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Kota Kinabalu: Sleeping, snorkelling and relationship woes

MALAYSIA | Saturday, 16 May 2009 | Views [1223]

When my little brother first started "big kids' school" my mother used to walk him to school. When she tried to leave she would be assailed by a barrage of wails. Anguish aplenty. She felt terribly guilty about leaving him in such a state until one day after leaving him she ducked around the side of the school and saw him playing happily with his friends -- the same boy who was beside himself with misery only five minutes before.

The next time she left him and he started bawling she said, "Stop that! You'll be fine in five minutes."

And he, by her account, said "drat!"

For the past few weeks I have been working myself into such a state. I've been sitting in my room and fondling my material possessions. I have been walking around the city with a hyperbolic sense of nostalgia. All I have wanted to do is sit and watch television. When anyone has asked me if I'm excited, I have just shrugged and said that I'm excited about the plane, the "free food" and getting new earpiece covers for my headphones from the airplane headsets. I have said that as soon as I get to the airport and smell those airport smells I'll be just fine.

I have tended not to believe me.

But it turns out that I'm just like my brother. As soon as I'm left alone to go play with the world I'm just fine. I don't even remember what I was planning on missing so much. Four days into South East Asian Odyssey #2 and it feels like I've picked up where I left off a year and a half ago. And it feels just fine.

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My bed in my hostel in Kota Kinabalu is pretty swanky by SEA standards. The mattress is innersprung. The pillow is comfortable and non-musty. There is a duvet of an appropriate weight and jolly print. The bed is wide enough that I can get some approximation of diagonal -- which as everybody knows, is the most comfortable direction in which to sleep. The floors are tiled. There is blissful air conditioning. I was first in the room, so I've managed to nab the bottom bunk. We even have a window, although it does look out onto a corridor.

Following on from the nightmare that was my Changi Airport stopover, this is heaven. I may as well give up and go home now, there isn't going to be anything capable of topping this.

Such were my sentiments as I was lying in this den of decadent repose, trying to nap on the afternoon of my arrival in Kota Kinabalu.

In the midst of such meditations on the perfectness of my room, I was interrupted by the arrival of a new dorm mate: Matt the insurmountably polite Welsh lad with a confused accent. In a flash I recalled dorm room etiquette and launched into the "backpacker exchange" in order to discover where he was from, where he had been, where he was going, how long he'd been travelling and how much longer he had left to travel. I returned my own vital stats in exchange. Having satisfied this ritual, I invited him to accompany me hunting mangoes, and we spent the afternoon talking an impressive amount of crap at the end of the pier, watching the boats go to and from the islands off the coast.

He was (and still is) a lawyer of sorts. Half way through an eight-month round-the-world odyssey that will take him to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and both North and South Americas before he's through. He told me stories of being an exceptionally tall bloke in China. We swapped experiences of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. I told him how I'm usually a complete anti-tourist and that I will probably end up saying "I went to Borneo and all I did was watch the Star Trek movie" and he agreed that that would be awesome. We shared similar sentiments to the effect that Futurama and Family Guy are better than the Simpsons, which only makes number three out of longevity, and that Futurama beats Family Guy by a smidgen because you can actually care about the characters.

Pier, sunset over island, crap-talking... at one stage my top lip curled in a slight Elvis impersonation, accompanied by an eye-squint, and I had to explain that it was my expression to say "Aww yeah... this isn't too bad."

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Now, there's nothing I like better than repeating my own theories, so I'll say it again: Travel is a microcosm of life. Take all the joys and troubles of a normal life -- perhaps sans things like births, deaths, marriages and aging -- speed it up and cram it into a short space of time in another country or place, and that's what travel is.

You meet people, you lose people. You find motivation, then you lose it. You have highs, you have lows. You learn things, you pass the knowledge on. You create new homes and families for yourself. You move between such wildly different environments and situations that it's hard to remember or comprehend what was going on several days ago.

Anything that happens over a period of weeks or months or years in real life can be squished up into a matter of days when travelling. And people who love to travel aren't really in love with seeing new places: They're in love with life, and such greedy buggers that they want to live many lifetimes in the time that they're given on earth.

Over the past few days in K.K I've experienced the entire lifespan of a relationship with my dorm mates, from initial woo to final whoa (or woe, depending on your perspective.)

