“Oh, I am very sorry to hear that this happened,” the officer answered me amidst his tiny, white cell of a police station.
“Really?” I'd already made up a pretense for how I'd lost it, “Because...it's not that big of a deal. I mean...I'm sure stuff like this happens all the time. I mean, even in my country...”
“Yes, but we are not in your country. And I am afraid that, after this, you are going to think that Malay people very bad people.”
“I promise, I won't do that.”
I'd closed my eyes for a while but had been completely aware of everything. In other words, I never did get any sleep. It was still early though...still dark even. And once I found a hotel, I could sleep all day if I wanted to.
The train slowed to a stop in an underground terminal. A concrete terminal; grey and vast...and astoundingly spotless. The wheels on people's luggage carts echoed as they clickety-clacked out the doors and rolled along the cement towards the escalators.
Just follow the herd. They knew what they were doing. And I knew that I had to catch something like a light-rail to take me to the city center...or so my travel book read. Its directions had been pretty reliable thus far but this would only be my third day in SE Asia and, other than the verbal depictions contained therein, I had no idea what to expect.
My backpack was heavy as hell as I rode the escalator up to a surprising height. Surprising because it was so unlike anything I'd seen over the past couple of days. Bangkok was a big, modern city. Sure. But I'd only stayed there a day and, even then, just hung out mostly near the train station...which apparently wasn't located on the most modern side of town. And then yesterday, after the train had dropped me off near Georgetown, I'd spent many hours wandering around that city; a strange mix of old, imperial looking buildings and tiki bars. But so far, I hadn't been anywhere or seen anything that even remotely resembled this concrete and glass train station in Kuala Lumpur. Who would have guessed?
Regardless, feeling the sleepiness of everyone else around me, I eyeballed these people whom I'd been on the train with and didn't have to guess that I was the only one amongst us also experiencing the slight pangs of a hangover. High up above me still, there were those teens (boys) about to step out and onto the surface level. I'd hung out with them a little while last night smoking cigarettes at the end of my car. They didn't speak a word of English but I felt like we'd gotten along alright. One kid had even gathered up enough balls to ask me for the necklace I was wearing. It was a string of tiny, metallic beads and wasn't worth anything. But it was a parting gift that a girl had given me years ago. She'd told me that they were for good luck and I'd kept them but had only come across them again while packing for this trip. But what the hell. Here ya go, kid. The necklace meant nothing to me besides something stylish but it seemed to mean the world to him. I hoped he'd cherish it and show it to all his friends whenever he got to wherever he was going and tell them that an American had given it to him.
And behind me, I looked over my shoulder, there was the group of Muslim girls in brightly colored scarves from my car; they were in their early twenties. The most curious one of the group had come back to sit by me and giggle and scold me with her pointer finger for drinking beer. She also taught me how to count to ten in Malay and how to say 'hello' and 'please' and 'thank you'. Her friends in the seats in front of us had giggled too as I tried to pronounce these words the whole while. Then we listened to music on my iPod. It didn't seem she was familiar with the latest American, indie rock...and she liked it. And I like that she liked it! And it occurred to me then that this is what traveling, in the first place, was all about. Meeting new people and bonding with them and sharing things that were different to one another. Music and moments like this. Eventually, I think she got freaked out though. She'd sort of lost herself in the fun we were having and it probably wasn't proper for a Muslim girl to be laughing and having such a good time with a guy she didn't know or wasn't related to. Oh, well. Malaysia was a lot different from Thailand though. I could tell that much already.
When the escalator reached the top, I stepped off and found myself in a brightly lit terminal with ridiculously high ceilings and windows in every direction where nightfall could still be confirmed. The floor was still concrete and the place, just like down below, was absolutely spotless to the point of seeming sterile. Everything echoed in here as well and, although the place was decently filled with people moving this way and that, there was also plenty of empty space where the overhead lighting reflected off the shiny floors.
Okay. I knew that I needed to catch the light-rail but kept having to repeat this basic concept in my mind as if sleepiness itself were trying to act as an eraser. The problem I encountered first, though, was where exactly to buy the ticket. At this early an hour, all the booths were still closed. But I don't think that would have mattered anyway. The booths, I predicted, only sold train tickets. And what I needed, obviously, was something a bit more local. The book I still carried in my very hand did offer instructions on how to go about buying one but...perhaps, it was a dated edition because I couldn't seem to find any of the kiosks it was referring to.
I even went so far as to go outside and think about a cab...but no. I couldn't do that. I simply could not sell out like that because...because I was supposed to be traveling on a budget here and I was only barely on day 3 of a monthlong excursion. Plus...it was also just the general principle. I needed to figure this shit out on my own. I needed to prove to myself that I could. So I walked back in.
Alright. I approached an automated kiosk at random and pressed a few buttons. There was an English version, thank God. But it still didn't explain exactly what I was buying or where to. And, just as I was about to pump some cash in the slot, I just had to stop myself because of a bad feeling. No. This wasn't right. This wasn't the one. This machine was for something else. God only knows what else but... I was becoming increasingly frustrated with my own stupidity. Just keep walking around though. Check every machine. You have nothing but time on your hands anyway. Time and a whole lot of fatigue that seemed to be gaining momentum and urging me to get somewhere fast...like a bed.
Just keep trying. Follow the signs. Find the light-rail first maybe. And then maybe ask somebody. And even if they didn't speak English...people were friendly. Just point at the map in your book and make a face like, “I want to go there.” They'd help me. It wasn't cheating. There was no such thing as cheating so long as I didn't take a cab.
Just finding the light-rail, though, was a chore in itself. The train signs were everywhere and obvious. As were the ones for buses and shuttles and, of course, taxicabs. But the light-rail...where the fuck was it? The station was big, sure. But the thought of not being able to locate an entire rail service was a concept that I just couldn't get my head around. And yet... I must have walked across the entire terminal three or four times. Just keep your eyes wide. Something will appear. Some clue that you didn't see before or take notice of.
And there it was.
Another escalator that was all but unmarked. And...another escalator? Like that's where I really would have imagined a fucking light-rail stop to be? And it's because I was tired and not thinking outside the box. It's because I imagined rails to be on the ground. And it's probably mostly because I was still underestimating Malaysia. I figured that this station would have been just like Bangkok's. Simple. Hua Lamphong had been so simple. There had been a waiting area with plenty of seats and then there was a giant doorway where the actual rails were...on the ground! But go for it, Malaysia. Just keep on surprising me.
Another escalator that seemed to reach towards the heavens. And as the main train station diminished before me until I had a bird's eye view of all the people down below who just became little ants; I found, at the top, practically a whole new station with ceilings of paned glass! And I could tell now that the sun was just beginning to rise. And there were the right kiosks. And there was my frustration just melting away. Because in the wee hours of the morning; I'd done it. I'd actually figured this shit out! And just having done so instilled me with a brand new sense of self-confidence. The world was my fucking oyster now! I perked up immediately and was ready for whatever else was about to come my way. And then I found the right line to take and stood next to the rail with a number of sleepy-eyed...morning commuters? That's what they looked like anyway.
Then the train came and I embarked. Just like the MAX back in Portland, I tried to tell myself. Now, just keep your cool and try to figure out where to get off. I had my book though. I had the info. Just keep standing under the weight of your enormous backpack a little while longer and find a place to stay as quickly as humanly possible. Because, much as I just wanted to pick any curb and sleep in the street; I didn't guess that such impulses flew too well around these parts. Especially after assessing the cleanliness of the train station!
Through the windows of the light-rail, I could see the sky lightening right around the horizon. Slowly though. More slowly than I was used to but it was obvious already that there wasn't so much as a cloud up above. A clear day. Clear and promising and one that I'd, no doubt, close the door on and the curtains to.
The light-rail rode up above everything else like that monorail thing at Disneyland. It encircled the city and snaked along while stopping every so often along the way. Masjid Jamek. I think that was the stop that I wanted...the one that the book recommended as being the easiest place to find a cheap hotel. All I had to do was stand there and listen for the sounds of similar words to come over the PA. Until then, I just rode...propping myself up by my arms mostly as my hands gripped the stanchion so as not to fall over; the oppressing weight of my backpack causing me to wobble top-heavily.
“Masjid...” the automated voice announced. The second word didn't sound like 'Jamek' though. I could have been wrong but also didn't think this was a great time to start second-guessing myself. And for some reason unbeknownst to me, I wasn't nearly as stressed out as I would have expected myself to be while riding public transit in a foreign country. But...what did I really care if I missed my stop? I had a two-hour ticket and could ride as long as it took to find the right one. I also had a map in the book in my hand and was presently able to follow it fairly well. I knew roundabout where I was going. Nothing to stress out about. And I was tired, yes, but not drunk at least. My mind; still adequately sharp and capable of making quick decisions. And so, at this stop, I didn't get off.
Besides. I already knew that Masjid meant 'mosque'. And this was the only that reason two stops in this vicinity could begin with the exact same word and not seem like such a far-out coincidence to me. The was Muslim country, after all. And, for all I knew, every stop along this rail could have been situated directly across from a mosque. It wouldn't have even surprised me.
“Masjid Jamek,” the voice came again about half a mile down the way.
“That's me,” I mumbled to myself half crazy with sleep deprivation.
And this time, when the light-rail came to a halt, I made my way to the nearest exit.
Another sheltered structure of sorts; a tunnel with another high roof overhead. It must rain a lot here; that's about all I could gather from all these ceilings. The passageway led to yet another escalator and then to yet another pedestrian passage and I just sort of followed the exit signs until finally popping out into the open atmosphere again. And there she was; Masjid Jamek. It was a pretty famous mosque. The reason for its fame, though, still remained a mystery to me. It might have been because it was right downtown in this country's capitol. Or it might have had some holy significance. But what struck me most this first time seeing it with my own eyes was its beauty. I'd seen grander mosques in my time but never one with a river wrapping all the way around it; and man-made sort of banks with white tiles lining both channels. There was the sound of water lapping about that offered a certain peacefulness to the air and I imagined that, in no time, the call to prayer would be heard blasting its way into the city's consciousness for blocks around.
The streets were all but dead though; yet another great difference between this place and Thailand where, at any given hour, plenty of people were up cooking and eating and drinking and smiling. But these streets... There were tall buildings on all sides which meant that I couldn't see the dawning towards the east thereby occluding my overall sense of direction. Not that it mattered too much. I just needed to find a few specific streets that, supposedly (according to the book), would lead me towards a more touristy district.
After making my way around a few corners, though, I wasn't able to locate any of these streets in particular despite the fact that there were plenty of signs and that everything was pretty well labeled. There was a park that I could make out just up ahead though. And so, deciding that a cigarette and a regrouping were in order (as well as a quick rest from my backpack), I made for it.
The air was humid and I could feel it warming up considerably already. And I knew that when the sun hit, this place would undoubtedly turn into a sauna and I really wanted to get back indoors before that happened. My clothes were sticking to me and, for the first time in my life, I felt that I may have been chafing.
“Excuse me,” I stopped to ask the one guy I found walking these sidewalks other than myself.
He was an older, blue-collar guy...probably on is way to work this morning. He looked at the map in my travel book for about two seconds, though, before shrugging in an apologetic way. And although he didn't seem to be in that much of a hurry; he obviously didn't speak any English and had no idea what the fuck this weird American in the half-light even wanted from him this morning.
In the grey dawn, I stopped along the park's perimeter and sat on a tree stump. Then I lit up a smoke and consulted my book trying as best I could to exercise some attention and focus on where, within the pages, it pertained to my situation at hand. But...unable to keep from skimming ahead a few pages, I turned to the section highlighting points of interest in the surrounding area and there was one place in particular that I really wanted to see. The Batu Caves. Supposedly, they were located only a few miles from where I now sat. This seemed hard to believe but, again according to the all-knowing book, there was a bus stop just a few blocks away that would lead me there. It even relayed which number bus.
