Misadventures in the States

Prolegomenon

I first took a flight in 1978 and since then, 38 years there on, have logged travels to faraway places in the globe that effectively meant I had circled the earth three times. I have been to famous places like New York, Beijing, Tokyo, Johannesburg, London and Paris, but I have also been to off-the-beaten-track places like Batangas (Philippines), Pontianak (Indonesia), Cape St. Vincent (Portugal) and Exmouth (Australia). Needless to say I have had interesting adventures…and silly misadventures along the way, some of them, I am not afraid to say now, were borderline or plainly illegal (like crossing a country border once surreptitiously) or risky, and some, so gross that they will never see fit for their day of print. Hmm, maybe I will will my estate to release a posthumous memoir.

Here’s a fit-for-print tale:

U.S.A.

18th October, 1988. San Francisco was still enjoying Indian summers but when I touched down, it was a cold midnight. Welcome first time to the good old USA, the famed place I have long seen on TV. I was on the way to the University of Rhode Island (URI) to do a postgraduate degree. Long haul, this: KK, KL, Hong Kong, San Francisco in a stretch, and I was late for my connecting domestic flight to Chicago.

As tired and bleary-eyed as I was, as I approached the immigration counter I could not help but fantasised about what will happen if I blurted out to the first ever U.S. enforcement officer I encountered thus, “Sir, I know where Jimmy Hoffa’s body is buried :-)”

The immigration officer addressed me with even more bleary eyes and looked bored-stiff. You must remember this was 13 years before 9/11—nothing interesting ever happened in U.S. airports.

“What is the purpose of your visit to the States?”
“I am here to tell the FBI that I know where Jimmy Hoffa is buried.”

Got you! I am only joking.

I cleared immigration, got met by a Cathy Pacific representative, and was told that I have to overnight in San Francisco to wait for a replacement flight to Chicago. And so I ended spending the first ever day in the good old USA in a 5-star hotel with free room and free food.

Good omen for things to come?

Weeks later I was nicely ensconced at URI as a postgraduate student. Christmas had come and gone. New year beaconed. New England winter (my first winter; I had found by then that my sinus did not take too kindly to being frozen) had arrived, the snow had fallen. Since then I had befriended a tall black Mauritanian guy who attended one of my classes. He reminded me of the famous French player, Yannick Noah, albeit shorn of the dreadlocks. If you had studied your world history well you would have known that Mauritania was once a French colony. So the guy spoke English with a delectable French accent:

“Rae, man (and that became, to him, my name; it sounded like, “Reyyymaaan”), vhy dontz you stay in Amerika after your studiez?”

One day after class, Mauritania guy pulled me to one side and said, “Reyman, letz go to a partee zunight.”

Party? Ok. My middle name is Party. But I haven’t been to a party in the States…yet. Now I have seen parties in Hollywood films. Nubile and blonde sorority sisters, wet t-shirts, flowing beers, and the works—nothing I can’t handle. Heck, I might even be able to help make those t-shirts wetter with the beers.

We attended the party, and by the first 10 minutes we got antsy. This party was not it: no hot-looking babes, just old college professors and straight-laced postgrads standing around, nursing their wines and beers, and discussing about the U.S. contributions to the International Law of the Sea, and relative merits of current research on continental plate tectonics. No Bon Jovi too, just some unidentifiable concerto written by a long-dead European wafting over the pathetic speakers.

Nope. Mon ami, c’est une fête ennuyeuse. I looked at my friend. He shrugged, “Let’s go to another party. In Providence.”

Wait, did he say Providence? That’s 30 miles away up north, and this was midnight. And that was how I found myself, driving my little Hyundai hatchback at 1 am on a cold winter night on the 7-lane (that’s just one direction) Interstate Route 95 (New York-Boston), buffeted by the slipstreams of overtaking 18-wheelers, and without a U.S. driver’s licence and a beer buzz in my head at that. Definitely would have been an honoured guest at the sheriff’s jail, if caught.

The Mauritanian, all 6 feet 2 inches of him, was splayed like a lazy lounge lizard in the back seat. He sounded like he had a bigger beer buzz than me. From the dark, I heard him slurred, “Reyman, can’t you go any faster? I am hornee!”

Right. No licence, DWI and now, speeding. The sheriff is going to take out the gallows from storage for sure.

