“We can’t get on the flight??” I said to the agent. The flight to Hanoi was in final boarding.
“Sorry sir, but you don’t have the proper visa,” the agent replied firmly.
We were in limbo at Changi Airport, half way between the Philippines and Vietnam. Someone on our team screwed up and we didn't have our ducks in line. Vietnam would have to wait.
We went to a cafe in the airport and flipped open our laptops looking for a new direction.
Seven hours later I found "Shoe Dating" in Kuala Lumpur and we left the airport to pursue the lead.
From the shoe dates the whole Malaysian episode evolved. One date invited the crew to a party. Some of her friends were speaking about a political situation in Sarawak and I joined the conversation. I knew at once that this was an issue we had to cover. The episode took a dramatic turn.
While in Sarawak I experienced a really gratifying travel moment. We'd just arrived at the longhouse of some displaced locals. These structures embrace the concept of community in their design. Dozens of families reside in the longhouse; their spaces connected by stairs, bridges, and a gigantic back porch. After we dropped our bags the producer went to find the toilet and the cameraman and I decided to take a stroll along the porch. About 50 meters down I saw a sign on a door in English which said "Welcome! Come on in!" I pushed it open.
"Oh." exclaimed a man with his feet propped up on his desk, surprised at the two Caucasians entering his space.
It appeared to be a small convenience store for the residents of the longhouse. He had closed for the day.
"Sorry," I said, "the sign on the door said to come in."
"No, it's ok," the man replied in broken English, "my sister and wife are in the back. Come with me."
He led us to a room where the two women were making embroideries out of beads.
A large bottle of rice wine was opened and stories we shared. After an hour of this, it was hard to leave. I mean it was literally hard to leave. Every time I drained my glass and began the farewell speech (“Well, it was a real pleasure.. thanks so much for..”) the glass was immediately filled again. Both the cameraman and I made several failed attempts and were becoming progressively more inebriated. One or two more chances were left before we’d collapse right there on the floor.
With refined technique I shot the liquor down, lowered the empty glass to the table, and simultaneously stood up with a mouth full of gratitude. I was two steps from the table before anyone could top me off. The cameraman set down his empty glass but was too slow rising, so he got another one. I grinned back at him as I edged for the door.
Imagine yourself walking down the hallway of an apartment complex in your country and pushing open a random door. What are the chances you'd get invited in for some wine and a good conversation? In my city the odds would be slim. That's partially because of the design of the housing. There have been several studies that demonstrate how the shape of neighborhoods affects one’s sense of community and overall happiness.
You'll notice as you travel that you gain a new appreciation for the things your country does well, but you’ll also realize that other places do certain things better. Staying with the tribes of Sarawak convinced me that they have designed housing that fosters connection, and solid community is a key factor in keeping myself positive. I don’t want that house way up on the hill looking down on everyone else. That home will become my lonely prison. I want to be down in the community relating with people. I can hike up the hill to get a view.
The tribes of Sarawak need all the community they can get to overcome the recent challenges they've faced. As you'll see some are handling the difficulties better than others, but there is true beauty in the sacrifices made for a better tomorrow.
Watch this episode on the Travel Channel this Tuesday night at 10.