12 February 2010

Air Tebu and Nasi Goreng Kampung

The gang on the ferry
Sunday, May 3, 2009

The month had been a blur of standbys, flight tests and navigation exercises.

I bore them patiently. My eye was fixed on the 1st of May. I had caught wind of some air force officers intending to ride to Kuala Penyu from Menumbok, a one-way distance of 47km.

Brenda had talked me into cycling after she learned how to at age 38. I had dismissed it for a long time, having done all that when I was a schoolkid. I had no idea that I would be hooked on it when I capitulated to her promptings and got myself an el-cheapo bike from Keningau and rapidly graduated through a LeRun Solaris and now on to a Giant Rincon. I suppose you have to go through some knackered ones before you know what construction standards are needed to last a few years.

The weather looked favourably upon us as we rendezvoused at the common parking lot in the air force quarters in Ganggarak. Major Dennis, Major Bala and I would pedal off from quarters, whilst Warrant Officer Jabri would be dropped off at the jetty by his wife. He would arrange our tickets and landing fees and what not, and Capt Azmi, ever the straggler, would meet us at the jetty.

The new and happy owner of my old Solaris, Maj Zamri, cycled down to the jetty to flag us off. He had owned the Solaris 2 days, and was not ready to do 122 kilometres from Ganggarak to the jetty to Menumbok to Kuala Penyu and back. But a photo opportunity at the jetty could not be resisted, especially if there was a chance that someone in the group would publish our escapade in Berita Udara.

While we were yarning with the chatterbox Zamri, Azmi finally showed up and laid his bike and backpack with us to hunt Dennis down at the restaurant where they could both have breakfast. That having been seen to, Zamri shamelessly accosted a stranger who was headed toward the ferry to snap our embarkation group photograph. Then he wished us good luck and cycled home. Time to board the ferry!

The sun was blazing in yet another start to a scorching East Malaysian day. I scanned the horizon and noted the mix of high-altitude cirro-stratus clouds and some cumulo-nimbus heaps gathering over the general location of Papar. It didn't matter. Rain or hail and fire, we were cycling to Kuala Penyu. We rhubarb-rhubarbed while waiting for the ferry to move. We watched our....sorry ....watches closely. Then at long last came the blast of the foghorn. 0900H. We would reach Menumbok no sooner than 1030H. Our marshaller, Leading Aircraftsman Hood, would serve as a shepherd as well as cameraman.

Just as soon as we passed the buffalo-pattied roundabout and set to the three o'clock lane for Kuala Penyu, it began to rain. It was good, like an atmospheric atomiser fan to keep us cool on our ride. Maj Bala was the leader of the group. We weren't too bothered by this as we had been cycling before and did not think that it took an angkasawan to lead 4 other cyclists.

The usual cycling thing happenned over the next 20 kilometres. Sweeping, overtaking and chatter as we paired up and split up as we saw fit. Passing any house with kids would incite howls of excitement from the young lads and lasses, and we would wave back. Many a motorist also waved at us. Two other rallies were on the road, a convoy of Minis and Mokes and a gaggle of superbikes, from Goldwings to Fatboys, secreting the drool of longing to be in the saddle and twist a 4-cylinder-revving throttle again. I blinked myself back to the present and pedalled on.

The Pumpkin Bomb pedalling his giblets out!!
The weather gradually lost its benevolence and the sun began to beam its usual penetrant to scorch the earth. Most of us had rehydrators, except for Major Dennis who placed his faith in Red Bull. What was there that I could tell him? He began his ride from Ganggarak with a cigarette for breakfast. So sipping from the bite valve, I tried to stay cool. I kept scanning backward and noted that Capt Azmi was faithfully being shepherded by Hood. Or so I would have been led to believe. Suddenly I heard loud yells of dismay coming from behind me as the other cyclists cursed and swore in good humour. The next thing I knew was Capt Azmi sweeping by, looking at first glance as if he was cycling, but in reality his foot was firmly on Hood's moped footpeg, accelerating uphill to Kuala Penyu. Now, thats what I call the display of mutual support. Maybe the fact that he sported Crocs instead of at least sports shoes, may have had something to do with the early onset of fatigue.

For the rest of us it was pure pedal power. Reassurance began to surge as we saw the Kuala Penyu roundabout rise at the horizon. I asked Bala where we could eat. He said, "I not thinking of makan one. I think just patah balik straight to Menumbok and can eat there." I was shocked. This is not a walk in the park, and his idea smacked of selfishness. So you can survive from breakfast to dinner on a cup of Madras tea, but the rest of us may not. We clog our arteries in order to feel life in our veins. But I did not want to yell. So I said, "I'm hungry man. Let's eat." 10 kilometres later, we saw the welcome sights of the little town and scouted around for a restaurant that all could eat in with confidence.

We found a place that looked okay. There were cakes and pastries on display which Dennis reached for without forethought. Well, that just started everyone on the cakes. I couldn't, having lived for too long with what comes forth from Brenda's oven. I could not slide a piece cake iced with margarine down my throat. Well, I could, if death were about to draw me from this world by way of hunger. But not while I had the ability to exercise choices and ask for a nasi goreng kampung with loads of anchovies.

Nasi Goreng Kampong for the soul
"Okay, gentlemen we have 10 minutes to go," Bala suddenly announced. I checked my watch. We had only rested 20 minutes. That was really not enough time. I decided to pace myself evenly for the ride back. His reasons for wanting to be at Menumbok at 1530H for a ferry that would only start loading at 1630H were to me spawn of insanity. But for now, press on!!!

