My Summer Vacation, Part III: Flying High With Ms. Biscuit

Manila. We were just cleaning up after one mess, when another fell from the sky. Unless you’ve been vacationing in your fortress of solitude for the past month, you’ve probably heard every bit of news about the Malaysian Airlines flight shot down over Ukraine, so I won’t go into it much, except to say that boarding our own flight, prefixed with “MH,” there was a definite chill in the air aside from the blast freezer that is Filipino air conditioning. It was quite apparent that everyone was doing everything they could to think about anything but high-altitude death.

Everyone, that is, except for one woman.

Let me digress for one moment here. Air travel, in general, sucks. Before being allowed anywhere near the aircraft, there are queues, scans, queues, more scans, queues, questions, queues, and, if you happen to be flying in the US, the surrender of dignity and the very real possibility of nudity. And of course, there are more queues.

But once you’re up in the air, flying doesn’t need to be a horrible experience. It’s not the subway, where the accepted method of communicating with your neighbor is keeping your mouth shut and your eyes on the floor or some other inanimate object. In fact, airplanes are one of the few vehicles in which turning to your neighbor and attempting conversation is still almost universally considered not weird.


It was about 20 or 30 minutes into our flight, right around the time when those who were going to try and catch a nap on the four-hour flight were getting comfortable. A loud voice popped my comfortable bubble of pleasure, just as I was settling into a book. It wasn’t the tone that screams danger–just the kind that indicates that the four hours are about to feel like six.

“Rosemary! Rosemary! You have to try these biscuits! My children love them!” the woman crowed from the row behind us.

And so it began. Demands for biscuits and drinks came first, quickly followed by an analysis of the crash of MH17, particularly the fact that many, many AIDS researchers had been on board. If there is one thing that nervous passengers trapped in a flying metal cylinder six miles up do not want to hear, it is an analysis of a recently doomed flight from the same airline. People were turning around, giving her the evil eye, but some part of her brain interpreted “potential angry mob” as “rapt audience.” And in a sense, we were. She was so loud that almost everyone within three rows had their airline-issued headphones on. And even then, we were captive witnesses to her life story, as told to Rosemary from one middle seat, across the aisle, to another middle seat.

She has three kids: two daughters and a son. One daughter is 27 not married, and worked for Microsoft in Singapore, but moved back to the Philippines. Her mother, of course, wants her to get married, but she (or her mother) is having trouble finding someone at her level.

And then, before launching into the story of her own life, she wanted more biscuits.

She got married at 21 in London. “I was born Hindu, but in 2008, God touched me, and I was born again.” I got that part through a loud fight scene in the movie Ip Man, which I’d thrown on because reading was a fool’s errand. The guy next to me turned to me and we shared a moment. No words were spoken, but we both knew what we wanted to ask: “Now show us on this doll: where did God touch you?”

The story of her religious revelation and conversion to Christianity (a marvelous topic on which to crow loudly while on a plane returning to a Muslim country, by the way) continued unabated for as long as the biscuits lasted. Mercifully, they ran out quickly, and she flagged the cabin crew down for another hit.

“We’re sorry, but we have no more biscuits.” No more?! No more. Just three. No more. Okay, just one, then. “Ma’am, we have run out of bisuits?” But couldn’t they go back and check, pretty please. No. Why? There are none left. It took a delegation of cabin crew to confirm that there were, indeed, no more god damned biscuits, so please shut up about them already. Rebuffed, Ms. Biscuit turned to the topic of bodily functions.

Rosemary has knee problems, and so did Ms. Biscuit, until she started taking something called MSN. I may have changed my mind about her if I thought she had been injecting the Internet into her knees. But nope. No NSA geeks tapping her lower extremities. Oh well.

As we descended into Kuala Lumpur, Ms. Biscuit asked Rosemary to look her up in Indonesia because clearly they had a spiritual connection. As did we all–at least with each other. The level of hostility toward this woman was incredibly tempered, considering how long she had held us all captive. On a flight back from Laos, friends of ours (not terribly inclined toward hyperbole) were witness not to Jesus, but to an epic fight between a German woman and a Malay man after the woman politely asked a group of first-time flyers to please stop praying so loud because it was freaking people out. The man took offense and launched into the woman with a tsunami of invective. The crew apparently tried to calm the man down, but he threatened to kick everyone’s asses, and shook his fist in righteous anger. The woman cowered and broke down sobbing, and the two were separated, the woman moved to the front and the man to the back.

The point is that it could have been a whole lot worse. The B story of this is that on almost any flight in the US, this woman would have been asked to not shout across the aisle, and if she didn’t stop, would probably have been gagged and bound in a very not-sexy way. So maybe we need more doms working for the airlines. No whips, just good knot work.


Monkey Search: Concluded

My parents have come into town to see where I live and to visit in general, and today, we went out to the Batu Caves. The last time I went, I was not able to get inside because of the massive, cutlery-bedazzled crowd, but this morning, we went super early and arrived before most of the other tourists, so we had a more-or-less peaceful outing, and had the run of the place.

Batu Caves is still an active Hindu temple, so while services were ongoing, I tried to remain as unobtrusive as a tall, camera-wielding white guy can be. But there was work to be done. Monkeys had so far eluded me, save a brief glance during a jungle hike, so I was on a mission to document the local monkey population. Turns out, they can get a bit aggressive. We already knew this going in, but it was still kind of surprising to see how fast they descended on the temple once people began to arrive in quantity. The general guideline is that they will steal or attempt to steal anything not strapped to your body, so food and cameras should be secured. Because they are a menace (or at least can be), some of the locals took to throwing rocks at the monkeys climbing down the cave walls. I interpret it as a show of dominance, since none of the rocks seemed to be aimed to maim, and because the rock throwing petered out once the monkeys outnumbered the humans.

The arrival of the monkeys also brought out bunches of bananas and coconut husks, which the occasional service-goer would hand out to the small, agile creatures. Monkeys love bananas. No joke.

Also milling around the caves was a litter of small puppies, wrestling each other and greeting guests as they arrived. They approached us fearlessly and immediately began tugging on our shoelaces. I must have walked a good twenty paces, tiny, excited puppies hanging off my shoes. It was adorable, but we couldn’t help but feel a little heartbroken, knowing that they are unlikely to find a loving home. I worry more about a monkey getting ahold of one, but more than anything, I try not to think about it.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t post some of the pictures I took. Yes, most of the pictures are of or contain monkeys, but I’ve included the puppy pictures, too.

Batu Caves 1

At the top of the long stairs.


Batu Caves Interior 1

Just past the main temple. More stairs.

Cave Monkey

Monkey #1

Pondering Monkey

Monkey #2

Batu Caves Interior 2

An alternate entrance, if you have wings.

Cave Puppies


Batu Caves Exterior

On the edge of the cave exterior. I’m still trying to figure out how they got out there with the statues.

Roof Monkey

Not Monkey #2, but the next decent-quality picture I got.

Fence Monkeys

Just a couple of monkeys hanging out on the fence.

Monkey Thinking

Deep thoughts on a Friday morning.

For Day 19

Sic Semper Adverbs

Day eight

The moving walkways thrum and squeak with mechanical rhythm, carrying the occasional passengers up and down the terminal. Distant sounds ricochet off the high ceilings at crazy angles, and every once in a while I look up. No one is near, however; the curves and recesses have misdirected the sound, and have confused my ears. A teenager bounds down the terminal with big, loping strides, the soles of his tennis shoes slapping against the polished tile in the rhythm of a waltz. The glass and metal divide and scatter the waltz until it becomes experimental jazz. Every ten minutes, a group of travelers bustles past me toward baggage claim and immigration. Announcements in three different languages ring out, all preceded by a tone in C major.

The middle aged Chinese couple next to me, legs crossed toward each other, mumble in hushed tones. A few people sit for a brief time, and then drag themselves to the toilets, smoking area, or shops. No one stops at the duty-free store. This is not the time of day to buy liquor in an airport. Some dazed passengers’ eyes wander around the terminal and take in their new surroundings. Others focus on a phone or some other communications tool.

I can differentiate between old suitcases an new ones by the way their wheels handle the trip down the terminal. The ball bearings in old suitcases rattle and grind, whereas those in new ones hiss and click in well-oiled precision. My eyes concentrate on the page as I type, but I can tell which people are flight crew and which are passengers by listening to the mileage of their luggage.

A C major pings over the PA, and my boarding announcement echoes through the terminal. I grab my gear and haul myself up. See you on the other side.

X-Men: The Easy Way (Spoilers)

For those of you who have not had a Gold Class movie-going experience, I suggest you stay away. It will ruin all other movie theaters for you forever. But as far as I can tell, these cinemas don’t exist in the US–or at least not in significant numbers–so, for now, the average American is safe.

What is Gold Class? About four or five rows of eight fully reclinable La-Z-Boys in a theater with a standard size movie screen and servers that will deliver a menu’s worth of food, including beer, to your table. And this is for just around the same price ($18-20) of a 3D movie in the States. It’s also important to note that in normal theaters in this part of the world, talking on cell phones, chatting, clipping nails, and all the kinds of annoying behavior that get you kicked out of a theater in the US are fairly normal. So, really, it’s a necessity.

Isn’t this all a little too good to be true? Well … yes and no. It is because movies here are censored. I could probably get deep and dark about the hypocrisy and social dysfunction marked by the censorship of language and romance (yeah, even just a kiss), but not of brutality and violence, but I won’t because it’d just be pissing into the wind. There is something off-putting, though, about going to a luxury theater and experiencing weird jump cuts where characters mildly cursed (X-Men: Days of Future Past is still PG-13) or kissed. On the other hand, you’re drinking a beer in an electrically reclining La-Z-Boy and watching a movie on the big screen. Maybe it’s akin to being paid to look the other way, and show a lazy hypocrisy of my own, but I’ll take that bribe.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

From reading past posts, you may have gathered that my honeymoon period with comic book and superhero movies is pretty much over. There’s something that feels dishonest about the whole enterprise. The movies are very pretty, but they’re not particularly challenging, emotionally or intellectually. They’re cash cows, though, so they’ll keep rolling out.

That said, I actually liked X-Men: DOFP, even if I do have a list of critiques. I always like seeing the Sirs, but felt like Stewart and McKellen, and by extension their characters, were in the movie more as props and canon verification than as anything else. As he was in X-Men: First Class, Michael Fassbender is great as a young Magneto–troubled and apocalyptically sad, but still molded in steel. Likewise, James McAvoy, playing a scared and neurotic Professor X was fun to watch.

The biggest success, though, was Jennifer Lawrence ‘s Raven/Mystique character actually being a character with stuff to do and, well, character, instead of set decoration, as she seemed to be in the last installment. It was nice to see that character as something more than just a duplicitous back-stab machine (as demonstrated in the first three movies in the franchise) with no real motivation other than stock bad-guy programming.

Visually, the film is very nicely done. The fight scenes are well choreographed and the color themes in each timeline are put together well. I really liked the look and feel of the sentinels versus the cartoon version–having them smaller and more agile made the sense of physical danger to the characters more real than if they’d gone with the Iron Giant style. A personal favorite moment was the Fun With Portals scene.

Quicksilver, played by Evan Peters (American Horror Story, Kick Ass) was really fun addition. Watching him run around and cause his opponents worlds of trouble was both hilarious and visually interesting. But his presence and subsequent disappearance begged some serious questions, like “why isn’t he on the mission to stop Mystique from shooting Peter Dinklage in the face?” He could have had both those people, and Magneto too, bound to chairs for a cozy little chat before either could bat an eyelash. He could have won this movie blindfolded. It seems as if he kept to the sidelines only out of reverence for plot convenience.

Speaking of which, while I like Fassbender as Magneto, his character in this movie swung a little to far toward Evil Laugh or For the Evulz. We get that he’s a messed up dude because of what happened to him as a kid, but in this movie, he is given a way to fix the entire world without having to spill a drop of blood, and he still goes all murder happy. There’s no real explanation for why he goes nutty, other than valar morghulis, which makes it look like he became a villain again because the movie needed a supervillain. Having Wolverine–or any of the high-powered mutants, for that matter–kick the tar out of an unarmed, unarmored Peter Dinklage (Edit: apparently I got lazy and assumed that Game of Thrones actor = British; Dinklage is from New Jersey, and I’m an asshole; thanks for setting me straight, Art) would be a little tasteless.

