. With many thanks to Faisal and his scant regard for Newton, I made the boarding call for my flight to Brunei. I worked my way down the aisle towards seat 24B, absorbing the looks from the other passengers which I always get, which imagine would translate to, you’re in for an uncomfortable few hours, or, I hope you’re not sitting next to me with those elbows. I reached the seat, double checked the boarding pass, and glared at the weather-worn little man sitting in it. He glared back with rheumy eyes under bushy white eyebrows, obviously not prepared to yield. Every seat in the area appeared to be taken, in fact, I hadn’t seen a single vacancy since I came through the curtains. Necks craned for the anticipated standoff. I called over a magnificently coiffed stewardess and pointed out the problem. With little other option, I stood in the aisle kinked like a hockey stick, my neck still cricked from Faisal’s erratic cornering, while she tottered off to discuss the issue with her crew. Several minutes later she beckoned me back up the plane, through the curtains and into the only remaining seat – in first class. I could feel the tiny occupant of 24B staring a hole in the middle of the back down the aisle. But sinking into an extremely comfortable chair, getting fussed over by an apologetic stewardess, and with a crisp copy of the local newspaper and a cup of coffee on the way I had already forgotten about the unfortunate lives of those in cattle class. If only it were for a longer flight than 50mins, and one that served food.
For a long while I had been keen to check out Brunei. Being a little pocket of a country carved out of the topside of Borneo, it has all of the natural attractions of this part of SE Asia, but enough oil-derived wealth to make the most of its opportunities. And without being garish or vulgar, the evidence of its money is plain to see. Opulent mosques, private residences with the sweep and dimensions of an airport terminal, quietly growling supercars, and of course, the Sultan’s enormous palaces with their gold plated domes. It is meticulously clean and tidy. The people are carefully dressed, polite and friendly. Even the traffic appeared patient and well behaved. The attraction to me had the chance to gawp at the obvious wealth of the Sultan, have a walk around he viewing areas of his palaces, and perhaps to be one of the lucky visitors to get handshake from the man himself. I had also heard plenty of good things about the street food.
Unfortunately, Ramadan was in full swing at the time of my visit, and Brunei being a country very adherent to the tenets of Islam was more or less closed for business. After the overwhelming population crush of Kuala Lumpur an hour or so before, the emptiness and quiet of the capital city was unnerving. Compounding the sudden sense of isolation, my room was at the end of an extremely long hallway in an immense, high-ceilinged ex-hospital ward. The lonely double bed in the centre surrounded by an unfamiliar amount of open space gave me a pang of agoraphobia. I wandered the halls of the other wings, hoping to bump into a cluster of Chinese on a package tour to stand unnaturally close to. But, save for the occasional gecko or expiring moth, I could find no other signs of life. The empty hallways instead serving up great acoustics to the echo of my footsteps and the growling of my stomach.
The caretaker spent 16 hrs each day sitting in a school chair in the hallway in front of a silent tv playing terrible Malaysian soap operas, an ugly plastic frog with a motion sensor nearby alerting her to the arrival of any company. She told me that I was the only guest today, and actually the first for the week, thanks very much for my business. Furthermore, during Ramadan, visitors aren’t accepted at the Sultan’s palace. And non-Muslems can’t visit the mosques. The swimming pool is closed too – apologies for the inconvenience. And by the way, for the remainder of Ramadan between 4.30am and 6.30pm there is to be no eating, drinking or partaking of any other of life’s pleasant staples. Those caught breaking the rules not only offend their religion, but risk heavy fines from the police – of which there seemed to be quite a presence. So good luck finding something to eat. After my adrenaline fuelled started to the day and a missed lunch, I was ravenous. I wandered the virtually deserted city with an aching pancreas, checking off all of the landmarks that I wasn’t allowed to visit from a polite distance. At the stroke of 6.30pm I lost all self control – galloping into the nearest Indian restaurant, barging past the startled owner still trying to roll up his shutters, and ordered double mains plus roti extra-quick.
