Freaking Out and Taking Names

Kick Ass 1I made a huge mistake last year that lost me some sleep and led to a lot of stress, but ended up being an object lesson in what I talk about at conferences and what I tell my coaching clients every day. The story begins in December of 2013.

The Status Quo

Prior to 12 of 13, I had a real rhythm to my work. I would write content for various clients, enough to make between 4 and 5 thousand a month working between 4 and 5 hours a day. Every week I’d put in bids, queries and applications for other work. As one project wrapped up, another would come in. Some weeks were busy, and some were light, but over the long term I’d spent the past four years averaging a decent living.

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20 Something Betters

IMG_6121Just before moving to Malaysia, we had a going-away shindig at my favorite bar in the whole world. As that closed down, the plan was to meet (many of) my favorite people in the whole world at a friend’s house for drinking, Cards Against Humanity and general carryings on.

Things did not go to plan. My designated driver wanted to grab food before releasing me, and we were joined by a friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years. I showed up three hours late for my own going away party.

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Malaysia: Day Trip to Pulau Besar

IMG_6062Pulau Besar is a large island (name literally translated: “Large Island”) about 30 minutes from Melaka by medium-sized boat. There’s a split boulder and cave on the site that are considered holy by the Indian Muslim community, so it’s a pilgrimage site as well as being a spot with swimmable beaches and a bit more wildlife than you’d see in Melaka.

We got up around 10 to catch the noon water taxi, which showed up at about 12:15. That’s early by Malaysian standards, and the boat was comfortable and well-maintained. Other folks on the boat were exclusively Indian, dressed in pretty formal traditional outfits. One group of at least 20 appeared to be a family carrying picnic supplies ranging from a hot dish wrapped in a scarf to a sleeve of paper cups proudly carried by a toddler.

The boat moored at a jetty and we were instantly offered rides in minivans that had their bench seats ripped out and replaced by wooden benches lining the sides for maximum capacity. Since we could see the beach less than 200 yards away, we opted to hoof it.

Where the jetty hit the land, we came to a t-intersection offering near-identical paths working clockwise and counterclockwise around the island. As is my custom in such situations, I turned left.

Luckily, the rest of the family came with me.

The first quarter mile or so was a nice stroll on a thin spit of sand between the surf and a line of trees. I doffed my shoes and Gabe played in the sand as we meandered clockwise around the island. Bev was the first to notice that the park benches set just beyond the trees were, in fact, the repurposed bench seats from the vans.


A bit later, a family asked to take their picture with Gabriel. That happens a lot over here, as does random touching of my youngest son. In general, travel in Asia with a very pale toddler who waves hello to everybody makes for a better trip. If you have the means, I highly recommend it.

Things changed as we took the first corner (my idea was to find a beach not so close to the boat traffic so we could enjoy a less polluted swim). The beach narrowed and we found a solid line of tents between us and the main road about 10 yards ahead. We shifted to the road and walked a mile or so between tents, open-air food stores, shops selling walking sticks and various holy charms, and a consistent stream of workers at and visitors to the island.

People offered to trade us objects for money, but were universally soft touches about it. This was nothing like China, or how I’ve been told Egypt and India are. People gave me a quick hello, but didn’t push.

As we passed out of the village, we walked through what can only be described as the slum of the little community. Fancy REI-style tents passed to army surplus, then to lean-tos made from blue tarp and rope. Stalls of sale goods gave way to patches where chickens and goats roamed. The people we passed stopped being tourists, and turned into people on their way to work.

When we left the slum, we came to a steep path with a huge white sign with red lettering. We don’t read Bahasa Malay yet, but the fact that one sentence ended with three exclamation points and the other ended with two led us to the hypothesis that we were looking at a safety warning. We turned around to go back, but found a foot path branching off along the coastline we had missed before.

That path took us through a patch of jungle where we chatted briefly with a 3-foot monitor lizard, and then through an abandoned golf course. We kept up my “walk till you find it” policy until we found it.IMG_6086

“It” being a spit of sand surrounded by mangroves for 180 degrees and sitting in a sheltered cove with plenty shade and shallow water. Swimming, sand castling, shell seeking, snacking and general relaxing in a tropical paradise were the order of the afternoon.

Do you have those moments where your entire soul just sighs and relaxes because life is awesome? Lying on my back, floating under blue skies in tropical waters, hearing my boys play in the sand, watching the leaves of the trees do that fireworks thing with their leaves in response to the breeze…it’s moments like that what make life worth all the hassle. Ahhhh.


When it was time to go home, we performed a variety of complicated dances involved in going from “wet on a beach” to “in dry clothes not entirely covered with sand.”  DJ and Bev succeeded. I succeeded. Gabe…abstained. And since I was carrying Gabe, I might as well have failed.

Small price to pay.

On the way back, we snacked from food stalls. The deep-fried bananas were a huge hit I’ll be trying to learn how to make. Watermelon slices covered with spicy salt were not so popular. Seemed to defeat the purpose of watermelon.

While sitting to eat our bananas, we noticed the public restrooms — gravity fed plumbing from plastic rain cisterns at the top. The entry included a little pool to keep the sand situation from getting out of control.


