Observations from Malaysia
It occurs to me that I probably need to rename the blog, since I have gone far afield from Europe since I first started it. But for now, I will leave as is, but this blog also covers trips to Africa, Asia, New Zealand, and Central America.
In October 2010 I had to make a business trip to Malaysia. This would be my first time visiting there, and I would also set foot in two other countries for the first time: Japan and Singapore. I totaled up the number of countries that I have visited while on this trip: 31 countries and 47 U.S. states.
Day 1, October 23, 2010 – I was traveling with a South African colleague (Chris) who had just finished a visit to Hawaii and was on his way back to Malaysia where he lives. We had to get up at 4 a.m. because we had a 6 a.m. flight from Kona to Honolulu. There, we connected for a 7.5-hour flight to Tokyo. I had heard that the trip to Malaysia was pretty tough, and I found that to be the case. When I am traveling between the U.S. and Europe, I generally have one long leg – 8 hours or so – and then sometimes a short leg. That can get me to get about any place between the U.S. and Europe.
For this trip, I had a 45 minute drive to the airport, a 30 minute flight to Honolulu, a 7.5-hour flight to Tokyo, a 7-hour flight to Singapore, spent the night at a hotel in the airport, and then finished with a 2-hour flight to Kuching, Malaysia. The time zone difference between Malaysia and Hawaii is similar to that between Europe and the U.S. (6 hours versus 7 hours between Dallas and Amsterdam), but it takes so long to get to Singapore that you have the time zone difference in addition to a very long day.
I slept a little on the plane to Tokyo, but mostly worked. I conducted a 40-minute interview with the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy the previous week (that interview can be found here), and I spent most of the flight transcribing it. I worked on this for about 4 hours and got half of it transcribed. I took a break and watched “The Special Relationship” which detailed the intersecting careers of U.S. President Bill Clinton and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Day 2, October 24, 2010 – We crossed the International Date Line on the trip, so about 4 hours into the flight Saturday became Sunday. Tokyo’s Narita airport wasn’t much to write home about. I landed and immediately checked the score of the OU-Missouri game. OU lost their first game of the season, likely taking them out of the national championship hunt. No matter, they are a very young team and aren’t national champion caliber yet anyway (despite their #1 BCS ranking at the time of their defeat).
The airport advertized “Free Wireless Internet.” What I always find is that “free” is never really free, so while I got connected to the router I was never able to open up a web page. I kept getting “You are not connected to the Internet.”
I found a spot in the airport to work, and spent another 3 hours finishing up the interview. By then I had a migraine and had to take an Immitrex. I also had caffeine for the first time in months. I had gotten completely off of it because it triggers migraines, but I was so tired that I decided I would just get back on the caffeine train for the duration of this trip. I will have to go back to caffeine rehab when I get home in a week.
When we got on the plane to Singapore, I popped a couple of sleeping pills. We weren’t supposed to land until midnight, and on the long flight I wanted to make sure I got plenty of sleep. I woke up a few times feeling pretty stiff, but overall I was fine until I was jolted awake. I thought the plane had just had a very hard landing, but it was severe turbulence. We were about a half hour away from landing, and then we hit another patch. I would describe it as the feeling of hitting the runway much too hard. I was buckled up, so it was mostly just a bit scary, but right after the turbulence a flight attendant came on and started requesting a doctor.
We later found that someone behind us had been standing up when we hit the turbulence, and he had hit his head and lacerated it. But apparently there were others, as there was an announcement that we should all stay seated after landing because paramedics were going to board the plane and tend to “the people who were injured.” The pilot came on and apologized for the unexpected turbulence, but said “This is Southeast Asia. Those kinds of things are going to happen.” I also later received an e-mail from United apologizing for the turbulence.
Day 3, October 25, 2010 – We arrived at the airport in Singapore about midnight. I checked my watch, and noted that it was officially Monday. So we left on Saturday morning, it was now Monday, and I still had a flight ahead to get to where I needed to be.
