We’ve fallen absurdly behind on our blog. It would be fruitless to try and recount in any relevant detail entirely what we’ve been up to or the past few months, but we’ve had numerous calls for updates, so I’ll try recap the past few months and humbly promise to move forward more frequently from here.
Saying Goodbye to Malaysia
It’s funny that Malaysia, a country neither of us knew much about—or were particularly interested in—has become the country we’ve spent the most amount of time in thus far. I personally have a love-hate relationship with the country; in a very real sense, we have had some of our best and some of our worst experiences here. Our visit to the Borneo Highlands remains a highlight on our trip, and our time at Scuba Junkie will undoubtedly go down as one of the best times of our life. And yet, it’s been in Malaysia that both of our robberies on this trip have occurred, the latest involving me being struck with a metal pipe by a drunk man on Chinese New Year’s and our laptop being stolen. You can write this off to coincidence, but there seems to be an underlying tension to Malaysia that I’ve not felt in other countries in Southeast Asia. I’ve struggled to come to terms with Malaysia and the more that I’ve thought about it, the more I realize Malaysia is struggling to to come to terms with itself.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the social fabric, and here I must point the finger at religion. Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, but it certainly hasn’t always been. While Islamic facets have existed since at least the 10th century, it was not until the 1950s—when the Constitution of Malaysia was enacted—that Islam became the official religion. This was done largely because Islam promotes large families and the powers that were reforming the country felt they needed to balance the economic power held by the Chinese with a larger population (voter base) of Malays. Most significantly, it was written into the constitution that Malays must be Muslim, regardless of their ethnic heritage; otherwise, legally, they are not Malay. Thus, while there is freedom of religion in Malaysia, muslims are the only ones that enjoy full rights and receive numerous benefits such as priority in academic enrollment and discounts on real estate. Hence, in the past 50 years a large majority of Malaysians have dropped previous belief systems—from Animism to Buddhism to Christianity—in order to be recognized as full citizens. Thus, the problem that I see is that while Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, it is not necessarily the culture of Malaysia.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to summarize Malaysia, at least in terms of way I have experienced it. It’s a growing tourist destination with a wealth of natural attractions including some of the best diving to be had, one of the largest cave systems in the world, and the jungles of Borneo—though dwindling—remain the very definition of what one envisions when one thinks exotic. And yet, what can you say about Malaysia? Compared with other places we’ve visited—Bali, land of celebrations; Tibet, shrouded in mysticism; China, and it’s history; Thailand, it’s food and culture—Malaysia somehow feels lacking.
But for all this talk of Malaysia, we came for the diving and stayed for the people. And the people we’ve met at Scuba Junkie have become friends for life: Sarah, the best divemaster in Borneo; Dr. Dave, the dirty Scottish dive instructor; Bjorn, Captain of Team Sweden and royal video game ass-kicker; Flemming, always ready for sun cream; Che from South Africa who gives one hell of a stress test and a comforting shoulder when needed along with his girlfriend Sandrine; Ric, who somehow manages to keep the shop running on a daily basis and sees hammerheads every time he goes diving; Tino, the German (“zeeee German!”) who routinely finds rare marine life no larger than a gnat; and, of course, our dear friend and certifying instructor, Mike, who we shared many nights of Karaoke with, singing endless renditions of Lemon Tree and Words.
Before leaving Malaysia, we completed our Divemaster certification, which we celebrated by undergoing the famed “snorkel test”. Completely unsanctioned by all diving organizations, but a long-standing tradition within the dive industry, a snorkel test consists of a recently certified Divemaster (or Dive Instructor) donning a snorkel and mask and having upwards of a liter of alcohol poured into the snorkel and henceforth forced down one’s throat. It’s a barbaric, fraternizing act, and rare is the snorkel test that does not end in vomiting. Humiliation—along with a night of good, drunken fun among friends—is the real point of the snorkel test; an initiation rite of sorts, made all the better by the fact that everyone standing around cheering and laughing has undergone the same treatment at some point in the past.
One final thing to mention before wrapping up our chapter on Malaysia is that our good friend Christian, from back home in the Bay Area, came to Semporna to visit us for a few days. Christian was on a holiday to Thailand and flew down to see us and learn to dive. It was wonderful seeing a friendly face from home, and the look on his face after coming up from his first dive at Sipadan with sharks and turtles was priceless (Christian also partook in an epic evening of Karaoke as well! And yes, we hold the evidence…).
As a final word, we want to thank everyone at Scuba Junkie for opening their home to us and making our time in Borneo so much fun and for being there when things got a little rough. We’ll see you soon.
We returned to the place this trip really began in order to meet some more faces from home, namely our friend Katie from Santa Cruz and my Mom who endured the long flight to see us. We largely retraced our steps from the last time we were here, though admittedly on a shortened timeline. We spent a few days surfing near Uluwatu (sorry about the reef cuts, you did great Katie!), before heading over to the east coast to revisit our friends Jan and Brian, as well as spend some time hanging out by the beach, snorkeling and reveling in long-conversations and sunsets. We also visited the traditional Balinese village of Tenganan, which both Katie and my Mom seemed to like (especially if you’re counting their sarong purchases). We spent a bit of time in Ubud as well, taking some wonderful drives out to see the rice fields, visiting the recently completed Ubud Botanical Gardens, shopping, eating in our favorite restaurant the Dragonfly cafe, and an odd story of Julie bargaining with a farmer north of Kuta for a wooden cowbell. It was a blast getting to show them parts of the island that so enchanted us on our first visit. Both of their visits were not long enough, and it was tough saying goodbye, but seeing them was a treat.
And so after our hiatus in Malaysia and our stop-over in Bali, we’re finally hitting the road again. And it feels great to have the open road ahead of us once more. Our priorities have shifted since we first left on this trip—pure wanderlust no longer moves us forward so much as a determination to find a sustainable lifestyle that doesn’t involve sitting behind a desk and commuting long hours. To that aim, we’re heading to the Philippines, where Julie will be doing her PADI Dive Instructor certification. As for me, I’ve picked up a few small contract jobs again, which will keep me busy at least part of the time. Of course, the wanderlust hasn’t completely left my system, so I’ll be doing a bit of that too.
One more thing…
As many have alluded to—and as most people know by now—Julie and I did finally get engaged after nearly 9 years of being a couple. Why it took so long to ask her is difficult to explain, so I’ll just say that I am beyond lucky to have met her and I can’t thank her enough for her patience in waiting for me. We don’t have any plans for a wedding yet, but marriage is definitely in the near future. But first, we’ve still got a bit of traveling to do…