Beware the Rice Wine – A Night Out in Kuching
Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo
My plan was set to perfection. The following morning I would be departing at 8:00 a.m. for a two night, three day longhouse visit with the Iban tribe. With stops at the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre and Jong’s Crocodile Farm mixed into the five hour drive, in addition to a possible wild boar hunt after arriving at the longhouse, it was going to be a very long day. Much of it was spent bouncing around in a van on the spine-rattling jungle roads of rural Sarawak. The plan was to pack my little day bag with the bare essentials, get a bowl of noodles, shave, take my last shower for three days and then sneak to bed at 10:00 so I would be fresh as a daisy for the orangutans and reptiles. And so began the latest episode of “When Leif’s Good Intentions Get Hosed.”
When I tried to slip out for some noodles, Stewart, my Iban guide and new buddy, and some of his relatives who were doing work on the hostel, were laying in wait by the front door and implored me to join them for a drink. I had barely gotten myself into a chair before there was an open rice wine in front of me. Moments later one of the guys burst through the door with several to-go packages that contained giant seasoned crabs and chicken. They fed me until bursting, with two rice wines to wash it all down. Aside from Stewart and Bidas, the hostel owners, no one spoke much English. Well, they didn’t speak much English while sober. After several beers I was being subjected to a round table interview with newly fluent English aficionados. We covered a barrage of subjects. How I liked Kuching, how I liked Malaysia, how long I would stay, where I would go next and if American girls are easy just like in the movies. I assured them that this was true, though in retrospect I think they were referring to sex. I thought we were talking easy, you know, easy like Sunday morningâ€¦
Just as I was taking concerned note of the advancing hour, suddenly everyone was up. “We are going to make a move” I was told. Move where? “Special club.” We piled into two cars and as we drove I grilled Stewart about this “special club.” He explained that this was a place where only certain, invited people could go. After lengthy interrogation I got Stewart to admit that the club was run by the Sarawak Mafia. Furthermore, it was revealed that Stewart does the occasional odd job for the Mafia, like repossessing cars. I resisted the urge to ask if “repossessing” was mafia code for “stealing.” Road builder, travel guide and alleged repo man. Stewart, it seemed, had layers that outstripped his innocent, Iban, regular guy persona.
The club turned out to simply be a converted apartment with a discrete sign out front saying that it was a private club and anyone who was not invited should piss off. It was just one big room, with a small bar in one corner, some scattered tables and chairs and a sparkling new pool table. Before departing the B & B, we had absorbed another hostel resident into our merry band; a partied out, dreadlocked, overly-tattooed, shoeless Welsh guy named Steve. Steve was a brick layer in the U.K. for half the year and traveler/recreational drug user the rest of the time. Somehow Steve had gotten a few mosquito bites on his feet that he subsequently scratched so ferociously that they were now bloody wounds, hence no shoes. Steve wanted to play pool. I did too, but I was still wrapping my mind around the whole Mafia thing, wondering if maybe I should have changed shirts or shaved or something so as not to offend our hosts. Then I looked at Steve and realized that if anyone was going to have his thumbs chopped off for breaking the dress code, it would be him, so I relaxed.
Actually the club was very unassuming. There were only about 10 guys and one woman, all sitting at the bar and watching English Premiere Football League (soccer). Our mass-arrival doubled the bar’s patrons and tripled the noise. No one looked remotely Mafia-like. Mostly they looked like Stewart; normal blue collar guys. No guys draped in gold and expensive suits, no crazy bruisers with face-scars and eye-patches and no enforcers cleaning their teeth with two foot machetes. Just average guys out for drinks.
The pool table was free and I played several games. The drinks were free, too. Everything was free at this special club. I didn’t have the guts to ask how the hell the club turned a profit. After several drinks and repeated, embarrassingly bad games of pool, we left. I had long forgotten my plans for an early night. In fact, I was swiftly approaching optimum party-mode by this point, so when we drove past Earthquake, a lively, Lonely Planet reviewed nightclub, I impulsively asked to be let out of the car. Steve followed.
