Pasubio massif, more precisely la Strada degli Eroi ("Road of Heroes") / la Strade delle Gallerie ("Road of Tunnels"), Italy. This road isn't so dangerous now, the way most people do it, which is on foot. But when it was built, it was plenty dangerous, considering that it was built and used by Italians under Austrian artillery fire, since the Pasubio massif was of critical strategic importance on the Austrio-Italian front. You can find articles about this road in Wikipedia...but only if you can read Italian.

  • This wasn't on the list I originally linked to, because you don't have the thousand-foot views to make you feel like death is a breath away. But since we're talking WWI military roads and we let the Italians in, we should give fair play to the Austrians, who built the remarkable road up the San Baldo Pass in 100 days. Or, rather, the Italian POW's and shepherds and grandmothers they had captured built it for them, under what we shall euphemistically term "encouragement." At any rate, in order to keep the grade to no greater than 12%, the Austrians designed in seven or eight switchbacks -- even though there wasn't actually room enough for switchbacks in the sliver of space they were trying to exploit. So how did they solve their problem? By building U-shaped tunnels to switch back in:
    There's only room for cars to go one direction at a time; so there are traffic lights at the top and bottom. This means that it really sucks if you get to the bottom of the Passo San Boldo on sheep-moving day:

  • Halsema Highway, Philippines

  • The Alaska Highway, Canada/USA. For degree-of-difficulty purposes, I propose to do this one in an RV.

  • Trollstigen ("Troll Ladder"), Norway

  • Lysebotn Road, Norway. Obviously Norway is on my list of places to visit -- I want to drive the Atlanterhavsveien, too.

  • Iroha-zaka winding road, Japan. There are actually two, each one-way, one going up and one going down. Apparently when the road was a monks' footpath, there were 48 switchbacks, one for each letter of the Japanese alphabet. Then they put in the new road, and the engineers put 50 curves in. But this honked people off; so they went back and re-engineered the road to reduce the number of curves back to 48. All righty then.

  • Van Zyls Pass, Namibia. Ohhhhhhhhh...just look at that road...[tries to control the drooling]

  • El Espinazo del Diablo (The Devil's Backbone), Mexico, which we can check off Kenny's Mountain Road Bucket List already. Why no link? Why, because I can find no really good pictures of it on the web, that's why.

Here's the bit from that old travelogue where we actually get to the part that takes El Espinazo into the Pantheon:
...I seem to recall that I had originally set out to describe the drive through the Sierra Madre, and had reached the pine forests at the 7,500- to 8,000-foot level. To return to my topic: Rain can get through to this part now, but the elevation doesn’t lend itself to jungle vines and such. So it’s remarkably like the Oklahoma hills, with grass and pines and vividly colored wildflowers. Also little miniature hand-reaped, hand-collected haystacks, the kind of step-back-in-time, tourist-pleasing picture-postcard effect that only severe poverty affords. (When we came back through a week later, one of the farmers was out bent double with a machete, mowing his hay by hand.) The breeze is pleasantly cool and the air is the sort of mountain air that makes you turn off the A/C and roll down the window until the whining from the kids in the back makes you roll it back up.

If you have a mile-by-mile travel guide with you, then you know when you cross the top of the pass at 8,900 feet. Otherwise you’ll never spot it, since it’s just a little hump in the road like the others over which you’ve been going up and down for the last half hour. (Things like that aren’t high, apparently, on the Mexican sign-painters’ agenda. Not even the Continental Divide rates a marker.) But a few minutes later you will know that you must have passed it already, because that is when you drive out onto the cliff.

I don’t mean you drive along the top of a cliff. I mean you drive out onto the face of a cliff. For the next about twenty miles the road is a wide spot dynamited across sheer rock walls that tower above you higher than you can see without sticking your head out the window and plunge hundreds of feet straight down on the other side. There is no shoulder except for very tiny spaces on the outsides of curves, big enough for a car to pause (but not for the trucks that pass back and forth incessantly). There are no emergency truck lanes; I presume that if a truck loses its brakes, then the driver either tries to scrape the cliff face and use friction to stop himself, or else jumps out and hopes not to break his neck, or else crosses himself and hopes to die in a state of grace.