Providence, the state capital of Rhode Island: We arrived to an inner city housing project—a black neighbourhood. Must be a bad neighbourhood too—garbage were strewn all over the place. My friend went into one of the houses while I parked at the curb, and waited inside the car. Wispy fog was descending to the deserted streets; the few street lights did nothing to dispel the eerie gloom. It looked like Jack the Ripper’s country. It was now 2 am.

My friend came out alone. In a huff. “My girlfriend do not want to leave her child alone the house,” he said. Fair enough, can’t leave a baby alone, that’s for sure. That’s it then. I spied the girlfriend standing at the door way. She was black too.

“How about you and me double date?” he suggested, “You date the daughter.” That threw me for a loop.

“Huh? How old is the kid?”
“She looked older than 18.”

Now, this was getting interesting.

“Ok,” I said. You know me—I am game for anything. We are here in the States to learn after all. Might even be a pretty daughter. The prominent cheek bones of Robin Givens momentarily flashed before my eyes.

Off he went in again. After a while, I spied two young blacks coming up the street. The shorter guy had something in his hands. It didn’t look like a gun. I looked the other way; I didn’t want to catch their attention. No dice—they approached purposely, walking that jive-walk swagger, as only Hollywood can depict. The shorter guy approached my window while the taller one stood back. He signaled for me to wind down the window. I wound it down; I did not want to show fear by hiding behind a thin barrier of glass. He had a car stereo in his hands—a ripped-off stereo, by the look of it.

“Hey man, you wanna buy a stereo?”
“No.” I waved him off.
“A stereo, man.”

The man was bobbing up and down—fidgety. I hoped he was just cold or jiving to some rap music playing inside his head, and not drugs. I held his gaze. Somewhere I have learned from National Geographic that top predators are wary if their intended prey shows strength. This was going to be a test of wills. I have faced enraged bull buffaloes in my youth but this time I was half way around world, away from home ground.

The short black ratcheted up his offer by thrusting the thing inside the cabin. The taller companion edged closer.

“It’s a good stereo, man. Look.”

In other circumstances I would have laughed. Obviously they had just stolen the shit. Multi-coloured wires were still jutting out from the stereo and these were flaring at me like so many mini hydras, bare inches from my nose. My next response had to crucial: take the fellow predator road, or be a meek prey and hopefully be let off. Remember, this was 3 am at night—probably only Jack the Ripper dared cruising the streets—in a bad neighbourhood. There was no one else on the street.

Then tall and strong-looking Mr. Libidious came out of the house and saved me! He exited the gate with a glum face. The two blacks must have picked on the bad vibes off him so they slowly slunk away.

“What did the two guys want?”
“Aaaah, they were just being social. So, what is the arrangement now?”
“The daughter don’t want to go out.”

It was a long drive back to URI in the cold. From the dark recess of the back seat, the unfulfilled lounge lizard was muttering repeatedly, “Reyman, I am hornee. Hornee…” Ah, sudahlah kau. Don’t look at me; the daughter did not even see me.

I never did get the chance to date a black girl again. Pity.

Epilogue

October, 2007. One day my Assistant Director, the late Rooney Biusing (God bless him), sauntered into my office with a knowing smile.

“Have you ever eaten a Llama?” he asked.
“No.”
“We are going to Chile at end of the month”
“Huyah.”

But, that’s another story to tell, this time about Puerto Varas, Chile :-).

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To Be Magnanimous

This was Christmas Eve.

The waitress delivered the food. The waitress was just a kid, maybe just finished Form Five. She looked like she’s from the Interior, here in KK to earn some money, probably minimum wage at that. The customer—my dinner companion—immediately got upset. Wrong food or wrong-filled order: the pasta was not as-asked. With disdain dripping as thick as goo, the customer let the waitress have it: “How much training have you had? How long have your worked here? Do you know how to take an order?”

Seemed like a kitchen mistake to me.

The food was returned…and came back wrong again: not the right salad oil. The anger intensified; the pontification prolonged; the rants tempias over to me: “I am not afraid of anyone”. Righteous dissatisfied customer started wagging a finger at the general direction of the kitchen chopping section. The kid stood and hovered at our table, quietly taking the barbs.

