Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Mild Man Of Borneo

All things must come to an end, even good ones.  And, looking back, this one wasn't half bad.  Sure there was that scary hour or so in Iceland when I almost killed myself.  And of course the traffic jam that cost me $375.  But there weren't any totally clunker countries; even Finland and Helsinki are okay for a day or two.

Nor was there any hassling.  And only one or two semi-jerks that I had to deal with out of the whole lot.  A pleasant sojourn, even if it was one of the weirder itineraries that anyone has ever come up with.

And I've never had anything bad to say about Malaysia.  Nor am I going to start to now.  Especially since even other Malaysians say that Sarawak is the pleasantest part of the whole Federation.

We entered the country just a few miles from Miri, a city of about 300,000 people.  (Maybe larger than the entire population of Brunei.)  These folk can't subsist off of oil revenue, so immediately there was cleared away jungle and small industrial manifestations.  Our bus pulled into the open air inter-city bus depot, kind of like you would find in a small, poor Turkish city.

But Malaysia, like Turkey, is what economists call a middle income country.  (Definition: One where going to McDonald's is not a preserve of the privileged upper middle class.)  And, like Turkey, there were buses heading out about every hour.  Although here they could basically go in only one direction, west towards Sibu.

Since Malaysia is also one of the best value for money places in the world, the ticket for the 7+ hour ride there only cost $15.  I went and bought some bananas and other snacks and settled in for my 415 km journey.

Once outside of Miri, the Borneo Highway quickly devolved into a two lane road of varying quality, as one would expect in a frontier area.  Lots of grinding of gears as we went up and down hills and around slow moving trucks.  On either side, as I had expected, were endless palm oil plantations.  Bad news for the orangutans; great news for lovers of inexpensive baked goods.

In all seriousness, though, it's kind of hard for an American to be putting down others for trampling on nature.  After all, we've paved the entire landmass of Iowa with corn and soybeans.  And cut down almost all of our native redwood in order to make lawn furniture.  And to the Sarawakans' credit, it's not like the palm trees were planted in rigid rows.  In fact, if you weren't paying too close attention, you might think that you were passing native jungle.

Anyway, the kms slowly ticked away.  As with just about every other bus culture in the world, after a couple of hours we pulled into a giant restaurant stop area, where I wandered around trying to find something to eat.  At almost the exact half way point we got to the bus depot at Bintolu, a city of about 200,000. 

The second half had more jungle and less palm oil.  And, it being the afternoon in Borneo, around 4 PM the rains came.  Pretty heavy and constant today.  By the time we pulled into the drenched Sibu city depot around 7:30 I was glad that here even the taxi drivers are honest, and I didn't have to haggle with the guy who drove me through the rain into the center of town.

 And talk about value for money.  My hotel room here was just about as good as the one in Bandar, and it only cost $20. 

Next morning all the rain had cleared away again, and I found that I was actually on the riverfront, just a couple of blocks from the boat terminal.  Great, because today was my day to travel upriver into the midst of headhunter country.

That is to say, it was 150 years ago.  Still, it would be kind of nice of some of the Borneo of 1950 were still alive.  I bought my $6 ticket for the 100 mile trip, took my seat in one of the enclosed, elongated speedboats that hold about 150 people and leave about every hour, and prepared to find out.

Sibu is a pretty big city of about half a million, so the first few miles along the quarter mile wide river were full of various kinds of industrial yards and small rusted out cargo ships.  Then the jungle took over.  Sort of.  Actually it was regularly punctuated with small clearings, sometimes containing dwellings, but usually being some sort of enterprise involved with piles of logs.  I stared out the window as best I could, trying to re-imagine a more primitive world of even ten or twenty years ago, and trying to ignore the fact that 'Pacific Rim' was playing on the video screen in front.

After about three hours we arrived in Kapit, which even a few years ago was a last tendril of civilization, home to missionary groups and government agencies.  Today there is a lot of traffic and four square blocks of stores, offices, small restaurants, and other urban densities.  I was now just about on the equator, and the heat and humidity annoyance was creeping past Houston but not yet Amazonian.

I walked around a bit, found something to eat, then went back to catch the 2:15 boat.  All full.  Should have bought the return ticket when I debarked.  Now I had an extra hour for beautiful downtown Kapit.