Following our sunset wanderings and crap-talking, my new friend and I returned to the hostel in time to meet another new dorm mate: A mouse-featured Australian guy called Mike. Mike is from Perth and works in insurance. He had been to Kota Kinabalu before. He knew exactly what to order at the night market, and how to say please and thankyou. He had done all the things that both Matt and I are considering doing in Sabah, and could offer opinions and recommendations. He was our oracle on our first stunned night in Kota Kinabalu. Together we all went to the night market for barbeque chicken, mee goreng and Tiger beer. It was nice. It was like our courtship: Meeting, chatting, sharing interests, discovering each other's perspectives on the world, eating out and drinking beer.

The next day we jumped on a boat to Mamutik -- one of the islands off the coast of KK. We climbed over a hill and donned fins and snorkels to look at fish. Despite going to all the effort of climbing over the island (hey, it's only 300 metres wide) to where the coral was supposed to be better, there was not as much to see as the boys expected. After thirty-odd minutes of kicking around, my neck was beginning to ache so I swam a little closer to shore to stand on a rock and iron out the kinks, while M & M kicked around further out.

Kinks unkinked, I spat in my mask, rinsed it out, and headed back into the water. I hadn't gone particularly far from the island when I saw something that shat all over those fish I'd been so excited about: I saw a giant turtle flapping around under the water. I screamed "TURTLE!" with my snorkel still in my mouth, but the boys were too far away and under water to hear.

I followed the turtle, but naturally it was wise to this uncoordinated mass coming up behind it, and it swam away faster. I figured that it would be just my luck to be chasing a turtle out in open water and to be chopped up by the rotors of one of the boats that plow up and down between the islands, so I stopped the chase and watched the turtle disappear into the murk.

Back at shore I related my story to the boys: "Did you see a turtle? I saw a turtle!" etc. I wasn't even aware if it was something I should be bragging about. Perhaps the waters were swarming with turtles and I should have seen more than one!

Turns out that the waters are not teeming with turtles. Turns out that it's actually a pretty rare occurrence to see a turtle off that island. I felt pretty chuffed. On the boat on the way back to the mainland my lip did the curly thing again: Nice people. Good times.

The next day was my "admin day" where I attempted to work out what I was doing, but mostly just got my legs waxed. That's an entertaining story in itself, but leg waxing doesn't form part of my microcosm of life theory, so you'll have to wait.

The boys went out diving, and returned around 6pm with some interesting news: Their dive instructor considered it largely impossible that I saw a turtle of Mamutik, and that the more likely explanation was that I was "smoking something pretty interesting", or "fibbing".

Thus begins the souring of our beautiful relationship. The accusations. The pleading. The bitterness. The trying to prove yourself right when you have no photographic evidence.

At dinner the boys had bonded over the diving and their shared suspicion. I was indignant and sarcastic, and very good at both. But I still retained fondness for these two souls, remembering the delight of our earlier relationship.

Walking around town I was either in front or behind and feeling redundant because they weren't speaking to me.

Indignance was replaced by a sensation of loss.

Loss was replaced by indifference and "what did I see in them anyway?".

Indifference was briefly tainted by hope as I was invited to join them for a walk to a bird sanctuary, but that was short-lived. After waiting for them to wake up (I'm still on NZ time and waking up like a bolt at 6.30am), and waiting some more for them to get their shit together, and then paying a visit to a mall to look for flip flops, a watch battery and insect repellant, and then waiting for them to ogle electronic goods... we finally made it out of the mall and on our way to the bird sanctuary.

Then they spied a hat shop on the second floor of the self same mall we'd just extracted ourselves from, and they decided between themselves that they must go look, and headed back into the mall.

I was on the other side of the road. I waited for traffic to pass. I watched them go into the mall without a single glance to see if I was following. My patience ran out. My "screw you" threshold was passed. It occurred to me that I would be better off alone. I turned and ran in the opposite direction, filing the divorce papers of my contrived analogy as I went.

One hiccup with this though: One of the jobs for my "admin day" was to book myself into a jungle river camp thing that is apparently very popular and fills up fast. Matt had informed me that he was booked in on a particular date and that they might still have spaces. This was right off the back of our pseudo-relationship-honeymoon, before he called me a liar. So I phoned. I booked. I thought it would be nice to have someone to go with.

Following the "fibbing" accusation later that day, he asked me if I had booked. I fibbed. I said I hadn't. I wanted the chance to change my booking if I didn't want to associate with him beyond KK. Today he nagged me some more. "You really should book. Just phone them up. Have you phoned them yet?"

I'm a terrible fibber, so I just caved and told him that I had booked already. Same date as him. Then I ran away from them outside the mall.

I think this will be like divorcing your spouse and then discovering you're pregnant. Suck.

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