An idea occurred to me then. An idea that proved I already wasn't thinking straight. But I thought that I'd just go with whichever one I was able to find first; the bus stop or a hotel. The sky was getting brighter every minute; now a pale yellow. And I'd gone plenty of nights without sleep in the past and knew that it wasn't that bad. If anything, just staying up all day would all but guarantee me a peaceful night's rest when my head finally did hit a pillow tonight. I could just go to The Batu Caves now and find a hotel later. And I could burn pure excitement as the fuel to keep me going. The only problem being (not that it was much of a problem); I still had my backpack with me...my crippling, debilitating backpack. But if I just set it down on the bus...in the center aisle maybe. Or threw it in a rack up above.
Whichever came first then. But I certainly wasn't going to find either just sitting in one spot. So, pulling my backpack up and onto my shoulders once again, I started to walk in the direction of a misty, grey alley where I could see the flashing of a red, neon sign at the other end. After pacing perhaps fifty yards, the other end of the alley opened up into more of a liveable looking neighborhood than the seemingly financial district I'd just come from. The streets were more narrow and there was some litter scattered here and there. Still not much life though. Not another pedestrian or even a motorcycle. Not even the sound of one. Just me and this flashing neon sign; adversely tinier than it had looked at a distance. And it blinked not because it was supposed to but more like it had an electrical short and was on the fritz. But the sign read: Vacancy. And a long, hand painted sign just above it read: Backpacker's Hostel, Backpackers Welcome.
Well...I guess that meant me.
And so in the dim light of morning with the sounds of enormous birds beginning to wake in the trees all around, I crossed the threshold of this open doorway and walked directly up a steep set of stairs. A the top, I stepped onto a landing where nice, wood floors greeted my feet and a long, narrow room opened up before me. At the far end of this room there was a desk about elbow-high. And behind this desk; there stood a Malay man in a yellow short sleeved dress shirt of the thinnest, threadbare cotton I'd seen in a long time. He nodded at me and smiled and, at first, I thought it was as if he'd been standing there and waiting for me forever before quickly realizing that he must have just heard me coming.
“Hi,” I said, “I need a room, please. The cheapest room you have.”
“Okay. Dorm room okay then?”
“Sure. A dorm is fine. How much is it?”
“Dorm room, right now, for 2 day is thirteen Ringgit. And for how many day will you be staying?”
The man's accent was thick and tonal and I wasn't quite used to dealing with the English language sounding like this yet. I probably even leaned over the counter and turned my good ear toward him.
Thirteen Ringgit. I quickly busted out my pocket calculator and did the conversion.
Two dollars a night?!
“That sounds fine,” I replied hoping he didn't take any offense to my doing the math right then and there, “I'll stay for 2 nights.”
“Okay. Very good then. Just sign in here, please.” And here, he lifted a thick, sign-in log onto the counter and slid it over to me.
Wow. Just look at all the people who'd signed in lately...in the past week even! They were from all over the fucking world! Well...mostly from parts of the world where people have the luxury of traveling like this. Not that this was traveling in luxury exactly. But from where people have the luxury of being able to travel at leisure for weeks or months at a time. People from all over Europe with a good many Australians and New Zealanders to boot. In fact, it appeared as though a guy from New Zealand had arrived a mere hour before I did and had listed his official occupation as: Bum. I, however, (and especially being so new to the continent) decided to take the log a bit more seriously than my predecessor and filled in my own occupational blank space with: Bartender. And of course, I needed to dig in my pocket for my passport since I could never remember the number.
“Alright. Here is you key,” the man handed it to me just after I paid him. “The room is up these stairs,” he pointed to my right, “Enjoy your stay, please.”
“Thank you. But hey. Can I ask you something real fast?”
“The Batu Caves. Do you know where I catch the bus to get there?”
“Of course, sir. It is not very far from here.”
He directed me only a few blocks back towards the financial district where the light-rail had let me off and added that the stop was right in front of a specific bank building adjacent to a square surrounded by a bunch of other bank buildings. And his directions were pretty concise. He said that the bus left the stop whenever it filled up entirely and it would do so starting about now until the late afternoon. And this inspired me.
“Alright. Thank you,” and I gave him a friendly wave before heading up another steep set of stairs.
At the top, rather than a long, narrow room; there was more of a long, narrow hallway with the closed doors to their respective rooms all the way along it. There was also a bathroom directly on my right and, although I needed to pee really badly, I opted to drop off my pack first not wanting to sit it down on a bathroom floor that was undoubtedly dirty. For this hotel was undoubtedly dirty. And dingy. The walls were peeling paint and paper all around me and the floor creaked with a foreboding groan each time I took step. It was perfect though. It was everything I'd imagined in my head before coming to this region of the globe and, for the price, how could I beat it?!
Doing an about face, I took only a few steps before coming to my room. It was the first door on the right. And after turning the key the guy had given me, I opened the door only to find the tiniest room imaginable with two bunks making an L-shape and three, sleepy bodies rolling over under their sheets to look at me.
“Oh, fuck!” an old man mumbled in a thick British accent without sitting up, “Here comes another one. Settle in, will ya. Jesus!”
He was in one of the bottom bunks. The other guys didn't say anything but merely rolled back over and, a few seconds later, the cranky guy did the same.
“Sorry, guys,” I whispered and creaked in a few steps more, “I just want to take a quick shower and then I'll be out of your hair.”
Mine, obviously being the only space left, was a top bunk pressed up against a window with the weak daylight already seeping in. The bed frames; weak, rickety metal pieces that had been screwed together and squeaked even more than the floor did.
Rather than hurling my backpack up onto the bunk though, which would have created even more noise, I simply slipped my arms from its grasp and, with my muscles straining and quivering; set it lightly on the ground. My bath supplies were in the top pocket and were pretty easy to get to. Soap. TP. A travel sized bottle of shampoo. That's about all I really needed. But wait! Clothes. Of course, I didn't want to put on the same old sweaty clothes and underwear I'd been wearing for four days now. So I unzipped the body of the backpack's zipper quietly as I could and extracted the clothes I needed from the separate plastic bags I'd designated for each; socks and underwear, shirts, pants, and especially one for laundry. But the bags crinkled as they will and I saw the British guy rolling over and over again in an exaggerated yet mimical way of trying to get some sleep.
Then, leaving my backpack on the floor and the door unlocked behind me, I took all my shit across the hall to the bathroom and just hoped that no one in there would be too pissed off at my freshly showered return in about 15 minutes. And normally, I would have just said, 'Fuck'em'. But I had to share a room with these assholes for the next two nights. And a tiny one at that. So my goal was to play it peaceful for now.
The bathroom itself was small, contained but one shitter that I assumed the four of us were supposed to share, and was covered (both floor and walls) with moldy, yellow tile. Right next to the toilet there was a shower head but no tub or curtain which, given the mold situation, was probably a blessing. There was also no mirror...probably another blessing. But no sink? That part was kind of weird. No matter, though, because I'd also brought a small bottle of water in with me and used this to brush my teeth.
Then I stripped; hanging my clothes on the doorknob in an effort to keep them from getting wet. Why hadn't I invested in a pair of water socks, I thought as I took the few steps back towards the nozzle. I think the travel book had even advised me to do so and I'd ignored it. And now I could only imagine all the types of flesh-eating bacteria about to attack the skin of my feet. Oh, well. Not much I could do about it now. So I tried not to think about it and turned on the water. The freezing cold water! So much colder than the air outside. So cold that I wasn't about to stand under the spray nozzle in the sense of taking a true shower. No way. Rather, I just wet my bar of Irish Spring and rubbed it all over my body. The rinse-off caused me to shiver but didn't come anywhere close to the agony of washing my hair (done also with the bar soap). And by the time I reached for my towel hanging precariously on the doorknob along with the rest of my clothes, my teeth were chattering.
Basically, the state I now found myself in was one of fatigue more than sleepiness. The cold water had worked to rid the tired sting from my eyes and exhilarate my brain in such a way that it was hard to imagine actually passing out now...especially on the top bunk of that rickety bed with the grumpy British guy just waiting (as I pictured him) in there and about to roll over to bitch me out again. Especially now with full-on daylight coming in the window. So fuck it, I decided. And perhaps later, even, I could sneak in a midafternoon nap once all those guys were out of there and doing...well, whatever it was that they did. But in the meantime...
When I entered the room again, the British guy did grumble but I don't think he articulated any words. And I tried to be quiet while stuffing anything I thought I might need into my smaller satchel. These attempts, though, were pretty much in vain as even the slightest little shuffle of my feet caused the floors to squeak anew. And finally, when I threw my backpack onto the top bunk that was supposedly my own, the metal framework squealed loud and piercingly. And just then, had I been one of the guys asleep in there, I probably would have wanted to roll over and kick my own ass.
“Sorry,” I whispered again.
And then I was out.
“Decided I'm gonna try to get to The Batu Caves,” I stopped momentarily at front desk again.
“Oh. Very good idea. Very good weather today.”
“Awesome. Glad to hear it. And I think I know where I'm going now so thanks again for the directions.”
“Yes. Anytime,” he smiled.
“But...well, you don't think any of those guys would steal any of my stuff, do ya?”
And even as the words left my mouth, I wondered just what in that backpack was so valuable that would worry me to leave it. Not much. My passport, cash, and electronic stuff; I now had in my hip pocket and in the satchel hanging at my side. So what was left? Clothes. A tent. I can't believe I'd brought a fucking tent. And bathroom supplies. So no big deal. Not that I really, if it came to it, wanted to buy a brand-new wardrobe here but... But really, it seemed, that the only commodity of real value I'd be leaving behind was the backpack itself. I couldn't very well carry my new wardrobe around with me in multiple plastic bags for the next 28 days. I'd have to buy a new backpack. But I'm sure that I was overreacting and getting ahead of myself. Surely, there must be some sort of code amongst fellow travelers. Plus...they had no clue as to when exactly I'd be back. And so, for only a moment, I paused to envision them rummaging through all my stuff and the startled looks on their faces as I snuck into the room again to catch them in the act. Not a one of those guys would probably have been intimidated by me physically though. Since, since being laid off a few months ago, I'd really let my body go to pot. Not that this would have stopped me, however, from crossing the threshold and at least trying to kick somebody's ass. But again; way ahead of myself.
“You said you wanted dorm room,” the front desk guy's shrug now slightly accusatory, “Now all room are full. Only dorm left. Very sorry.”
“Alright, alright,” I put on my chill-out voice like everybody just needed to calm down, “I was only asking. It's fine. No big deal. Really. Thank you again for the directions. I'm gonna go find those caves.”
“Very good then. You will very much enjoy.”
“I'll be back in a few hours,” I added not knowing whether or not this statement were even true.
“Okay,” he said, smiled, and nodded all at the same time as I made for the stairs and the exit.
Nice guy. And for the whole two dollars I'd just dropped on the rent, I surely didn't have a whole lot of room to complain.
It was full-on daylight that I walked out into now but, thankfully, not uncomfortably hot as of yet. Not that I'd been uncomfortably hot yet on any day this trip. But I'd heard enough about the region to just be thankful it was February and to keep a steady flow of fluids moving through my system.
The air did hang though. And almost immediately, I associated this climate with the winters I'd spent in Florida; the humidity and the effort it took to breathe. But unlike Florida, I was actually glad to be here. Ecstatic, I'd say. And I was excited as hell to locate The Batu Caves and to somehow assure myself (even more so) of being able to navigate and locate shit on my own. And navigation is the task I instantly began. While the front desk guy had been giving me directions; I'd actually taken some notes. Actual, written notes. And the very act of doing so (so unlike me) just proved how seriously I was taking this shit. Plus, there was no real hurry. I had all day and the buses seemed to run most of the day so... So long as I didn't get stressed out about not finding the stop on the very first try...or even in the very first hour! And perhaps now I'd have better luck stopping people to ask for information as there were now much more of them on the streets. They still seemed like a friendly enough lot and I became evermore confident that they'd be happy to point me the way.
