Friday, November 27, 2009

Just Monkeying Around...

I’m not sure if you’re aware of this or not, but I like telling jokes.

I know.

Shocking, isn’t it?

But the one thing I’m finding is that the language barrier often makes humour difficult. The subtleties of sarcasm, irony and jest are often lost in translation.

When English isn’t the common dialect, it’s tough enough for me to find the right word the other person will understand in a normal conversation, let alone one filled with wisecracks and smartass comments.

What I may see as an absolutely hilarious statement, will sometimes come off as slightly awkward, mildly insulting or maybe even just bat-shit crazy.

So as you can imagine, there are days when I struggle.

But of course, I have found one joke that works almost every time.

In Malaysia, and particularly Malaysia-Borneo, they are very proud of their wildlife; specifically, their apes and monkeys. Orangutans, proboscis monkeys, macaques, whatever - they’re everywhere! On postcards, advertisements, T-shirts, you name it – they’re very easy to find.

So if I’m talking to someone and the conversation hits that all-too-familiar awkward silence due to lack of words, I’ll point to a picture of a monkey and go “Hey – it’s my brother.”

And then we all have a good laugh.

Now you may think this is mean, but in my defense I’d like to offer three points:

First off, Chris started it.

Secondly, he isn’t here.

And thirdly, everyone always comes to the defense of him…

“Oh… you be nice. Ha ha ha.”

“You shouldn’t be mean to your brother. Ha ha ha.”

“Maybe the monkey’s your twin brother? Ha ha ha.”

99% of the time, this joke kills.

Of course, the one time it didn’t was with a guide at Bako National Park in Sarawak, Borneo-Malaysia.

Robyn and I were watching proboscis monkeys climbing in the trees. The guide was walking by and stopped to watch them with us.

I saw an opportunity to use my comedic skills to break the ice, so I cleared my throat and said the line…

“Hey – it’s my brother!”

And then I waited for the laughter.

Except there was no laughter.

He just looked at me and said “Where are you from?”

I said “Canada.”

Still no laughter.

Then, in all seriousness, without any trace of irony, he said “well then it’s not your brother.”

I see.

As far as he was concerned, the only reason why the monkey in the tree and I couldn’t possibly be related was a matter of nationality.

So yeah – sometimes the humour is lost.

And just for the record, I don’t think my brother looks like a proboscis monkey.

Chris doesn’t have red hair.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Travel Tip # 74

When in Doubt, Speak French

When travelling, you will be approached by someone trying to sell you something.

It’s a fact. Get used to it.

You’re going to be approached for everything from taxi rides and massages, to pirated DVDs and “massages”.

And while 99% of the people will leave you alone with a polite “no thank you”, there will be the other 1% who will persist and follow you and continue talking to you in the hope of wearing you down into a sale.

So what do you do?

Well to start, don’t get upset.

Don’t get angry. Don’t tell them off. Don’t yell.

You’ll only come off looking bad.

It doesn’t matter how much you think you’re being harassed, to everyone else it’ll look like their compatriot was just trying to make a sale and “the ignorant foreigner went overboard”.

And you know what?

They’ll be right.

The bottom line is they’re just trying to make a living and hawking is part of the game. Whether you want to believe it or not, as a tourist you’re very wealthy by the local standards and money from you can make a huge difference to their livelihood. So when the opportunity of a “good sale” is presented to them, of course they’re going to go the extra mile to try and make it happen.

Instead, keep your composure, be firm and when in doubt, speak French.


When someone approaches you with a tacky souvenir and you smile, say “no thank you” in their first language (this is key) and they then continue with “Where are you from? Where are you going? America? Canada? England?”, just speak French.

It’s very simple.

All you have to do is politely shake your head, pause and then struggle to say “no English. French?”

If you can do a French accent, great!

If you can throw in a few French words - “est-ce vous parlez Francais?” - even better!!!

English may not be their first language, but a lot of people around the world know enough of it to be able to carry on a conversation in order to do business.

But French? Well that’s a different story.

Instead, chances are they’ll stop, politely smile and then leave you alone.

No one gets offended. No one’s feelings are hurt. It’s a communication breakdown, plain and simple.

And it doesn’t have to be just French. Feel free to try it with any other language you may know… Spanish… German… Dutch… whatever.

The point is it’s a simple trick to ensure everyone leaves with their dignity.

Finally, grade 9 French is good for something.

Days 42 – Borneo-Malaysia

November 16, 2009 - Kuching, Borneo-Malaysia

This is our last day in Borneo.

