I have had the good fortune to travel all over the world—for both business and pleasure, not that those are mutually exclusive. This blog is about my unique experiences around the globe. It is not intended as a paean to the wonders of the locales themselves, as there already exist volumes that more than do justice to the magnificence of virtually every corner of this earth.  Here, I simply recount small, personal moments of surprise, embarrassment, stupidity, excitement, fear, heroics, and other stuff like that.

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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia…July 1995. You know you’re in trouble when you don’t know where you are.  I knew for awhile…the while I was more or less within the city limits of Kuala Lumpur—a city to which I had previously traveled and would continue to do so over the coming years because of its strategic marketing importance to my client, British Petroleum, one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies and my ad agency’s single largest client.

Kuala Lumpur is a fascinating mix of a leading edge building boom that seeks superlatives like “the world’s tallest and most architecturally daring,” and third worldly, stilt-supported, thatch-covered huts bordered by deeply rutted dirt roads and hygienically challenged concrete drainage channels. Fine restaurants populate the city’s glitteringly modern “Golden Triangle,” at whose edge food is more likely to be consumed in open-sided venues where tin roofs are supported by steel beams along which regularly scamper rather large rats, while street stalls offer all manner of Asian delicacies that are best left unidentified and untouched, at least by weak-stomached Americans like myself. Yet, despite its unquestionably foreign nature, I loved Kuala Lumpur’s cultural diversity, even as I longed to expand my Malaysian experience beyond its city limits…a longing that would be more than satisfied in the week ahead. I was about to cross the South China Sea and enter Malaysian Borneo, where I would come perilously close to being quite literally lost at sea.

It promised to be an amazing experience…a week spent at the Kota Kinabalu Resort—a fabulous hotel surrounded by lush equatorial vegetation and appointed with all the comforts any westerner could want—while day tripping through the exotic Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. Truly, the trip of a lifetime, had I not been on a commercial production shoot with my client, several agency associates, a film crew, and a handful of actors. Perhaps you wonder: why would a global oil company be making commercials in such a place? Suffice it to say, we were exploring a new “lifestyle” strategy and the laws governing the Malaysian film industry offered financial incentives that neither Hollywood nor Western Europe could match.

The week ahead called for filming scenes at venues ranging from native Sarawak Longhouses, to Sabah’s rhino-occupied rivers, to the 4,000 meter peak of Mount Kinabalu, to (and this is where I really got lost) an out-island so small and remote that it could only be reached by boat and had no name, at least none that I can recall. What I do recall is that it was an unspoiled paradise that required more than an hour’s ride in a wooden 6-passenger craft about 12 feet long, powered by an outboard engine and driven by a Malaysian native who spoke no English. As we pulled away from the dock on a spectacularly beautiful morning, I really had no idea where we were, other than on the South China Sea, and certainly no idea that, a few hours later, I’d be seriously worried about being in the South China Sea.

Filming went off without a hitch that day, albeit a very long day. Long enough, in fact, to allow a final “money shot” against the backdrop of a spectacular sunset off the nameless island’s beach. Suddenly, too suddenly, twilight was upon us. No problem. Four vessels were needed to transport all the people and film paraphernalia back to our original departure dock, and two of the four were already there, waiting for the load-out. One was a large, powerful-looking Chris Craft-type boat (pardon the ham-fisted description; I don’t know much about boats) and the other was one of three little six-passenger putt-putts, like the one I had arrived in that morning. The Chris Craft and the putt-putt were quickly loaded, with priority given to the film equipment and crew, the acting talent, and those who jumped on board the fastest.  That left several of us ad agency types (I could have been among the first launch party, but I deferred to my client, frankly because I needed a break from him) and some of the production company staff to wait for the two remaining putt-putts.  And wait we did, as twilight was dimming precipitously. When the two remaining boats finally appeared, night did as well.

We scrambled on board and yelled, “Hit it!” It was only then that we came to two startling realizations. One, our driver didn’t speak “Hit it!” And two, the boat had no running lights. We were now heading onto the South China Sea in total darkness. Still, we thought, as long as we hug the coast (as did the putt-putt immediately preceding us) and can feel at least somewhat connected to landforms, we should be able to safely, if slowly, make our way back. Imagine our surprise then when our driver literally hauled ass straight out to sea, away from the coastline. “Dit mo fat,” he seemed to say. By the time we finally deciphered that to mean, “I’m taking you back a quicker way. Hugging the coast is too slow and too dangerous.  Too many rocks!” the dye was cast.

Now I was in a small wood-hulled boat, far from shore, on a pitch black night where other boats, similarly ill-equipped, were whizzing by, with three of my fellow agency types, one of whom seemed to believe that if he spoke English loud enough the driver would understand him, another appeared to be speaking in tongues but later admitted he was actually reciting a passage from the Torah in Hebrew, apparently channeling his 13th Birthday Bar Mitzvah, and the third was feverishly flashing his camera light in hopes of warding off evil, much as the defenseless, wheel-chair bound Jimmy Stewart did in Rear Window when he was trying to fend off the villainous Raymond Burr.

Myself, I was busy watching the plankton glow along the boat’s edge as we skimmed through its luminous space, as I considered our options…a head-on crash into another boat, or some floating object we would never see, leading to the longest swim of our lives, assuming the crash left us physically able to swim and assuming that the current wouldn’t immediately whisk us away to the shipping lanes of the Pacific. Meanwhile, the occasional glimmer of shore-bound lights had me wondering just how far I actually could swim and hoping that our “Dit mo fat” driver really knew where he was going. After awhile, and faced with absolutely no options, we all just settled in to let fate play out its hand.

The best part of an hour later, we finally felt a comforting turn to the left and slowly watched the small harbor’s lights grow stronger. Arriving at the dock, we thanked Mister “Dit mo fat” for the ride, jumped into a cab and headed back to the hotel, where we proceeded directly to the bar to regale ourselves with our bravery in the face of imminent disaster and give praise to the Lord…and Johnnie Walker.

Postscript: Lest the reader think I’m being a drama queen in relating this story as some great adventure that, in fact, ended harmlessly, consider this. That other putt-putt—the one that hugged the coast on its return that night? It did not return! Its motor died not far from the island without a name. The four individuals on board drifted aimlessly through the night, as no rescue was possible until first light. That they were, in fact, rescued the next morning is somewhat miraculous as they were indeed well out to sea by then. I spoke the next day to one of them—a young Malaysian member of the film crew who spoke perfect English and was always upbeat and happy. That he remained so after such an experience was, I think, a tribute to his youth, his nature and, probably, his companions. I couldn’t help wondering if my guys and I would have fared as well. I’m glad I’ll never know.

 T H E  E N D

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