Across the street from the boat landing, and totally surrounded by the modern town, was a white clapboard building with plaques that read 'Fort Sylvia' and '1880'.  I went inside, checked out the small exhibits, and for a moment picked up a sense of what it might have felt like 133 years ago.  But going back outside again and walking along the river bank, it was obvious that the longhouses were long gone. 

Although, if you were given the possibility of air conditioning in this stinking heat, you'd probably give up your 'traditional ways of living' too, now wouldn't you?

3:15 was the last boat out on a Friday afternoon, and it was one stuffed boat.  The boat up was less than half full, but now my knees were permanently squashed into the seat in front of me.  After about an hour the guy next to me pointed out that for $4 more I could have had a much more comfortable seat upstairs.  Oh well, I would survive.

So it was down a lazy river in a hyper-fast speedboat.  A little excitement when the afternoon rains came hard and we could barely see the shore.  There was enough light left when we got back for me to walk along the seedy, but safe, waterfront to a Chinese pagoda which is Sibu's only tourist sight.  Then back towards the hotel as I tried to forage for some food in a very meat eating city.

 Next morning at 11:30 was the speedboat to Kuching.  First two hours down the river some more until we reached the sea, then two and a half hours over the open ocean.  This time the video was 'The Gods Must Be Crazy', which was somehow more appropriate for the wilds of Borneo.  Followed by 'The Gods Must Be Crazy 2'.  Followed by 'The Gods Must Be Crazy In Hong Kong'.  Which is where I kind of lost interest.

Anyway, another half hour up the Sarawak River, and now we were in Kuching, the capital of the place.  A taxi ride through the light rain to the smack dab center of town, an elevator up to my 13th floor room, and now I was gazing out of panoramic glass across the river at what must be the coolest looking Parliament building in the world.

As I have intimated, Malaysia is one of the best value for money places in the world, and for about $50 I finally had a room that was up to Euro-American standards.  That is to say, all the accoutrements were solid, and you expected them to work.  To my immediate right were the Hilton and four or five other high rise luxe places, so that at least this part of the riverfront looked like the tropical Dubai that I had expected in Brunei.

Back down at street level, and across said street, was a backpacker travel agency I knew about.  My big desire while in Kuching was to get out to the orangutan rehabilitation center for the morning feeding.  Would it be best to rent a car?  And how would I ever find my way there and back?

Turned out that for $15 they had a shuttle that went there twice a day.  With that settled, it then turned out that there was a moderately upscale Indian restaurant two doors away.  This was all too easy.  And after dinner there was a clean, modern riverfront walk, just like they would have at some fancy city.  I tell you, nothing spruces up a place for the tourists like a riverfront walk.

Sunday morning at 8 I was back across the street waiting for the shuttle.  And then off we went.  It was only about a half an hour out to the rehabilitation center, and, as with the Pyramids in Cairo, the city had spread out just about to it.  It covered about six square kilometers, and was the home to 27 orangutans, all orphans and/or rescued from captivity.

The ranger opened the path to the feeding area at 9.  Since the apes are free to roam, there is never any guarantee that anyone would show up for the free food.  But today three of them, two with babies, did, slowly swinging through the tops of fifty foot trees and then down the guy wires to the feeding platform.  Legs and feet were totally interchangeable with arms and hands, so it was fascinating to watch them get down to the platform, pick up the bananas with whatever appendage, then climb back up to leisurely eat them, all the while with junior crawling all around them.  And did I mention how orange they were?

At 10 the ranger kicked us out, and it was back to downtown Kuching.  Around 1 I was back along the river, up through Little India (where all the stores were Chinese), and then a few blocks more to the Sarawak Museum.  Kind of a so-so place.  But I was able to find out a little more about James Brooke, the White Rajah.

Back around 1840 Mr. Brooke used his inheritance to buy what was essentially a private warship.  He then sailed to Southeast Asia, where one thing led to another, and he found himself working for the Sultan of Brunei putting down a rebellion.  When he succeeded, the Sultan made him ruler of Kuching.  For the next hundred years his family actually owned the place, slowly expanding their domains until they included the entire 50,000 square miles of present day Sarawak.  Britain only succeeded in taking over after World War II.

Across the street was a more ethnographic building.  Here I found that longhouses are indeed still built today.  Although now they look like very long, straight, two story motels from 1962.  Sigh.

Back across an open, grassy rectangle and... a new mall!  Not quite Dubai standards, but classier than ABQ, what with international chain stores and... my first Pizza Hut of the trip.  As you may know, one of Maureen and my singular achievements is that we have eaten in Pizza Huts on six continents.  (We still haven't gotten to the one on McMurdo Sound.)  And Borneo would be the largest island so far, eclipsing the time we had found one on Sumatra.  So dinner was served.

Monday was my trip to Bako National Park, which again was less than an hour from downtown.  Well, at least the entrance was.  From there you were supposed to rent a small speedboat which would take you for a twenty minute ride down an estuary and across a small bay to where the real park was.  There were three passengers in our boat, and we were doing fine until halfway across the bay, when all of a sudden a ton of sand shot up and the boat's engine died.

Turned out that it was a very low tide.  Even though the shore was hundreds of yards away, when the guy got out the water was only a foot and a half deep.  And there we would stay for the next two hours, while he waited for the tide to swirl back in.

So once I was on dry land, and had waited out a short downpour, there wasn't that much time left for exploring before we had to go back at 3:30.  I therefore picked a very modest goal, an 800 m trail over a hill to the nearest primitive beach.  Who couldn't do that?

Well, anyone with the slightest flexibility and ability to scramble sure could.  But in my decrepit condition, one twisted knee and I'm a goner.  So every step up and then every step down on every slippery rock and every slippery tree root had to be carefully planned and positioned.  In a hot, sweaty jungle.

Not to mention that I hadn't eaten all day.  So I pulled some peanut butter cookies out of my day pack and started munching.  But after a minute or so all of a sudden there were three monkeys blocking the path ahead of me.  Aggressive monkeys.  Who wanted my cookies.

But these were my cookies.  If they wanted cookies of their own, they could go design a couple of clever t-shirts, sell them, and then use the proceeds to buy some.  Just like I had done.  I stretched my arms out to appear as large as possible and then bellowed aggressively.

They looked surprised and maybe a little bit hurt.  Surprised since I was probably the first hiker to ever fight back.  Hurt because they weren't getting their free cookies.  But they retreated a tiny bit, which gave me a chance to turn my back and put the cookie package back in the day pack.  Since primates are primarily visual, that did the trick.  I continued on my trek.

When I got to the beach I realized that I had been so slow that I would now almost immediately have to turn back on my surprisingly sore legs.  And who knew if the monkeys had gone and gotten their friends and were waiting to ambush me?  Fortunately there was a boat guy hanging around, and for $2 each he took me and two young Malaysian couples out to see some interesting sea rocks and then back to the main beach.  There I found my original boat guy, and with the tide nice and high we were back at park headquarters in plenty of time to get the 4 pm bus back to Kuching.

Over to a bad Lebanese restaurant (at least they're trying...), then back to the evening stroll along the river.  Kuching was being a pretty pleasant end to a long and idiosyncratic journey, at once modern and funky, efficient and laid back.  Even 'mainland' Malaysians are totally taken in by the place. 

And for the first time on my trip there were actually some souvenir shops.  And a few small things that weren't horribly tacky.  Finally a memento or two.

Tuesday morning it was--what else?--back to the orangutans.  I mean, what better $15 purchase could there possibly be?  This time the park ranger was pretty pessimistic, since not one had appeared yesterday morning or afternoon.  But I seem to get along with all the great apes except man, and, sure enough, about six of them ended up showing up.  And this time they didn't immediately retreat back up the guy wires, but instead hung around on the platform being insanely cute as only orangutans can be.

Better yet, in the parking lot on the way out, a mother and her independent child were sitting in a small tree just ten feet from us curious onlookers.  Orangutanomania.

A late afternoon flight back to Kuala Lumpur.  A late morning seven hour flight to Tokyo.  Two hour stopover, then a nine hour flight to LA.  Six hours later that final connecting flight to Albuquerque.  And then my patient loving wife waiting for me.