As it turned out, though, the bank building and its respective square wasn't at all difficult to locate. I simply made a right onto one street and a left onto another. And there I was; standing right in front of the bus stop next to the park. It was a beautiful day. And, as if to put an exclamation point right on that remark, the very bus pulled up just then...the number of the one I was supposed to catch. And it appeared to be about halfway empty! Not that it would have killed me to stand for just a few miles. But still! Having a seat would be excellent.
“Hey, man,” I greeted the driver upon boarding, “Batu?”
“Batu, yes, yes,” he nodded and smiled widely.
“Excellent. Thank you. And...how much?” I asked while extracting a bunch of Ringgit coinage from my left pocket. “This much?” and I held up a few pieces; as much as the travel book said.
“Yes,” he accepted them and then wrote something in black Sharpie on a ticket just before handing it to me. “Please, sit. When Batu...I tell you, okay?”
“Perfect,” and here I made a little bow, “Thank you.”
Once inside, the bus was like... Well, not like the city buses around Portland that I was used to. It was more like I school bus, I guess. White on the outside and an unpainted sort of chromium color within with blue seat cushions that were tattered and torn over the years of use. It didn't smell bad though. And the people already on-board were all smiling to themselves mindlessly. And I thought, just then, that I liked them very much. And I like this...Malaysia. Nice folks here. Really. They smiled at me as I passed them making my way down the aisle towards an empty bench near the back. And once I'd seated myself, I felt that all was right with the world. The whole world. Not just that bubble of a US that I normally lived in. And for once, I really felt like a world traveler. No more companions and no more tour groups. Just me. Just me on the third day of my journey. I made my own agenda now. And I did not take this freedom lightly.
The bus, unlike my travel book warned, didn't wait very long for any extra passengers. A few minutes maybe. But it certainly didn't wait around to fill up to capacity like I'd expected. In this early traffic hour of business commute, though, there surely must have been other buses scheduled...even in Malaysia, I assumed, people were expected to get to work on time.
Then we took off and I was giddy as I had been when my first train left Thailand. I loved just taking a ride. Even back home, the idea of someone else driving me somewhere always served to relax me beyond belief. And I didn't feel tired anymore. I wasn't even sleepy! To the contrary, I was invigorated and looked forward to nothing more than looking out the window and taking a local's perspective to this exotic city.
Once the bus began rolling, all worries were left behind. The driver told me that he would let me know which stop to get off at and this only meant that I had absolutely nothing to think about until then. Just enjoy the ride. Enjoy these spinning wheels as they looped through the city. And what a city. I'd already seen the heart of it, yes. And this much was confirmed almost as soon as we started moving. The tall buildings quickly became only a memory in the distance as more day-to-day shops took their place. These were still situated within city blocks, though, with what looked to be office space occupying the 2 or 3 stories up above them.
Outside and between all these buildings, there were tropical trees everywhere; the leaves of which seemed to be intruding all around. In every alleyway! Giant leaves and bushes. And there were gardener's already tending to their morning's toil; buzzing these leaves and branches backward with their electric hedge clippers and other tools in an interminable effort. In fact, in just about every direction, all I could really hear were the gas powered sounds of these machines fighting back the jungle. And then a revelation worked its way into my head and stayed there. This city, even with its financial district so modern, had still been compactly constructed right here in the middle of the fucking jungle. And so, in order to pay this price, its citizens constantly had to fight it off. In this climate. Jungle! True jungle. Not like Florida; the so-called 'Sunshine State'. But true mother fucking rain forest. Rain forest that required steady supply of precipitation all year-round. And that's exactly what this place provided. Except today. No wonder the front desk guy told me that the weather was supposed to be nice. It probably rained here every day nonstop! And so maybe the fact that I'd put off sleeping...maybe it was instinct; a blessing in disguise. Because who knew what tomorrow would be like...weather-wise. Pressing my forehead against the glass of that bus's window just then, I imagined it to be torrential. Hurricane weather. The very palm fronds that all those guys were presently at war with; blowing and ripping in the wind. And the flooding that would ensue. And that pregnant, grey sky.
But all those premonitions amounted to completely squat just now because the sky was blue and the breeze constant but calm.
Before long, the city disappeared entirely...as did any structures whatsoever. But the road remained relatively flat and unbumpy as we cruised over a rather well maintained highway with nothing but civilized to be seen outside but the occasional market along the way. The bus did make stops though. It stopped at these markets to let people in and out...off and on. The ones stepping off, I imagined, probably worked there. And the people stepping on? Well...I guessed that this line eventually made a loop somewhere and would take them back to the city at some point. I mean...how far out into the jungle could a bus possibly drive? And what business would people have out there anyway? But these were stupid questions, I knew. The type of questions that would become so obvious to anyone who stayed in this place very long...even a foreigner such as myself. But I didn't have time for that. And so, even in my own head, I only asked them rhetorically.
After about the half hour mark, though, I began to feel antsy like maybe I'd missed my stop. And so, feeling the need to take some initiative, I stood up and moved down the aisle where I sat down again in the foremost seat. Before asking anything, though, the driver assured me, “Mmmhmm. Mmmhmm. Batu.” He never did look at me directly but he was smiling widely as hell while commencing with...I don't know; the motions of being a bus driver, I guess. He steered the wheel and checked the rear view often enough. And I trusted him. Even as the bus hit a rut and tore onto nothing more than a dirt road, I trusted him. I trusted his smile; too genuine to ever be false.
For a mile more, we bounced onward over the mud and bumps. And through the windshield, I was able to make out a range of emerald green mountains; steep ones, it seemed, and we were headed straight for them. Then the bus stopped without really making any effort to pull over; not that it mattered because there weren't any other cars to be seen. There weren't even any pedestrians. Just the bus, the hot, baking mud, the base of the emerald mountains about another mile away if I had to guess, and the sound of chickens clucking somewhere in the distance.
“Batu,” the guy squeezed the word through his throat. He then rotated the lever on his right so that the bus doors swung open.
“Okay. Well...and which way again?”
“Batu,” and this time he made a motion with his right arm; his index finger fully extended. Through the windshield, he was pointing towards the mountains. Well...I did know that there were 272 steps to climb before reaching the caves. Of this, the travel book kept constantly reminding me and I could already feel my lungs heaving and imagine the couple of breaks I'd need to take before reaching the top. So where the bus driver now pointed only made sense. I needed to walk towards the mountains and then obviously up part of them. Well, alright.
“Thank you,” I said. And I stepped off the bus.
Pulling away then, the driver waved to me with one hand while still pointing with the other. “Mm. Batu,” I heard him say once more. But in no time, the bus had turned right onto another muddy road and was nothing more than a squeaking set of hydraulics growing smaller and smaller until the white paint of its body began to blend with the pale blue sky.
“Mm. Batu,” I said out loud; my voice sounding too deep, woody, and Western.
Well, fuck it. It was a beautiful day. Warm but as of yet, not too ungodly hot. And it wasn't even getting there I was worried about so much as getting back. Because, at least so far as I could see along this muddy road, there were no bus stops. None that were marked anyway. But whatever. I was still getting way ahead of myself...which may or may not be a bad thing when traveling like this (thinking 14 moves ahead). But I was also here to enjoy myself and so maybe throwing a little caution to the wind was in order. Just walk towards the mountains. You'll find it.
By the grace of God, I'd changed back into my red Doc Martins. They were trusty old boots that, under my jeans, came halfway up each calf. And just now they felt practically made for walking in the mud. Not that the walking was that difficult. It wasn't wet the the point of sucking my feet in thereby causing me to have to suck them back out again. But I could see it getting that way easily. All it would take was one light, little rain. But today, the sun was shining and the earth remained baked. And so I just walked along passing little shacks off to one side or another with children playing in front and women, every few shacks or so, doing laundry in the irrigation ditches that ran both sides of the road itself. The sounds and scenery; I considered both picturesque and quintessential.
And it wasn't before long, walking through this weird, rural neighborhood of sorts, that I came to another road running perpendicular. What surprised me, though, was that this road was paved again and not without its own share of morning traffic. Briefly, I encountered a new sort of hurdle; a hurdle that I wish I could have just jumped over. However, what with all the cars coming and going (since, seriously, this was like a 4-land road all of a sudden without the convenience of any crosswalks in sight), I found myself playing Frogger for a minute by hopping this way and that in my best effort to cross this fair thoroughfare without getting squished. But I made it. And once again, I found myself thankful to have been wearing boots and not something I could have slipped out of or tripped in that would have left me nothing more than a puddle of blood and a really unexciting obituary.
But then, once across, I quickly began to realize that I'd made it. The foot of the emerald mountains suddenly seemed so close and, just ahead of me, there was a brick promenade of sorts lined with open air stands and shops along the way...along the way to the stairs that I could finally make out in the misty distance. Those 272 steps that would lead me straight up and into...The Batu Caves.
“Mm. Batu,” I mimicked the bus driver's froggy like voice this time and giggled. I'd done it! I...had done it. I'd figured out the trains and then I'd figured out the light-rail. And then I'd figured out the buses! And now it was time to reap my reward. With nobody bothering me about having to stop for sleep or anything! Traveling alone...fucking rocks.
The shops and stands themselves were comprised mostly of thatch; the roofs of which providing a light shade over the grass and bamboo tables. They sold a lot of marigolds. Or, rather, since there still weren't that many people out and about; I should say that a lot of marigolds were strung up everywhere for sale. The flowers' brilliantly hot orange colors dazzled me and I was sure that I'd never seen so many in my life...my whole life combined probably. And, only to add to the exotic feelings they instilled in me, I knew that they had something to do with the Hindu religion but couldn't remember quite what. And there were a few Hindus in the vicinity already shaking and moving at this early hour; a few families all wearing marigold necklaces. Their coppery-brown skin and the unmistakable red dots on their foreheads. Their brightly colored saris. It was strange to think about Hindu people anywhere outside of India but, then again, Malaysia was a mostly Muslim country and it was still strange for me to think about Islam anywhere outside of Arabia. Which only went to show what an ignoramus I was. Which is exactly why I was out here trying to get some exposure. Kinda.
The truth is; I really didn't give a shit about Hindus or Muslims...or anything religious for that matter. And even the caves...and caves are always cool. But even they came secondary in my wanting to get to this particular spot so badly. I'll just come out and say it; it was the monkeys. For years now, I'd been traveling overseas. All over Europe. The Middle East. China even. But I think that all I ever really wanted to see...were some fucking monkeys. Not in the zoo. In their natural habitat. Wild ones. And who knows? Perhaps after this, I'd be satiated and never need to go anywhere again. Maybe I'd even choose to just spend the rest of my trip right here in Malay. Right here with the monkeys. And all I could feel was satisfied at this moment like I'd conquered my fears and was living the dream. Because monkeys, here I come.
The day was perfect and the sky still spotless and so blue that it was practically dripping this color. And as I continued along the brick path, the one leading directly up into the emerald mountains, I caught my first glimpse of the staircase that, thus far, I'd only read about in the travel book. It was beautiful. Two hundred seventy-two steps winding their way up the greenery before disappearing into what I had to assume were the caves. The Monkey Caves. And guarding this simple, concrete staircase with a staff or scepter in one hand was a 140 foot statue of some golden Hindu god with a smile on its face. And I liked to think that, by its smile, it was welcoming me onward. Congratulations, white boy. You made it.
On past all the shops and stands I went until coming to the first step. And I realized then that, although the sound of 272 steps was intimidating, it actually didn't amount to very much. That is, now that I was actually face-to-face with it, I bet myself that I could climb the entire thing without having to break at all...not that I wouldn't be terribly winded at the top. The scary part about the staircase wasn't really the workout I'd been foreboding at all; it was its abrupt angle and the low, cement railings on either side. I don't like heights. And I knew that this was about to be one of those 'don't look back and don't look down' type situations. And already, I envisioned myself slipping towards the top and tumbling with increasing momentum until my neck finally broke back at the bottom again. But at least that was an obituary one could be proud of. Sort of.
