Paddling the Nile
The first ever paddle down the Blue Nile from source to sea. 5,000km through wild rapids, war zones, crocodile and hippo infested waters, disease, terrorists, guns, arrests; the works...
Newly married amongst the neon glow and dumpling vendors as we bumble our way trying to figure out the world's most populous nation at this exciting time in it's history...
The Great Canadian Bike Trek
23 years old and naive, I set off in the middle of Canada's barbaric winter perched on a woolskin seat-cover peddling solo from one side of Canada to the other...
To break up the long flight back to New Zealand between Dublin and paddling down the Nile, I sojourned for a few days in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It was to be my last exotic 'holiday' for a long time as money was tight. I had a few scant savings to cover some expenses but we still had no idea how we were going to fund the bulk of the expedition.
As an aficionado of architecture, one of my main draw cards to KL were the Petronas Towers which, at 1944 feet, were the tallest buildings in the world at the time.
It was a free ride to the viewing platform high above the city. The only catch was the early morning line-up to collect a ticket for an allocated time. I was up at dawn on the day I was flying out, joining the hordes of others pushing and chatting impatiently waiting for their ticket. After the long queue, I received my token and time which was still three hours away, but as no shops or tourist attractions were open at the ungodly hour, I went looking for a spot of breakfast to kill some time.
On my way out of the building's grandiose foyer a young boy called out to me.
"You very tall Mister. Where you come from?"
"I'm from New Zealand."
"Hou, New Zealand, my sister going to be nurse in New Zealand."
"That's great, where in New Zealand is she going to be nursing?"
"I not sure, she leave in one month. What you do now?"
"I'm just off for a spot of breakfast."
"Hou, you come have breakfast at my house, my sister love to meet you and ask lot of question."
I was a little dubious about visiting a stranger's house in a strange land, but I was leaving that day, my wallet was empty and all I had to lose were my vital organs. Besides, I had nothing else to do and was curious to see how the Malaysians live.
The boy called his mother over who was chatting to friends, and asked her if they could have a guest. Soon enough we had hailed a taxi and were en route for suburban Kuala Lumpur.
"We live with Uncle Joe" said the young boy confirmed by his mother's nodding. "He very good to us and care for family after dad dead."
The statement was random after the shallow chit chat we had been making about his sister's nursing down under, but I assumed I would be meeting his custodian so he was giving me the rundown.
We arrived at the house, a modern two-storey dwelling surrounded by similar houses in a cul de sac. The front door led into an open plan room stepping up numerous levels. There was a middle aged man sitting in a comfy armchair with his back to us, he was smoking an unusual looking pipe and didn't seem to notice the movement in the room. I caught a glimpse of his left hand which was missing all four fingers. I was intrigued but made a conscious effort not to stare.
"Come meet Uncle Joe" said the boy, excitedly pulling me over to the old man in the chair.
"This Mark, he from New Zealand."
The stern man nodded approvingly then nattered something in Malaysian and the boy left the room.
Uncle Joe asked many questions about New Zealand from the state of the health system, to the economy, to what the locals do in their spare time. We were discussing the finer aspects of rugby when the boy returned with a big bowl of noodles.
"Egg Noodle soup, very good!" he said placing the bowl on the table beside me before leaving the room.
"I hate to be rude Uncle Joe, but I'm not hungry. Would you be offended if I didn't eat the food?" I asked.
I couldn't be certain the soup wasn't doped and following a spoonful I would wake up violated and missing a kidney.
"I don't like the soup either, horrible stuff. I prefer the sound of roast lamb you speak of in New Zealand."
We both laughed. I was warming to Uncle Joe and got the impression he was to me.
"You want to know what happened to my hand?" he asked holding up his left paw. With it waving in front of me I couldn't help myself, "I'm kind of curious Uncle Joe."
"You know casino resort at top of mountain overlooking Kuala Lumpur?"
"I haven't been up there, but it was pointed out to me yesterday," I said nodding gingerly.
The city of Kuala Lumpur sprawls through a valley framed by tropical jungle covered mountain ranges. On top of the mountain at 6,000 feet is the imposing casino. It is Malaysia's only casino and one of the largest in Asia, drawing many Asian gamblers and, given Malaysia is an Islamic state, many big spending Arabs. There is a cable car to the top or a road that winds up the mountainside.
"I work at casino, best dealer in whole of Asia. I first in dealer championship many times. One night, very tired after long night dealing I riding home on motor cycle. Fell asleep and rode off road, then slaysh, all finger cut off. Casino very sad, still want me to work for them, I best dealer in Asia. So they move me to high roller room, where job not so strenuous."
I didn't know what to say, but before I had a chance to respond, Uncle Joe spoke abruptly, "You play cards?"
"A little, I haven't done a lot of gambling in casinos"
"You study mathematic?"
"Yeah, I did some papers at university."
"Good, good! I teach you how to become very good card player."
Uncle Joe rose from his stagnant position and ushered me to a room upstairs, assembling a card table and revealing a small chest containing eight decks and three rows of chips. Knowing how to play cards better would be a handy skill to know.
"Black Jack. Simple game. Twenty-one. You know Black Jack?"
"I've played a bit."
"I teach you all the tricks."
Uncle Joe took me through different signals he would give me to let me know what my opposition had and what came next using different finger combinations on his good hand. He tested me with some different combinations and commended me on catching on quickly. "You very good student."
Apparently things worked a little differently in the high roller room. The players compete against one and other rather than the casino and have to give a percentage of their winnings to the house. He said as I was competent at the art, together we could make a lot of money, "one million dollars per night!"
Although this all seemed to be moving at a chaotic pace, a small part of me was curious and hungry to learn more.
"Tell me Uncle Joe, you must have many friends who are suitable mathematicians and card sharks, why would you go for a perfect stranger to share your millions?"
"You do not understand, locals not allowed in high roller room. You tall, you wear suit and you look rich. Your job is computer technician if anybody ask."
I told Uncle Joe that I was flying out that afternoon and it may not be a year until I came back again on my way back to North Africa. He was fine with that.
The more Uncle Joe spoke, the more interested I became. If nothing else, this had a good story in it; I was just waiting for the catch.
Uncle Joe glanced at his watch.
"Now we need to make sure you okay in real gambling environment. Fortunately I have client visiting soon who insists on me dealing for her in high roller room. I not like her though, she very rich, owns many jewellery store in Brunei and I deal good for her, but she never tip me, so now we teach her lesson. She arriving soon, so you use everything I teach you. If you good, we make millions."
"I have no money to gamble Uncle Joe."
"No problem, I have money, we win anyway."
"Okay, as long as we don't gamble too much, you only need to see if I can play."
"Yes, yes, we not bet more than $5,000. I will cover all money."
Shortly after there was a knock at the door and my opponent was brought up the stairs by the boy I hadn't seen since the soup. She was short, podgy, and one of the most garish people I had seen. Her features were thickly coated with make up and tacky gold jewellery dripped from her ears, neck and wrists.
"Are you ready to leave Joseph?" she asked.
"In a little bit, but first you should play Mark. He computer technician from New Zealand, already $5,000 down today."
I shook my head and looked at my feet to play along.
"Alright, but I only have time for three games then we must go to the casino," she snapped.
Joe dealt, communicating with his signals. I won the three hands undisputedly earning myself $5,000 in cold hard currency. She was obviously impressed by my knack for the game and requested one more chance to win her money back.
Joe vigilantly placed two cards in front of each of us. She had 20, I had 14. Her expression exhibited confidence and she placed $5,000 for her first bet. Joe was gesturing 7 as the next card so I matched her.
"Now we play for some serious money," she announced presenting an open box containing stacks of US $100 bills in what looked like a major drug deal. I flicked through the piles expecting to see blank paper underneath the top few, but it all seemed legit. I had never seen so much money in real life but remained cool as it was just another day for 'the gambler'.
"I raise you $100,000," she said.
I looked at her square in the eye; she waited anxiously for my response. I paused then looked at Uncle Joe whose face remained cool as a cat. I looked back at the gaudy gold monger then scanned the room.
"I fold!" I said slamming my cards face down onto the table.
The jeweller was furious. "Next time you bring someone who serious!" she said as she huffed and stormed from the room.
"Haooooooooaaoh, Haoooooooooaaoh. $100,000. Why you not make bet???" said Uncle Joe. I was afraid he was going into cardiac arrest.
"Uncle Joe, you said we would bet no more than $5,000. I do not know you so I wasn't prepared to take the risk."
"But we could have had $100,000…" The pain on Uncle Joe's face was palpable. "But I understand. You did well today, together we make millions! When you come back to Malaysia, you bring suit, brief case and $25,000. I contribute $25,000 which we need for seeding money, then we contribute all our winnings 50-50. Here is my phone number. You call me, yes?"
Uncle Joe summoned the boy who arranged and paid for a taxi back to the Petronas Towers. The towers were magnificent and view fantastic, but I wasn't as excited as I had expected to be given the thrill beforehand.
Obviously the young boy didn't have a sister going to help sick people in New Zealand and was recruiting for the 'Uncle Joe'. I couldn't determine if he genuinely wanted a partner in crime or if it was some type of scam. More likely the latter, although I was at a loss trying to figure out how I could have been scammed. It was tempting just for the story that would come living it large with the high rollers in the casino.