I say this in retrospect, having driven back from Mazatlán on a day when the sun was shining cheerfully in the mountains. On the trip down, we hit heavy fog about two minutes before we hit the cliff. We could see what was on our right (the cliff face disappearing up into the fog), and we could see that there was nothing remotely like land visible on our left. But we didn’t really know what kind of spectacle we were missing until suddenly there was a brief break in the clouds and we could see across a mile of void to the road winding back into the clouds on the other side, with a town below the road – as in, five or six hundred feet below the road, at the base of the vertical section of the cliff, perched on an insanely steep slope that disappeared further down into the fog. Almost instantly the clouds closed back in, but we had seen enough to know we were in the middle of something special.

Throughout the rest of the cliff section, we would occasionally get tantalizing views for a few seconds, and our sense of awe just kept increasing. For we kept on driving, and the odometer kept clicking, and yet every time the clouds broke the cliffs were just as sheer and just as fearsome. Then we reached el Espinazo de Diablo, the “Devil’s Backbone.” Here we drove across a saddle from one cliff face to another. For just a moment we could see both directions, as the massive ridge along which our road was working its way down from the high sierra narrowed to a knife’s edge. And I mean that almost literally. For thirty or forty feet, the road was two lanes wide and took up the whole ridge, with a all-but-sheer drop on each side of literally hundreds of feet.

Actually, we could have seen both directions had it not been for the fog. Again, I’m talking from retrospect, i.e., from what we saw coming back through. On the way out what we saw was lots of white. A spot wide enough to park in has been dynamited out of the face on one side right at el Espinazo, and we stopped there. We got out and walked over to the edge, standing next to the wall that borders the (naturally shoulderless) west-bound lane. We peered over the edge, and what we saw was a straight fall until the fog blotted everything out. I mean, if you flipped a rock underhanded out over the wall, you would have seen it fall for fifty feet or so and then...gone, with no idea of when it was actually going to hit something solid.

But all good things must come to an end. Ever so gradually the cliffs mellowed into mere ridiculously steep slopes. We started actually to switchback every now and then (whereas before there was no place wide enough to switch directions). We passed the Tropic of Cancer – which, perversely enough, was marked with a sign. For a brief moment, far off in the distance, we spotted the Pacific, though even now we were several thousand feet above sea level. The vegetation changed character; now everywhere there was lush, viney underbrush rather like Kentucky, to use our guidebook’s apt simile. And here we saw one of the most remarkable testaments to human determination I’ve ever seen.

As I said, the mountainsides were technically slopes now, not cliffs. But if we hadn’t just come off those colossal, endless walls of stone I think we’d probably have been calling them cliffs. I grew up in Oklahoma’s Kiamichi Mountains and climbed a lot of rocks and a lot of hills, and I learned early on to recognize when a bank of soil was way too steep to even think about climbing up it, because the dirt would just slide out from under your feet and down you’d go right along with the soil you’d been trying to climb. These slopes were way too steep to even think about climbing them. Except – the local farmers were growing corn and soybeans all over them.

I have no idea how they did it. It’s been a couple of weeks now, and I still haven’t thought of any way for them to do it without using ropes. But can you really hoe a corn patch, or weed a soybean field, suspended on a rope like a window washer? I haven’t a clue. But I’ll tell you this: if I were a Mexican knowing that my choices were to grow corn on the side of cliffs that a goat wouldn’t trust, or else to sneak across a border and make five bucks an hour mowing lawns for some martini-sipping American housewife, no border patrol on earth could stand in my way. Shoot, the devil and all his minions would have their work cut out keeping me in those corn patches. (Somehow I just can’t bring myself to call them “fields.”)...

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Probably couldn't get away with posting this notice in a well-lawyered Houston office




Star In Your Own Urban Myth Dept

This hotel totally rocks. You know who I ran into in the lobby today? Beyonce! No lie, dude! And she was, like, all upset, and she had all the concierge staff and everybody scrambling around looking for something. So I ask her, like, can I help, right? And she goes, "I've lost my phone. It's a pink one with a Bubblicious cover on it. You haven't seen it, have you?" I'm like, "No, sorry. Have you tried calling it?" She looks at me like I'm stupid and says, "It wouldn't do any good. I put it on silent."

And I'm like, "If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it."


See, a good story is just so much better if you can pretend it really happened. Especially if you have credulous friends. Um, Gentle Facebook Commenter it happens, you're using precisely the correct word -- and yet somehow I do not think it means what you think it means.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Useless Signs Dept

My favorite is this one:

But you should go check all of them out.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Since all of my kids are on Facebook...

...I should get my answers way faster than this guy: