Saturday, April 23, 2011

Soundtrack, Part 3: Lost in Kota Kinabalu

So send me the URL to this post next time I claim to be an expert navigator.
In my defence, I'm not bad. I can find our way through most city mazes, I can keep maps of building floor plans in my head. I've become the go-to guy in our group of five for weaving our way around subways to our hostels and guest-houses.
So it seemed like a slam-dunk when I loaded the directions to a hostel into my iPod Touch's mapping app when I was in Kota Kinabalu. I had screwed up my reservations, booked for the wrong days, and wanted to go explain my no-show to the hostel we had stood up (it seemed right to do).
The little red and green pegs set, the grey line of the route clearly displayed, and I was ready. The direction finder promised me it was a one-kilometre walk, just 12 minutes.
I plugged in my new headphones, set the music to shuffle, and headed out the door.
KK, on the northeast coast of the island of Borneo, is the capital of the Malaysian province of Sabah. It's a resort town that figures it's more famous than it is; they take reasonable pride in their history and reasonable care for the physical plant of the city. It's clean and neat, a government and tourist town. Large docks move palm oil and fish around the world from here.
The location, just five degrees off the equator on the edge of the South China Sea, translates into hot and muggy April nights. But the full moon was out, fuzzy in the humidity, and the ocean hinted its presence in the night air. A good night for a walk.
I headed east, following from the red pin on the map. The hostel I was seeking was on the same street as the one I was staying at, around a corner. Easy-peasy. The iTunes and my feet on autopilot, away I went.
Jah Wobble is an artist who's name sounds nothing like the music he produces. He came out of the late seventies new wave, but quickly turned into a kind of quirkier Brian Eno. The Celtic Poets is an album of his I only came upon indirectly, but it's grown on me. A combination of poetry done in a gravelly voice, and long etheral instrumentals. Arabian-style drums and horns, slowly progressing melodies. As I walk along the darkening streets towards my destination, the palms casting shadows across my path in the moonlight, it makes a perfect background.
Kota Kinabalu is a working town, a port city. No building is particularly tall, and the architecture alternates from red-brick tourist attractor to metal-clad utilitarian.
Where I'm headed, though, is growing more industrial as the streets darken. I check the map on the iPod, and a song from from Genesis' early days, Supper's Ready, begins to play. I shrug and keep heading east.
Written in the early seventies, Supper's Ready is one of the British prog-rock groups' anthems, a 22-minute work that wanders through medieval imagery, goofiness and love song, repeating a complex musical riff every seven or eight minutes.
But now I'm two-thirds of the way through, getting to the sad part ('I've been so far from here/Far from your loving arms') and I start to realize I've been walking a lot more than 12 minutes. The buildings are decidedly more dock-ish; I have to skirt around tractor trailers dropping off palm oil, and small groups of men sitting around in the sticky night, at work but playing guitars, bored. The silhouettes around the open campfires here and there don't give me comfort.
I check the map again. I have been following the right road, it has been following the shore, but somehow it's petered out, and I'm standing in the dark in a dodgier part of town. I decide to bail, to try again in the morning.
I head back, wrapping up Supper's Ready (it's that long) as I near my hostel. I check my map again. Then I notice a landmark listed near my destination pin, 'Jesselton Hotel'. I look up. There it is across the street; and my hostel is next to me.
I had headed in the completely opposite direction, thinking my starting pin was my destination.
It's not late, so I decide to press on. There's no shortage of pharmacies in KK, and most are open late. I enter a Watson's chain store and grab a cold drink.
Sweet air conditioning. While I'm waiting in line Grande Finale from Alice Cooper's 'School's Out' album comes on. The album has the everyone-knows hit, but a couple of nice offbeat tracks as well. The last cut, on now, is Bob Ezrin way over-producing Cooper, banks of horns filling out a simple rock tune. But it's great summer music, music for hot nights and humidity. I can feel the sweat on my brow evaporating in the clinical pharmacy air. The clerk, a little creeped by my moist look, tries not to touch my hand as he give me change for my Diet Coke.
I head back onto the street, this time turning the right direction. Dave Matthews comes on the iPod, a cut from a summer concert recorded years ago, another great background for my walk in the sauna.
It's just a few blocks, quickly covered. I see my first KK rat darting under a parked car. A couple of young girls, in tight skirts and heavy makeup, lean against a street light. More port life. They look at me without interest as I walk by. They laugh to each other and kill the time until their next date.
I find my destination- easy once you know- and enter.
'You look hot,' the owner says obviously. He hands me a cool bottle of water, and I explain my no-show. I'm still on the hook for the 100 ringit, so he's fine. No offer to waive the tax on my stupidity.
I head back outside, and decide to take a different street, in the right direction, back to my hostel. The iPod pulls out 'Marquee Moon' by Television. The unmistakable guitar lick, the plaintive wail of Tom Verlaine. Long instrumental breaks just call out for hurting youth and long-lost days, of steamy Ottawa July nights and FM radio.
The song lasts right to the door of our hostel. I head up the painted cement stairs to the second floor.
The iPod's map function may have got me lost, but iTunes never does.

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