"Tales from the bar side: Malaysian Mania."
By M.R. Leipzig, ©1998

Well, howdy and "Happy tam, may be please to lucky help" to you too, fellow campers.

Seems that I haven't around been here for the past fortnight or so (obvious proof, a la: "Prove there is no God," that I must have been golfing on Mars). Well, life does sometimes intrude upon the reality of HolySmoke and I, without so much as a "By your leave" was ordered to attend a series of concourses, conferences and crowds in a place so far east, it's actually out to the west.

Yep, I had to travel to that place where they raise welts on small, eucalytpus-eating furry marsupials. You guessed it, I was off to Koala Lumper, Malaysia.

After a day of running about town trying to secure the necessary tickets, exit visas ("They won't let you leave home without one.") and other forms of governmental officiousness and graft, I settled back into an obviously over used and seldom sumptuous seat of an aging Gulf Air-liner and wung (being the manifest past imperfect of "winged") our way eastward.

Once out of Middle Eastern airspace (i.e., wheels-up), the bedraggled flight attendants (i.e., "stews") began complimentary (i.e., expensive) beverage service (I couldn't get a Business Class seat at such a late date and had to fly (only one way, thankfully) Baggage, ack, er..Coach Class). Let's see. Complimentary beer was $USD4, wine was the same, Wild Turkey was $USD5 for those little, bitty bottles of airliner booze, and, thanks to a lack of JP4 in Bahrain, there was no scotch available.

It was a thoroughly uninteresting flight, not so much as a schnozzled sheik in a disheveled dishdasha to break the boredom. The in-flight entertainment instead was provided by a absolutely aristocratic Arabic matron who unconditionally refused to sit next to a "heathen infidel" (yours truly, none other than the ambassador of goodwill and amity in all sublunary cultures; seems this happens a lot to me for some reason) who had the unmitigated audacity not to capitulate to her particularly bizarre whims and was actually trying to enjoy/numb out/sleep through/drown the ennui of yet another international excursion. In other words, she objected to me having, all at one time, 6 cans of Tiger Beer ("A Tiger? In Arabia? (Shhh....)"), in various levels of beery fullness, 3 bottles of vodka and a few bottles of bourbon on my unlocked and nowhere near it's full upright position tray table (even in Coach I fly First-Class).

I figured she was peeved that I didn't offer her one; so I whipped up a quick boilermaker and set it on her tray with a twinkle and a leer: "Compliments of the Atheist International Conspiracy. We're here for your children, m'dear. Cheers! <clink>"

After they pried her out of the overhead compartment and found her a seat more to her liking (Hmm...maybe she didn't like beer?), I retrieved the drink and settled in for the in-flight movie, revelling in my new found elbow room.

The movie was altogether eminently forgettable. It was a sort of hack'd-n-slash'd made-for-flight version of "Titanic". Gad. There actually was applause when the opening credits rolled and the few western women on the flight actually seemed to swoon at the mention of Leonardo De Cappacino or De Cappicola or De Capitated somoneorother. They should can this stuff and sell it to insomniacs. This cinematic jetsam could put a speed-freak to sleep.

Well, I awoke some hours later during our descent into the aptly and not terribly originally named Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA for short from here on out). I shoveled the empties into the stew's trash bag and noted that she had benefited from her aerobic workout of fetching me potables during the long flight; but they're going to have to replace that carpet that leads to the galley now; it's plumb wore out.

So, I trundled my way off the airliner and into the sultry heat, humidity and haze that is Malaysia. Not terribly different from the Middle East, except for far more verdant, more aromatic (here, the petrochemical smells vie for the upper hand over rotting vegetation and the mephitic redolence of the local humanity) and much, much more crowded.

Kuala Lumpur is certainly a most gregarious metropolitan locale. There exist the most amazing collection of peoples of so many races: Malays, Chinese, New Guineans, Indians, Sri Lankans, South, North and East Africans, Pakistanis, ad infinitum. And they all seemed to be intent on occupying the same 1 m^2 as I and there seemed to be possessed of a particular interest in the real estate represented by my right rear pants pocket. Seems there was the small matter of a wallet taking up space there and no end of seemingly helpful individuals about who were willing, quite unasked, to extract the offending piece of luggage and let the pocket revel it it's own new found elbow room.