Tomorrow we fly back to Singapore to regroup before heading off to our next country, though we’re still trying to figure out which country it will be.

Stay tuned...

Days 39-41 – Borneo-Malaysia

November 13-15, 2009 - Kuching to Bako National Park, Borneo-Malaysia

Eric and I spend the next couple of days exploring Bako National Park.

The only way to access the park is by boat and there is only one place to eat - a canteen that serves the same food every day. The excitement at meal time comes from the long-tailed macaques, which will literally run up and steal the food off of your plate. The park rangers have slingshots on standby to keep the monkeys at bay, although one still manages to steal my fried egg our first morning.

Thankfully I was finished eating!

The highlight for both Eric and I is seeing the proboscis monkeys. They are the largest monkey in the world! We stumble upon them as they are hanging out along the edge of the beach eating.

Our second night, we take a guided walk with one of the rangers and see a civet, which is a wild cat that lives in the trees of the jungle. It’s a rare sighting - the ranger has only seen one once before – so we're very excited.

Days 37 & 38 – Borneo-Malaysia

November 11 & 12, 2009 - Miri to Sibu to Kuching, Borneo-Malaysia

These two days are spent riding buses and ferries to get ourselves to Kuching.

Along the way we see multiple examples of the famous Borneo longhouses. Longhouses are the typical dwelling units for the indigenous people of Borneo. The longhouse is a communal dwelling that was traditionally raised off the ground on stilts and may contain up to 100 individual family apartments all under one roof. Typically there is a porch running the length of the longhouse, which serves as a social gathering space.

Days 35 & 36 – Brunei to Borneo-Malaysia

November 9 & 10, 2009 - Bandar Seri Begwan, Brunei Darussalam to Miri, Borneo-Malaysia

From Brunei we take a 4-hour bus ride to Miri and spend the rest of the day exploring the city.

Eric’s appetite is back and we find a restaurant that makes amazing Afghan chicken… we went back three times for their food.

Day 36 we arrange to visit the caves at Batu Niah National Park, where cave paintings from some of the oldest inhabitants in Southeast Asia were found. The caverns are beautiful but are really smelly from bat & bird poo – the caves happen to be the nesting ground for thousands of them!

A Word to Live By

Let’s say you go to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and eat some food which was probably sitting out in the heat for far too long.

And let’s say that food made you very sick.

And let’s say, despite the medical community’s insistence that it’s nothing more than a bad case of food poisoning, you know in actuality that a small demon has invaded your stomach.

And let’s say this small demon causes you to expel all the contents of your digestive system for the next few days.

How would you pass the time?

Well, here’s what I did.

As I lay in a cold sweat, I would take normal, everyday words and then change them so they were similar, but much funnier.

For instance, did you know if you change a few letters in the word “anti-biotics”, it becomes “anti-buttocks”?

It’s true.

And when you’re stuck in a hostel room in a quiet little country like Brunei with nothing to do because you’re running to the toilet every 10 minutes, BOY IS IT FUNNY!

So very funny.

So very funny on many different levels, with the main level being that you keep saying “buttocks” over and over and over again, much to the annoyance of your patient and understanding girlfriend.

Days 32-34 – Borneo-Malaysia to Brunei

November 6-8, 2009 - Kota Kinabalu, Borneo-Malaysia to Bandar Seri Begwan, Brunei Darussalam

We take two ferries to get ourselves to Brunei - one from KK to Pulau Lauban and from Pulau Lauban to BSB.

The next couple of days are for recovery as it seems I picked up a bit of a head cold and Eric is still getting over his food poisoning. Brunei is a very calm and quiet country and BSB is a very pretty city. Between naps we walk around to the museums and take in the sights. The ostentation of the Royal Regalia Museum is mind blowing.

Day 31 – Borneo-Malaysia

November 5, 2009 - Kota Kinabalu, Borneo-Malaysia

While Eric spends the day resting, I take off scuba diving for the day.

It starts with a 1-on-1 refresher course. The last time I was diving was in Thailand in 2005 and I was feeling a little nervous, so the reminder was nice.

The two full dives I took were fun dives where I saw tons of cool corals, colourful fish and even a turtle. That sighting made my day!

Days 27-30 – Borneo-Malaysia

November 1-4, 2009 - Kinabalu National Park & Sandakan, Borneo-Malaysia

On Day 27 we go from Kota Kinabalu (KK) to Kinabalu National Park.

