Rasa Ria, Brian was now appreciating, was a remarkable place. It was huge – with possibly as many as four hundred rooms – and it was anodyne. It was also totally isolated from the real Sabah and it was ruthlessly efficient. Indeed, in many ways it had the character of a wellappointed open prison somewhere in Bavaria, albeit one with a tropical climate. But this, of course, was just a narrow, rather grumpy and undeniably one-sided perspective. Whereas, from Brian’s new more balanced point of view, he could now see that Rasa Ria was an exceptional haven of peace and tranquillity, occupying a secluded bay on the north Sabah coast and offering to its guests some of the best hospitality in the whole of Malaysia. It was also cleverly designed and landscaped so that one was barely aware of its enormous size, and it was so spaciously arranged that one was also barely aware of its army of guests. Except, that is, when they gathered for breakfast. Yes, no matter how balanced a perspective Brian attempted to bring to the proceedings, in no way could he regard his first breakfast at Rasa Ria as other than a somewhat frenetic and overcrowded experience.
It was a lost cause. Whilst people will stagger the timing of other meals, or even miss them entirely, they will all want a breakfast and they will want it at more or less the same time – even if offered a four-hour window in which to take it. Add to this demand the capacity constraints (as here in Rasa Ria, only two of its four restaurants were “non-ethnic” and therefore capable of offering a full breakfast service), and there was a big problem. It then got even bigger because there were not just Europeans staying here and demanding traditional fry-ups, but also Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese and any number of other Far-Easternese, who demanded all manner of different stuff. The Japanese, in particular, appeared to require an entirely separate section of the buffet arrangement, where a selection of their mysterious but colourless “delicacies” sat like little piles of steaming laundry, and only by accident found their way onto the plate of a non-Japanese national. (For after all, who, other than those unique Nipponese, would really choose food that can be chewed with the gums… ?) Anyway, the result of all these concentrated and competing demands was a sort of controlled pandemonium – with a background of clattering cutlery and crockery – and very little serenity or calm. And that was Brian’s assessment even before he’d tangled with the enigmatic fruit-juice dispensers and the testing toaster, or indeed, the confounding condiment set, which was almost as baffling as that Japanese cuisine. And so, in due course, Brian was relieved to be over the breakfast hurdle and onto the flat, undemanding part of the course, which in this part of the world was known as “idling away the day on a lounger”. Yes, it was time to plug into some of that peace and tranquillity.
It was all very civilised. For at Rasa Ria there is a huge pristine beach, which, whilst very tempting is, for most of the time, oven hot. Accordingly, the Rasa Ria management have organised a swathe of comfy loungers on the equally huge lawn that borders the beach where there is shade in plenty thanks to a copse of mature trees. Here one can lie back, soak up the heat without being roasted, swim in a nearby pool if one so wishes – and eat and drink if one so desires. And for this last activity, one needs only to raise a flag! It is true. One is provided with a little yellow flag on a stick that, with the application of just one’s wrist muscles, can be raised into the vertical and thereby cause one of the resort’s attentive attendants to arrive at one’s side. There he or she will take one’s order and minutes later will appear with a beer or a burger – and probably a scented flannel, even though this hasn’t been specified. But none of them will bring any bacon. And none of them can do anything about the guilt one feels from acting like a cosseted eunuch.
Nevertheless, despite this capitulation to indolence, for Brian, it proved a surprisingly interesting morning. For, to start with, while Sandra read, he applied himself to considering at length the “sunbathers’ contract”, that unwritten deal that these barely clothed worshippers of the sun have forged between themselves that allows them to coexist respectably in what is potentially a highly unrespectable situation. And if one doubts this unrespectable aspect, one only has to remember that sharing the shade of those trees with Brian and Sandra were a large number of people, many of them un-chaperoned, who were wearing the skimpiest clothes imaginable and no underwear whatsoever. And in what other situation (even in the liberal West) would such openly provocative behaviour be tolerated or even legal?
So, what were the elements of this contract? What did it contain that facilitated the acceptance of the unacceptable? Well, there were a number that were fundamental, and none more so than that one which regulated the participants’ interaction. This prohibited, amongst other things, the touching of other sunbathers, ever getting too close to them (without an invitation), and even staring at them. Catching sight of them whilst peering over the top of one’s book was quite in order. As was an admiring glance – just as long as it didn’t turn into a drawn-out admiring leer. But staring at one’s fellow sunbathers – for the purpose of lust, amusement or complete disbelief – was just not on. Essentially, one had to pretend that one led one’s life in swimwear and that the display of acres of flesh was an everyday event and not worthy of note in any way at all. And as for what was not on display but intimately defined by the nature of swimwear, that too was so mundane as to be of no interest whatsoever.
With this element of the contract in place – and signed up to – the contract signatories were then able to exploit the other elements of the agreement. These encompassed such things as being allowed to bathe in a communal bath with people they had never before met (commonly known as the resort swimming-pool), a licence to disport themselves on reclining furniture in a way they would never have countenanced in the office – and, above all, the right to wear just scraps of clothing, and so little clothing that under any other circumstance (in public) they would inevitably have felt effectively undressed and intolerably exposed.