We stopped for another group photograph at the Kuala Penyu roundabout. Traffic was so light that Hood could stand in the lanes for 5 minutes adjusting the focus and zoom without anyone honking him out of the way. We mounted our bikes and I started examining the milestones. Another 37 kilometres to go to Menumbok. I wanted to suggest to Maj Bala that we keep in a group and maintain a constant pace so that chaps like Dennis would not fall behind. However, both he and WO Jabri, owning the only two bicycles shod with super-slick tyres, had shot ahead and were gradually disappearing over the horizon. I spied through my bar-mounted rearview mirror, that Maj Dennis was cutting an ever diminishing reflection, but in consolation, also that our marshaller LAC Hood, was still with him.

I was at the 100 kilometre mark, when a sense of defeat began whispering in my ear. Dennis had caught up on and overtaken me, and I began thinking of surrendering to the heat and turning into one of those calcified bison skulls in John Wayne movies. Hood had attempted aiding me with his moped, but I could not keep my foot on the footpeg, and being the kayu person I am, began wavering away from him. I had no clue as to how to carry out this rempitish operation. I abandoned the needed leg-up after 10 yards. Then when my chain slipped from first gear, and I dismounted for the third time on this slope to reset the chain onto the chainring due to a sickeningly recalcitrant forward derailleur, I began to feel the swaying.

Hood pulled over and waited with me, ever steadfast and silent. I began to feel dizzy. I gazed at him, trying to self-diagnose my symptoms while he just stared back, his overbite suddenly looking rather comedic. Then it dawned on me that I was overheating. I reached into his moped basket and found a bottle of mineral water, and doused myself over the head. As the water trickled through the vents and down my vest, I experienced immediate cooldown. I slowly came to my senses and looked at my watch. 1510H. Now none of what I felt was surprising. This was post-meridian solar blaze, and what I had perceived as flat road could not have been so if the chainring on 2nd gear and 5th on the cassette made me feel I was pedalling through treacle. No wonder my energy expenditure seemed off budget!! No wonder I was feeling like I was at the end of my rope. Bala's urgings seemed ever the more preposterous to me than before, but this was fait accompli, and it was only about 8 kilometres to Menumbok. Bala was of course, nowhere to be seen.
Hot on the road

I pedalled. Once past the crest of the hill, I came upon Dennis, Azmi and Jabri, all walking; Dennis was behind while Jabri and Azmi were ahead. Dennis spotted me pedalling towards him and he saddled up and started heaving away at a determined pace. So did Jabri and Azmi. I had no idea I was so much a provocateur. Nobody shoud fall behind the fat boy, right?? Dennis was so intent on not letting me pass him, he overtook them and disappeared over the next hill crest. As I was about to catch up with the other two, I saw Jabri u-turn into a swing to the opposite side of the road. He was stopping at a little shack selling sugar-cane juice!! Azmi caught the cue immediately and was in Jabri's shadow. I thought it such a brain-wave. I had no intention of beating them, so join them I did, with Hood shyly in trail. So we sat there for 15 minutes, each of us putting away two bottles of amazingly sweet sugar-cane juice, wonderfully chilled and so, so resuscitating. We had done our estimated arrival times and deduced that 15 minutes could not possibly jeopardise our ferry ride. Life crept back into me and I was ready to ride.

The last 8 kilometres saw us take on one last hill, and then past the roundabout, a nine-o'clock turn and there we were at the jetty. We spotted Bala at the roadside restaurant and joined him and his newly-met civillian friend from the Labuan Sports Council. He made some remarks about wondering where we were as he had been waiting a long time. Then he looked at me and asked, "Why, Major Jeffrey? Tired is it?" What do you think, you self-serving dolt? was what I wanted to say, but I chose to ignore him altogether. Azmi joined in the conversation and said "Nih Maj Bala tanya kalau penat, Maj Jeff tak nak cakap pun!" and made everyone laugh out loud. I laughed sociably, and wondered if Azmi was casually trying to say something snide by using me as proxy. Oh well, I can't figure out every cultural nuance. Sipping a chilled isotonic drink seemed more a priority now.

The ferry arrived at 1630H as a result of the chain of events from the late departure from Labuan earlier in the morning. Again, we experienced inexplicable delay, and the ferry which appeared fully laden at 1700H only departed at 1800H. Dennis and Azmi learned, from going to the upper deck and hanging out with the crew just outside the bridge, that the delay was because some snot in a souped-up Kancil could not clear the ramp as he had installed fancy skirting all around the car, scraping the ramp as he attempted to board the ferry. So they had to help him dismantle the skirting piece by piece to help him board. And of course the same occured on our voyage home. Which meant that he had reassembled the skirting upon landing at Menumbok. Which meant we had the pleasure of his company both ways.

It was dark when we finally hit the familiar shores of Labuan. We cycled happily, white lights a-beaming and red lights a-flashing on the final 13 kilometres, knowing that only good things awaited us at our individual homes, lullabied onward by poor Major Dennis's laboured groaning with every pedal stroke.

I had a few thoughts, which I shared in post-mortem with my best sounding-board, Brenda. I would never again ride under the leadership of someone who does not take care of the weakest in the group. This was not basic infantry training. Cycling was meant to be pleasurable, even amidst some pain. A deadline is not for cycling, and certainly insulting the lesser-abled is the sign of taking the instructor out of the school but failing to take the school out of the instructor. But while I could not agree with Bala's methods, it was also an episode of self-discovery. I had experienced breaking-point. Yes, I had so wanted to give up at that 100 kilometre point, but it was good to push past it, and find that I could cycle some more. I think reading 8 kilometres to Menumbok on the milestone was an impetus nonetheless. Or maybe it was the pure sugar-cane juice. Not too embarassing for a person sporting 31 on the BMI.

And if I ever see Dennis smoke before a ride or quench his thirst with caffeine-boosters, I'm gonna....get Bala to tell him off!!!

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