You’ll notice the sign gives three options. Three. And the third is significantly more expensive than the other two. The scholar in me knows I could use Google to just look up what the third option means. The humorist in me just knows the truth can’t be as entertaining as the options I’ve imagined.

Passing back through the village, Gabriel tapped me from his perch on my shoulders and said “Daddy! Go back! I see something I want to try!”

I approve of that message, so we turned around to discover he was interested in some falafel patties, which we got with some deep-fried dough and a side of sweet chili sauce. Gabriel approved.


The walk back to the jetty, ride back to the mainland and drive home went about the way these days go: quick, to the point, that sense of satisfied fatigue creeping over you. Cool shower and hot dinner at home. All in all a great day.

And here’s the thing about that. This was a quick day trip from our house, a little local hideaway. Wherever you live, anywhere, these adventures exist. Sure Pulau Besar is a bit more exotic on account of the tropical location, but there’s plenty of cool field trips at home, too.

So I have to ask.

What are you doing next Saturday?

Malaysia Tales: Legoland and Ingenious Engineering

Legoland 1

Did you know there’s a Legoland in Malaysia? We didn’t before we got here, but it’s hard to escape the knowledge once you get within about 300 miles of the place. There’s ads, and little “free admission if you buy this other thing” deals all over.

Gabe, being a four year old boy, loves Legos at a level most adults simply can’t comprehend. He would be a Lego if he could figure out how. DJ, despite being 14 and exteriorly lukewarm about most things, likes Legos. Also, we had to go to the city Legoland is in to get our visas taken care of. Also….Legos!!!!!

So we got up at O-Dark-Thirty and drove down to Legoland. Theme parks are a lot like cities — they’re themselves first, and the region they sit in second. New York City feels very little like Upstate. Chicago feels nothing like Illinois, and Portland is more different from Sandy than it is from Vancouver, British Columbia. Legoland felt like a theme park first, and part of Malaysia second…until we got to the central exhibit.

The centerpiece of Legolands is a big collection of Lego models of landmarks. At Legoland Malaysia, they’re of landmarks from Kuala Lumpur, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Bali, Indonesia, Brunei. No Statue of Liberty here. It’s the Petronas Towers.

Legoland 2

No Big Ben and Parliament. It’s the KL Airport and Angkor Wat.

Legoland 3

I’ve mentioned before how much I love grocery shopping when I’m abroad because it underscores the adventure by placing something exotic in an everyday context. It fe

Gabriel was so excited he literally ran in circles trying to figure out what to see and do first. DJ was cooler, but kept motioning me over to show me something he found neat. We spent the first hours there before we even got around to the rides (more on that in another post). It was fun because of the whole dad-watching-kids-be-happy thing, and because the park is well-designed with excellent customer service. We ended up buying annual passes.

By 8PM (the very sensible closing time for a park aimed at school-aged children), we headed out tired and generally happy. DJ and Bev went northish to find restrooms while Gabe and I went westish to the parking lot with the plan for us to pick them up at a different exit. Gabe rode on my shoulders and pointed out the characters and sights he recognized from the various promotional posters. I found the car,  put Gabe in his carseat, took off my soaking wet (from rain and rides) shoes, sat in the driver’s seat and turned the key.

Nothing happened. I tried again.

Nothing. Not even the sound of an engine trying to turn over. Not even the clickclickclick of an engine with a mostly dead battery trying to turn over. I noticed then that the dash lights weren’t on, and the radio made no sound. This battery wasn’t mostly dead. It was ready to have its pockets gone through to look for loose change.

Somebody had forgotten to turn the headlights off once the sun rose.

I won’t say who.

Legoland 4

So there I was: wife out of contact waiting elsewhere and I carrying both phones in her purse, MiniMe eldest son (who is good under fire) with her, and an exhausted toddler in my nonfunctioning car.

I say to Gabe. “I need to get some help fixing the car. You watch me while I go make friends.” I locked the door and kept a tight orbit on the car while I tried to communicate the concept of jumper cables to random passersby. Then something strange happened.

A man from (I shit you not) Corvallis, Oregon came up with somewhere between 10 and 200 of his in-laws, who had come to the park as a family gathering. They had heard my plight and had jumper cables at the ready.

But that’s not the strange part.

While I divided my time between talking Oregon with my new good buddy and waving at Gabe (who was busily making friends with everybody from his spot in the back seat), a small horde of men hooked up jumper cables and tried to resurrect my car. To no avail, as the battery was simply too far gone to charge in a reasonable amount of time.

Now…here’s where the strange part happened. My local area saviors then got out a tool box. They…

  1. Removed my battery
  2. Replaced it with my battery
  3. Started my car
  4. Reswapped the batteries with my engine still running

How cool is that? An simple and obvious solution, which never would have occurred to me in a million years. When I told some of my Malaysian friends about it, they all nodded their heads and indicated that’s how it’s done in these parts.

I sometimes complain about this place being a “K-Mart Country.” Everybody’s broke, so everything is low-quality cheap. Shit breaks constantly. This is generally a bad thing, but it does breed resourcefulness. I got out of there without having to call a tow truck, and I got an awesome story out of it.

But then trouble always makes for the best stories. What are some of yours?