Maybe I am getting too old for this.  But it was kind of fun. 


Sunday, October 06, 2013


The tiny country of Brunei has always been presented as a fabulously wealthy oil-rich sultanate.  Kind of like the Mid East in the Far East.

But as we swooped into the modest little airport and were then processed through the modest little terminal, I thought, 'Gee, if these guys are super loaded, then they sure are, well, modest about it.'

I had gotten off an emergency email from Kuala Lumpur, so my hotel had been able to send a driver to meet me at my amended arrival.  As we drove through the modest suburbs of the capital, Bandar Sera Begawan, my initial impression held.  The place was not in any way bedraggled, but it wasn't nearly as fancy as, say, San Diego, let alone La Jolla.  Or put it this way: Almost everyone owns a vehicle, but there would be virtually no car I could find that was more flash than Toyota.

I was back to $75 a night for a hotel, and for that I got an older place that had reasonable accoutrements that mostly all functioned properly.  By now it was close to 5 PM and I still hadn't slept a wink.  I lay on the bed to relax, but then realized that I also hadn't eaten a bite that wasn't horrible junk.  So I forced myself up, then down the elevator and out the door.

What the hotel did have going for it was location.  It was only a block from downtown Bandar.  Which was about three small blocks square, so easy to navigate.  That area encompassed some nice, newer bank-type buildings, and even a moderate mall with an almost glitzy level department store.  But there were also a couple of streets that were, if not exactly down at the heels, weren't all that up at the heels, either.

The town fronted on a quarter mile wide river/estuary, on the other side of which was what is advertised as the world's largest stilt village and Bandar's biggest tourist attraction.  Really it is just a bunch of very substandard housing on pilings.  But I did find about the first Italian restaurant of my journey, and I was able to sit at a table on that waterfront and watch little speed boat water taxis zipping people back and forth in the gathering dark.

Then I barely had the energy and willpower to walk back to my hotel and collapse.

Next morning was my Big Brunei Extravaganza Day.  Actually, it being a somewhat small, obscure place, there wasn't all that much to do.  First I walked back down to the waterfront and turned left for about a block.  There a little jetty stood, and a little office window, where I bought a little ticket for a little enclosed speedboat ferry which held about twenty people.  When we were all inside, it then took off on what is undoubtedly the best $5 boat trip in the world.

The direct route to this other part of Brunei is through a finger of Malaysia, so I assumed that we would be heading out to the ocean and then over.  Instead we were soon traversing a maze of relatively narrow and ever-branching channels, the boat veering from one side to the other as we would turn left and right.  On both banks primeval jungle leaned out.

After about twenty miles of this we arrived at the small jetty at Bangar.  From here some people pay big bucks to take private tours further into the Brunei wilderness.  But this was plenty enough jungle fun for me.  So I walked around the townlet for a few minutes, then plopped down another $5 and headed back.

By now I had pretty much seen all of downtown Bandar, but I suspected that maybe all the slowness had to do with all the action being out in the 'burbs.  So I hopped on a city bus that was headed for The Mall.

I had kind of expected something along the lines of Dubai or Bahrain.  When we got there, though, my first surprise was that a siren was going off and everyone was being evacuated from it.  Once they were finally all out, the siren stopped and we were now allowed back in.  Now for some style and international signage!  But inside there were just small, local, lower middle class offerings.  Not even a Wendy's in the food court.

A little disappointed, but starting to understand Brunei even better, I took the bus back downtown.  I still hadn't caught up with my lack of sleep, so it was back to the hotel for a nap.  When I got up again it was 3:30 and time to head over to The Mosque.

The Brunei write-ups always mention the two humongous over the top mosques that the oil-soaked sultan has built.  One was out by the mall.  Trust me, I've seen some over the top mosques in Abu Dhabi, Morocco, and Yemen, and this wasn't one of them.  And the second one, which I was walking to right now, did indeed dominate the tiny downtown, but then anything would.  It certainly wasn't domineering.

In fact, it was modern, yet also clean and rather elegant.  And when I was hospitably invited inside, the interior was both uplifting and tasteful.  Back outside, there was a large reflecting pool around two sides of it. 