I could break my neck without a care in the world though. But only after I saw those goddam monkeys. And so I took the first step looking towards the top and only then discovered that there was not one other person, either ascending or descending, between me and where the stairs sort of faded into the mist...where I assumed the caves to be. Maybe most Hindus saved their worshiping for later in the day. Still...I would have expected some other tourists at least. Not that I was complaining.
As expected, though, I became winded...and winded pretty early. My heart heaved and my lungs pounded and, just by looking around, I determined that I was only about a quarter of the way up yet. So...not that I needed to take a break. But I took one just the same. I didn't call it a break though. I called it a photo opp and used this opportunity to stop and bust out a multitude of cameras from my bag. Because now, through the dip in two distant emerald peaks way off to my left...I could see the ocean. The fucking ocean! Blue, serene, even just its little sliver; awe-invoking and epic.
So I snapped off a few shots with both the digital camera I'd picked up just before embarking on this trip and the cheap, 35mm I'd also just picked up because something just wouldn't allow me to switch over to digital age entirely. Then I looked towards the bottom of the steps but thankfully, only being about a quarter of the way up yet, I didn't get dizzy or anything. But I could see a family of Hindus following me and, for some reason, I wondered just then if they were offended by my taking pictures here or thought me just some stupid, American tourist...which I obviously was. Or did they even notice me at all? Maybe they were just so focused on religious stuff... I mean, just how holy was this site to them? I didn't even know. I hadn't done my homework. They were nodding and praying with every step though. That much, I could tell from here. Their hands firmly clasped in the namaste position.
But fuck 'em. I was on a holy mission of my own. A monkey mission. And I have to admit; I was sort of expecting to see them before now. I'd expected that they'd be prowling this entire area in swarms and hordes! No matter. Nothing to get discouraged about. If the travel book said there would be monkeys then there would. Period. Because it had been my guide thus far and, thus far, it hadn't steered me wrong.
Another step and then another. I found myself completely re-energized now and knew that I'd make it to the top without another...photo opp. Which I did. And there I was in the midst of them; The Batu Caves.
Or more, caverns, I would say. Caves were something that I associated smugglers of the 1800's hiding out in; dark, musty holes where their stolen bags of money were stashed crudely under rocks. But this... This was something different entirely.
There was a humongous cavern, yes; the ceiling of which rose hundreds of feet high. Literally hundreds. Three hundred thirty feet according to the book and to be precise. But what made it so majestic...the key feature (I believe) that caused this spot to feel so holy was that, towards the back and across the span of this huge room; there was another area where light could enter. That is, there was a hole in the ceiling and what must have been a gaping one at that. And through this breach, the light wafted downward; a blue and heavenly mist.
But first thing's first. I'd check out the main cavern where there were some electric lights working to illuminate a few points of interest in this subterranean church of sorts; an area that would have otherwise remained mostly in the dark. Leave it to man and especially religious zealots to construct something where something should not be; to take this natural wonder and make it about their man-made God or 'gods' as it were. And since a big, hollow room in the side of a mountain (no matter how breathtaking) is never enough to appease a man-made god; a smaller, man-made room must be erected from of gold and adorned with lots of jewels. And that's exactly what they did. Smack-dab in the middle of this cavern, there had been erected a mini temple of sorts comprised entirely of what looked to be gold and bejeweled to the gills. The little temple was only about head high, though, and covered an area of perhaps only thirty square feet. So rather than resemble any sort of tribute to the gods; it appeared meek and contrived under the three hundred foot ceiling of jagged rock overhead. And maybe it was even supposed to. Who knew? I'd probably never meet the architect.
The temple was well lit, though, by little floodlights set up at various points along the cavern's floor and, since there couldn't be heard the sound of a generator generating (which would've been ridiculous albeit really, really funny), I determined that electrical lines must have been run all the way down the cliff to God only knows where or how far. Regardless...I walked around this little temple a couple of times looking at all the pictures of crazy, half-animal Hindu gods where they posed in the pictures along the walls; their all-knowing faces and many, many sets of arms. And I loved it. Although this temple seemed to somehow cheapen the cavern in my eyes upon first glance, it then occurred to me just how freakishly foreign it actually was. The portraits of these various gods; they would scare the living shit out of Midwesterners back home! Not to mention polytheism in general and the actual polytheists who continued to make their way to the top of the stairs. New ones...possibly from a different sect with pale yellow paint smeared all over their foreheads in place of the little, red dots. Some of them were chanting in what I assumed to be Hindi and bowing their heads in short, little nods incessantly.
So that was pretty cool...so far as a sideshow went. But I was ready for the main attraction! And just where were those fucking monkeys! The book said this place would be crawling with them! Crawling! It made them out to be pests and stated that, although holy for nothing more than living on this ground, the animals were also considered to be somewhat of a public nuisance. So where the fuck were they!?
Rather than taking the obvious approach, though, to what would have seemed an instant answer to my question; so...rather than just spreading my arms widely and vociferating throughout the natural echoes of these caves, “Where are the fucking monkeys? Can somebody please tell me?!” I opted for a course more...low-key. I would walk forward into the far room with the hole in the ceiling...and they would come to me. So I hoped. The room with the hole in the ceiling was the farthest point from the top of the stairs. It was the ultimate point one could reach without ropes and other climbing equipment. But I would have climbed for them. Not that I ever believed the Hindus present would have taken very kindly to that. But that's how serious I was about this shit. Just show me some monkeys so I can go home. Home where I would claim to be a great explorer who not only saw, but had videoed, monkeys along my journey. I'd could say that I'd studied them even. That I had captured them on tape.
Walking, walking. Stepping, stepping. So quietly as I could amongst these consecrated grounds. I padded my way back there. And as that small, lit space (about the same size as a double-car garage) grew larger and larger; I, in turn, grew closer and closer to it. Until I was in it! Until I could actually fell the blue light and the mist so ethereally floating down upon my skin. Until its coolness refreshed me and I was looking back up again at the sky through that hole in the rock that was this room's best feature.
It wasn't just the sky though. Not that it wasn't now blue and oddly out of place if one directed their view straight up. It was the light...and what the light provided. And what it provided was nourishment for the funnel sort of shape that began at this room's floor and expanded as it rose upwards. To this cylinder where light just seemed so out of place; it offered a brand-new sanctuary to all the green ferns perfectly resplendent and happy to thrive all the way down and around this rocky cone. It seemed to be the perfect exhibition if anyone...any scientist ever tried to challenge it. Where there was light, there would also be life. Even clutching to the sharp, cavernous cliffs such as this. And as I made my way into this room where sunlight touched me again on the face; I didn't think but just felt how incredibly awesome this was and envisioned those airports I'd been in just days ago half a world away. Rain it down! Make me fucking feel it! My face and forearms already wet with the glistening mist.
A few Korean tourists who'd snuck up behind me sounded startled and pointed at something just then...something moving perhaps farther up near the top of the funnel. And then I saw it too. A furry little ball so grey that it would've blended in with absolutely anything; the dense ferns being no exception. And for a second, it did completely disappear again. The rustling, little fronds, though, never again quite concealing its position. Not that the ball seemed to be trying to hide. On the contrary. Under the leaves, we (the Korean tourists and I) could clearly see that it was on the move. And when it popped back out of the ferns again, it was about halfway down the funnel and its outlines were more clearly defined. There was no mistaking it. I could see the peachy skin of its face and its hands and feet. It was a monkey! And now my mission was complete. Well, almost.
The Korean family and I had the same idea. It wasn't enough to simply enjoy this moment. We needed to prove that we'd been here amongst the monkeys. And so, simultaneously, we all went diving for the cameras in our satchels.
Besides my newly acquired digital and the 35mm, there was also a hand-held video camera that my parents had gifted me for Xmas. It arrived almost 2 months later in the mail (only a day before I left for this trip) so I still wasn't very familiar with any of its features or mechanisms. It seemed pretty straightforward though. Simply unfold the flap and there was the viewscreen. The power switched on automatically so all I had to do was hit record. And in the minute amount of time that it took me to do just this; the little monkey had been joined by a few other, much larger ones. The first had only been a baby. I could see that now. It was also perfectly clear that his mother was super pissed off at him for wandering down the funnel so quickly and all on his own. She'd caught all the way up with him by now (in front of us and some thirty feet above our heads) and proceeded to scream at him (assuming the baby was a 'he') and the most awesome part was...I was recording the whole thing! Even as the baby then latched onto and hung upside down from his mother's belly! And even as his mouth then latched onto to one of her hanging tits so humanly boob-like in appearance! I had it all right here on this memory card for ever and ever! Not that such sights were probably unique around here by any means. But it was pretty rare to me. And it was so much cooler than being at the zoo because these animals weren't being kept captive willingly or otherwise. These caves were simply their home and these animals were, although probably used to being around people to a certain extent, also perfectly wild.
The daddy-monkey was there too and didn't look like he had much of a sense of humor. I zoomed in on his sour face and realized that, if he so much as had a problem with my camera being on him, he could leap down from his perch effortlessly and begin tearing off my own face in about 2 seconds...if he so chose. And I guess that was the biggest difference between this experience and simply watching something like this go down on the Discovery Channel; the chance of getting my face ripped off was so much more real!
The dad wasn't going to single me out though. He didn't have time to. There were more people arriving behind me every second. And, as if in some sort of twisted mirror image, more monkeys were arriving at the top of the hole in the ceiling and working their way down the funnel to meet them so that basically what ensued was a man versus monkey staring contest. And the monkeys seemed to find us just as fascinating...if not more so. They merely lacked any of the electronic recording devices that every single person in that little chamber presently possessed and was utilizing. Or...maybe the electronics were what they found so fascinating, mysterious, and...shiny. Either way; they were moving in closer and closer until some of them actually hopped down and, on all 4's, were walking around on the ground amongst us. Some people were getting freaked out but I wasn't one of them. I just hoped they didn't think we were holding any food.
I do, however, have a really short attention span when it comes to stuff like this...especially if it's been officially captured with not only a picture but also on video. Then I'm just ready to move on and check out other stuff...no matter how long I'd longed to see these creatures in their own natural habitat. Plus, I was sure they'd still be around to say 'goodbye' after I'd checked out some of the smaller shrines back within the main cavern. I was also really tired and already thinking about a bed again. But not before I checked out Ganesh, I thought, as a shrine dedicated him to back towards the staircase caught my eye. The shrine itself resembled a glass lantern of sorts supported by a golden frame. It stood almost as tall as myself and inside there sat an idol bearing the elephant-headed god's resemblance. Traversing the room, I approached the idol and noticed that he hadn't been carved out of stone as I'd first guessed from a distance. Rather, Ganesh and all his arms peered out at me with lifelike eyes and an even more authentic-looking skin...or hide...or whatever it was that he was considered to have. Not that I believed that Hindus would skin any animal (let alone an elephant) just to suit up one of their gods. But the leathery substance, whatever it was, reminded me of something from the world of voodoo. And, since I couldn't really understand what the material was, I probably believed in this god more than I would have some gigantic, wooden cross. Therefore, I decided to pray to the fucking thing...sort of. That is; I really didn't know how to pray. But I imagined it to be when people pretended that God was right there, so close, that He was easy talk to. Some folks probably plead with Him meekly and others may have talked to Him more like an everyday buddy. But one thing was for sure; with Ganesh just sitting there in his golden box and staring right through that box and right into my soul with his weird, glass doll eyes...looking right down his trunk at me! Let's just say that it was easy to imagine him being there; spirit, body, and all. And he was sort of intimidating so I instantly began to see how people would sometimes pray meekly. But I'd keep it short and sweet and try to phrase it more like I was giving a toast really.
“Dear, Ganesh,” I said in my head...
