Blessed to be a witness

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Monday, April 11th

Monitored and rumbled

We got busted. On day three of our illegally using the five-star hotel's facilities, a security guard approached us and asked if we were staying there. We had to come clean, and expected to be thrown out onto the street, as would have been their right, but to our surprise they had a very tactful way of dealing with the situation: the guy just took me to an office and said "this gentleman requires a day pass". 56 ringgit later, and we were legitimately using the pool, and the towels, and the sun loungers, and the fee also included 46 ringgit to spend on overpriced drinks and food.

As we basked, the sight of so many people flying up and down above the beach suspended from a parachute eventually got to me, and I swallowed any misgivings I had, and signed up for a go at parasailing. When I was here before, I watched people floating around above me with a mixture of envy and trepidation, but never did anything about it, so I'm very glad I did it this time: because, what a blast! It was way better than I had imagined. Strapped into the harness, a couple of simple instructions, then as the speedboat accelerated and the lines taughtened, a couple of steps running down the beach and then whoosh, soaring up into the air, feeling like an eagle, but as picture evidence indicates, looking more like a somewhat ungainly pigeon.

The boat slowed a little and bounced my rear end off the waves, then sped up again, and up I rocketed into the blue. I could see above the hotels and the trees, and below I could look down through the water to the bottom, and see the stirred-up sand tracks where jetskis had passed below minutes before. After an all-too-brief period of floating free above the Indian Ocean, the boat came back parallel to the beach, and I pulled the airbrake hard, and was deposited lightly onto my feet on the sand, albeit with the help of a bloke who grabbed my legs and brought me down. To my surprise I had felt no fear whatsoever, though I experienced an amazing burst of adrenaline afterwards, and my hands were shaking for about ten minutes. I'd happily do it again, and highly recommend it to anyone.

As evening fell, we retired to play pool again, and as we set off to have a final drink at a nearby beach bar before bed, another tropical storm hit. It wasn't a "tropical storm" in the meteorological sense of the word, but it was a storm in the tropics, and that'll do for me. And my God, what a storm. I've been through typhoons and monsoons, the most spectacular of which to date I was actually airborne for, which was a trifle worrying, but nothing I have ever seen compared to this. It began with a rumble of thunder in the distance, something we'd been hearing every night, and then the lightning began. Storms in northern Europe tend to have maybe one flash of lightning every few minutes, or every few seconds on rare occasion. I counted, and this storm had an average of about three flashes every second. Each flash illuminated the entire sea, brighter than day, all the way to the horizon. The amount of power required to do this doesn't bear thinking about - I wouldn't want to pay God's electricity bill. And it went on and on and on, the thunder getting more and more percussive every minute.

Then the rain came. We were under a tin roof, and the noise of the water smacking on the corrugated iron got louder and louder and louder, and faster, a 1970s prog rock drum solo played at 78 instead of 33. The water was pouring off the end of the shack in a solid sheet, and beyond it the raindrops were the size of golf balls, and the lightning strobed and the thunder roared. We stared in amazement, and yesterday's feelings about elemental forces were reconfirmed. Eventually the torrents started to subside, and by the time we headed to bed the storm was on its way towards the mainland, leaving behind only warm mist rising from the puddles.

The storm had the effect of lowering the temperature - no bad thing, considering at the time I did my parascending, the guy running the outfit told me that it had topped 38C. This morning was much more bearable, and M and I again went our separate ways - she to perform some more paid-up, legitimate lolling around at the resort, and me off on the bike again, this time to a butterfly farm a few miles away. And indeed it was a farm, full of butterflies. A temperature and moisture-controlled environment, entered through an airlock, the area was full of exotic flowers and thousands of insects of varying beauty feeding from them. Dotted around the enclosure were cages and tanks containing the various worrying animals, arachnids and insects that lurk throughout south-east Asia, including some horrific looking luminescent scorpions that glow in the presence of UV light. Also attached was a small insect museum that answered a question that has been plaguing me for a long time:

Ten years ago, after my last trip to Malaysia, I had been relaxing one evening at a friend's house in Singapore. He had the door open, as there was no air-con in his house, and through the door flew this... thing... this horrible thing, which landed on the wall. I had never seen the like of it before. It was bright green and absolutely vast - perhaps ten centimetres long and five wide. Big, lacy wings to get it off the ground, shiny black, bulbous eyes, and a big fat abdomen, bobbing about elastically on six long, spindly legs. It was truly disgusting, and I'm not usually that repulsed by insects, as long as they don't sting or bite. We gazed at it with a mixture of horror and curiosity for a while, before I got a newspaper and shooed it out.

Anyway, I have on occasion tried to find out what the hell the thing was, looking through various insect books and websites, but to no avail. But serendipitously, there in the insect museum, in a cage, was the object of my decade-old revulsion. It is, apparently, the largest species of grasshopper there is, and is known simply as a Giant Katydid. A prosaic name for a nightmarish creature. (To compound our disgust that time in Singapore, five minutes after removing the insect from my friend's front room, his cat came into the house with the damn thing in its mouth, crunching loudly and nauseatingly through its carapace.)

On the way back from the farm, I passed a small cove, and was absolutely stunned to see a large monitor lizard sauntering up the beach. These things are very impressive in size, in my reckoning this one about a metre and a half from nose to tail, so I hurriedly stopped the moto and grabbed the camera and headed down to the beach. Unfortunately I approached it a little too enthusiastically, and it ran down to the water and swam away (this behaviour informing me, thanks to the book I just finished reading, that it was of the species Varanus salvator, the five-banded swimming monitor lizard), looking for all the world like a miniature Nessie.

Opposite where I'd parked the bike was a sign advertising a spice farm, which piqued my curiosity, since I have been reading a lot about the spice trade, and many friends tell me I have an affinity for spice. So I entered and, having negotiated a herd of fat Germans asking if they could get a lift in a tractor trailor to the top of the hill, there spent a charming hour walking the winding trails up a jungle glade, surrounded by the overwhelming perfumes of the plants, before arriving at the "Spice Café", where I had a cup of spiced coffee, which was new to me, but actually pretty nice.

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