Speaking of reflecting, I could stop for a moment and reflect upon how Islamic this country was.  As I noted earlier, there's more of a South Sea vibe than a Saudi one.  And the women who do cover themselves do it in a Malaysian way, which means that their coverings are usually very colorful.  Nor do they hesitate to give you a smile.  Modesty thus becomes very attractive.

And a point about the friendliness of the natives.  In Bangladesh everyone is genuinely nice, but that niceness is colored by their painful realization that everybody else in the world thinks that the place they call home is a piece of crap.  The people in Brunei don't have that weight on their shoulders.  They just like being nice because it feels good.

Anyway, speaking of the reflecting pool, they had a walkway over it.  And then up and over a road.  And then into a small stilt village that was on this side of the river.  Up close the houses were even more ramshackle Caribbean.  But I got the feeling, given that the government covers all the necessities and that there were satellite dishes and a/c units in each residence, that people still lived this way because they wanted to.  And as I walked along the narrow wooden boardwalk towards the inevitable car park, I got the additional treat of seeing a troop of monkeys skedaddling back into the nearby jungle.

I then meandered down a few blocks to the Italian restaurant, passing smiling school girls coming home in their pure white school uniforms.  There I once again whiled away an hour watching water taxis zipping back and forth as the tropical twilight gathered.

It was up the next morning at six so as to catch the Sarawak bus at seven.  The stop was supposed to be around the corner from my hotel, but there was some confusion as I stood there in the light rain whether that was still the case.  Which was finally resolved when it appeared at 7:03.

Once on board it was only a few minutes before we had onramped onto the Brunei Freeway.  Rush hour was already underway, and the thought occurred: What, besides collecting oil royalties, does anyone in Brunei actually do?  Well, whatever it is, they were all up early doing it.

The suburbs petered out, but the well-traveled freeway kept going about eighty miles towards the border.  We mostly passed pleasant jungle, with the occasional construction site or small settlement.  As we neared the end we stopped at a town of a few thousand people.  There were several newish three story bank-type buildings.  Once again, not at all poor, but hardly rich, either. 

I dunno, maybe the sultan is salting it all away for himself.  Although in pictures he looks like a really nice, friendly guy.

But whatever is happening, as the old saying says, money can't buy happiness.  And it seems to me that those writers who are focused on a super-rich sultanate are missing the point.

Because for my money, more than anywhere else I've ever been, this place pretty much fits the description of 'Happy Little Kingdom'.


Wednesday, October 02, 2013


'This may surprise you, but I really like this place.'

This was how I began this essay a few days ago when I started it.  And I still hold to that judgment.  But read on...

Let's start at the beginning: Being the only non-Bengali on the flight from Dubai turned out to be a blessing, since there was no line to buy the visa and then no line to be stamped into the country.  Knowing that I would be brain-deprived when I arrived from another all night flight, I had arranged for a pickup from my hotel.  But no one was there when I walked out of the door of 'Terminal 2'.  Another driver helpfully pointed out that my hotel always picked up at 'Terminal 1', which was the other door about 100 yards away.  Problem solved.

After a very slow drive in, I checked in, got to my room, and conked out for a couple of hours.  When I came to, I was eager to check out center city Dhaka.

It was Friday afternoon, which is Sunday afternoon in Islamic countries.  (Saturday is Saturday,, and Sunday is Monday.)  But it would turn out to be not terribly unbusier than the rest of the week.  And that would be, much to my surprise, to be not nearly as chaotic and out of control as I had imagined it would be.

First, virtually no beggars, and certainly nobody looking like they were starving.  Second, and this is expecially important for a Westerner who has been to India, absolutely no hassle.  In fact, people actually stopped on the street and said 'hello', with no ulterior motive.  Lide Pakistan, there was still some of that Colonial era graciousness.  And also real gratitude that someone would be nice enough to come be a tourist.

The city was poor, that's for certain.  But it wasn't miserable.  Very little garbage.  No chaos.  In fact, it was in much better shape than Haiti, West Africa, or even Madagascar.  While nothing looks remotely Uptown, still way more tall buildings than you would expect.