The food was returned a third time. I dreaded what was coming back from the kitchen. I looked at my plate. I have lost my appetite. I debated whether to eat my food. I have heard of stories of kitchen staff dicking with asshole customers’ orders. They gained their secret revenge by spitting on the food. Once, one guy told me he scooped drain water from outside the kitchen to “sauce” one cantankerous customer’s food.

One time or another, we are all guilty of squeezing the maximum self-righteous juice when we know we are absolutely right, and someone conversely is wrong. Most times, things are shades of grey…debatable and uncertain, but when we know we are right, there is the temptation to be self-righteous and feel entitled. And so, we feel we are in every sense justified to knock the wrong to a thousand pieces. To, in a manner of speaking, cut them to size. To be like God for once: infallible, and so what the heck, let me ride this wrath to the maximum. Perhaps, unconsciously hoarding the wins, for the opportunity may not come again.

We finished the dinner. I paid the bill. (Did I say I actually paid the bill?) We walked out of the door and so did the darkness. The customer was still hitting the upset thread mill on maximum gear: “You know, I am not afraid of anyone; I will tell them my piece of mind anytime.” Right.

Oh, to be self-righteous and angry, or to be magnanimous and happy? To forgive and look forward, for tomorrow is Christmas. Hark now, hear, the angels are not singing right now.

Merry Christmas 😞

New Hope for Thalassemia Sufferers

The blood disorder, Thalassemia is very prevalent among the Kadazandusuns.

Last month I donated blood in support of a 30+ year old thalassemic girl who lives just 3 houses next to mine. She has had blood transfusions since small but since she had bone marrow transplant she had the joy of enjoying her thirties age. Hopefully she will enjoy many more, especially at this time when the promise of new technologies offers brighter hopes for a better cure.

In a 2008 study headed by a researcher from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya, from 125 blood samples obtained from unrelated Kadazandusuns, α- and β-thalassemia were confirmed at 33.6% and 12.8%. In another study it was found that from all the ethnic groups studied in Sabah, Kadazandusuns showed the highest prevalence for this disease.

Thalassemia is an inherited blood disorder in which the body makes an abnormal form of hemoglobin, the protein molecule found in red blood cells. The disorder results in excessive destruction of red blood cells, which leads to anemia. It is caused by either a genetic mutation or a deletion of certain key gene fragments. There are two main forms of thalassemia which are serious: In alpha thalassemia, at least one of the alpha globin genes has a mutation or abnormality, and in beta thalassemia, the beta globin genes are affected.

People with thalassemia can get sick from an overload of iron in their bodies, either from the disease itself or from frequent blood transfusions. Young children, even with blood transfusions, are not expected to reach beyond their teen years because of this disease. Bone marrow transplantation—or in more detail, the blood-making stem cells (hematopoietic stem cells) found in bone marrow, but more of this later)?—may offer the only possibility (so far) of a cure in young people who have an HLA-matched donor. Success rates have been in the 80–90% range.

If you recalled, the root cause of thalassemia is the inability of the body to make either one of two proteins that makes haemoglobin, and that deficiency arose because the sufferer’s crucial deletion or mutation in his/her genome (genes that codes for the making of the protein(s). But, what if somehow those missing/bad genes can be corrected? What if it is possible, much like a software programmer can edit his code, to shift though the 3 billion plus of DNA code pairs in the human genome, zero in on the flawed part, delete it, and replace with the right and healthy one?

Enter CRISPR (Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) technology, a new method of targeted gene modification discovered not more than 5 years ago. More specifically known as CRISPR/Cas9, this technology makes it possible to do genome editing – the precise and targeted modification of the genetic material of cells. Genome editing works by using an enzyme to make a cut at a particular sequence in the genome, followed by the deletion, repair or insertion of genetic material at the cut site.

Can CRISPR genome editing pave the way for a better and safer cure for thalassemia? Sci-fi wishful thinking? Think again.