After explaining, in my own inimitable fashion, to a number of these jolly fellers that "Thank you, no. I like my wallet right where it is.", I smilingly sent two or six of them on their merry ways to seek medical attention for those heavily bruised and sprained fingers. "Such kidders, these folk.", I mused as I planted a size 15EEE Vasque Trakker on the backside of one chap who was particularly insistent that my wallet was far too heavy for me to carry and that he could do a much better job.

Ah, I do so *love* to travel to far and distant lands. Sheesh. Where's the airport lounge?

Did I mention that I was not travelling alone? Well, up until we landed, I was with 3 of my co-workers (locals, all) who promptly disappeared once the plane hit the tarmac. I figured that they knew the ropes around these parts better than I, so I sought out the local cantina to await my baggage's arrival and then make my way to the hotel. I figured they'd meet me there. Truth is, I never saw a one of them until the flight home. Ah, well. Wouldn't be the first time this weary traveler was on his own in a country where I have no idea of the languages or cultures; but I carried the universal translator: a Platinum American Express card and a pocketful of company cash advance.

I had confirmed reservations at the Regency, which was located close to the airport and in, what I was later to find out, what is called "The Golden Triangle" (the last "Golden Triangle" I was in included Beaumont, Shreveport and New Iberia, I was not terribly optimistic); which turned out to be the bustling shopping and business centre of the city. As I was not in any extreme hurry (I still had to collect my bags and also the next day off before the classes/convention began); I took my time and took in the local scenery.

As I sat in the bar and fired up a huge, Turkmenistanian double-maduro cigar; I watched the parade of humanity wash along the shores of the concourse like so much foam in a brownish brook. Little knots of people would form eddies in the current and I couldn't help but note the similarity between this flood and a river in the Hill Country after a spring thunderstorm. While at the bar, I was accosted by at least 5 or 6 nubile, young wenches who must have all been inexplicably extraordinarily thirsty. All of them enquired if I would by them a drink and they all wanted me to go with them and consume it elsewhere; typically in their hotel room. I politely declined each invitation, although I did have a fear of breaching some sort of local custom; but no alarum was necessary, as after some convivial cajoling of "Piss off. No, I don't to buy you or a drink or want a date."; the youthful demoiselles would smile beamingly, and slinkily depart only to petition another, oddly all western, equally weary somebody in the barroom.

"Odd behavior", I thought. I must do more research on this phenomenon. All in the name of science, of course.

I noted that the sun was going where it seemingly does every evening and figured that it would probably be in my best interest to seek asylum and my baggage before nightfall. Parting the swash of humankind, I ventured forth (with my wallet now securely settled in my vest pocket) to retrieve my baggage. Time tested travel tales are the best, as I had sat in the bar for just over 2 hours and my baggage had seemingly just arrived on conveyor #4. I retrieved the same and headed out into the morass to seek ground transportation to my night's digs.

The pneumatic doors *swooshed* open and I was hit, full in the mush by the singe, steam and scent of an overpopulated petrochemical-based jungle that was in direct combat with a real, not too distant, jungle. "I do get to travel to the most *vivid* places on earth on this job", I mused. The cacophony of traffic immediately outside the terminal made one long for the comparatively serene iciness of the venue and gracious fascination of the industrial debutantes back at the bar, but, armed with a grim determination, a fierce resolve and a waning buzz; I ventured into the fray and raised my hand to hail a taxi.

After the wreckers pulled the 6 cabs apart that tried to simultaneously vie for my fare, I got into the least demolished vehicle and handed the driver a card that had the name of the hotel printed on it in 6 different languages. "Sorry, mate.", intoned the driver, "But I can't read a single one of these names."

"Great.", I thought. Slowly, it dawns on me that he speaks passably impeccable English. "But you do speak English?", I enquired with perhaps one of the trip's most inane and ridiculously rhetorical questions.

"Yessir. Where to?" (I could see his eyes roll skyward in the rear view mirror).

So, I tell him the hotel name and we were off on yet another careen through what laughably passes for traffic in these parts of the world.

I felt that I needed to explain myself and mentioned that other folks back at the office who travelled to this region warned of the inability of the taxi drivers to speak either Arabic or English and the need for the card.