The above is my biggest gripe about the movie on a technical level. But there is another inescapable problem, which is the lack of danger. Because these movies and comics are franchised into the next millennium, we know that none of the main characters are in any real danger. As the sentinels are tearing the walls down around Professor X and company, we already know that there’s another film in the series on its way, and that everyone is obviously safe for the next go-round. And Marvel would never let their most iconic figures die–not without the promise of resurrecting/ret-conning/cloning them.

Superhero movies habitually make the mistake of pointing the primary danger toward their heroes rather than toward something that’s actually vulnerable and can be written out of the universe. For all its faults, Thor: The Dark World pointed the primary threat at Earth. The Avengers did the same thing, with New York as the focal point. Obviously, you can’t erase Earth or even New York from the Marvel Universe, but at least they’re vulnerable. Iron Man’s fame, not his armor, keeps him alive. The day that he, Thor, the Hulk, or Captain America become, to quote Falling Down, “not economically viable,” is the day they’ll die for real.

And then if their deaths draw enough attention, the mystical power of money will revive them.

Pray for Rain

In case I’ve failed to mention it, we seem to have two seasons here in Malaysia: Raining and Not Raining (it’s still supposed to rain, just not as heavily). A few weeks ago, we rotated into Raining, which means that most afternoons, we get a torrent of rain that lasts a couple hours and flushes toads from their hidey holes only to be run over in the streets.

It’s a good thing, though. We’re coming out of one of the driest Not Rainings in recent memory, and were under water rationing for about two months. If you’ve never experienced water rationing, it’s supposed to work a little like this: cities/townships/whatever are set to be cut off of water for about 56 hours, and then have water returned to them for 48 hours, all on a rotating basis so that when one city gets switched off, another gets their water back. It’s a pretty good plan, in theory, but the reality is a bit more complicated.

Two days worth of bathing water can easily fit in a standard, hip-height garbage can (something around 40 gallons). It means using a scoop and pouring cold water over oneself, which can be bracing in the morning, but is little more than an inconvenience. Apparently, some people are better with the scoop than others, and don’t “soak the entire bathroom,” but again, a minor inconvenience.

The real problem is drinking water. If you have enough pitchers, used wine bottles (as we were blessed with), and other vessels, two days can be pushing the limit. At the beginnings of the 56 hours off, we would always have one large pitcher, one large glass bottle, one wine bottle, and one large soda bottle full. By the time the water would come back on, we would be done with the bottles and down to the dregs of the dregs of the pitcher. And that was just two of us, lucky enough to have an apartment building with a water tank for situations just like this. For the kinds of families that live around us–typically four or more, not counting nannies and live-in maids–that kind of water storage would be untenable. As a result, large water storage tanks began popping up in the yards of the houses around us.

Unfortunately, a lot of the new wealth in this part of the world does not seem to be accompanied by a sense of social responsibility. If you have three Benzes, of course you have to wash them every single day. And you’d better make sure to hose down that driveway, too! No telling what kind of unsightly dust it has picked up being outside. And even once Raining has begun again, you need to be sure to water your plants thoroughly. If these were every-once-in-a-while sightings, I probably wouldn’t mention them.

Depending on where you look, water usage per person in Malaysia is somewhere between 250-350 liters per day. That’s about four to five times that of Vietnam. The USGS notes that the average American uses 80-100 gallons (about 302-378 liters) per day. Honestly, it sounds like they’re low-balling that figure, but even if you go with a more realistic-sounding estimate of 500+ liters, that’s only double the usage of this much smaller country.

It makes sense, though. A country still in the throes of industrialization, with new wealth and conveniences at their fingertips, is probably not going to have the same sense of ecological responsibility as that of a country that’s had the better part of a century to develop one. I’m not saying this from a position of superiority. The US still needs to talk sense into its Flat Earthers and climate change deniers. In a way, actually, Malaysia’s in a perfect position to help lead a push for environmental reform. Once Malaysia emerges from its developing state, it will finally be faced with the grim realities it has so far ignored in its orgy of industrial growth, and that is where the real positive change will happen.