Today (2nd August in the U.S.), it was reported in the Washington Post that scientists have successfully undertaken gene editing in the first human embryo CRISPR experiment in U.S. to corrects gene for an inherited heart disease, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This method of genome editing and repair has already been found to work in a mouse with the β-thalassemia defective gene, with “sustained elevation of blood haemoglobin levels into the normal range, reduced reticulocytosis, [and] reversal of splenomegaly “. In 2015 a team of Chinese scientists, using the same technology, reported that their success rate was one in four for β-thalassemia genetically abnormal human embryos although they did raised their concerns about off-target effects. Just last march, Intellia Therapuetics, a company dedicated to developing potentially curative genome editing treatments, together with healthcare global giant, Novartis, have announced that their hematopoietic stem cell transplant (read “thalassemia” here) program is planned to undertake the first human clinical study next year. A different company, CRISPR Therapeutic is also targeting human clinical trials for β-thalassemia treatments with about the same timeline.

Here’s praying for my neighbour. And for my cousin-in-law, who is a carrier of the thalassemia gene.

No New Shoes or No Legs

We rant. We moan. We bellyache.

Usually about inconsequential things: The 36-Channel Astro with nothing good to see; the clowns at Puzzle Palaces; the minimum-wage waitress who delivered the wrong food; the pesky mosquitoes; the frying pan that got scratched; the weather; the ugly driver who cut you off from the wrong side…the list goes own. Most of the time we complain at things we do not have control of, and we whine because whining is about whining, and anyway, it is of no consequence.

We cry because we have no new shoes…until we meet a person with no legs. Let me tell you about some people I know with “no legs”.

Just yesterday I went to a funeral of a girl whose mum and dad I knew well since young. The girl was born healthy, developed a fever (and meningitis probably) within a few days and her health deteriorated. Her doctors could not bring her health back and she became a severely handicapped baby. She died 34 years later four days ago. I can’t imagine the sadness and anguish, and the supreme efforts of both parents in taking in care of their child—bed ridden, unable to feed herself, and mentally handicapped—for 34 years.

Just 2 days ago, an old friend was traveling from Semporna to Lahad Datu as a front seat passenger when they had an accident. In an instant their Hilux Vigo lost the road, flipped and went wheels up among some oil palms. Thankfully he and the driver were not hurt—just some dented emotions. The Vigo was another story all together.

Life can cut off the legs from under you in the heartbeat moment that a moth flutters its wings.

Last week I went to visit another old friend at KPG Medical Center. He was admitted because of heart problems. Later I found from the daughter that his heart had already been zapped 3 times as the doctors tried to tame his really bad tachycardia. He was literally a heartbeat away from death.

As I finished my greetings, he looked up at me with regretful eyes and said, “I know. You had told me many times.” Indeed I did. He was referring to the numerous times I pestered him to try drag him to see my doctor about his hypertension.

There is no satisfaction in being right. Who wants to be right in a situation like this? I don’t even know I am right; maybe it is all one big nebulous genetic sweepstake. Some have teflon-coated arteries; some don’t. I am happy to know that after going to IJN, he had a defibrillator installed, and stents done, and he is on the road to recovery.

They say, to a bacteria a pin’s head is an Everest to climb. Perhaps rather than whining that the mountain should be lower, we should grow taller instead. I know I would like to. Maybe we should look more inwards, look for a place we find some solace, and apply a speed throttle to that dissatisfaction engine. If every thing fails, let us heed baseball great, Yogi Bera’s entreaty to “take it with a grin of salt.”

God bless.

Book: Anatomy of Terror by Ali Soufan

In my comments about Joby Warrick’s book, Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, a 2016 Pulitzer winner for general non-fiction, I said this:

Good but incomplete/one-sided. This is told mostly from the perspective of those (mostly Western powers, and at that, mostly American) who oppose and fought (and still fighting) Zarqawi and later ISIS. If you want to talk about the rise of ISIS at least you attempt to explain or go into the antecedents and causes why, and motivations of thousands of men (and women) from all over the world (including from Malaysia) who went (and is still going) to Syria and Iraq to take up the cause and put themselves in harm’s and death’s way.

In “Anatomy of Terror,” author and former F.B.I. special agent Ali Soufan wrote this in his introduction:

“The key to a more constructive use of our imaginations is empathy – not in the colloquial sense of sharing another person’s perspective, but in the clinical sense of being able to see the world through another person’s eyes. Sadly, after fifteen years of the war on terrorism, we still do not really know our enemy in this deeper sense. In this book, by delving into the personalities of men who mean us harm, I aim not to create sympathy for them – far from it – but to help point the way to a deeper understanding of their worldview, their motivations, and how best to combat the destructive ideology they represent.”