"Well, that's typically true; but not for me."

I asked why.

Turns out, the driver, one Salem by name ("Sal" for short) was a disenfranchised and disillusioned Tasman who, in his spare time, spent his days sailing and fishing in the Malay/Indonesian archipelago; but was currently "Dry up" (out of cash) and took a "hack job" to supplement his meagre larders.

One could not help but notice the grin forming on my face.

We slalom along down Jalan Huag Tuah towards the hotel when he explains that he always hovers around the exit terminal looking for the taller, out of place, less pigmented and typically boozed-up passengers. He tells me that I scored bonzers on all counts. That way, he continued, he gets people that can speak English, are typically either on holiday or business trips and can actually afford to pay the cab fare.

He also points out that usually they're so laden, in one way or another, that they don't bolt from the cab without paying the fare. I took that to mean that they carry a lot of luggage and won't scamper at the end of the line. At least, that better be what he meant...

We screech up to the entry-way of the hotel and I begin to unfold out of the damn Nissan Bluebird subsubcompact that Sal was piloting. He tells me to go ahead and get booked in (as the XVI Commonwealth Games were over, but there are still a lot of tourists and such lingering about afterwards) and he'll see to my bags. Normally, I don't trust anyone I don't know as far as I could throw them, but Sal was such an affable character that I knew he'd not try and hose me over.

For once, my instincts proved correct.

I sallied forth, invaded the hotel and went up to the check-in desk. It was a terribly posh hotel, far too much for the likes of yours truly, but it was on the company's nickel, so I didn't balk.

"A reservation for Leipzig, my good man.", I inquired of the desk clerk; a toffee-nosed little wisp of an fart who was soon to be on my "Not best friends at all" list.

"Ah, yes. Here it is. I'm sorry <sniff>. But it appears that there was some sort of error or another and your room has been given to someone else."

"Hmmm...says here that my reservation is held for late check-in and guaranteed through my credit card."

"Well <ahem, cough>, that may well be, but it still doesn't alter in the least the fact that your room is no longer available." <noticing his hand sliding out across the countertop, palm-up>.

"Well, then. I suggest you find me another room and do it rather quickly, as I think there's an ugly front blowing in from the east."

"No, sir. I'm *so* sorry. <recoiling like an empty-fisted cobra>, but we simply don't have any rooms left..."

The fuse having been lit, I was about to detonate into a flurry of dark oaths, epitaphs and curses when Sal comes up and calms me with "Ease off, mate. Let me handle this."

I did not record the conversation between Sal and the desk clerk, but there was quite a number of threats, accusations and the offer to have the desk clerk's head removed for inspection somewhere distant or some such goings on. Sal certainly knew how to navigate the bayou of begging and course of corruption around these parts (sort of like Mexican border towns, but without the charm); and surprise, there was a room or two available. My reservation went from a Deluxe Premier room (currently occupied, or so it seemed) to one of 6 Executive Suites.

All at the same price, at all the same dates.

I asked Sal what he did to the poor desk clerk, and he simply told me that he was going to call their version of the INS and have his ass deported for corruption and bribery. Amazing what a little veiled threat can do.

"Sal, I owe you one. Meet me in the bar and I'll have my company buy you drinks and dinner."

"I can't now, I'm still on duty. But, if you're still coherent at 10:00 pm; I'll let you take me to a local hashhouse for some real chow."

"Fair enough. See you here at 10:00."

After a shower (which only took me 20 minutes to find in this HUGE room), a quick doze and 2 hours of raiding the room's mini-bar; I, feeling quite refreshed, went to the lobby to await Sal. He arrived spot on 2200 hours and bade me into his cab. "Don't worry about the fare. I'm off-duty. So, where do you want to go?"

"You're the local. What do you suggest?"

"What are you hungry for?", Sal queried.

"Well, seafood is always good..."

"And you're on company money? Hot damn!" and off we sped into the night.

We arrived some 20 minutes later at a eatery known as "Janbo", a Chinese seafood-specialty restaurant. Armed with my trusty Rhodium AmerExpress card, we went in and were immediately seated. The place was quite large and seemingly very quiet. "It doesn't get busy here until later", Sal informed me. Another city that never sleeps, it seems.