We were staying at a hotel inside the secure area of the airport. We were told our rooms wouldn’t be ready until about 1 a.m., so we walked through the airport to find a place to eat. My favorite airport anywhere is probably Schiphol in Amsterdam, but the one in Singapore could easily become my favorite. It doesn’t feel like an airport; it feels more like a mall. There were movie theaters, all sorts of shopping, a butterfly garden, fern garden, orchid garden, and many restaurants.
When I am in a new place, I like to see what kind of music they listen to. When I first went to Germany, I recall turning on the radio to hear German music, and Snoop Doggie Dog was playing. Here, in the airport, the first two songs I heard were Fast Car by Tracy Chapman and Centerfold by the J. Geils Band.
We found ourselves a Hard Rock Café and sat down for a bite. They had free Internet in there, and I tried to log onto Facebook. It didn’t recognize the location, so it tried to authenticate me. There were two choices: They could send a text to my old cell phone number (got to update that!) or I could identify specific friends. Since I have a lot of FB “friends” that I don’t really know, I thought that would be a bad option too. So I canceled the authentication, but apparently that set off alarms and now I can’t even log in on my phone. The same thing happened when I tried to play Warcraft (which I like to do from time to time). Every time I logged in from a new place, they thought it had been hacked and locked my account.
I bought myself a shirt at the Hard Rock. My favorite t-shirt is from the Hard Rock in Berlin. It is a silky black shirt that has Berlin on the front of it and a cool design on the back. My new Singapore shirt is in the same style; it just doesn’t have as cool a design on the back.
When I got to my room, it was freezing. They had the temperature set at 5 degrees C (41 degrees Fahrenheit). I turned it up to 20 and went to bed. But three times during the night I woke up freezing, and finally had to turn it off. The only nights I have ever been colder than that were nights when I camped out in sub-freezing temperatures. So one of my coldest ever nights was spent practically on the equator.
The room itself was unusual. It is a transit hotel, and the rooms were small but clean. But what was funny was that there were curtains and blinds in front of walls. So the place had the appearance of a regular hotel room with windows, but open the curtains or blinds and you were looking at wall. There were absolutely no windows in there.
I slept well and didn’t wake up until 8. Our flight out wasn’t until 2 in the afternoon, so we had some time to kill. My friend Chris asked if I wanted to try a local breakfast of noodles and shrimp, but I was starving and needed something more filling. I would get plenty of noodles and shrimp in the days ahead. Back to the Hard Rock where we had an American breakfast and listened to an AC/DC marathon.
After breakfast I tried to get wireless Internet on my computer. At first it said I had to have a registered Singapore telephone number, but then I finally seemingly got to a page where I could just buy access for 2 hours. But my two attempts to enter my credit card number were rejected, so I settled in to just write and catch up which is what I am doing now.
I finally went to a help desk where they gave me a user name and password after I provided my passport. Chris said this is because they monitor all Internet traffic and would want to be able to detain me in case it was warranted based on my Internet usage.
We finally boarded the plane for the short flight to Kuching, Malaysia. When we landed and stepped off the plane, I said “Ah, feels like I am in Houston.” That’s exactly what Kuching felt like: Hot and sticky humid. First impressions of the place were “Not Mumbai.” I had somewhat been expecting India, but there weren’t nearly the crowds, noise, and chaos I had experienced when I first landed in India.
I had to watch it when I stepped off a curb, as they drive on the left there (which I didn’t know). I also couldn’t get over the fact that it was actually Monday; this certainly felt like a Sunday to me. I had lost a day due to crossing the International Date Line, and I was finding it hard to adjust.
We were met at the airport by Chris’s wife and two daughters. I tried to pull out cash from an ATM with no luck, and then Chris took me to my hotel. There was a sign displaying that “There are no cases of H1N1 detected in the hotel yet.” That struck me as an odd thing for a hotel to note.
In my room, I had Internet access but it was about like dial-up. Very slow, and hard to work with. I decided to catch up on my writing for a while, but after a bit I started hearing a noise. I looked out and there was quite a downpour. Chris later said that they call that “drizzle” and that a real downpour meant near zero visibility.
