From the air Malaysia looks like the largest palm plantation in the world. From the track to the airport to the outskirts of the city there is nothing to see but freeway and row after endless row of palm trees for as far as the eye can see. On the ground the environment changes as you close in on the city, becoming darker and greener as the jungle seems to take over with large buildings interspersed sparsely among the greenery, like the few remaining teeth in an old man's head. The heart of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, is amazingly modern; only the constant herds of Malays on noisy, buzzing motor scooters, holding enormous political flags in one hand and patting on the cars with their other, differentiates the city from so many others around the world.
And towering over everything in Kuala Lumpur are the Petronas Towers, looming high and lit in the twilight like two giant stretched onion domes covered with Christmas tree lights. Wherever you go in the city you can see them, the pole star leading the way. Everything in KL seems to be marked in location against them.
"It's not like it was when I came here seven years ago. It's too modern, too western. It's just not shitty enough," Will announced as we arrived at our hotel. Will has an uncanny resemblance to Toyota's test driver Ryan Briscoe, which is going to confuse some people if the latter ever gets a race seat. Fit, young and enthusiastic, Will is the kind of Englishman that I just seem to get along with, always willing to push me on to more whenever I feel the desire waning and start thinking about an early night.
Not that I had much chance of that in KL. My friends Craig and Suze were staying at the same hotel as Will and I. They were on their annual holiday, and they meant to make the most of it even if it killed me. "I might not be back in the hotel until nine each night," I warned them in advance.
"No problem," said Craig, rolling another of his endless stream of roll up cigarettes, "we'll just drink at the hotel bar until you get back, eh."
Craig, a round, non-maple leaf wearing Canadian, is always pragmatic about his drinking, and is easily adaptable to what life throws at him, working out the best course of refreshment with the aid of his PDA and his vast knowledge of drinking establishments worldwide. Suze has lived with Craig for long enough to know to defer to his knowledge on the subject; her job is to rein him in when he gets over enthusiastic. Apart they may struggle, but together they are a guarantee of a good night.
On our first night Craig's research pointed us towards Jalan Telawi - a chaotic, over-packed street full of bars where the locals go in search of fun. We found out why in the first bar, which was full to overflowing with young Malays dancing around the low tables covered in glasses and ashtrays. Craig disappeared for a moment before leading a waitress back bearing drinks.
"You can't wear that hat in here," she pointed to the flat hat holding my hair down as she yelled into my ear over the sounds pumped into existence by the bleach blonde, sunglassed DJ who looked alarmingly like Jaguar's press tsar Nav Sidhu.
"Why not?" I asked, wondering if I'd made yet another fashion faux pas.
"Because you can't," she replied over her shoulder, moving on to the next table through the mass of awkwardly wobbling group of my friends attempting to dance.
"Fine, but you're responsible for any emotional distress caused to the other patrons," I shot after her, unveiling the hideous form of my hours' old hat-hair onto an unsuspecting public. No one fainted, but we did seem to get more room around us from thereon.
The Nav, as the DJ became known, ran the room well, and everyone danced and drank solidly until his replacement came on and cleared the room. "I want to duck out now," was Will's take on the matter, and it was a popular one.
We managed to barge through the heaving crowd on the street sharply to find a cab. I love catching cabs through cities at night; there is something satisfying about watching a town glide past through the window of a car, seeing the various buildings, the giant blue roofed mosques and the arabesque structures grow and contract around us in the orangey gloom.
When my phone rang the next afternoon, I had my head in the bowl of the toilet next to the media centre, in that horrible state between hoping I don't throw up and willing myself to do so.
"Don't forget to pick up the timesheets for me." It was Bira. "Ask John for them if you can't get them. No, the other John. Blah, blah, blah, blah."
I wondered if there would be a discernible echo on the other end. I wondered if I would get through the conversation without throwing up. I concentrated on not dropping the phone.
"Are you alright?"
"Not really; I've got my head in a toilet bowl, and I'm about to puke."
"Okay. Don't forget the timesheets." Click.
I'd been okay at first. I was chasing down some interviews, talking to the PR people and feeling fine sitting inside their office in the paddock; it was as cold as a meat locker in there, which was a glorious change from the humidity just outside, and I was making the most of it. The humidity in Sepang, as you leave the air conditioned rooms, hits you like a large wet sponge taped to a boxer's fist. Maybe not a heavy weight boxer, but certainly a light middle weight who's been around the ring a few times and knows what he is doing with his fists.
I had to walk in and out a lot as I looked for people, and every time I was back inside the office was a blessed relief. It was the last trip outside to talk to Takuma Sato that did it; he was seemingly enjoying the heat, and after spending thirty minutes inside I was too, until my stomach told me it wasn't thrilled about anything at all, and I had to concentrate on not vomiting on a Grand Prix driver.