Well, we ordered up a few rounds of potables to whet our appetites and cast a glance over the menu. Seafood of every variety: lobster, prawns (shrimp to you and me), oysters...a veritable molluscan cornucopia from the fertile South China Seas waters.

I gazed at one of the menu's items quizzically. It read: "Fried Geoduct". Now, being the cunning linguist that I am; I put it together that "geo" is Latin for "earth" and "duct", geomorphologically, is a water-filled ditch or ravine. Ergo, they were offering to "fry me a river"; so I simply had to order that as an entree.

Sal chose the fried lobster and clams in Wanchee sauce (a new one on me) and we proceeded to regale each other with our tales of the exotic; over a bottle or four of "Phoey Yuk" Chinese plum table wine.

"Phoey Yuk" indeed.

Anyways.

The restaurant was remarkable in their food, prices and service. One could scarcely set down one's glass before one or another grinning wait-type-of-person would immediately shamble over, wipe the ever- increasing condensation from the glass and refill it to the point of overflow. I figured I just might grow to like this place.

They served all sorts of gratis pre-nosh appetizers, things like "tom yam" (spicy shrimp), "khoa cha" (very spicy beef strips) and chicken satay with peanut/chili (fucking spicy) sauce. Note how all were free, all were hotter'n the hinges of hell and all served in unending amounts. Reason being, seafood and the like are damn near free here, but they make their most cash on drinks. Tonight, they made a fortune off of me and Sal.

Anyway, back to the story: Sal is originally from Tasmania and spent most of his formative years molesting marsupials as most male Norteamericanos spend their misguided youth tormenting placentals. He has "O" and "A" levels, (for which I conveyed my personal sympathies) in economics and something called (laughingly) "business ethics". I told Sal I didn't much know that they existed, much less they taught courses in the stuff.

He agreed wholeheartedly.

He was supposed to take over the family shipping/receiving/import/ export/smuggling operation when he finished college; but about 3/4 of the way through college in some unnamed Australian university, his father died (his mother had passed on years before) and Sal sort of lost all interest in business, ethical or otherwise. He related that his father worked everyday of his life and never really had time for family, hobbies or, truth be told, virtually anything else. Sal never wanted for anything while growing up on the lush and verdant plains of Tasmania, except for a father who had time for his son. (Good goat. I just re-read that last paragraph. Hesus christo, I'm getting maudlin in my old age...).

When his father did shuffle off (massive MI) this mortal coil, Sal, in his own words, "snapped". He was determined not to spend his life chained to a desk or office and basically tossed it all over and went 180 degrees astern. He took what he had saved during college, took the last 1/4 of his tuition and with whatever he could scrape together, he bought an old sailing craft of about 36' waterline (Sal confided in me that he always loved the sea and was a natural outdoorsman). Since that time when his father died, some 25 or so years ago, as near as I could place things, he's plied the waters of the South China Sea, eking out a meagre existence selling, trading and basically loafing around the tropics. He only comes to shore for provisions, parts or a reflux of cash for the previous two; and hence why he's now sitting downwind from my cigar and not complaining in the least.

With that, I order another round of drinks (wondering where the bloody hell our food has gotten off to) and Sal asks me that same of what I had asked him.

"Well, if you must pry..."

"Oh, I must, I must..."

Over the drinks and dinner that finally arrived, I regaled Sal with some of the more choice bits of my now InterNETionally known "Tales from the bar side." I had him really going on the "One, true expert". He howled along on the "fundy fruit flight" and thought that my tales of Russia and points east were worthy of at least 2 or 3 more rounds of drinks; particularly since I was buying. He had spent all his life in the South Pacific region and never ventured much further north than Thailand. I was just the opposite, I was a Laurasian who never really, until fairly recently, made it far into the land of the Gonds.

Seems in all the world, yet again, I had found a kindred spirit.