We joined up with another colleague (Glen) later and went out to a bar for a few drinks. I was introduced to all of their local friends in the bar. One of them was a young girl who worked there. I found that it was often very difficult for me to determine the ages of people there, so I asked Glen “How old is she? 12?” I was told that “No, she is 32.” I wanted to take a picture of her to show people back home because it seemed so unlikely. She was only about 4 feet tall and had the face of a child. But she also had a kid of about six years with her, who I was told was her son.
We were overlooking a very broad river (the Sarawak River) that reminded me of the Mississippi. The size of the river attested to the amount of rain that they receive there, which apparently amounts to a deluge every evening. I was told that they had found piranhas in the river recently.
We left the bar to have some local food. It was really good for the most part. But one of the dishes contained sea cucumber, which I found to be really bland and rubbery. No forks in sight, so I tried my hand with the chopsticks. Mostly I got down close to the food and used them to shovel food into my mouth. But overall, we had quite a good meal before returning to the hotel for the night.
Day 4, October 26, 2010 – I woke up at 5 a.m. and started reading over the energy headlines. I also saw that Indonesia, which was the neighboring country, had been hit by a tsunami caused by a earthquake. A number of people had died, and the tsunami was followed by a volcano that also resulted in fatalities. There was apparently no impact on Malaysia’s beaches though.
I also did a bit of writing before we headed off to breakfast. We met a colleague at a local café, which I was told was a meeting place for millionaires and gangsters. You wouldn’t know it by looking at it; it appeared to be just a bustling outdoor café full of locals.
Breakfast was unusual. We started with a few spring rolls stuffed with local vegetables. Then they fed me a spicy noodle dish with shrimp. I ate it with chopsticks, which I was becoming more accustomed to. But I still made a bit of a mess as I got the noodles to my mouth and then slurped them up. I also had a cup of coffee that was one of the best I have ever tasted. I had given up coffee about six months previously, so it had been a while. But this was really great coffee. We snapped a few pictures at breakfast, one of which I uploaded to Facebook.
Afterward, we went to the office to talk business for a while. When we got ready to break for lunch, we headed to an Indian restaurant. There was a buffet, and I had a variety of things. Later that afternoon, my stomach became very disagreeable, and I found out that one of the other people who ate with us had the same symptoms.
As we sat there eating lunch, I tried to think about what Malaysia reminded me of. In some ways, it reminded me of Panama. Some of the buildings looked very similar, and the climate felt the same. I had really expected India, but it wasn’t at all the assault on the senses that India was. While I found myself occasionally seeing something unusual, in India it was constant: “Was that a monkey walking that dog?” or “That motorbike has 7 people on it!”
We had some free time in the afternoon, so I was asked what I wanted to do. I said I preferred to get out of town. But first my host took me on a drive around Kuching. There were giant cat statues around town, and I was told that this is because that’s where the name Kuching derives from: cat.
One thing my colleagues told me when I was there is that I made things easy for them, because I would tell them exactly what I did and didn’t want to do. They said sometimes people are just polite and go along with anything. I said “No, I am pretty direct” and they said that’s the way they like it.
One thing I did notice when were driving around is that while the crowds are not as large, and there isn’t the constant honking, driving is still an adventure compared to the west. Numerous times we saw people simply park on the road, in a lane of traffic, and get out and walk away. Once we came upon a woman standing in the middle of the road texting, with cars flying around her on both sides.
At one point we stopped to take a walk down by the river. I noticed a white key card laying on the ground, and thought “Someone is going to miss that.” I would soon find out who.
Chris drove me out of town, and we first stopped by his apartment building. It was out of town, and in a beautiful setting. As we pulled up to the gate, he said “I have to have the guards let me in; I can’t find my access card.” I asked “Was it white with a crack at the top?” He said that it was, so I said “I know where it is.” We went back there later that evening and retrieved it; I was surprised that it was still there.
My host took me out to a virgin rain forest, which was really incredible. I peered into the edge of it, and it was so thick that I couldn’t imagine anyone walking into it. He told me that there were some trails in there, and he had climbed up the mountain previously. He said there was a lot of wildlife in there, including proboscis monkeys.