To a certain extent Soufan has achieved his goal. Disappointingly though he has written only a short last chapter on the “how best to combat the destructive ideology they represent.” Even this is skewed towards a Western perspective. It is noteworthy to point out that thousands and thousands more Muslims (compared to Western victims) have died and suffered at and through the hands of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and their many offshoots in Muslim countries like Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan where they command actual real estate to operate and proliferate.

On this, I think Donald Trump, during his recent speech in Riyadh, touched on a very pertinent and important point when he said:

“It is a choice between two futures. And it is a choice America can not make for you. A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and drive out the extremists…Drive them out. Drive them out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your holy lands. Drive them out of this earth.”

The Opposition’s Fight Club

If you recall the 1999 movie, The Fight Club—a cult Hollywood offering starring Brad Pitt and Ed Norton—the first rule was, “Don’t talk about the Fight Club.” The second rule was, “Don’t talk about the Fight Club.” Sad to say but Sabah’s opposition are (again) running their antithetical version of this movie. Constantly and incessantly they are lobbing strident vocal grenades at…wait for it, each other. Griping, ranting, sniping, jockeying and accusing each other of being not worthy of the rakyat’s support. Makes you wonder why they are so excited about the coming PRU, and who they actually want to unseat. Hey! look over there, the unblinking lizards of the Incumbents.

And how they extolled themselves: how good they are, and how clever they are that they can decide for us, little people. There is a recent article in this news site where a party member was waxing lyrical about the prime credentials and high schooling of his three deputy party presidents. He disparaged the people who had the temerity to not support them and question their “intellectual integrity”, calling them the failures, the poor and the uneducated—the “nincompoops”. This is exactly the kind of discombobulated and tone-deaf, and elitist thinking that got us into this present deep morass. This is exactly the “We-are-so-intellectually-superior-so-we-know-what’s-good-for-you” attitude that voters hate. Well may he heed the words of a late eminent politician who said, “Everyone…is three individuals. What you think you are. What you are. And what others think you are.”

If there is one thing that we can learn from Donald Trump’s seemingly implausible ascendancy to the U.S. presidency, it is this: He knew how to talk about the people’s actual concerns. He talked for Middle America—”the forgotten men and women”—about economic atrophy, loss of jobs, security and illegal immigration, terrorism, and law and order. He railed against the influence-peddling moneyed lot, the entrenched but out-of-touch politicians, and about the self-serving and corruption of the ruling elites in the swamps of Washington DC.

Well, we are the many forgotten lot of Sabah. Too many, I regret to say. We do not want to be talked down to; we want our leaders instead, to talk (and act) for us. Instead of hearing about the uncomely warts and pimples of your fellow (but different party) opposition wannabes, we want to hear how you are going to intelligently allocate and maximise the impact of the annual RM4 billion or so state budget. How you are going to help our unemployed youngsters, many with degrees but who are jobless, work at McDonald or daily-paid. How government can help working mums and dads. How to keep us Malaysians safe from the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants in Sabah. How to improve KK City Hall and the town and districts councils which are frankly short-budgeted every year. How to leverage the resources of Sabah for the benefit of the majority of the Rakyat, and not for a few individuals or large corporations only. How to positively engage the Federal Government (Yes, in a federation, Putrajaya is not going to close shop anytime soon) for the betterment of Sabah in a healthy, mutually beneficial state-federal relationship. How to arc a 20-year trajectory of our state’s development to make everyone prosper and benefit. I know that is a lot to ask, but I rather hear about these than the endless internecine sniping.

Show us a path.

Someone said that during election time, the most dangerous place is between a politician and a microphone. Personally I would not hold it against a politician if he/she wants to grab that mic, but really, talk for us—for our rights, our future, and our prosperity.

Cats!

cats

Reading this. Too long-winded, I say. You know why we like cats (and dogs)? They are the most expressive when carefree, happy and playful. It reminds us—no, it forces us—to think that in life, basically that is just all what matters. No?

Come on, I dare you. There was a time when you did not have: screaming credit cards to pay, cranky spouse, mortgages, bosses-from-hell, kids-to-wake-up-early-to-send-to-school, bills to pay! leaky roofs, and tomorrow horrendous jams to negotiate to work…yeah, that cute kitten happily sleeping near the sofa doesn’t have to put with all that shit 🙂