Before proceeding, though, I wondered just what these Hindus would think of this white boy if they happened to look over here and see him praying to one of their own. And it wasn't hard to tell that I was praying. I quickly realized that my face had gone from one of those observing something scientifically to that of one actually interacting with a stationary elephant god; the eyes and body language must have been obvious. But would they get pissed? Were these gods reserved for them and them only? There was no telling. I obviously wasn't up on my current Hindu rules and regulations. But maybe they weren't like Christians in the fact that any and everyone could just start praying to Jesus anytime they wanted to. But was Christianity even respectable in this aspect? Probably not. It all just seemed too easy. Which is why, when it came down to monotheism, I liked the Jews. They made you work for it and memorize a bunch of shit and even be tested on it before converting into their brand. And Allah? Well, who the fuck knew what was going on with that religion or what one had to do to get in. But...without knowing for sure, I did live under the presumption that Muslims would have been extremely pissed had I just bowed down (even on a guided tour) and begun praying to their particular invisible. But right now...right here in these Batu Caves. This seemed like a peaceful place. And since what I usually went on was nothing more than a whim like this anyway...I proceeded with the talking in my head to Ganesh and even halfway expected that I'd hear something back!
Immerse. Immerse yourself in religion and do as they do for this was the culture all around me and the whole point of traveling. You're not in Kansas anymore and certainly not in your apartment in atheist Portland. So why not just do a little tongue-in-cheek...?
“Dear, Ganesh. It's good to see you here. You're looking well and everything. So like...I don't know. I guess I just wanted to ask that you'd look over me on this trip and protect me and stuff. I like how your followers portray you sometimes. I once saw a painting of you having fun on the beach and it wasn't even a cartoon or a joke or anything. You were like enjoying yourself under a palm tree in all of that detail that makes Hindu art so beautiful to me. And I read this story one time...I don't think it was about you though. I think it was about Vishnu or something. Anyway...his mom was about to scold him for something and he was about to cry. But then, just as he opened his mouth to do so, she saw, actually within his mouth, the cosmos and the stars and the planets and all the lives and everything that was and everything that was to be...so I guess then she thought the better of it. Scolding him, I mean. But yeah, if you're even related to that dude or have the same powers somehow...or even if you don't. I'm sure that you do have the power, if it's in your wishing, to make this trip of mine a successful one. And I guess I just hope that you're happy to see me too and that I came all this way to meet you like this. It's been my pleasure. So, thank you. I'm gonna go now and probably try to get some sleep. But this has been good. And, of course, here's a little something for you...”
And, with this, I pulled out all the coins I had in both my pockets (even though most of them were probably from Thailand) and dropped them in the little basket at the foot of this shrine. And then...
“Here they come!” someone shouted in English from the top of the stairs to my right.
It was weird to hear my native language but the very statement was even weirder. There wasn't any panic in the voice though. It wasn't like, “Here come the cops!” Or whatever I'd grown so accustomed to. It was the voice of happy enthusiasm. And so I quickly bowed to Ganesh with my hands held in prayer the Indian way, excused myself, and then went to see what all the commotion was over. And it was over they monkeys!
Stepping out into the daylight again at the top of the staircase, I could see them bouncing towards us by hand and foot through the jungle. The monkeys; families of them were now jumping up onto the cement railing lining the stairs themselves and having a good look at all the visitors. The staircase and the caverns weren't teeming with people by any means. This obviously wasn't a religious holiday where, according to the book, this place could get so crowded that the threat of being trampled was certainly a possibility. No. This was just a regular day. And, more than likely, a non-holy day; if Hindus even claimed one day of the week to be any holier than another. But no. This was just a day and so the people were just sort of trickling in and out of the place with an equal number of Asian tourists.
And the monkeys kept coming. About five families in all, I'd say. They just stood benignly along the cement railing and posed perfectly as the Asian tourists took pictures of them. And, since I was on my way out, I wasn't about to miss the opportunity to flip my little camcorder on and capture this whole funny spectacle as I made my way back down the stairs. And so I did. With the camera out and the power on; I held it low and close to my hip so as not to arouse the suspicion that I was filming anyone. It was my way of wanting to be less invasive towards this whole scene (which was a holy place after all) while, at the same time hoping to catch something candid. And candid is just what I happened to catch...
A Hindu lady; shriveled and old. Her skin; leathery and wrinkled and brown with a sheen of sweat that caused her to absolutely shine. She happened to be climbing the stairs while simultaneously praying just below me. She also happened to be wearing a long, marigold necklace which one of the larger monkeys on the railing must have taken a liking to. This monkey was so large that kneeling, in what I considered to be their most natural position, it would have come all the way up to my hip...perhaps higher even. And I instantly guessed it to weigh at least half of what I did and I was almost 200 lbs. Needless to say, I would never fuck with a monkey like this or ever want to get on his bad side. He was intimidating to say the least and the ferocity with which he snatched one of those marigolds right from off her necklace matched nothing less than that. With his body leaned way over and his hairy, grey arm extended; I knew that he could do some serious damage to any human if he so desired. But, as it turned out, he just wanted a marigold.
And then two things happened concurrently. The monkey, prize in hand, began to devour that marigold but must have quickly remembered that it didn't care of the taste of this particular flower in the first place. And so it spit out most of what was still in its mouth and discarded the rest by way of a hasty and disgusted chuck back down onto the pavement. And the lady, while this was happening, screamed at the shock of it all and freaked out in a way that wasn't a mental panic attack so much as it was an alerted exam of her own bodily diagnosis in her attempts to assess whether or not there was anything wrong worth freaking out about. And there wasn't. And in another minute, she realized this and began to calm down but didn't dare look back at that monkey who was still standing his ground and almost looming over her from the railing in a domineering way not unlike that of a larger dog posing over another.
In a minute, her family helped out by taking her by the arms; a sign of moral support while, at the same time, supporting her actual physical body. And she began to climb the steps again; rattled on the inside but outwardly concentrating on her goal of reaching the top. And a new mixture of tourists and pilgrims, ones who'd been behind this old lady just moments ago, now passed by without realizing that anything (monkey-wise) had ever happened mere moments ago. It had happened, though, and I had the proof right here in my hands. What a great, live-action clip! I really couldn't have asked for a better souvenir. And, since the lady had no idea I was taping her, I really didn't feel like there was anything to feel guilty about.
Ah, the sweet feeling of satisfaction. That full feeling. Euphoria even. Victory! I'd come, I'd conquered, I'd taped some awesome souvenir footage, and now I could be on my merry way. And I could always come back tomorrow. And I liked it here. So I may.
On my way back down, right at the bottom of the stairs, I crossed under a large archway constructed of wood that had been colorfully painted and carved to represent various gods and their stories. Imagine a totem pole rainbow. And I just thought how strange it was that I hadn't even noticed it before. I mean...I had been gaining my bearings earlier and adjusting to my surroundings. But I'd crossed right under the fucking thing! So how could I have missed this totem entirely or the god therein that instantly caught my eye. It was centered right up there at the top. A cow's body with a woman's torso attached to it and a woman's head. And even though the body of the cow came with an udder already; both enormous in itself and plentiful in teats... As if that wasn't enough sweet mammary action. The woman's torso featured two, huge knockers as well. Ganesh was up there too in a slightly different form than I'd just seen him back in his box. It was definitely him though; the elephant trunk forever unmistakable. He was up there...looking over me.
“Ah, you see The Batu?” the hotel owner or caretaker or whoever he was asked me the very second I'd reached the top of the landing.
“I did,” I answered, “Thank you again for the really good directions.”
“Ah, and you like?”
“Yeah. I loved. It was awesome. And the monkeys were incredible.”
“Ah, yes. Very holy; the monkey. You care for some breakfast maybe?”
“Actually...” I turned the idea over in my head for a minute, “Yeah, that sounds good. What's on the menu?”
“Mm,” he smiled and then handed me an actual menu of laminated tagboard from behind the desk.
The fare wasn't much to write home over but, since I never would have even suspected that this establishment served food in the first place, there was also nothing I could really be that disappointed over. Cold sandwiches and chips, basically. But the price of a meal also included some weird fruit juice; the name of which I couldn't pronounce.
I ordered a cheese sandwich and didn't try to specialize it any.
“Okay. Now, if you want to sit. It will be just a few minute.”
“Sounds good,” I said and payed the man what must have amounted to nothing more than another forty cents.
And here, I turned to really take in the rest of the hotel lobby; the size of a narrow living room, I guess. In the very back, there was a doorway leading to an even smaller room where one wall was lined with a simple, wooden countertop on top of which there were set up three or four computers with internet capability. Then, just outside the computer room, there was a small bookshelf absolutely filled (top to bottom and end to end) with the fat travel books of yesteryear. There was nothing much wrong with them, it seemed, other than that they were a bit scuffed up. Scuffed up and out of date. Some probably went back 10 years or so. So, sure, some of the information would now be false; mostly, I imagined, the parts about roads and directions and stuff. But some of it was still good. Some of it was probably pretty interesting and might even be able to lead a tourist to see some sights that weren't mentioned in the most recently published guides. And I thought, for a second, about how history reveals the truth in some ways but also buries a bunch of other stuff under rubble.
“Feel free to have a seat here if you want, mate.”
The voice surprised me. Not because I hadn't seen this person sitting in the small nook area between me and computer room but because his face had been ,and still was, hidden behind a travel book of his own and, coincidentally, the exact same guide as the one I now carried. Also, I still found it strange to hear English around these parts...especially in an accent that I was only used to in the movies.
“Thanks,” I replied. There were two other chairs at the same table and one end that was pressed right up to a wall. And although there was a couch and coffee table set up on the opposite side of the room, this setup did seem like the only appropriate place for eating.
I'd probably been standing there scanning the room for longer than it seemed; my eyes getting lost on the individual planks of wood that the floor was made up of in a stingy, fatigued stupor. I may have even been making him a bit nervous or something. So, not wanting to freak this guy out any further, I wasted no time in pulling out the chair directly across from him and popping a squat. And it felt so good on my feet and knees to take a load off.
“Ah, I know you,” he said; his eyes just barely peering over the book now.
“I know it's a small world and everything. But even I would be pretty surprised if that were true.”
“No,” he slowly put the book down on the table now, “You're the guy. The guy who came in right after me.”
“Ah. I see. Well, in that case, I guess I know you too. You're the professional bum.”
And, at this, his shoulders bounced slightly up and down as he held in a silent laugh to himself.
“That's me, I reckon.”
“Well, I hope I didn't make too much noise. That old guy seemed pretty pissed.”
“Yeah, I wouldn't worry about him, brother. He's just some old bugger. Probably been here since he was our age. He probably came with the building!”
“Yeah. No doubt.”
“So where you make off to this morning? Anywhere I should see?”
“You been to The Batu Caves yet?”
“I haven't been anywhere yet mate? I just got here. Just about an hour before you did, remember?”
The guy reminded me of someone but I couldn't quite put my finger on whom. An old friend. He was probably a few years older than me, was wearing a solid green t-shirt, had one serious beak of a nose and dark, unkept hair; just greasy enough to give away that he probably hadn't showered in days.
“Oh. Yeah. I forgot. Well, then, yeah. They're definitely worth checking out. It's great 'cause it's like three things rolled into one. You've got the natural beauty of the caves themselves. But it's also a Hindu holy sight with like crazy looking gods everywhere. And then, to top it all off, the place is crawling with wild monkeys!”
“Monkeys? You don't say.”
“No bullshit. Here, check this out real fast. You'll get a kick out of it.”
Normally, I'm not so pushy about people 'checking out' my shit. But this video! The one of the monkey snatching that lady's necklace. It was worth it! And never would it require anyone to feign boredom.
“Holy hell, man. Can I watch it one more time?”
“Yeah. Totally. Just push the 'play' button there again.”
“Wow,” he shook his head in disbelief, “That's amazing. And you say you just took that this morning?”
“Holy hell, man. Yeah, I'll have to check that out. It can't be very far from here then?”
“Just a few miles.”
“And it's fairly easy to find?”