We were going out to eat in a bit, but we decided to get in a swim first back at his apartment. On the drive there I introduced him to a little ZZ Top and Rage Against the Machine. He recognized some of the ZZ Top songs, and Wake Up by Rage (from The Matrix soundtrack). Chris told me a funny story while we were driving around. We were talking about my company’s name, Merica. My title is CTO and Executive Vice President of Merica. His daughter picked up my business card and thought I was the Vice President of America. He said I was briefly a celebrity in his house.
After we had a swim, Chris, his wife, and I all went out to dinner. I mentioned to Chris that my stomach was churning from the food earlier in the day, and he said that his was doing the same. I would spend half my night with abdominal cramps as a result.
Dinner was really good; a buffet with lots of items on the menu. I had a lot of seafood and beef, but even in this really nice restaurant there were flies crawling around the food. So I pulled food off the bottom, and tried not to think about things crawling around.
Day 5, October 27, 2010 – After a restless night of stomach cramps, I got up at 5 for a flight to Bintulu. We were to meet up with a colleague and look over some infrastructure there.
After we arrived in Bintulu, we drove out to a little town in the bush. They pointed out to me the longhouses that people lived in. Those have a very long history. They are essentially a very long house with one entrance after another side by side by side; each housing a family.
We stopped for breakfast, and I was asked what I wanted. “Fruit?” No fruit. We were literally surrounded by fruit; I was staring at a big bunch of papaya growing 20 feet from where we were sitting, but there was no fruit on the menu. I thought about the contradiction. Another one I noted was that I was told the soil is very poor, and yet everything was incredibly lush and green.
So, after breakfast of coffee, noodles, and a fried egg (really good), we hit the road again. Before I got in the car, I stepped into the bathroom in the restaurant. It wasn’t really a restaurant, but I don’t know what else to call it. It was an open air facility that served food. There was one toilet for everyone, and when I went in I almost got sick. It was right next to the kitchen, and it smelled horrible. But what made me sick was that there wasn’t even a sink to wash your hands. Forget about the sign that says “Employees wash your hands before returning to work” – there was no washing the hands. So I started to think about the hands that had prepared my food, and my stomach started to churn. I went through so much hand sanitizer on the trip, which everyone thought was pretty funny.
We drove out and had a look at some oil palm plantations. They have oil palm growing almost everywhere we looked. It was my first time to see it up close. I crushed one of the seeds so I could see and smell the oil. Oil palm has been vilified in the west because of the implications in deforestation, and in fact my host pointed out a forest that had been cut down to plant some oil palm. But for some people there, it is a way out of poverty. So it’s a difficult situation. (I did an essay specifically on the palm oil situation here).
After we left the forest, we had a visit to the Bintulu port facility. They rolled out the red carpet. There was a sign near the entrance welcoming us, and they had a photographer taking pictures. They even had wrapped presents, fruit, and cheesecake prepared. It was a little intimidating, but we had a very nice visit and overview of the port there. The discussion again centered on palm oil; this is clearly a very big and growing business there.
I got to my hotel room in Bintulu that evening, and once again my Internet was unreliable. Constant disconnections, and very slow. Every other website was refused; I wonder if things are being censored. One of the things I am doing is working on an article on hemp as a renewable energy source. The problem is that marijuana advocates don’t always distinguish between hemp and marijuana, so it can look like I am for marijuana legalization if I am writing about making the use of hemp legal. When we were landing in Malaysia, they announced that people trafficking in drugs get the death penalty, so I wondered if they were tracking my hemp searches as suspicious.
We went out to eat at a local place; I had some beef pepper steak, some spicy fish, and some ostrich. One of the guys I was with asked when I was coming back to Malaysia, and I jokingly said “When you guys get faster Internet.”
Day 6, October 28, 2010 – Today’s big event would be a visit to Shell’s GTL plant in Bintulu. Colleagues know when I say "Bintulu" that's shorthand for Shell's Bintulu, Malaysia gas-to-liquids (GTL) facility. As someone involved in gasification, I was really looking forward to getting a look inside their facility, the largest in the world.
We met three Shell representatives for breakfast, including the site manager. We had breakfast (I had ordered an omelet, but it turned up with onions in it) and then made our way to the facility. We had a really good visit; I will be putting up a story on my blog. In fact, that was the reason for the visit; to write a story and bring the Bintulu story to my blog readers.