Agnes, the FIA's press delegate, noticed me at the entrance to the media centre.
"You look dreadful."
"I feel dreadful."
"Go to the doctor."
"I don't know any doctors in Malaysia."
"Go to any of the teams - they've all got doctors."
I stumbled back out into the heat and straight into the toilets. My phone rang, and I half listened. And then I stumbled downstairs and into the paddock.
"You look dreadful." I looked up and saw John One approaching me hesitantly. "Are you alright?"
"Wait here - I'll get the doctor. Sit down before you fall over." I sat in the shade outside his team's office, and eventually a worried looking Italian walked towards me, asked a couple of questions and held my wrist before disappearing again for a few minutes and coming back holding a glass of liquid.
"Drink this. It will taste horrible." He was right.
"Now drink this. It will taste worse." It did.
"Now sit here for ten minutes, and try to keep it all down." I did as I was told, and when he returned I was remarkably better. The problem was switching from hot to cold according to the doctor; it meant that I was unable to digest my lunch completely, with grim results. I have no idea what type of magic drugs he gave me, but after another ten minutes I felt amazingly good. I can tell you that the health of the various drivers is in good hands.
If Kuala Lumpur has cleaned up since Will's first visit, Chinatown still reeks. As soon as we got out of the cab, narrowly avoiding putting a foot into an open, stinking drain full of sewage and garbage, I wondered - given my earlier physical state - if it was a good idea to go there for dinner.
"This hasn't changed, I see." Will had a strange half smile on his face, the look of a man who found what he expected, but wasn't sure it was what he wanted.
"No, it'll be great. Trust me."
We walked under the familiar red gate, the same red gate that you can see at every Chinatown around the world, and into a maze of stalls selling copies of every product you could ever think of and then some, engulfed in a constant call of "mister, mister; buy, buy" and a seaweed of hands trying to pull us into one stall after another. The only way to get through was to put your hands in your pockets and walk with your shoulders pushed forward, and we made as close as we could to a beeline through the market towards the food court Will insisted was in the middle of the melee.
It becomes easy to tune out a group of people calling after you, but everyone recognises their own name. "Ciao, David." I looked up and saw Silvia, Williams's press officer, out of uniform. Silvia makes everything alright; in the paddock just the sight of her makes you feel that everything is achievable, everything is okay. Seeing Silvia makes me feel safe, as though my Mum had turned up and made everything alright just by being there.
"It's closed up there" Silvia said, her Sophia Loren smile on high, waving somewhere towards another gaggle of stands full of fake Grand Prix clothes. I suspect that everyone who has had the privilege of meeting her is a little in love with her. "It's okay - we're just here to eat," I beamed back.
It was remarkable to see anyone from the teams in town, as most of them were staying at hotels near the airport, near the track. It makes sense from their perspective; it helps stay on schedule, it minimises travel time to and from the track. But I don't understand why anyone would want to travel to the other side of the world just to stay at the airport. It's efficient, but if I have to travel this far I want to see something of the country, even if it's only the food court in Chinatown.
"Are you problematic in your brain? Oh, hi guys." Will and I had caught up with Craig and Suze mid conversation in the Red Zone, a section of town full of outdoor bars and clubs marked off for the annual invasion of foreigners the race brings into town. There were an astonishing number of people roaming the streets, and the bars were selective about letting people in; we were initially turned away until the doorman saw the paddock pass around Will's neck. We usually leave our passes in the hotel, as it feels dorky to leave it around your neck, but we'd both forgotten to take them off. The doorman asked what team we were with.
"We're journalists, actually," Will admitted sheepishly, knowing our lowly position on the food chain. "Cool. You guys better come in then," he said, and waved us by.
The Nav was obviously following us, as he'd turned up to play the same set as the last time we saw him. It was very efficient, very Formula One. We ended up in a room full of Malaysians going politely crazy, and the atmosphere was astounding. Even Kylie Minogue remixes sounded good.
We went to the Petronas Towers the day after the race, wanting to see the view. The viewing platform is closed on Mondays, and a paddock pass won't get you in there no matter how hard you try. We went shopping instead, swimming through the humidity. It was the Encyclopedia Britannica of humidity, the reference point for anyone wondering about the subject.
"I'm bored with this shop." Will doesn't like shopping; Will would be happy if he never had to go shopping ever again, except to look at cheap DVDs. Craig loves to go shopping, and he thinks I should buy every expensive electronic gadget known to man. Craig forgets that I don't earn much money anymore, forgets that I'm not working in the real world with him anymore.
