"I am super surprised to see eleven year olds throwing knees and elbows and also taking them in return like champs. This kid is going to be something special."
After learning more about the headhunting culture, we go deeper into the countryside. The landscape is beautiful, and the air is crisp. We are now in Tamparuli. Before taking our final turn to Val’s home, we have to drive over the Tamparuli Bridge.
“If the rains are heavy, this bridge will flood and you can’t take it,” says Iylia.
“I just saw some fish jump. If there are fish, what eats them?”
“We do!” both Iylia and Jayen chuckle. “Further downstream there are crocodiles. They enjoy eating the fish, too,” said Iylia.
Headhunting culture and crocodiles. I love Sabah already.
After we make our final turn, we drive up a dirt road past more houses on stilts, and then I notice some blue flags waving in the air on a gate. We made it to Val’s home.
“What are the blue flags?”
“They represent the political party that is running in Tamparuli,” says Iylia.
We drive through the gates, and then I notice the mats.
“Wait, the gym is here?”
“Yes. Val has it set up where people can come to his home and train and stay if they need to. Everything you need is here,” says Iylia.
The home reminds me of a southern plantation, but with a Malaysian twist. The property is vast and lined with coconut trees. The air flow in the gym is nice at night, everyone assured us. There’s a large front yard out front. Iylia tells me they plan to expand to a larger space, similar to Tiger Muay Thai. At the back of the house are two large ponds. Both are stocked with fish to eat. Further back are a few homes and a path that seemed to circle the entire property. My eyes are trying to soak in as much as possible.
“Rome! Zoe! Welcome to my home!” Val says. “Please, come meet my family.”
Soon Zoe and I are making our rounds, meeting everyone in Val’s family. They greet us with open arms. We feel like part of the family already.
“Rome, do you like snakes?” Val asks.
“I do.” Zoe not so much.
As we walk around to the back of the house, I notice an assortment of animals: dogs, cats, chickens, etc. Before traveling anywhere new, I try to visualize the place I’m about to visit. Once I’m there, the image is never close to reality. No different here.
“Look in the corner and you’ll see the first snake. Can you see the second snake?” asks Val.
“Wow, the snake I see now is fucking huge. I’m having trouble finding the second snake, though,” I admit.
Just then I notice the second snake and it’s bigger...way bigger.
“Holy shit! That’s the snake that ate Owen Wilson!”
Val laughs and explains to me that he caught these two near his pond. He told Zoe and I that he’s found bigger snakes in the past.
“Zoe, you need to see this. It’s wild!”
Zoe musters a head shake and a friendly smile. Maybe she was scarred from the movie Anaconda, or more likely, my bad jokes. After venturing around the property further I start to notice children smiling and playing in Muay Thai shorts.
“Rome and Zoe, please meet my brother and nephew. Damon and Kenny,” says Val.
The boys greet me with a smile and respectfully shake my hand. Damon is the youngest, and Kenny is the oldest. Both are fighters. Very tough fighters I must add. Damon just had a fight not too long ago. It was a hard fight, but it didn’t go his way. Val whips out his phone to show me a clip. I am super surprised to see eleven year olds throwing knees and elbows and also taking them in return like champs. This kid is going to be something special.
Kenny, Damon’s uncle, is in his late teens and still growing. He’s currently training for an upcoming fight, so he looks lean and mean. After seeing what his nephew does, I can only imagine the fury he masks behind his smile.
After some small chat with the boys, we say goodbye to Val as he heads back to work. Iylia shows us to our bedroom. We find out the room we’re staying in is actually Fitri’s room, and it’s massive. The ceilings are at least 12 feet high, probably more. We could probably fit our entire flat back in Taiwan inside. The windows open up to the pond below, and we catch the Tamparuli breeze they told us about earlier.
At this point, Zoe and I are past Zombie Mode and need some sleep before teaching the seminar. The bed is comfortable. Zoe says the floor is, too. Zoe can’t sleep in the bed unless she showers first. Her rules, not mine. I sleep under no rules. At this moment, I happily fall into the mattress face-first.