I expressed concern about Shoeless Steve’s chances at the door with his Swiss Family Robinson casual wear. Steve wasn’t worried. “When we get to the door, just point up and say something and while everyone is looking up to see what you’re pointing at, we’ll just slide in,” he slurred. It worked. Earthquake was hopping. It was wall-to-wall people and I was surprised to see that Steve and I were the only Pinkies in the joint. I assumed that a prominent listing in Lonely Planet would have drawn at least a smattering of backpackers, but no. Steve’s drunken confidence was beginning to worry me. When I jokingly asked about the local consequences of hitting on a guy’s girlfriend he reported, “Man, we’re Europeans, we can get away with murder!” (Steve had clearly not been paying attention to my American accent, but I let this go). “Wait til you get to Thailand. The girls are aggressive, man! They actually come up and hit on you! Vietnam is even worse. I had guys trying to give me their daughters!” Steve’s attitude had me wondering about our chances of getting back to the hostel with all of our teeth, but he ended up being very well behaved.
We sat and drank, watching the restrained Malaysians get down. Only a few were dancing, with a couple of the more jubilant ones up on the tables. Everyone else was just sitting and ordering whole bottles of liquor for their tables and watching everyone else. By “everyone else,” of course, I mean me and Steve. This went on for some time. It was just like on the river water taxis; every time I busted someone staring, they would fake like they were looking at the ceiling or their nails or something. There was a discouraging guy to girl ratio of about 8:1 and the females in attendance were resolute to not socialize with the Pinkies. Clearly there would be no line-ups to partake in the wonders of my lap until I reached Thailand.
Having long since become accustomed to being the center of attention, Steve was oblivious to our bizarre social situation and kept up his chattering, repeatedly wishing out loud that he had some drugs. After a few cocktails, I too forgot about our audience and instead became inordinately preoccupied by the dispiriting cookie-cutter techno music genre turn the DJ had taken. With a good mind to enlighten these music fatalities to something with a little more substance, I eventually bulldozed through the club, climbed the ladder to the DJ booth and made a few impassioned programming suggestions. These were roundly ignored and after our fourth round of drinks, noting that it was now after 1:30 a.m., Steve and I decided to head for home.
One block later, we passed Discovery CafÃ©, which was quieter, played better music and had more single women sitting patiently, looking around expectantly for some debonair foreigners to chat them up. Or so it appeared from the street. Once in the club, we realized that the single women were actually transvestite prostitutes. One took a liking to Steve right away and I made my escape to accost some Pinkies that I spotted across the room. Much later Steve came lurching up. “Man, I can’t believe you left me with that shemale! I couldn’t bloody get rid of her!” It was now going on 3:00 a.m. and the Discovery CafÃ© was closing. It was pouring rain and Steve decided to make a run for the hostel. Borneo downpours usually only last about 10 minutes and I wanted to wait it out in the interest of not packing away wringing wet clothes into my suitcase for the three days that I’d be at the longhouses. Soon after Steve’s departure, a couple of Malay guys who had been hanging out with us suggested that we go get some food and they would drop me off at the hostel afterward. Normally, I wouldn’t go off in a stranger’s car, drunk as Shoeless Steve, at 3:00AM in a foreign country, but thus far every single person I had met on Borneo had been disarmingly kind, so after briefly sizing up the situation I agreed to go. I got a little nervous as we ended up driving a very long way to get food, but the guys assured me that we were going to the only decent all-night food centre. It turned out fine. We ate wonderful drunken, late-night food; they refused to let me pay for my own. Afterward, they drove me right to my door. I gave them a few American dollars, mumbling something about giving them as gifts to their younger siblings, and staggered upstairs where I crashed around, getting cleaned up and finally into bed at 6:00 a.m.