I was going to try to walk all the way to the riverfront, but I only made it about two-thirds before I gave up and got a bicycle rickshaw.  One doesn't have to hail one, because they just permeate the place, outnumbering the auto-rickshaws by at least twenty to one.  Partially my feet were a little tired, partially I was concerned that I might get lost, and partially it was the heat and humidity.  But, really, although my t-shirt was a bit wet, the heat and humidity weren't nearly as bad as in Nashville, let alone Memphis or Houston.  And the bike rickshaw only cost sixty cents.

The river front, what with its ferries, old tankers, and tiny boats all darting about, is the main tourist draw in Dhaka.  And a little tout, the only one I have yet to encounter, attached himself to me.  But he was pretty harmless.  Anyway, I had only wanted a quick look, since the day was drawing short.

Back to my hotel room.  My first impression had been that it was a lot crappier than advertised.  But now, having seen the rest of Dhaka, it came across as pretty classy.  Sure, the sink leaked and it was almost impossible to unlock the door, but the water was scalding hot, the a/c was nice and cold, the cable TV had about ten English channels, and the restaurant's food was quite decent.  Moreover, the entire staff was so ridiculously nice that I think that even Maureen would get a little tired of smiling back so much.

Saturday I had breakfast, went back to the room, lay down, and.. could... not... get...  up.   It was almost four in the afternoon until I was fully awake again.  Either all the backed up travel stress was finally taking its toll, or those street felafels in Duhok--though kept in check by Immodium--had been more dangerous than I had allowed.  Maybe both.

So I only had time to take a 1 km walk over to a city park.  Workers were using 100,000 bamboo poles to construct bleachers for some national holidar or political event.  Dhakans of all ages were strolling about.  The park itself wasn't up to Western standards, but it did have greenery, big trees, and some mighty big birds.

No park benches, but still peaceful enough to reflect.  And I'm not proselytizing here (although, truth be told, who wouldn't want four wives?).  But in general Islamic countries are more peaceful and law abiding than Christian ones.  Definitely way, way, way more so than Hindu India.  When imams say that no real Muslim would be a terrorist, they are absolutely correct.

With that deep thought thunk, it was back to the hotel.

Almost all of flat Bangladesh lives on the water.  And most of the ferries travel to the various cities at night.  But while researching, I had come upon a new service which went during the daytime.  So my goal on Sunday was to get a first class ticket on that ferry, take it to Barisal, spend the night, and then come back to Dhaka the next morning.  This way I would get to see a little of rural Bangladesh.  However, when my hotel manager tracked down the service, and then finally got a hold of someone on Sunday morning, it turned out that said service had only lasted one month before the owners had got to squabbling.

Back to my room.  Lie down again.  This time only a two hour conk out.  Okay, third possibility: Stop eating spicy Bengali breakfast of curry vegetable mash.

I still wanted my river adventure, though.  So I headed back to the waterfront in search of the Gabtoli ferry.

It wasn't at the main ghat.  And virtually no one speaks any English.  But a policeman talked to one of the little sikara guys, and he said that he would take me to the ferry for seventy cents.  Okay, I lowered myself into his skiff.

I call them sikaras, because that's what they're called in Kashmir.  What they are, are tiny long flat bottomed pieces of floating wood with about six inches of clearance.  I sat cross-legged in the middle, prepared for the possiblity of my body (and my camera) taking a dunking.

Off we went, first crossing the river in a dance with countless other sikaras, not to mention motorized boats and the occasional incredibly rusted out small cargo ship.  Then up the river for about a half a mile, kind of gondola like, with him just pushing one paddle at the end.  Finally back across the river and bumped into a ratty old ferry, which was the one for Gabtoli.

It was now 2:15, and the ferry left at 3:00.  I walked the gangplank on shore and found a soda pop to drink.  Back to the boat, and we took off promptly on the hour.  A couple of stops, but mostly chugging up the river.  Dhaka finally gave way, but the scenery was more really cheap industrial rather than rural.  A sparse forest of brick kiln chimneys, with one every few acres.  An area of ant-like processions of men taking sand and/or gravel onto or off of boats.  Then an hour and twenty minutes later, the tiny ghat at Gaptoli.