Craig makes me wish I earned real money again. Will reminds me of why I do this instead. They're both my friends, but I'm never going shopping with either of them again if I can avoid it.
We went out and had the worst laksa ever known to man, and left it behind to the disgust of those watching. We went somewhere else and had the best laksa I've ever had. Will ate a whole chili, pulled a face, grabbed a lime and squeezed it into his mouth, and pulled a worse face. The rest of us laughed and ordered more drinks before Suze pulled us in off the street to get our feet massaged. We didn't talk about Formula One at all.
It was the morning after, back at the hotel, when I first suspected it had all gone horribly wrong. I put my bags into the back of the car Craig had ordered to take us out to the airport - Will had already returned back to England - and I looked at my schedule once more, just to be sure. It was the arrival time of 2:10 PM that made me wonder.
Time zones are strange - you can spend all those hours on a plane and arrive ten minutes after you left. It didn't seem right.
"I might have made a big mistake," I sighed once we were on the highway.
"I was wondering about that actually," Craig replied, watching the palm trees glide past, "I knew there was a flight early in the morning, and I didn't know there were two flights a day." I sat and sweated despite the air-conditioning.
"My flight was at 2:00 AM, not PM," I stated dully as soon as we arrived at the airport. "Bira's going to kill me."
"All our flights are fully booked for the rest of the month," the girl at the airline stated, looking at me tightly from behind her computer. "Do you have anywhere to stay here?" "Um. No." Craig was standing in the corner deep in conversation on his mobile, and I felt as though I was washing away. I felt like clicking my heels together; all I wanted to do was go home.
"Excuse me miss, can you tell me if there are any flights from Bangkok to anywhere in Europe?" Craig asked, from nowhere.
"Yes." Tap tap. "They are booked solid too."
"Thank you," he said, leaning back into his phone, another of his brilliant toys.
"You're on a flight from Bangkok to Paris; at least it's in Europe," he finally stated, pointedly not looking at the woman behind the desk. "I spoke to their head office. We'd better get you a flight down there, eh?" I was out the door and up the corridor before Suze picked up her bag.
The local cheap airline was booked for the afternoon, so I bought a full fair ticket on the national airline. The flight sucked, but at least I was moving. I had some catching up to do, and all I wanted to do was sleep, but unfortunately the sneezing woman next to me decided I'd rather talk to her. Asian flu would really top this stupidity off nicely, I thought as we taxied past the golf course that led directly along the runway in Bangkok.
Peerapong understood my desire to get home perfectly. As the airline's representative he'd seen any number of ex-pats who suddenly had to get home for a family emergency, and he understood that a soon to be father could make a silly mistake when all he wanted to do was get home for the birth of his first child. He was moved by my passion; by my restraint in knowing that it wasn't his fault but that he was doing all he could to get me there, but my welling eyes. I'd like to thank the Academy for this award.
"I can't give you your ticket here, but they should have everything cleared up by check in. You've got seven hours - I hope you're not too uncomfortable in the meantime." I wasn't uncomfortable at all; I was in the airport's Irish bar, downing beers and typing furiously in a vain attempt to beat my deadline in the time remaining. In between brief text messages flew back and forth to the office to explain the unexplainable.
"I'm sorry sir," the check-in woman told me, "we've got a reservation for you, but we don't know if we have to give you a surcharge or not."
"I just need to get home" I exhaled, "my wife, you see…"
"Yes sir, I know, but we can't put you on this flight."
"But you have a reservation for me; if I'm not on the flight you'll have an empty seat."
"I'm sorry sir."
"Ssst" she hissed, holding up her hand to me, "I know."
I felt lost, completely broken. I had somehow ended up in a country I wasn't even supposed to be in, with nowhere to stay, and no way home. I had no other option than to push. There was another flight in less than two hours. I hovered at the desk. I looked expectantly every time she got onto the phone. I asked, politely, acknowledging my guilt. I looked wracked, distraught. I gave her no option but to feel pity for me, to allow me to get onboard.
I got a text message from Bira; she booked me a room at a five star hotel in town, and a flight back a day later. "I can get on the flight now," I messaged her back. "Can I please take it? I just want to come home."
"So come home," she replied.
I had ten minutes; I had no Bahts, a 500 Baht fee to find for the customs sharks, metal detectors and five hundred metres to traverse. I made it.
The flight left the ground, and I watched it fall away from me yet again. It had been a hard month, a heart breaking month, an exhausting month, and all I could do was sit there and let the memory of it wash over me. My bed was calling me and I was craving her, but against the habit of a lifetime I cheated on her and slept in the seat instead. I knew she'd understand; that she'd wait for me, keeping the world away for a while before it started all over again.