For the male signatories to the contract, this minimal clothing aspect generally took the form of an un-shapely swathe of material around their mid-parts, which, whilst denying the existence of their manhood, could in no way deny their abandonment of a hunter-gatherer existence. Yes, their genitals might be hidden away under the folds of their capacious swimming shorts, but in all too many cases their fat-stores were not. And for that minority who wore budgie-smugglers rather than modest shorts, decency didn’t get a look in anywhere. Or maybe, thought Brian, they were using their unsightly packed equipment as a means of distraction. For whom, when faced with such an ugly display of the proof of gender, would then wish to focus on a distended belly or some fat-laden thighs? Not, of course, that under the contract anyone would be allowed to focus to that degree on anything…
Then there were the female signatories whose minimalism went far beyond that of their male counterparts. For these adherents to the contract never adopted anything shapeless, but instead a few triangles of material that were commonly stretched to their absolute limit and left barely any room whatsoever for even the weakest of male imaginations. Even when they were miniscule (and paper thin) these fabric contraptions met the rules, and were accepted as decent and proper. Or at least fairly proper. And, as evidenced on this lawn at Rasa Ria, the smaller the bikini, the smaller the store of cellulite. So that was very proper indeed. In fact, possibly more proper than what the contract allowed in terms of allowable disclosed flesh. For whilst a bikini is clearly designed to cover certain areas of the female form while leaving the rest on show, under the sunbathers’ contract, the definition of the covered areas is open to a degree of interpretation. So, even though bums are not allowed to reveal themselves, buttock-edges are definitely OK (although by no means all of them). And if the limits of the bum are a little “ill-defined”, then those of the boobs are even more so, with it being quite in order to display anything up to eighty percent of their upper slopes, and again far more than would ever be acceptable for a meeting of the governors or an appearance on Newsnight.
So there it was: an appraisal by Brian of the workings of an invisible contract, and how this contract enables complete strangers with any number of strange bodies to share a common space without an outbreak of acute embarrassment or, even worse, the eruption of spontaneous sexual activity that might easily be regretted after the event. That said, the contract could do nothing about the cheats. Brian spotted a couple on the nearest loungers, one man who didn’t get past page fourteen of The Da Vinci Code all morning, and was clearly using it as a sort of hide – and another chap who took his sweet wrappings to a litter-bin no less than twenty times, on each occasion skirting a reclining young lady and her twenty square centimetres of stretched Lycra by no more than inches. Brian just couldn’t understand them.
Neither could he understand some of the… others in the vicinity, some of whom he suspected might be entirely ignorant of the contract, or who simply owned the sorts of bodies which were never envisaged by its authors. And yes, it was those Japanese folks again, who, through a diet of non-nutritious steaming laundry all their lives, didn’t really possess the sorts of bodies that were to be exposed to the world under any circumstances whatsoever. They were all so small – and thin and featureless – as in being bereft of any anchoring points. So one suspected that any swimwear might just slip off, unhindered by boobs or hips or even bums. And slipped-off swimwear, as any signatory to the contract knows, is a very big no-no, even if what’s revealed by the slip-off is barely three-dimensional. So no wonder then that a young Japanese couple on some nearby loungers were fully clothed, and that the female of the couple spent most of the morning applying make-up to her pearly-white face, rather than sun-cream to her (presumably) pearly-white body…
He was at it again. If not grumping then being mean and bigoted, and deriving pleasure from finding fault with anybody who didn’t comply with his definition of “normal”. And had he taken a look at himself just recently? Much more deterioration in the corporeal arena, and he might just find that clause in the contract dealing with unsightly geriatrics being called into play. And what would he do then? Well, in all likelihood, he’d do what he did after lunch, when he and Sandra retired to their room, where it was cool, comfortable and beyond the gaze of the guy with The Da Vinci Code. And no contract applied either… After which he’d concentrate on food. For now it was his and Sandra’s first tropical evening where they were not completely knackered, and they fancied a bloody good curry.
Fortuitously, one of Rasa Ria’s restaurants was an Indian restaurant (just next door to a Japanese restaurant where the food was less colourful). And it was to here that Brian and Sandra retired for their evening meal. It was quite posh and it was staffed by real Indians, but it could have learnt a little from some of the Balti Houses in Birmingham. Brian’s mouth barely felt any discomfort throughout the whole meal. But that was to grump again. It was a good experience without the clatter and crowds of that earlier breakfast. And being an Indian restaurant, it was, quite perversely, full of only Europeans (and a sprinkling of Indians). So it had a “familiar” almost British feel about it, and Brian felt at ease here. Although not quite in the same way that he felt at ease in his swimming shorts – when he felt at ease only when all those around him were similarly attired…
Yes, much against his expectations, he was already looking forward to more lounger time tomorrow, where apart from spending his time spotting more cheats with their Da Vinci Codes, he intended to raise his flag and ask for some scratchings with his beer.
Extracted from David Fletcher’s new book, Sabah-taged. Buy it here.