I was betting/hoping that the ferry would turn around for one last trip to Dhaka before it got dark.  Otherwise I would have been pretty screwed.  Fortunately, my betting/hoping was correct.  Although, on my five minute walk around Gaptoli, I was hit with a two minute burst of the dying monsoon.

Back in Dhaka after dark, there was now a steady, medium rain.  I found myself in a long, small alley of about a hundred printing shops, with everything being done the old way.  I finally got to a slightly wider place where there were some rickshaws, but good luck trying to get someone to understand my hotel's business card.  After many attempts, I finally found someone who could explain directions to a driver, and off we started.

By now the rain was pretty heavy.  Besides the little rickshaw hood being extended, I was handed a blue plastic sheet to cover my legs.  The driver just got drenched.  And the alleys we were going through were pretty much jammed up with other rickshaws.  But although Dhaka might well have the worst traffic in the world, there is none of the frenzied insanity which is Indian traffic, where every forward inch is viewed as the most desperate of zero sum games.  Instead here there are relatively polite rules of the game, and despite the forced interactions of hundreds of wheeled contrivances, for me, at least, the whole dance seems pretty peaceful.

It was also pretty damn wet.  But the driver was pretty grateful when I gave him triple the going rate.  It's kind of fun to be the big spender when you don't have to deal with the constant effrontery of people trying to rip you off.

Monday was my last day.  Paper under the door.  Warm milk on my cornflakes for breakfast.  Uniformed attendant in the small elevator.  The desk staff being almost disturbingly over-gracious as I checked out.

But the flight, again, would be at night.  So for my last afternoon here I decided to check out Dhaka's remaining tourist sights.  Leave my baggage at the front desk, and down the eleven floors to the street.  Find a rickshaw driver who can find someone who can explain to him where I want to go.

Now you need to understand that, before Britain, in its final sore loser attempt to screw over Gandhi, created East and West Pakistan, Dhaka was a nothing town.  Calcutta had always been the capital of Bengal.  So it's not surprising that Dhaka (not to mention the rest of flat, waterlogged Bangladesh) would be a little short on tourist attractions.

Try totally short.  In fact, it took forever long for me to find a rickshaw driver who took forever long to ask around about what was supposed to be the second biggest tourist attraction building in the city.  The Tara Mosque. 

After winding through endless dirt poor alleyways, and asking several more times, we finally came to... the Armenian Church.  Okay, I knew that the mosque was only 300 m north of that, and the church guy said something to my driver.  Off we went, and voila!  There it was.

It wasn't much.  Kind of cute, but almost a miniature doll house mosque.  And white and clean, but totally hemmed in by the slums that are all of gigantic central Dhaka. 

Well, let's try for the number one tourist attraction building, the Lalbagh Fort.  My driver did know where that was, so off we pedaled.  This was suitably old and Moghul, and very well kept by Bangladeshi standards, but whereas the Delhi, Agra, and Lahore Forts are monstrous affairs, this one was only three or four acres in size.  And most of that was grass and walkways, with only three small buildings.  Once again, totally hemmed in by the quiet squalor of the rest of Dhaka.

So that was it.  Nothing left to see except endless crowded alleyways.  We went through some more of them, then a surprising stretch of pleasant tree-lined roadway.  Then back to the hotel.  Up to the 19th floor rooftop restaurant for a final meal.  Get a gracious farewell from every single hotel employee (and there seem to be ten for each guest).  Waste a little time at the computer in their 'business center'.

My flight was at 9:30.  It had taken 50 minutes, with a lot of traffic jam, to come in from the airport.  Front desk said to allow for two hours to play it safe.  So leaving at 5:30 should cover every eventuality, right?  And what could be more unexciting that taking a taxi to the airport?

Except that at 5:40 the front desk guy came to ever so apologetically tell me that, due to bad traffic, there were no taxis available.  At 5:45 he suggested that I could take an auto rickshaw.  Well, it seemed like it was less than ten miles, though I'd be stuffed in back with my luggage.  Maybe, but could you keep trying for the taxi?  By six I was getting nervous and was ready for the rickshaw, but when we got down to street level it turned out that a taxi had shown up.

