“He said he would be out front.”
“Do you know what he looks like?” Zoe asks.
“I would guess like a fighter.”
Looking for someone in an airport is like finding a needle in a haystack. All the distractions, the noise, the signs with random names, people sprinting to their terminal in a panic.
“Rome?” says a voice behind me.
I turn to the voice and see a man wearing a red graphic tee of a Muay Thai fighter and a backwards cap. He fits the bill.
“Hey! You must be Iylia. Nice to meet you. I’m Rome, and this is Zoe.”
“Welcome to Sabah! I’ll be your host and driver during your visit here. Are these all of your bags?”
“Yeap. These are all of our bags. I like to pack light. Mostly training gear and some camera equipment.”
Iylia asks what kind of camera I brought, but since it isn’t mine, I don’t know any of the actual specs.
“No worries,” he says. “I’m into anything art, so I was just curious.”
“Did you make the poster for the seminar?” I ask.
“Dude! That poster was fucking awesome!”
“Thanks man. I’m happy you liked it,” he says, smiling. First impression: nailed it.
We walk out of the airport, and the Malaysian heat strikes us instantly. The sky is clear and blue, and honestly, it feels amazing. I’ve grown accustomed to the warm climate in Taiwan, but the pollution takes some of the joy away from just being outside. You’re constantly worried about sucking up car exhaust or burnt Ghost Money paper.
When we get to Ilia’s car, we’re greeted by his friend and teammate, Jayen. Jayen isn’t much for words, but I pick up on his positive energy immediately. Definitely gives off that good-soul vibe. We pack our things in the car and head to the house we’d be staying at. But first, we have to stop to see Vallerio. And I’m getting pretty hungry, too.
“Aw, man. The place I wanted to take you two for lunch is closed. This is Fitri’s favorite place. No worries, I know another spot.”
After a few turns and bumps in the road, we arrive at the backup restaurant. Zoe and I are basically zombies at this point after traveling straight through the night by bus to catch our flight. I am in desperate need of coffee.
“What type of food do you like, Zoe?” Iylia asks.
“I like soup,” Zoe replies while she skims the menu.
“We have plenty of soup to choose from. Do you like it spicy?”
“Very much so,” Zoe says, grinning.
“Rome, do you like spicy food?”
I get my coffee and can feel the caffeine pumping through my veins. With a little too much enthusiasm I blurt out, “I do! Where I’m from back in the U.S., most dishes are served spicy, so whenever I can order something to make me sweat, I’m always game.”
“Perfect. I’ll order for you.”
As I begin to feel comfortable in my new surroundings, I hear my name again. It’s Vallerio.
“Rome! Welcome! It’s great to finally meet you. How have you been enjoying you first twenty minutes in Sabah?” he says with a laugh.
Vallerio is a tall, well-built man with a never-ending smile. You can always tell about someone’s energy when they break the ice with a smile. I tell him it’s the best twenty minutes I’ve had in a long time. And I thank him for inviting us out to teach this seminar and stay at his home while we’re here.
“You’re very welcome, Rome. We are pleased to have you stop in at our gym. I’m sorry Fitri couldn’t be here, but you and Zoe will be staying in his room at my parents’ home. By the way, you can call me Val.”
Then the food arrives, and we gorge. Iylia orders a noodle dish with ox balls (not testicles) for me, and it’s delicious. About three minutes into the meal I can feel the sweat pouring down my face. Hell on Earth for most taste buds is Heaven to mine. Zoe slurps down her soup in record time. Now we are comatose. Perfect condition for the car ride to Val’s.
Slowly the landscape changes from city buildings to rural houses on stilts. The houses remind me of the beach houses where I grew up back in Florida. I look over at Zoe. She’s passed out.
“There are Karate schools everywhere,” I think out loud.
“Yes, there are lots of Karate schools in Sabah,” Iylia says. “Val is a legend in the sport. He had some tough fights when he was competing. One fight, he hurt his shoulder and kept going. Fought through the pain,”.
“That’s awesome. He has the warrior spirit.”
“He does. Like most of us, his heritage comes from headhunters.”
“Headhunters?” I ask.
Both Iylia and Jayen chuckle at my tone.
“Yeap. My family came from a headhunter tribe. Whenever I go to my aunt’s home, I’m able to see the heads hanging up,” said Iylia. You know, like it was no big deal.
“Wait...you still have the heads?”
“Yeap, they’re passed down through the family. Do you want to see a picture?”
Of course I do.
Iylia does a quick flick through his phone while juggling the steering wheel and hands the phone to Jayen to pass to me. Jayen exhales a cloud of vaporized smoke and passes the phone to me with a cheeky smile. I can’t grab the phone fast enough.
The picture shows three small heads. Shrunken down. I could hang them on my Christmas tree. It makes me think of my dad, how stoked he would be to be here with us so he could chime in with his background in Anthropology. Mind. Blown.