“Yeah. Pretty much. You catch the 18 bus right down there in front of one of the bank buildings. The only trick is finding your way back. I mean, it stumped me at first but then, after I just thought about it for a second, the easiest way to get back was also the most obvious. I just walked back to where the bus had dropped in off in the first place and then just sort of waited. It wasn't more than 20 minutes though. Probably more like 15 actually.”
“What about you? You heard of any good spots worth checking out around here?”
“Well, I heard about a roller coaster that might be worth having a look at.”
“Yeah. Supposedly it's indoors or something.”
“Huh. That does sound kinda cool.”
The front desk guy dropped us off each a couple of sandwiches just then. They were served on paper plates with plain potato chips and a pickle and the whole thing just seemed strangely American to me. Too American. The bread was even white!
We began to eat, though, this meal that was blander than anything I'd had in region thus far. And I picked up with, “So have you been in like the surrounding countries too?”
“Oh yeah, man. I've been all over the area. Been traveling for almost 2 years now. I was thinking about going home from here but then I changed my mind. I'll probably give it a few more months.”
“Laos! Have you been to Laos yet?”
“No. I just got here really. My plane only landed in Bangkok a couple days ago.”
“You're kidding. And you made it all the way down here already?”
“Yep. I like to stay on the move, I guess. But I should probably check out the Laos?”
“Not probably, mate. Definitely check out the Laos. It's so laid-back, man. They'll take you on a boat up the river and everybody's drinking beers the whole way. And then they'll let you off on this super muddy beach where the whole thing turns into a giant mud wrestling contest. But like a free-for-all!”
“Yeah. It was. I mean, I had a blast. But there was this one girl. I don't know why I remember this so distinctly but I do. She was wrestling in the mud like that but I guess there was this branch or stick there underneath the mud somehow. Anyway. She wound up stabbing herself on that somehow. Right in the thigh. It was pretty nasty, man. I caught a glimpse of it and it just looked like raw muscle inside. I think I may have even seen some bone. That and all the mud couldn't have been very good for it. But just watch out for the twigs, brother,” he raised his eyebrows in a fatuous sort of way, “And you'll be fine.”
“Yeah. It was. I mean, I had a blast. But there was this one girl. I don't know why I remember this so distinctly but I do. She was wrestling in the mud like that but I guess there was this branch or stick there underneath the mud somehow. Anyway. She wound up stabbing herself on that somehow. Right in the thigh. It was pretty nasty, man. I caught a glimpse of it and it just looked like raw muscle inside. I think I may have even seen some bone. That and all the mud couldn't have been very good for it. But just watch out for the twigs, brother,” he raised his eyebrows in a fatuous sort of way, “And you'll be fine.”
“It still sounds awesome,” I backed him up while, in the back of my mind, I realized that becoming seriously injured during the course of my time here was something that I hadn't really considered.
“But I go through phases, man. First I was like all; jungle. And then I was like all; cities...I need more cities!” My buddy smiled here with the grin of a fully realized addict.
“Well, this place seems to offer the best of both those worlds.”
“It does,” he agreed. “In fact, it doesn't even seem like there's any surrounding villages. So, you're right. It is pretty much just city and jungle. And today...I'm still in the mood for 'city'.”
“Nice, man. I hope you have fun. I think I may try to take a nap though. Especially now that maybe the old guy's out of there.”
“He is. I saw him take off just a bit earlier. But later on...if you wanna grab a pint or something, I think there's a bar underneath here.”
“Yeah,” my eyebrows lifted, “That would be awesome. The bar's right under here?”
“Yeah. I think it's attached to the building.”
“I can't believe I didn't even notice.”
“Well, don't feel too bad, man. It was early.”
We both stood up then.
“Cool, man,” I shook his hand, “I'll run into ya a little later on then.”
“You got it. Enjoy that nap.”
In the opposite direction; my buddy went downstairs and out into the day while I crossed the room and went up the set of stairs that led to the guestrooms. I was going to take a nap...at least it was on my mind. But first, partly to ensure that I'd be as perfectly comfortable as I could be on the rickety top bunk in the room that I was sharing with 3 other dudes, I really needed to take a shit. And since it seemed that I was sharing this bathroom with, at the very least, the 3 other dudes sharing the room; I considered this an opportune moment for taking one since there wasn't anyone around. The whole floor seemed silent and vacant.
After closing the bathroom door behind me, I hung my satchel on the little hook on the door right after retrieving my iPod. Traveling tends to make me constipated and, since I didn't feel like I had to worry about anyone knocking, I was going to take my time with this shit and even listen to some music while I took it. For the sheer fact of the matter was; I felt really comfortable and relaxed in this dumpy establishment. I felt like it was the house of an old relative for some reason and like it was a Saturday where all I had to do was take a shit and then watch some TV or something. And the air temperature was so perfect; there must have been a breeze flowing through the open window down the far end of the hall and right out the open double doors on this side of the building just past the bathroom. And those double doors led to a balcony that I hadn't noticed before where I might even have to have a cigarette before commencing with my nap; I'd just have to see.
I was the only one calling the shots here. It was whatever I felt like. There was no one else around.
Luckily, the tense constipation I often have while traveling wasn't too bad. It's not like I ever had to strain or anything but more about just having to relax myself perfectly and I achieved this state of being without much extraneous effort. Toilet paper, I'd learned over the past few days to keep near me in my satchel at all times. And, after making use of it, I stood up and turned around to flush. The flusher handle, however, didn't present itself as conspicuously as I usually like them to. There simply wasn't a little flapper on the toilet anywhere or even a string to pull downwards like with an old-fashioned water closet. Instead, there grew a network of rusty and calcified quarter inch piping (probably lead) that climbed all the way up and into the ceiling. Parts of this network stretched over to the shower head as others clung their way into corners of the room at right angles and seemingly without explanation. But at right about eye level, I finally discovered a little switch about the size of my thumb...and pressed it.
And...the toilet flushed. It surely did. It flushed my shit down, not with the woosh and power that I was used to by American standards but it flushed it sufficiently enough. Clogging the toilet, unfortunately enough, was not the problem that befell me. Rather, the very instant I switched the switch and the water did begin to run; ever single last rusty and calcified joint within that viny network of piping began to spray with, I might add, American quality force. It sprinklered me from every direction until, in less than a couple of seconds, I was wet all over.
And I honestly didn't mind. I could even consider the whole thing a funny joke and the wet splotches refreshing assuming this wasn't pee and poo water now all over my clothes and face. And my iPod. Fucking shit. Fucking hell. It was dripping a little and the screen that had been lit only moments ago was now dark and blank. Not to mention; the music must have stopped playing instantaneously and, due to all the sprinkler stimulus, I hadn't even noticed. Well, I determined, it was fucked...for now. But I'd heard enough stories of phones and other electronic type items resurrecting from the dead after they'd been given a sufficient amount of time to dry out. I wasn't going to freak or get pissed off for no reason. Time would tell. I'd just have to wait and see. Perhaps by the time I'd woken up from my nap...
My New Zealand friend, by letting me know that the cranky old guy had already cleared out for the day, had no idea just how much anxiety he'd saved me from having to experience. The dorm room was locked when I reached it and, for this, I was thankful. And, upon opening the door, I also discovered it to be vacant. For this, I was thankful also and it didn't appear that my stuff had been moved or messed with at all. I locked the door behind me again and stepped over the the top bunk I'd been designated where the full light of day now shone right in through the window.
Of all the shit I presently had in that backpack... Of all the shit I'd remembered to bring... Why oh why could a set of sheets not been one of them. There were sheets and even a pillow case already covering the mattress itself but I wasn't sure if this made the situation any better. Perhaps, a tiny bit. But these sheets that had been laid; they were urine yellow in color (which didn't help matters psychologically) and they were stained to the gills with huge sweat marks and grease marks and...perhaps even actual urine marks. Who knew. I was pretty sure, though, that any laboratory probably would've had a field day with just the tiniest specimen of them. And the pillow case, imaginably, was just that much worse. The scientific part of me was tempted to lean over and smell them for traces of recently used detergent but I just couldn't do it. I didn't want my nose or any other part of me anywhere near those things that I now imagined to be crawling with multiplying germs and disease. And blood and fecal matter. All of these elements had to be represented, I'm sure. And with the sun's rays warming and stewing them; this bunk was nothing more than a Petri dish experiment.
They'd all slept in their beds though...in sheets of a pretty similar state. So did that just make me more of a pussy for not wanting to? Yes. Probably. But there was something more...something beyond just the sheets being disgusting that was persistently turning me away from the idea of sleep altogether. It was midday for Christ's sake! Midday and it was hot in here. Midday and I was already gathering a second wind. Midday and there was still a whole, unfamiliar city out there to see. I needed to be more like my New Zealand friend and just get out there. Even if I just found a mall or something. Or even just an old, seedy neighborhood. It was all new to me so what did it matter? I could sleep later. Once the sun went down and maybe once I had a few beers in me. A little drunkenness, surely, would take my mind off the sheets as would the darkness once night fell again. And again, once it wasn't so hot in here.
So? What now? Well, a beer was always in order. It's not like I ever required a specific time of day to start drinking and never understood how other people could restrict themselves in this way. But after checking out the bar downstairs, I discovered it to be closed. And this was fine. It was probably a good thing less I wind up sitting down there in the same chair and just getting hammered. Malaysia was going to make me work for it.
First off, I strolled around the hotel's general neighborhood and came across an enormous outdoor market right behind the building practically! Most of the stands and shops and walkways even were covered by blue, plastic tarp that provided the whole place with a cool, relaxing shade. If I had to bet though, as had been my presumption in all the ceilinged corridors of the train and light-rail stations, I'd say that the tarps were there to protect everyone and all their merchandise from the rain more than the sun. And the goods included: fruits and vegetables which crowds of locals picked through incessantly, other commodities more suited to tourists like imitation Gucci bags and practically plastic 'Rolexes', and then there was the food. Lining the sides of just about every walkway, there were stands where exotic foods were cooking and sizzling and barbequing. The unidentifiable and charred remains of various critters on a stick with beaks and claws and feet still attached. Their pungent aromas rising into the air but becoming caught under the tarps. Pneumatic spices scorched my sinuses; their very essence prickling my palate. This was awesome!
As I made my way through the area once and then back again, people would make the 'buy' face at me but I'd just shake my head and smile politely. I did stop to take a couple more pictures, though, and even some more video of all the activity.
Then I tried the avenue running in front of the hotel. It led down a dusty road; relentlessly hot with the daytime sun now baking. The road was full of life though. Everybody seemed to be out doing their thing now. And aside from a few bicycles and a few carts, the most popular form of transportation just seemed to be good old-fashioned walking. Wrinkly people. Brown people. People in hats. Some people with shirts that looked like they'd been washed and worn everyday for years. Boys and girls. Women and men. Monks. People with yellow teeth rotting right out of their faces. Smiling as their teeth wore away. More Buddhist monks in their traditional, orange garb. A monk that approached me, bid me to stop my walking, and bowed his head to me many times as his hands clasped something that looked like a rosary. He didn't speak a word of English but this didn't stop him from showing me a picture of his monastery atop some rocky crag. It took me about 5 minutes to decipher that he wanted me to return with him, to abandon all worldly possessions, and just go live there. So how could I explain to him that I needed beer and women just to survive! I couldn't. So I tried to thank him as humbly as I could and take a few steps onward. He was a real pushy little fuck, though, and I got the impression he was homosexual. Call it my Buddhist-Malaysian-monk 'gaydar' or the way he put his hands on my arms and shoulders in a series of vain attempts to make me stay. Back at the monastery, I'm sure he could hardly wait to molest me. So I just kept on walking and hoped that he didn't take this rejection as personally as he appeared to.
Up the dusty road a bit more, I saw that familiar green and orange 7-Eleven sign so ubiquitous in this region yet so funny to me that the convenient store chain should exist out here and all...and thrive! Call me crazy but Slurpees just always seemed so All-American. And yet the locals seemed to love them. But not me. I wasn't interested in Slurpees today or ever. In fact, there's pretty much only three fluids that come into (and out of) my life and I drink them almost exclusively: coffee, water, and alcohol. And 7-Eleven had alcohol. They probably even had liquor if I so wanted. But I'd stick with beer for now. No sense in getting schnockered so early. I'd likely wind up puking in the street.