Well, we called a curtain on the evening's festivities at a proper hour (about 2 before the dawn) and Sal deposited me, unsteadily, back at the hotel. I had arranged for Sal to be my driver for the next fortnight and had my company pay him handsomely; so I bade him off to his home for the next day (I had the day off and needed a few hours kip) and asked him to meet me day after tomorrow, spot on at 0800, to transport me and my gear to the S.E. Asia Oil and Gas Convention (sounds like fun, right gang?). As I had basically hired his hack out for the next 14 days, Sal could rest easy and not have to worry about cruising airport terminals for any other sloshed Westerners; as he had one right here.

Well, the next morning dawned clear and bright, as happens so often when it does not rain. I arose early, at the precise crack of noon, and set about finding an English newspaper, some coffee and extra-strength aspirin, not necessarily in that order. I went downstairs to the lobby of the hotel, made my purchases and set up camp in the coffee shop of the place. I was slogging my way through cup #7 of really awful coffee and equally awful newspaper, when I came across articles about this Anwar Ibrahim character and his trial for corruption and (oohhh...) tyranny.

Seems that there has been some political unrest in Malaysia with this oddity. Rather than try and explain, let me quote from one of the English newspapers (author uncited) regarding this individual and "AnwarGate": <begin quote> "...NTV7 brought the latest shocking news about Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim being arrested after his supporters almost clash with the FRU on the way to the Prime Minister house. I gasped with horror and saddened by the fact that the politician I used to admire for 16 years choosed [sic] to humiliate his own country in order to achieve his dream to be the next Malaysian new Prime Minister.

And for the first time in 16 years, my admiration to him gone forever.

I have never choose to be fanatic when it comes to politic. When some people choosed [sic] to endow their leader based on character, I always choosed [sic] mine based on his intentions and previous achievements only. However I have to admit that in some way, I was swayed by Dato Anwar character. Being a muslim [sic], no one can deny the attraction he possessed especially when he was seen in TV with `songkok' and `baju melayu'. But even by that, his character has always influenced my vote to him at 10% rate only.

The rest 75% based on my assessment on his political agenda and another 15% based on his previous achievements. I choosed [sic] to ignore the `character factor' because I believe that it can be decieving [sic]. Al Pacino showed good char acter while playing mayor in movie but we all knows he was just acting. Michael Douglas deliver an awesome speech in the movie `American President' but we know he fake his character. So in the end, it is all based on intentions.

I used to think that Dato Anwar political agenda is purely honest. I used to think that the main reason why he entered politic is simply because he want to pillar the country's strength and to safeguard the Malaysian interest. Boy am I wrong, this may hard for me to say but I have to admit that Mr Anwar is in fact an opportunist. Since the day he was sacked, he revealed his true skin to the public and he really made me feels [sic] like an idiot after 16 years. After attending one of his gathering, I began to realize who he really is." [sic] <end quote>

All terribly exciting and greeted with a monumental yawn. I've been in Africa, Central and South America; and these places have more revolutions than old time LP records. There were student riots, demonstrations and all sorts of general brouhaha; but the upshot is that Ibrahim may get off on all counts (include a Clintonesque sexual impropriety) because they laws that he was charged under are in the process of being repealed.

Goat, I do so love politics.

Well, I basically spent the rest of the day snoozing or raiding my room's mini-bar waiting for something other than British cheese documentaries to show up on the satellite TV. Failing that, made final preparations for the next day and retired for the evening.

Sal picked me up promptly at 0800 and headed towards the convention hall. I asked him for his take on this Ibrahim situation and suddenly he grew somewhat tense. "No, Marty, I don't like it at all. There's student demonstrations, violence and bad press from around the world."

"Bad for the tourist and convention trade?"

"That, and there's talk of martial law again. Every time that happens here, the ports all close down, boats are confiscated and travel is restricted."

"I understand. I was in Cote de Ivorie once when that happened. Worse still, they close all the bars."

"Good to know you always keep the proper perspective on matters, Mate."

Well, Sal deposited me at the convention center and gave me his pager number (I asked him if he wanted to come have a look and I could tell by his general lack of enthusiasm that this would be like a 5 day trip to the dentist for him) and told me to call at any time and he'd be there in less than 30 minutes.

"Fair enough." and I gave him a few hundred ringget to pick up some local beer for this evening (he was going to show me his boat that he had kept down in Kelang, to the southwest of KL).