We leave the city in sunshine and by the time we arrive at the base of Mount Kinabalu the clouds have rolled in.

Kinabalu National Park is set up like a resort, and it’s way too expensive for us to stay on the property. It costs $120 RM per bed per person with a shared bath, which is around $40 CAN$. That’s a lot considering we’re typically paying that much for an entire room with a private bathroom. So instead Eric and I get ourselves settled in a hostel 5 minutes from the park’s front gate, for less than 1/3 of the price!

As we are not ones to let a little rain get in our way, we head out and do some hiking before it really begins to pour. By the time we make it back to our hostel we are drenched and cold, but happy to be out of the city. The park is beautiful mountainous country!

Day 28 we wake up to rain.

The hostel owner tells us it’s going to be rainy all day so we alter our plans. We pack up and head over to Sandakan for a short overnight visit to see orangutans at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.

“Amazing” is the only word I can describe the experience of watching them feed and hang out.

Absolutely amazing!!!

Day 29 we rise up early to get ourselves back to Kinabalu National Park for more hiking.

The weather is perfect so we spend the day in the rainforest. One of the trails follows a mountain river and we cross waterfalls & rapids all the while on the alert for naughty monkeys.

Day 30 we head back to KK.

Eric has been hit by food poisoning, so we “semi-hitchhike” back to the city so he can recover.

Things We Miss

After almost 1 1/2 months on the road, here's a little list of the things we miss the most.

It's in no particular order, though for political reasons, #1 is actually #1:

1. Our family & friends

2. Salad

3. Toilet seats

4. 100% real juice

5. Cooking

6. Sarcasm

7. Our bed

8. Cheeseburgers (Eric)

9. Wardrobe options… particularly shoes (Robyn)

10. Consistent climbing nights

11. Open mic nights (Eric)

12. Steady income

Day 26 – Malaysia to Borneo-Malaysia

October 31, 2009 - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Kota Kinabalu, Borneo-Malaysia

Happy Halloween!

As I previously mentioned, Eric and I have an early start to the day.

We catch our flight no problem though it is delayed an hour because a crew member is missing and we can’t leave without them.

At about 10:20am we touchdown and begin our journey into the city centre. Apparently if you want to go anywhere in or out of KK’s city centre, you have to take 2 buses – 1 to get you to the bus station on the outskirts of the city and then 1 to take you around the city centre. So today we end up taking 6 buses – 2 to get us from the airport to a hostel, 2 to get us to the museum and of course 2 to get us back from the museum.

Eric and I spend the afternoon exploring the Muzium Sabah. Part of the museum is a heritage village with various types of indigenous huts found in Sabah.

While we were walking the village I was attacked again by Malaysia’s upper class… a gecko jumped on my back.

Yes a gecko.

I was attacked by a gecko!

This brought back painful memories, as the last run in I had with a gecko was about four years ago in Cambodia. I was eating my dinner and a little guy on the ceiling above me aimed, fired and pooed in my curry.

I looked up to see him smiling down at me.

So here I am having another run in with a gecko. It attempted to scramble up my neck onto my head.

After the monkey incident (see “Monkey on my Back”) I have been a little jittery, so I let out a good yelp and frantically danced around until I was sure I was rid of the “monster” on my back. The gecko wasn’t but three inches long and an inch in height, but he gave me quite a fright, though we both came out no worse for wear.

Eric had a good laugh.

Hell, I had a good laugh.

SERIOUSLY - what are the odds of a gecko jumping on your back? I’m banking on these gecko incidences as being good luck!

Eric and I finish the day wandering markets, streets, malls and parks to finally rest for dinner at a hole in the wall restaurant with great pork soup.

And, yes I can still feel the gecko running up my neck. I think the nervous twitch will stay with me for a couple of days or until I shower again.

Day 25 – Malaysia

October 30 2009 - Georgetown to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

We decide to get to Borneo by flying out of KL, so on Day 25 we take a bus from Georgetown and arrive in KL mid-afternoon.

We spend the afternoon walking around and the evening prepping for our 6:50am flight the next morning. Of course, a 6:50am flight means getting up at 3:30am because KL’s airport is 73km outside the city centre. Who would have thought? That’s like Toronto’s airport being in Hamilton.

Oh yeah… Hamilton does have an airport that many Torontonians use.

Travel Tip # 106

Bring Ziploc Bags

When you’re traveling, Ziploc bags are worth their weight in gold… though, since they’re not really that heavy, I guess this statement is a little misleading.