We spent the morning in the facility, talking to the manager (who was a Kiwi, and in the middle of a move to Houston) and then took a drive into the plant. I got plenty of information for a story, which I started writing up right away. I also found out that Shell had flown someone in from media relations just for my visit.
We had lunch and then I caught up on some e-mails before checking out of our hotel. Our flight was much later in the day, so we went to another hotel that had faster Internet. I was actually able to play a little Warcraft for the first time that week; most of the time I couldn’t stay connected. In fact, by 4:30 in the afternoon the Internet got really slow again, presumably from people coming home from work and logging on.
After a bit, the Shell Bintulu site manager that we had met with earlier in the day showed up and sat down to work. We would see him often for the rest of the day. He was headed to Switzerland, and we bumped into him in the hotel lobby, again in the airport check-in counter, while waiting for a flight (he had a different flight, but connecting to the same city), at the baggage claim in the next city (Kuching) and then the next morning in Starbucks at the airport when I was getting ready to fly to Singapore.
Anyway, after leaving the hotel, my colleague Glen and I took a taxi to the airport for the flight from Bintulu back to Kuching. The flight was delayed by weather, but we finally flew and I made it back to my hotel in Kuching for my last night in Malaysia at about 10 p.m.
Day 7, October 29, 2010 – I woke up early and got a bit of work done before heading out with Glen and Chris for a final breakfast. We discussed the nature of the work that we wanted to do, and brainstormed possible energy outcomes going forward. Ideally, we want to be positioned in the right place as oil supplies deplete, and my trip to Malaysia was to gain a better understanding of the options there.
At the airport, we had a coffee at Starbucks (believe it or not only the 2nd time I have ever had a coffee at Starbucks) and talked about plans. A few tables over sat the Shell manager once more (I joked that he was following us) and then a Muslim friend that they knew came up and started talking. He mentioned something about drinking, and said “They are very strict here.”
After he left, I asked what that was all about. He said that Muslims are subject to religious laws. Since drinking is against Islamic law, Muslims who drink in Malaysia are subject to arrest by the religious police. They can ask for your ID if they suspect you of drinking, and if it indicates that you are Muslim they can arrest you. He said there was a recent case in which a Muslim woman had been caught drinking a beer, and she had gotten 10 lashes with a cane.
I got on the plane, and once more two rows in front of me was the manager from Shell. We got to Singapore, and I have to say again that this is one amazing airport. They actually offered a free city tour from the airport, and you didn’t even have to go through immigration. The catch was that you had to have a boarding pass, and since I didn’t fly out until the next morning I didn’t have one. So I settled down to catch up on my writing. I had dinner at the Hard Rock, and did a bit of shopping. Lady Gaga was blaring as I walked through the airport.
It was really hard to find anything that had been made in Singapore. They had Swiss chocolates and plenty of goods made in America, wines from Australia, France, South Africa, and California – but very little that was uniquely from Singapore. So I headed back to the Hard Rock to pick up t-shirts for everyone.
I hadn’t turned on a TV during my entire trip, so I went back to my room to check out Singapore’s version of television. I turned on the TV, and Wheel of Fortune was on. I changed channels and found a show where a kid was dancing – very badly. The audience seemed to enjoy it, but it looked like a train wreck.
Day 9, October 30, 2010 – I boarded the plane to Tokyo, which is where I am writing these words from just now. There were some movies on that I hadn’t seen, so first I watched those. There had been such hype over the Twilight series (that’s all my wife and daughter talk about), and they had Eclipse, the 3rd in the series available. So I checked it out. I suppose it was OK, but not having seen the previous two there was a lot that I didn’t follow. I guess I will have to go back and watch them. Following that I watched the new version of Predators, which I didn’t think was all that good.
We flew into Tokyo in a tropical storm, and our flight out to Honolulu was delayed. So I kicked back in the lounge, ate sushi, drank wine, and caught up on episodes of South Park and The Daily Show. We finally took off a bit late, but I made it home without too much delay.
My stomach continued to grumble for several days after returning; probably a response to my diet changing back to normal. But overall it was a good trip. I am sure I will be going back at some point.