But they had beer alright. The door 'binged' when I opened it and crossed the motion sensor just like it did in America. And there, just like in America, were the refrigerators in back full of six-packs and singles. The selection of beer brands, however, differed greatly. Most of the shit in front of me now, I'd never heard of...or at least not up until a couple of days ago. Beer Lao. Angkor. And a myriad of Thai beers that went well beyond Singha. And then there was Tiger; a beer that I'd already come to know and love over the past few days because of its cheapness and it's 'tolerability'.
I bought a 24-ounce can and, not having anything better to do just then, I sat right in front of the store with a number of other locals enjoying the shade provided by 7-Eleven's awning...and drank it over a couple cigarettes.
Then feeling perfectly refreshed as if that beer had hit just the spot, I decided to branch out and really do some exploring. Maybe I'd walk back towards what I thought was the city center again and try to find the Petronas Towers. I'd caught a glimpse of them a couple of times already but from a distance and from the dirty, obscured window of the moving bus.
And since, like they say, it's more about the journey than the destination; I'd undoubtedly discover many other aspects of interest in this town and on this day. For starters, I found a big park with so many people hanging out in it, one could barely see the grass. And I saw the longest line to use an ATM machine that I'd ever seen or could have ever imagined in my whole life. I found an indoor market where they sold pinned and preserved insects. Local insects. Some bugs the size of my entire fucking hand! And just seeing these specimens made me afraid to go exploring out in the jungles here; something I'd planned on doing all along but suddenly felt reservations towards.
As I moved into the city, the buildings and their features continued to become more and more modern until there were escalators and indoor, air-conditioned malls of multiple stories. Department stores and discount stores; I enjoyed walking around every one of them just checking out the goods but mostly checking out the other shoppers. They were Malaysians! Real Malaysians! And obviously, part of me still couldn't believe I was actually here.
I weaved and wandered in and out of these structures but never moved back towards the direction of my hotel; ever progressing until finally I came to the bottom corner of a building where there had been constructed a small, aboveground pool. And around this pool there were a number of people sitting with their feet dipped in the water and ever single of one them was laughing and giggling uproariously. So even though the exit was just a few feet away with the sun shining in and those elusive Petronas Towers finally within view; I just had to stop for a second to see what was going on.
Taking a few steps back towards the shallow pool, I leaned over and looked in the water. And there were fish. Lots of them. Little, white ones with black eyes that I thought were cute and reminded me of salamanders somehow. But the unique thing about this scene is that these fish were nibbling the people's feet...on purpose apparently. Eventually, I figured out out that this was an attraction of sorts and, for a couple ringgit, anyone could buy 10 or 15 minutes with the fish. I would have done it but had changed back into my sandals back at the hotel and my feet were fucking filthy. I was honestly afraid that the second I stuck them in; two horrible, brown clouds would pollute the water and possibly even kill some of the fish...so I declined. Plus, when having my feet tickled, I'm also liable to piss myself.
Then it was back into the outside air again; humid and sultry. And there they were, those famous towers that I'd heard, at one time, held the title for tallest buildings in the world. But now, it seemed to me like such a funny place for such tall buildings. The city did offer the little commercial district that I'd just worked my way through. But it was still a relatively small city perpetually fixed in a last stand against the dense, surrounding jungle. Plus, even as far as SE Asia was concerned, it was basically still in the middle of nowhere. But that didn't keep me from taking pictures galore and even some more video from the nice, little courtyard I now found myself in.
I felt tired again though. Physically tired from all the walking and chemically drained from my lack of sleep over the past few days. So, I decided, the best course of action would be to head back towards the hotel and see if that downstairs bar was open yet.
“Hello,” she said. And in just that one word, I was reminded of one of the strangest and most nasally accents I'd ever heard; the one indigenous to this area. “Can I get you something?”
She was cute though. Just a cute, native girl taking drink orders...just like anywhere else in the world, I imagined.
“Just a beer, please.”
“Okay. Big or small?”
And she smiled at me. Her teeth seemed unusually flat and I wondered if she'd had them filed as I'd once heard was part of some Hindu rite of passage. Or maybe that was only for men. Either way; she was very exotic looking and taller than the rest of the Malaysian women I'd seen all day. But she wore a tight, black t-shirt and short skirt just like any other cocktail waitress I'd ever seen working an outdoor bar just about anywhere.
“Okay. And where are you from?”
“Oh!” she perked up at this, “Very cool. I want to go someday.”
“You should. You really should. It's a crazy place. Although, Malaysia seems like a pretty crazy place too,” was my stock response (ad lib name of country).
“Ah, yes. It is. I want to go but I have nowhere to stay.”
“Well, if you make it out that far, you can stay with me,” and I smiled back flirtatiously.
“Oh!” she giggled, “Thank you!” and then disappeared to retrieve my drink.
Technically, I was sitting outside but this patio area was more of an alcove which meant that there was still a roof over my head; the ceiling being my own hotel up above me. Just to my left, there was a door that led into the bar itself. And over the door, there hung a sign that read: Backpackers Welcome! Just below it, there was an advertised drink special specifically and only for backpackers that involved something like 20 fucking drinks for one person! No joke.
The walls on all sides had been painted black and, right overhead, a few electric ceiling fans spun lazily. It was a relaxing atmosphere and would feel even more so once I got that first beer in me. And while I waited for it, I pulled out my phone and iPod from the satchel I'd been carrying addressing the iPod issue first.
It was still fucked, so far as I could tell. It seemed dry enough and felt dry enough in my hand but the screen was still dark and blank and it wouldn't turn on for shit. Well, great. And after only having traveled three fucking days. And I'd basically just bought that thing too. Shit!
And so I moved on to the phone.
The phone. The phone. Why did I even bring it? Well, in case of emergencies, I guess. But it was too tempting. Already, right when I'd arrived at the train station in Bangkok in the middle of the night, I'd called Mindy just to let her know that I'd made it alright. But that wasn't the only reason. Deep down, I'd just wanted to talk to someone who was still on the other side! I felt like an astronaut radioing Houston and just describing to them all the strange things I was seeing. And I knew that even that short phone call was probably going to cost me a fortune but I just couldn't help myself. Plus, Mindy had been glad to hear from me too. She said she'd even call my mom to tell her I'd landed fine and not to worry.
But now...even now the urge was setting in again. Just to send her a text. One, goddam text. And maybe she'd reply with something like, 'What are you doing?' And I could be like, 'Just sitting at a bar in Kuala Lumpur. How about you?' And it would just sound so cool! And I knew that she'd always be glad to hear from me but, then again, I couldn't get into an actual text conversation less I wanted to really pay the rates once I got back stateside.
“Very little sleep but I'm in Kuala Lumpur already. Can you believe that?!”
I had to do it. And I hoped it would make her smile. But then I turned the phone off just so I wouldn't be tempted to write back if she replied right away.
Then, planning to switch-off on them evenly, I pulled out a novel and my travel book and occupied myself with them over several glasses of beer. The novel was just okay but that wasn't its fault. The fact of the matter is, I was just way too into my own adventure to go along on anyone else's. And I found that, after reading just one chapter, I put it aside and never picked it back up again because that damn travel book was always on the back of my mind these days. Because...not only was I presently immersed in my own adventure but I always wanted more! I wanted to envision the next place this trip would take me and try to just imagine where I'd be three weeks from now. But, first thing's first.
Singapore was pretty much the next stop on the agenda. I wanted to get as far south as I could before coming back up, by way of a different and slightly more eastern train track, through a slightly different and more eastern part of Malaysia. But when should I make my move? And how long should I stay in each place? These were the broader types of questions that remained and the ones that would more greatly affect the outcome of this trip. My time was definitely limited and there was just so much that I wanted to do. I wanted to head all the way back up to Bangkok eventually and then east towards Laos. I had to go to Laos now. After what that New Zealand kid had told me? And then further. Vietnam. And who knew? Maybe even Cambodia.
Ordering another beer, I resumed flipping through the sections dedicated to Singapore. I read about how to get there from here and glanced at crude maps of the city digitally drawn out in black-and-white. I read every travel tip and examined all the potential places to stay. And despite Singapore's reputation for having some of the strictest laws in the world, the book did make it sound like there was still somewhat of a nightlife and bar scene so...I was becoming more and more stoked by the moment. This wasn't behavior typical of myself, however. Normally, I never look towards the future no matter how short a distance away. It was a surge of energy that was causing me to act this way. It was the instinct of survival. But it was also this energy and this instinct that kept me from getting any sleep last night. So who knows. But just how ironic would it be if the instinct to survive wound up putting me in any sort of dangerous situation.
It wasn't much longer, though, before my eyelids began to feel heavy and my ability to concentrate was...well, it felt like a sailboat someone had left to drift. The words in the pages of my travel book quickly becoming nothing more than black marks on paper while meaningless sentence fragments repeated themselves over and over again in my mind.
So maybe I should just lie down. Just for a little bit. Sleeping through till tomorrow morning would have been the practical thing to do but I knew that I'd wake up shortly anyway with a ravenous pit in my stomach. The hunger drive would overpower the sleep drive and, shortly thereafter, perhaps the beer drive would kick in again thereby activating the sex drive. I swear, sometimes I really did feel like a puppet being pulled this way and that by all these drives of mine...at best. At worst, a full on slave to them. These god drives that seemed to decide my fate and plot my very course of action; did they even reside within me or was something controlling me from up above? Either way; these drives...these survival instincts were so divine that without them I would die. All except the beer drive, of course. I guess that was just more of an addiction. I believed in the beer drive though. I believed that the alcohol helped glaze my nerves and allowed me to make better decisions. Or at least decisions less rash. And, since my survival (and everyone's survival, for that matter) all but depended on their decision making skills, perhaps I could count the beer drive as one of the official instinct gods after all. Maybe.
Buying a beer to go; I paid my tab, tipped the girl nicely, and thought about how, back in the US, there probably would have been some stupid rule against carrying a bottle out of the place. Then I made my way back up the stairs, across the little lobby, and upstairs again to where the sleeping rooms were. I'd just relax for a few minutes on the balcony though. I'd drink my beer out there, enjoy the sounds of the city, the smells of food and pollution... and I'd smoke a couple more cigarettes out there too just for good measure. Then it would be off to bed for a few hours or so.
Out on the balcony, there was a light breeze stirring up the smoke from all the grills down in the market. And it was hot. The sun's rays, however, didn't feel like they were beating down on me nearly as directly as they had been all day and, since there still wasn't a cloud in the sky, this could only mean one thing; it was probably well past noon.
“How's it going?”
That peculiar accent again. I hadn't even heard Zealand walk up.
“It's going pretty good. How 'bout you?”
“Yeah. It's goin' alright, I reckon.”
“Yeah? You ever find that mall with the roller coaster?”
“Actually...” and he cocked his head hear which let me know that he'd forgotten about his day's original plan altogether, “No. I guess you could say, I got distracted.”
“In a good way?”
“I went to the movies,” he smiled.
“A Malaysian movie?” I'd never heard of such a thing.
“No, man. It was American.”
“Really? Was it in subtitles or something?”
“Yeah. But the thing ran in English so...”
“What was it?”
“I forget the name. Or maybe I never saw it. Or maybe it was just written in their weird, Arabic looking language here.”
“I forget the name. Or maybe I never saw it. Or maybe it was just written in their weird, Arabic looking language here.”
“Well, was it any good?”
“Yeah, man,” and here his voice became all intense as he reflected, “It had Samuel L. Jackson in it and he played like...like a cloner and he had all these minions and things.”
And I couldn't decide which concept was weirder; the fact that I hadn't even heard of this movie or the idea of seeing a movie in a foreign country.
