12 February 2010

A Long Expected Holiday

Thursday, April 2, 2009

I don't know how my most significant other can remember dates. I did not see her conceding to a holiday in KK on 26 March 2009 as being more than coincident with the easing up of leave demands after the school hols and the closest convenient date I could wring myself free from the squadron and its never ending juggling of scarce aircrew. It was pointed out to me that rolling back a year, we were putting up the night in The Summit Hotel prior to getting on board Air Asia bound for the Pearl Of Sabah, Labuan.

I suppose that for all the years of deprivation where against my will, my family has had to come second to the call of duty, whatever was at her behest should have been a joyous undertaking for me. Of course, inaudible wailing and gnashing of teeth was attendant to such proceedings as getting the tickets, the boarding pass and the spouse's and children's MyKads for their passenger tickets which had to be done inimitably, in the Labuan Way, which one learns during such events.

There is more prep to be done getting on board the Labuan-Menumbok ferry than the various Pulau-whatever ferries in Penang, considering that Labuan is a duty-free port. We were early at the terminal, and once the gates were opened, we rolled on deck and quickly ran upstairs to save a good spot for the sights and sounds of the open sea. The three women in my life sat around a mooring point, using it as a table for a card game. Labuan being the place that it is, it was to be another hour before the ferry was sufficiently laden for departure. There was a heart-stopping blare from the fog-horn, and the old girl eased out of the terminal, swinging portside and began her slow rumble past Pulau Papan, Pulau Daat and then coursed upriver a few metres to dock at Menumbok an hour later. We relearned the right of way rule while disembarking: there were far too many pedestrians crossing the path of the vehicles to allow even an MPV to muscle its might and due course off the ramp.

The minute we were out of Menumbok town, we glimpsed the crown of Mount Kinabalu ermined in cloud. The day was sunny, traffic amicably spaced and the ribbon of road ploughed its way through undulating greens terminating in a far and fading horizon. Porfiq!

Our accomodations were to be in the RMAF Joint Air Traffic Control Centre (pronounced as Jet-Sea) married quarters. We were met at the gates by Sgt Hajiris and I settled the payment for 3 full days of accomodation at the transit apartment on the third floor of the 'Hornet' block. We were already famished by the time we had carried the bags upstairs and gotten the air conditioning running to temper the blast of the afternoon sun. I pulled out my rare veto card and called for Krishna Curry House as our first meal on the mainland.

A drive around town brought everything flooding back from 1981 when I left Kota Kinabalu under pain of death for having incurred the wrath of my foster parents....I saw my old primary school, Sacred Heart, then the secondary school, La Salle Tanjung Aru, and passed the once state secretariat and treasury building with the bronzed Tunku Abdul Rahman still standing in the sun without cover of an unbrella. The old Tong Hing supermarket still stood next to Harrisons. As far as I know, this was the birthplace of Gardenia bread. We continued on past the Zara Project, which gave rise to the Sabah Foundation tower, a 32-storey building constructed in 1976 without columns save the central one, with doughnut-shaped floors jacked up one by one to completion of the structure. Its all-glass exterior was photo chromatic, and it had a revolving restaurant which I knew I could not afford to enter as a schoolboy.

We found the talked-of One Borneo mall, and let the mall-deprived city kids enjoy shopping in an area which removed all memory of the petrol kiosk-sized supermarkets of Labuan. Then it was dinner and sleep.

Brenda decreed that the Poring Hot Springs be the must-see of this excursion. The drive to Poring, would take us through Kundasang first, then Ranau and then the hot springs. I did the 'pre-flight check' while trying to keep up a conversation with an old air traffic controller whom I used to work with in Butterworth. He had changed!! He now had a rhinestone earring studded in his right lobe, and I was awash with legal conflict over a man in uniform doing this. I said to Brenda as we drove north, that the Dress Regulations did say that a single-stud earring such as a pearlescent or stone type was allowed, so if the senior Captain wanted to defend himself with that he probably could, his gender notwithstanding.

As I drove towards Kundasang, I wondered how the roads were. The wife and kids have never forgiven me for not taking them up Cameron Highlands again after just one visit, as they really loved the cold weather. Remembering this, I began to understand what had actually halted me. I thought it was the idea of the jungle trek they craved and I loathed (having had enough trekking in 2 years of infantry training), or the quarrels we had on the first and only trip, but nay, none of these was the actual impediment to our pilgrimage. I realised this time, that apart from high seas and shallow waters, I dreaded mountain roads most morbidly. Every corner I took put the picture into my mind's eye that by my wheelbase and axle width, I would exceed the road shoulder and take my brood cascading over the gorges. On city highways and the suburban streets such as we have in Labuan, I love negotiating corners at tractable extremes. It was because of this then that, much as it ran against my nature, I waved every vehicle nuzzling my posterior into overtaking me on the road to Kundasang, rendering our leg an entire 3 hour journey instead of the routine 2.