I immediately sized up the driver as the first creepy guy I had met in Bangladesh.  Still, that's what was available.  I got in and we took off.  Within a block he started saying how he wanted to drive over somewhere and get a second customer.  A firm 'No', 'Airport Only!'  But a block after that the point was moot, because all the traffic had just dead stopped.

I had already seen this myriad times.  Traffic mysteriously stops dead in its tracks for several minutes, then just as mysteriously starts up again.  Except that this time it was ten, twenty, thirty minutes.  While the traffic going the other way was doing just fine.  After a while I got out to stretch my legs, and I made friends with an English speaking Bengali in the next car over.  He said that jams this bad virtually never happened. But after more research on his cell phone he found the cause.  The Prime Minister was returning from the UN General Assembly, so all traffic had been stopped dead in its tracks so that her entourage could go through. 

What were the odds?  And us only 100 feet from where we would have made our turn off of this road.

About an hour and a half in I had another problem: I had to ...go.  Now if this were India I could have simply urinated on the street, like everyone else does.  But Moslems are more modest; pious ones don't even pee standing up.  How about that government building that we have been inching our way past?  Might that have a toilet?  Sometimes you just have to go for it, and I ran over as fast as a full bladder can run.  When I came back out, my luck had held.  The cars had not taken off.

But five minutes later they did.  We got to our turning point, cut through the other lanes, tasted that burst of freedom, and... were back in another motionless traffic jam.

These would last minutes, not hours, with an occasional block or so where you could actually move.  I was stuck here with Bangladesh's one jerk, knowing my odds were shrinking by the minute, and counting up how much this was going to be costing me. 

It seemed like we ended up driving three times the distance from when I came in, but maybe the driver knew some long cuts that were faster roads.  Certainly out here in the 'wealthier' suburbs they did have some of those.  But for mile after mile and minute after minute, no signs whatsoever that we were nearing an airport.  Kind of like a bad dream where you never get where you're going.

When the driver finally reached the airport terminal he started making bullshit payment demands.  I gave him the tip I had planned to and told him to deal with it.  Pulled my stuff out and bulled my way into the terminal.  It was now 9:08,  As expected, check in was deserted, since it was the tiny airline's only flight.  There might be a chance that there would be someone in their upstairs office, but who was I kidding?  Nonetheless, with nothing else to do, I lugged all my stuff up endless flights of stairs in search of said office. 

As expected, it was locked and empty.  But as I had gone by the locked and empty Air Malaysia office, a boing had gone off in my head.  Didn't they have a later flight to KL?  Down all those flights of stairs with my luggage and over to their check in.  Yes indeedy they had one!  I went up to the nice young lady and asked, 'How much is a ticket?' & "Can I buy one?'  She said, '$300' & 'I'll go get the manager'.

The manager bit his lip.  'I can only sell you business class.'  'But this is the second ticket I'm buying for the same flight.  Please sell me an economy.'  'Well, it's 10 pm right now.  Wait until 10:20'. 

At the time an economy seat showed up, and twenty minutes later they had issued me my ticket.  Then a nice policemen whom I had befriended whisked me to the front of the immigration line.  Then after a few minutes of bureaucratic incompetence I was free and clear and on my way to the gate.

Once again I was the only non-Bengali on the fully booked flight.  I was in the middle seat in the back, with a two year old baby in the seat in front of me.  Well, you takes what you can gets.  But then, talk about Bengali hospitality!  A steward comes back and tells me that they are transferring me up to the almost empty Business Class.  Hot damn, the white sahib upgrade!  And I wasn't too politically correct to turn it down, neither.

Although Business Class isn't quite so special at 3 in the morning when everybody is just trying to nod out.  But I was the first off the plane, and although KLIA is a humongous airport, I made the shuttle in good time, sailed through immigration, and my bag was the first off the carousel.  It would have been just possible to run upstairs and barely make the flight to Brunei.  And wouldn't that have been a spectacular end to the story?

Unfortunately Air Asia operates out of a different terminal than does Air Malaysia.  And in this instance 'Terminal 2' is over twenty miles away.  So that by the time I finally got there the flight to Brunei was just taking off.  Over to the Air Asia service desk.  They can send me on their next flight over for an upcharge of 'only' $75.  Great, let's do it.

Now all I have to do is figure out how to stay awake at the airport for another six hours.