Well, I'll spare you the rigors of the convention and my two technical papers that were greeted somewhat nonchalantly. I thought the story of the world's largest gas field might spark some interest; but since it's pretty much all divvied-up by the majors and it's just another Middle Eastern field, their response was rather less than enthusiastic. Ah well, can't light up the world every time.

Sal and I went to his boat and had a very nice time fiddling with the shortwave radio, drinking beer, tossing a fishing line into the Strait of Malacca and generally just having a 'give-a-shit' good time out in the middle of the expanses of South-east Asia.

Every day of the convention (and the week afterwards for the course on interactive computer-aided geological and geophysical interpretation (Come on, you guys! Wake up!), Sal would take me in the AM and pick me up in the PM. We'd find something or other to do and never grew weary of each other's company. He knew all the places to go and see and was a most amiable tour guide (although most sightseeing forays ended up in some waterfront bar).

Being your foreign correspondent for HolySmoke, I would be remiss not to mention at least something of the religious atmosphere in this part of the world. It's, as you might have expected, heavily Muslim, of all the different stripes that exist in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Subcontinent. In the Middle East, you've got the Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, (the Sunnis outnumber the latter 3 to 1), but there are as many different Islamic flavors as there are Christian denominations. in Malaysia, there is at least one mosque per sect per city block.

Incredible.

One mosque near the city center, has a most interesting story to tell. At the corner of Ea Street and Po Boulevard, there is a huge and overly ornate mosque. This, in and of itself, is strange, as mosques are typically austere and unadorned places, ostensibly for worship of the supernatural while ignoring reality (i.e., economic hardships, race riots, ethnic cleansing, persecution of infidels, etc.). This one was flamboyant and lavish; most unusual. I asked Sal the chronicle of this place and he related to me that this was the first mosque built after the post WW2 ousting of the Communist contingent that occupied KL after the war. They, the commies, forbade religion and went about generally harassing and making life even more miserable for the locals hereabouts. After their gluteus-first ejection from Malaysia, the local flavors of Islam built this non-denominational mosque (sort of a religious joint venture), and had the local sufis proclaim that if a communist should "...enter or defile this mosque, he will surely die."

It is called, of course, the "Mosque of the Red Death".

(Gad. Sometimes one has to work *so* hard...)

Ahem.

Well, Sal and I spent the next dozen or so days in a desultory and random sort of schedule. By day, I'd actually go and try to stay awake through all the UNIX gurus prattling on about killing windows, Xmotif and other forms of computer generated incomprehensibilities, and, by night, we'd prowl around the western seaboard of Malaysia, trying, but not always succeeding, to stay out of trouble. (Oh, yeah. We were a couple of real hell-raisers. Two over 40 old-pharts (tyro division), smoking cigars, drinking huge amounts of beer and leering at the scenery...).

I must admit that the night life in Malaysia is some of the most, well, varied that I've ever seen. Elements of dozens of different cultures: I saw they archetypal Balinese ornate-costume twang-dance, Japanese Kabuki theater, a South Seas "fingernail dance" (very odd) to disco and the ubiquitous karoke.

Well, time, as is it's wont, passed all too quickly, and it was time for me to depart back to the wonderful Middle East. Sal drove me back to KLIA and helped me through customs, passport control (amazing what knowing the ropes will do for a person) a nd right up to depositing my baggage with Gulf Air. After getting checked in and having a few hours to kill before departure, I turned to Sal to bid him a fond farewell, but not to fast. Sal noted that I still had a few hours and a couple trillion errant brain cells to kill so we sauntered over to the ubiquitous airport lounge to have a couple or six farewell toasts.

I ordered a couple of drinks and Sal excused himself for a bit, claiming that he needed to make a phone call (I knew that I should have been skeptical at this point; Sal is the most laid back and telephone hating person I know). But, my mind was on my 7 hour flight back and the thrill of returning to work.

Sal returns (by way of the back of the bar...curious) and we toast each other, the wonderfulness of free air, Thursdays, the usual. Unfortunately, time was approaching for my departure, but Sal kept ordering (on my tab, natch) "Just one more round". Typical behaviour, but little did I realize the nefarious subterfuge to which in I was about to be involved.

"Sal. I've simply got to run. Here, this is the remainder of your money for the hire of your cab and service for the past fortnight, and something extra for ..."