Hopefully it won’t be too late.


Yesterday, I went on a little trip to the Thaipusam festival at the Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur. Below are pictures, followed by a short announcement regarding the future of High-Definition Fantasy.







After this post, I am changing the visual theme for High-Definition Fantasy. This is in part because, at least on my browser, the words are too large and there are some formatting issues (spacing, mostly) that I can fix using a different theme. I’ve waffled on the issue for a while, but think that it’ll be a good change. If, however, the blog becomes unreadable on your mobile devices, or whatever, just let me know, and I’ll consider changing it back.

Tomorrow, you will see a post that I’ve been working on for a week and change. It’s a departure from my normal voice, and is on the long side.

Just the Tip

As I mentioned early on in this blog, I work customer service for a company in the States. All day long, I watch pizza delivery orders pass through our website, and occasionally, a restaurant will call in to add a tip to an order if the customer waited until the food was delivered, or simply forgot to add one. Typically, anything under $10 gets a $1 tip; $10-$13 gets a $2 tip; $13-$17 gets $3; $18-$24 gets $4, and so on. Generally, Americans are pretty good about giving 15-20%. Some people tip less, some more, depending on service, existing delivery fees, personal budget, and the economy, but almost everyone gives something.

The practice of tipping is so ingrained in American culture that we know exactly who to tip and how much. Like American English, though, there are a ton of exceptions, and you learn them along the way, typically by asking someone else. For example, you tip delivery drivers because they’re bringing food from a restaurant to your home, and you also tip waiters because they’re brining the food from the kitchen to your table, but neither tip the UPS guy nor the person behind the counter for takeout (the latter is actually optional, but most people tip much less than 15%). You tip house movers, tattoo artists, and blackjack dealers, but not tow truck drivers, appliance repairmen, or chefs. Oddly, people tip a bartender, but not a barista. Though I did get some tips when I was a barista, they were nothing compared to a bartender’s tips. Both are mixers and preparers of socially accepted drugs, but one earns the big bucks, relatively speaking.

I don’t know if you’re supposed to tip a prostitute or dominatrix, but I Googled it, and there is a pretty even split on the issue. Some say that the fee is all-inclusive, but others say that if you have a regular girl, you might want to tip. There are other issues, like pimps and pay-as-you-go rackets, and it all gets pretty complex. With dominatrices, however, the split leans more toward tip than don’t tip. Anyway, the point is that it’s kind of willy-nilly. There’s no set of rules for who gets tipped. You just have to know. A good starting point is that if there’s skilled/dirty labor involved, you tip them.

In my experience so far in Southeast Asia, tipping is rarer and at a far reduced percentage than in the States. Leaving a little something, like the odd change from a bill, is fine, but on your receipt, you’ll generally find a 10% service charge already included. Restaurants in the States do this, but generally only for large groups of six or more. Here, even if someone’s doing a dirty or service job for you, you still might not tip them. It is almost wholly dependent on the person, place of business, and region. For instance, everyone I’ve talked to who’s been to Japan and Korea, say that it’s frowned upon as an insult. In Malaysia, it’s more accepted, but I’ve tipped two people at the same place and been met with two different reactions. And once, I tried to tip a guy and he just stormed off. Lesson learned. I haven’t had the opportunity to tip here in the Philippines, but I’ve been told that while it’s not frowned upon, it’s not really a thing; there’s no set percentage, and people tend to give a few coins or whatever they feel is appropriate.

Americans are so used to tipping that when, in places like Boston that are saturated with college students from around the globe, we don’t get tipped or see someone not getting tipped, we lose our minds. For the most part, we treat service jobs as lower class or a transition from one place to another in life. A job as a waitress might be a way to get through college, or it might be a way to work your way up to management, where you get paid enough not to need tips. It’s kind of a trial by fire. In one sense, tips, in the American experience, are a way of encouraging excellent performance through incentive–positive reenforcement. In another sense, it’s a way of motivating people upward, through the knowledge that because they rely on tips to survive, they are the lowest on the heap and need to fight their way up. Bootstraps, or whatever. But philosophy aside, tips are a way of supplementing employees’ meager wages in an industry that can’t afford to provide for its own people. At least in America.