Sep 23, 2016
By Michael Fraiman
The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day
It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”
My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.
It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.
After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.
From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.
“You should go,” I told V.
“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.
We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.
The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”
“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.
After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.
“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.
Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.
The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.
“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.
Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.
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About the Author
Michael Fraiman is the online editor of Outpost Magazine, an award-winning Canadian travel publication, and is the author of "A Long Way Back: Stories of Travelling Home."