So, it was like being carjacked to an undesired destination with a gun to my left temple with a fellow barking, "Drive!!! Don't look at me! Just drive!", because keeping my eyes on what must have been reducing-radius turns was punctuated by the constant draw to take my eyes off very said road and look over the ravines, for every now and then there would be a loud "Oh my God Oh my God OH MY GOD!!!!" from the three women as the snaking road revealed view after breathtaking view of the Kundasang valley and that ever so commanding mountain.

As we coursed through Kundasang, I took note of the many acommodation stops, including the Strawberry Garden Hotel which belonged to Capt Ian's uncle. It was late, near 1300H and I was doubtful of whether I could do the return trip on that serpentine road in failing daylight. It may turn out that a night-stop at Kundasang would be imminent, and perhaps a redemption of my failure over Cameron Highlands could be parlayed for good measure. I took a quick look at the temperature, and saw that the engine was still under its half-way mark on the temp gauge. Porfiq.

Poring finally showed itself after much wondering over the visitor-friendliness of our Malaysian signboards. Much to my chagrin, the fellow who was supposed to take care of the private rooms was not around, had gone inexplicably somewhere else and so we could not go for a good hour of immersion all by ourselves in the comfort of privacy. The unoccupied public pools refused to fill up further than ankle-deep due to recirculation of unstoppable drain ports, which explained the crowded few that were selected for use. We were left with not much else except to swing our legs in the knee-deep pools after the crowds had cleared.

In consolation, we found a durian stall on the way back to Ranau, and except for Ethan and Rowena, we kept opening up one fruit after another till we had no doubt that we had had enough.

It was also a coincidence that the Rafflesia were in bloom, so I coughed up the 35 for a look-see. Interesting smell, and successful was its catch of flies for the morning.

Then it was a stop at Ranau to hunt down a spare-parts shop because the radiator cap had mysteriously disappeared, hinted to us by the spewing of pure-white steam while on an uphill overtaking manoeuvre. 4 litres of water refilled the radiator. Yes, it was I, when I was chatting with my old air traffic controller friend whilst checking the car, before leaving KK this bright and cheery morning. I must have capped the radiator loosely, deduced Brenda. Or not capped it at all, I surmised silently. Shiver me timbers!

So in for the night, Strawberry Garden Hotel it was. We managed to get adjoining rooms, at the end of the corridor. We were not facing the mountain, but the view was still worth more than the 70-a-night-a-room we were charged. The evening was spent checking out the various highland bugs who stopped over without the entrapment of the spider's web suspended on the leftmost pillar of the balcony or the ominous look of the empty swallow's nest on the right corner. Siti, the maitre d', was a wonderful cook, and the home-made strawberry ice cream and strawberry shakes were divine. We packed strawberries for Ian's kids as well as for further kitchen experimentation back in Labuan.

It was an early start to the descent the next day as Brenda and the kids wanted to check out the more pedestrian Centre Point's shopping to expend the remainder of their allotment. Lunch was in Centre Point, after which I pleaded for a nap before sunset mass due in 2 hours.

So much nostalgia assailed me when we drove into Sacred Heart Cathedral. The old building was gone, and this auditorium-styled church and a huge parochial centre sprawled the grounds. I received my first Holy Communion here, and was confirmed as a Catholic here. Now all around the church grounds, tracking into the uphill fence and back down again were plaster figures of the Stations Of The Cross, which I could imagine served the faithful on Fridays this Lenten season. Part of me wanted to move within this church as I once did, providing the mass commentaries as a 12 year old...serving as an altar boy and wondering how I got anything done correctly with my religious ineptitude. But life has taken many turns, and many churches I walk into and pray in tug at my heartstrings. Perhaps Sacred Heart will remain the first of these many churches by virtue of my spiritual awakening therein.

The next day Brenda had to drive back to the ferry terminal at Menumbok as I was bent double from food poisoning. We arrived at 0915H, and the gates would not open till the ferry arrived, expected at 1030H. The kids amused themselves with the cow patties on the road, and went so far as to take before-and-after shots of them as traffic recreated the shapes thereof upon passing. The long expected holiday was drawing to a close, but certainly not drawing its last breath, for while the ferry bobbed its way back to Labuan, Brenda and the kids conspired to a longer stay in Kundasang for the next holiday.

This means my rise to fame as public enemy on the serpentine roads to Kundasang.

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