"No, Marty. You fed me and bought every drink. I'll take the cab fare, but you keep the extra money."

I immediately objected. "It's not my money, Sal. It's the company's and I want you to have it."

"No."

"Use it to buy yourself a cell phone."

"No."

"Use it to buy your cab an overhaul (it really needed one)."

"No."

I was somewhat perplexed. This wasn't like Sal at all, but little did I realize just what he was up to...

"Sal. No arguments. Here. Take the money. Buy a couple of new fishing rods so that I've got something to fish with next time I come over here."

"Well...OK..."

"Sal?", "What's the problem?" I asked as I glanced furtively at my watch, noting the scant 20 minutes before my flight leaves.

"Well. I got you something and was stalling, waiting until the last minute, to give it to you."

He handed me a fairly-large plain brown-paper wrapped article and suddenly broke out into a huge, toothy grin.

"Um, ah, well, thanks. Sal. What is it?"

"No time, no time. Your flight's making last call. Time to fly, bwana."

"Thanks again for all the help. I hope to see you again soon, Sal. You've got my card, if you're ever in the Middle East..."

"Get going, you old sod..."

Handshakes, a couple of quick shots and general back-patting later, I was settling down into my First Class (Phew!) seat while a very friendly Gulf Air cabin person asks me if I'd like her to stow my package in the forward compartment.

"Sure, fine, whatever...", I sighed, glad to make my flight and sunk back into the luxurious leather of the seat and immediately into the land of nod.

I completely missed beverage service, dinner, and the in-flight movie; and soundly snored my way over 3,700 miles of air travel. I awoke to the gentle thud of landing gear hitting hot and sticky Middle Eastern tarmac at Doha International. "Back again.", I mused and, astonished, looked at my watch and realized that I'd slept straight through the flight.

"One or another of the only ways to fly."

I gathered my gear and headed for the door when the friendly flight attendant called after me "Sir! Don't forget your package!"

Of course, I had almost forgotten Sal's departure gift. With it tucked under my arm, I made for passport control and my baggage immediately thereafter. Passport control, baggage collection and customs is an ordeal that greets one on their return to t his wonderful land. There's nothing better than being jet-lagged, tired, harried, and grouchy only to be greeted by some sidearm toting goof that wants you to empty every piece of luggage and possibly subject you to a body-cavity search.

They take customs seriously hereabouts. Pornography, pork and potables are high on the list of confiscatables.

So, I gather my baggage and head towards the customs desk. 99 time out of 100, they'll be unmanned, or so bloody crowded that they'll just wave you through. Unfortunately, this time was neither. The khaki-clad clerk motions me over and starts rummaging through my bags...slide carousels, a couple of geology books, some souvenirs; nothing of any great import.

I was about to zip up my bags when the cop sees the package Sal gave me on the baggage cart. I had forgotten clean about the thing, but he was most insistent that he see what I'm trying "to get past him". I truthfully told him I had no idea what was in the package, as it was a departure gift from a friend in Malaysia and I hadn't had the chance to open it yet.

So, onto the customs table it went, in full view of the 50 or so fellow-travelers waiting their turn and 20 or so customs agents who suddenly grew interested and gathered around.

I cut the twine and carefully unwraped the gift. There was some immediate twittering from the crowd (from a native Malaysian, I later found out) as I removed the paper.

The chuckling grew louder as the customs agent picked up the roughly tubular, highly ornate, 24' long, quite colorful and somewhat slightly upwardly curved object; and subjected it to a rather through inspection.

"What is it?" he asked.

"I have no earthly idea.", came the truthful reply.

The laughter broke out to a crescendo in the crowd, as one obvious South Sea inhabitant piped in: "It's a Papuan penis-gourd!", i.e., a traditional codpiece for a largely unclad New Guinean native.

The cop instantaneously drops the thing like a live grenade, as I see a small note tacked to the inside of the thing: "Marty. Hope the blokes in customs have a sense of humor. Sal."

Crimsonly, I repack the thing as the cop, unable to contain his snickers, waves me through customs and out into the terminal.

Only safely in the limo and headed back home does it dawn on me that I'm going to have to explain all this to the wife...

*30*

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