Be sure to bring freezer bags because the plastic is heavier so they’re more durable… sandwich bags will tear too easily.

Secondly, the medium-sized ones are probably the best size to bring as it gives you the most range… they’re big enough to hold a wet pair of socks, but small enough to not take up too much room.

And their uses are almost endless!

You can use them to keep things waterproof like your passport, travel documents, your iPod, etc.

You can use them to store food & snacks, so unwanted critters of various shapes & species won’t take notice.

When you’re flying, you can use them to keep your toothpaste and cough syrup in, so “the Man” doesn’t confiscate your liquids.

But ultimately, they’ll prevent you from having to try and explain a hand lotion stain on your trousers when there’s a language barrier.

Days 22-24 - Malaysia

October 27-29, 2009 - Georgetown, Malaysia

Day 22 is spent wandering the city.

Georgetown was originally settled by the British so there is an interesting collection of heritage buildings and architectural styles throughout the city – Colonial, Art Deco, Chinese, Muslim and Modern.

As part of our wandering we go for a tour of Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, aka “La Mansion Bleu”.

The tour is by far one of the highlights of our stay in Georgetown. The tour guide, Joann is fabulous!! Her knowledge of little details about the architecture of the mansion and her enthusiasm for her job definitely keeps our attention. The house is a wonderful success story of restoration in Georgetown.

Check it out -

On Day 22 we discover shandies come in apple flavour!! Our shandy knowledge is growing day by day.

We spend the morning of Day 23 sorting our next place of travel. Plan A had been to take a ferry from Georgetown to Sumatra, Indonesia. However due to the recent earthquakes over there we decide it’s probably not a good time to visit. So Plan B is to head to Borneo, Malaysia and Brunei!

Since the morning was spent organizing and completing the logistics of our next trip, we spend the afternoon getting our heartbeats going and hike up Penang Hill, which is 800m above sea level. It’s a 5 km hike uphill the entire way and we successfully do it in under 2 hours. Of course, after the hike, we opt to take the cable car down.

On Day 24 we follow tradition and head to the beach at Batu Ferringhi for some rest and relaxation. The beach, which is along the east coast of Pulau Penang, is great but slightly overrun with water sport vendors… truly a resort town.

The day finishes with a major rainfall. Rainy season has started in Malaysia and we have been getting regular rainfalls. However, the majority of them have been in the evenings so no complaints here. It also breaks up the monotony of the warmth and the sunshine and the - oh, who am I kidding?! There’s no monotony!! The weather is AWESOME!!!

Day 21 - Malaysia

October 26, 2009 - Kota Bharu to Georgetown, Malaysia

Day 21 is a long travel day.

We drive through winding roads and mountainous terrain for approximately 7 hours and Eric & I both start thinking the bus may turn into the new “Vomit Comet”, by our own doing!

Luckily, we stop for lunch halfway through the ride, which gives us time to regroup.

The bus ride takes us to Butterworth where we then jump on a ferry and head across to Pulau Penang and the city of Georgetown.

Days 19 & 20 – Malaysia

October 24 & 25, 2009 - Terranganu to Kota Bharu, Malaysia

Day 19 is another travel day.

We arrive in Kota Bharu – our last stop along the east coast – around 1:30pm. We get ourselves sorted with our accommodations for the next couple of days and spend the rest of Day 19 & 20 exploring the city.

The highlight of the town is the central market, housed in a three-storey octagonal building. The market is the biggest one we have seen yet and every level is different; the ground level is full of vegetables, fruit, sweets & fish, the second level has dry goods & food stalls (for eating) with the largest prawns I have ever seen, and the third level is filled with batik & songket cloth, saris, men’s shirts, hats, etc.

To mix things up a little from our regular day-to-day activities (if you can call it regular), on Day 20 Eric and I see a self-defense demonstration at the cultural centre. The demonstrators performed a traditional Malaysian martial arts routine to traditional Malaysian music.

We finish up our visit at the night market. We had tried to find it on Day 19, but went in the wrong direction… no loss though – we ended up finding a cool shopping market and I got a new pair of pants.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

'Tis the Season?

It’s November 3, 2009 and I’m sitting in a restaurant at the base of Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo-Malaysia.

The sun is shining, the birds are chirping and there are red Christmas lights on the patio.

What? Christmas lights? Are you serious?

Oh yes, my friend. And wait – there’s more!

When what to my wandering ears should appear, but…


It has begun.

Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, so if it’s this bad here…

I can only imagine what it’s like back home.

God help you all.