The next morning posed more of a problem, and it was obvious from early on that I was in for a very long and hungry day. I tried to distract my rumbling stomach with a visit to the only thing in town that seemed to be open for business and welcoming of infidels – the Royal regalia museum. Essentially a well-polished warehouse of all the gifts and donations of visiting dignitaries and heads of state, all trying to curry favour with a man who has everything, including a pair of Blackhawk helicopters. After two hours, all of the gold-plated chintz was starting to look the same, and I was struggling to ignore the intestines that were wringing themselves like a wet kitchen cloth. Things were getting desperate. I had to find food.
I walked around town until late morning, visiting every food stall, café and restaurant I could find. In those that were open, the vendors were either flat out snoring or they looked at me blankly, shrugged their shoulders and pointed at their watches. After various attempts, I managed to schmooze the young waitress at a café into boot-legging me some takeaway breakfast. Success at last. I wrapped the contraband discreetly in a newspaper bought solely for this purpose and set off at a quick step on the 10 or 15 minute walk back to my accommodation.
I’m not sure which deity this indiscretion offended, but the retribution was swift. Within minutes storm clouds built in an otherwise benign, overcast sky. And then it began to rain. Not like Australian rain, this was rain of biblical proportions. Caught under a small shop awning at a traffic intersection, my hot breakfast thinly veiled by the front page news and within the direct line of sight of a small, manned police post, I chewed at the inside of my cheeks to cope with the salivation. Sheets of water cascaded down, the run off overwhelming the storm water drains, the few cars slowed to a crawl, their motion sending crisp waves of water up onto the footpath. Huddled under my tin-roofed awning the noise was deafening, and the smell of toast and eggs was torture. For twenty minutes that seemed like hours, I stood still on the spot. Not game to ferret around in my food bag for fear of offending law or religion, nor able to move because of the violence of the downpour. Eventually the rain came to an end, the drains caught up with their backlog, and the sparkling clean streets were ready for pedestrians with high soles. I walked like an Olympian in the direction of my hostel, trying to not draw too much attention to my suspiciously bulging newspaper, and taking a wide berth around anyone else on foot that might catch a whiff of its contents. At the hostel, I walked straight into a sign that I hadn’t see on my way out, declaring in loud, bilingual capitals an absolute ban in the rooms of mixed sexes, chewing gum, loud noise, smoking, swearing and food. Any offenses, again, punishable by fines. The caretaker had her bare feet on the table, snoring mouth open at ceiling, the Malaysian soaps actors screaming silently at each other. I crept past, a parody of a giant trying pretending he is mouse-like, almost dropping the bundle when the mechanical frog croaked in the silence. I slipped into my room, locking and chaining the door.
I laid out the contents of the bag on my room’s little table, and sat crossed-legged before it – a contraband banquet for one. Shovelling in handfuls of croissant, toast, scrambled egg and coffee there came a loud knock at the door. I stopped chewing and held my breath, cheeks bulging like a trumpet player, my pulse beating in my ears, hoping that she might decide that I wasn’t home. But, one doesn’t get old by being silly, and the caretaker wasn’t having any of it. She knocked again and called for me to open up. Betrayed by a damn plastic toad. I scanned the room for a hiding place but decided there was no use. The room smelt like a patisserie – there was little point trying to hide the fact that my onions were cooked. I swallowed my mouthful, washed it down with some water, and with shoulders slumped, opened the door. You have small money, sir? She peered past me at the carnage on the table, but instead of gasps of horror, she chuckled slyly and held out her hand, palm up. The accommodation was very cheap so I didn’t mind too much having to pay a bribe to eat a morning meal.
Despite this, and for as nice as it appeared outwardly, Brunei seemed too bound up with rules for my liking. There really was nothing for me to do, and not wanting to stay holed up in my lonely room for the next 24hrs, I decided to make an early exit. The risk of starving before my visa expired was just too high.
Walking to the bus stop the next morning after having waited out yet another vengeful deluge, I stepped over the only item of litter that I had seen since my arrival – a soggy, blue-backed playing card floating face down in a puddle. Given the nature of it, I considered it likely to be an accidental offence. A few steps further on the eight of diamonds flashed by my mind’s eye. Unable to resist the urge, I turned and dodged back between the puddles, flicking the card over with my foot. I smiled down at the eight of diamonds gleaming back up at me through the water. I pocketed the card – doing my bit for a city that takes pride in its appearance, but also as an auspicious token of good things to come.