What was the scene like in the theaters here, I wondered. Could people smoke in there? Was it rowdy like when I'd once gone to see a movie in a predominantly black neighborhood? Did members of the audience often stand up and yell back at the screen? Did they sell popcorn with butter and other junk food? Who knew? But I enjoyed a good movie every now and again and suddenly wanted to find out.
And why hadn't I even heard of this movie? Well, it's not like I watched a lot of TV back home where one was exposed to movie previews constantly. But still...a new Samuel L. movie where he played a cloner seems like something that would have stuck in my head temporarily. So what the fuck? Did Hollywood test movies abroad in countries like this to 'gauge people's reactions' sort of thing? I doubted it. The concept just didn't make sense to me. Yet another question; the answer to which was both unknown and intriguing.
“Would you have a look at that?” my friend pointed from the balcony.
There wasn't much of a view from here which is because everything was blocked by a 3-level parking garage catty-corner to this block. And because it was just a parking garage, I hadn't really paid it any mind. But that's exactly what he was pointing at.
“Wow,” I had to admit, “I didn't even notice that. And I've never really seen anything like it.”
“Me either, come to think of it.”
And, of course, this wasn't just your run-of-the-mill parking lot that had captured our attention so. Rather, it was more of a dry dock for cars with a seemingly endless supply of little platforms that moved back and forth and up and down like the square pieces of one of those slider puzzles. As we watched on, somebody pulled up and into the front corner of the building where a little platform awaited it. This seemed to be the singular drop-off point. And then, just after the driver stepped out and punched a code into some machine just out of view, the platform (along with the car on top) began moving and generating a lot of racket. Every moving part within this garage appeared to be rusted out and a little dubious...but it worked for now. And in no time, that car that had just been dropped off had risen up to the building's third level and slid into the opposite corner. It was an amazing space saver but the whole operation took just a little bit too long for Americans to ever stand for it. As a people, on the whole, I knew that we were pretty impatient.
“Whatcha gonna do tonight?” I asked my Kiwi friend.
There was a faint but persistent tint to the sky now right around the horizon. Also, the air felt cooler and the shadows were back. Maybe I wouldn't have time to squeeze in that nap after all. And I was hungry now and knew that I'd sleep all the better if I had a full belly.
“Don't know. I'll probably just grab a quick bite from downstairs and then get on the internet. I was thinking of maybe flying to Burma or something.”
“That's awesome, man. I was actually looking into going to Burma myself. I couldn't find a flight there from the US though. It's like it's against their rules or something. Kind like how Americans can go to Cuba...just not directly from US soil type thing. I don't know. It's a stupid, complicated mess.”
“That could be, man. Could be. But you should look into trying to get a flight from here even if you don't buy the ticket. You know. Just as sort of an experiment.”
“That's actually a really good idea. I love solving little mysteries like that.”
“Me too, man. Me too.”
And my buddy was probably about to ask if I'd like to come down and grab a bite with him (at least I wanted to believe that he was) when we were both suddenly distracted by two young adults who came up the stairs just then and made their way over to the balcony as well; a guy and a girl who appeared to be about the same age as the Zealander and I (that is, in their late twenties). They smiled, made our acquaintance, and the guy even offered us a beer from the six-pack he presently carried in big paper bag. Graciously, I accepted one but Zealand declined. I think my Kiwi bud now had food on his mind more than anything else but, unlike him, where there's beer; there's also me staying to hang out and drink it with people.
“Well, it was good meeting you then. I would stick around but I'm just dying to eat something. But I might see you all a little later on tonight,” my friend excused himself.
“Hope so, mate,” the other guy had a similar accent yet unmistakably different. He was an Aussie as was the girl with him.
After that, I quickly found myself engaged in this new dynamic. And although I'd only met these two mere seconds ago, they were outstandingly friendly and easy to get along with. And as the sun set and the sky dimmed all around us, I learned that they were sent here on a business trip and sharing one of the private rooms across the hall. We all split the six-pack and they told me how much they enjoyed listening to my accent which, to me, was a very peculiar remark indeed. Then they asked me if I'd like to join them for dinner and, having lost my other pal already but still hopeful that I'd see him again, I readily accepted.
Outside and down near the market place, the three of us found a rinky-dink sort of cafe with outdoor seating. Just patio furniture; plastic chairs pushed up to a plastic table and lit only by a couple of candles that had been placed at the table's center. We each ordered a dinner and plenty of beer, of course, and began to talk and laugh more and more fluidly as the alcohol kicked in. And before long, these two Aussies and I must have sounded to any outsider like we'd been friends all our lives and it was all, “Cheers. Cheers, mate,” as we poured the brew into our glasses from the same big bottles and slammed them down again and again.
At one point, before the food arrived, a guy approached us from the street and wanted me to solve some sort of puzzle involving two, small metal rings...like a magic trick. To the naked eye; the rings were connected and, since they both appeared solid, they were also supposed to be inseparable. But the street guy separated them and stuck them back together many times before us with a tricky little maneuver that I wasn't quite sure qualified as sleight of hand. Then he offered up the rings for me to try and I knowingly expected that he wanted like a dollar or something if I wasn't able to solve it. But I did solve it! Drunk as I was becoming, I solved fucking thing! It took me a few minutes and many tries but...I handed the two rings back to him separately as a symbol of my victory. He still wanted his dollar, though, and bowed his head and held out his hand in order to communicate this. And I just gave him one. One, American dollar from the large Velcro billfold that I kept in my hip pocket and on me at all times. One dollar for which he acted very thankful. And it had been entertaining. Both the Aussies had watched on intently; captivated throughout the entire ordeal. And the ring-guy was not only poor but old! Too old, at least by American standards, to be doing sideshow shit like this every night. So everybody won and I was left feeling really good about myself.
Then the food came. By the time it did, though, I'd forgotten what I'd even ordered in the first place. Shit, I probably didn't even know what I'd ordered in the first place because the menus, like all classy establishments such as this, lacked pictures of their food and apparently didn't come in English. But what I was served was a heaping, huge bowl of some sort of fish stew; steaming and delicious. And I enjoyed this surprise as much as the Aussies seemed to be pleasantly surprised with their own.
And still the drinking never did stop or even let up a bit until finally, we were each ordering our own big bottles and sucking them down like there was no tomorrow. And I wasn't use to this; people who could keep up with me on the drinking front, that is. But I loved it. And I made the generalization that all Aussies loved to drink which, in my book, was a really good thing! Then we all started making a lot of generalizations and would confirm or deny them much to the other countrymen's laughter and pleasure.
For starters, they confirmed that their Australian words (especially for proper nouns) were indeed funny sounding...even to them. Wonglepong, Queensland. Or Ozenkadnook, Victoria. Shit like that. And then, switching to a more serious note but still sticking along the topic of generalizations overall; I confirmed that, although it was the world's view that Americans often traveled halfway around the globe to wage war on people, I personally didn't know anyone who agreed with what was presently going on in Iraq. I did add, though, that I lived in a predominantly liberal town which only got them interested in American politics and some of the main differences between Democrats and Republicans.
“So which one is George Bush then?” the girl asked me.
“He's a Republican.”
“So then you're a Democrat.”
“Actually, I'm not really either. But I guess, yeah. You could say I lean more to that side. But it's a really weird scene in America right now. The country, politically, is torn right straight down the middle. There's still a lot of religious conservatives and warmongers...especially in the heart of the country. But it's like...I really don't have to deal with them and often forget that they even exist because I live in a more progressive city really close to the coast. But it is disturbing for me to think that... Well, I guess I never really thought of Americans as a generalized sort of race in the rest of the world's eyes. But we must look like a bunch of bloodthirsty assholes now that I think about it.”
Honestly, just then, I felt like apologizing.
“Well, don't be too hard on yourself, mate,” the guy patted my back, “After all, we've got troops over there too.”
“Yeah, that's true. I guess just about everyone does.”
“Yeah! That's the spirit. Now, who wants to go somewhere else for another drink?!”
The only real bar we knew of for sure, though, was the one back below our hotel. I told them it wasn't a bad place at all and so it was here that we now opted to go.
By the time we got back, the place was hopping with people (both locals and travelers) inside and out front. And I looked in every corner and checked ever face but, to my great disappointment, New Zealand was nowhere to be found. Perhaps, he'd turned in for the night. Come to think of it, that guy really didn't seem quite like the nightlife type anyway. My girl was still here though; the cocktail waitress. And the night; she definitely belonged to. Inside, after the Aussies and I found ourselves a booth amongst all the bustle; she walked up, took our order, and even bent down to hug me while laughing and acting like we were just two old friends. Maybe she'd been drinking a little. Or maybe she was just caught up in the energy of the place. Because from every direction, there came the boisterous bursts of drunken guffaw as red-faced dudes slapped each other on the shoulders and tried to impress the ladies present by squinting at them in futile attempts to maintain their sober composure as the sound of billiard balls being racked and then broken came from somewhere behind me and the cheering when somebody sunk one into a pocket with that hollow thud.
The Aussies had ordered a hooka to go along with our beer and so, passing the smoking hose back and forth between the three of us, we resumed our conversation about nothing and everything at the same time. Conversation that came so easily, it would undoubtedly leave the same way sometime before morning. We were smiling though. And even started ordering shots. And hours later, by the time the Aussies started yawning, I had the spins.
“Well, mate. I don't wish to say it, but I think it may be time for me to turn in.”
“Me too,” the girl agreed.
So I followed them upstairs where we each lit up a nightcap cigarette out on the balcony which was, incidentally, already occupied by the other guy I now shared a room with; the guy who, up until now, I hadn't heard a peep from. But, boy, was he ever talking it up now. And was he ever drunk. The guy's long, dirty hair hung in his face and his knit button-up was hung baggy on him as if he had, at one time, been more muscular and had much bigger shoulders.
“Where you from?” the Aussies asked him.
“Where I'm from...” the guy slurred his words badly and even pointed out from the balcony as if we'd be able to follow his finger for thousands and thousands of miles, “Where I'm from where the most proudest and fairest people on the planet. Italy, my friends! And I only tell you this because it's a fact.”
“Alright, mate. I'm not disagreeing with you.”
“Well,” the Aussie guy smiled, “I think on that note, I'll be off.”
“Me too. But it was really nice meeting you,” the girl was speaking to me, obviously, and not the drunken Italian guy, “Maybe tomorrow, we can do it all over again.”
“That would be awesome. I'll look forward to it. Good night, you guys.”
“Goodnight,” they replied both in unison.
“Goodnight!” the Italian guy slurred in nobody's direction in particular just before he followed them down the hall, hung a right into our shared room, and then accidentally slammed the door shut behind him. I thought I heard the old man yell something at him then but that may have just been in my imagination.
And then it was just me again out on the dark balcony with the soft, amber light from the hallway shining down right behind. Just me in the half-light like I was this morning. But unlike this morning (although I could hardly believe it myself), I wasn't even tired. I wasn't drowsy or dozy or sleepy or tuckered. Quite the contrary. I could practically feel the energy flowing through my veins. The electricity! And I wanted to keep drinking and keep moving. There was no way I could go to sleep now! But...should I turn in anyway and try? Should I lie down on that rickety ass bunk and proceed to toss and turn all night while that grumpy old bastard grumbled on and on at me in his sleep. No. I don't think I could handle that...and neither could the other two. Well, the Italian would probably be passed out in no time but my Zealand buddy...
Fuck. I smoked another cigarette. The bar downstairs had been closing up as we left so any more drinking was pretty much out of the question. But what about 7-Eleven? Maybe I could just walk back down there, stock up on more beer, and drink myself into a stupor right out here on the balcony...or at least until my body felt like it was again capable of sleep. But...
Technically, I'd already seen everything I'd come to see. Namely, The Batu Caves. And The Petronas Towers; well...I guess I'd already seen them too. And I had the pictures to help me remember this day forever. So...what the hell was I going to do tomorrow? Go check out an indoor roller coaster? That just wasn't my thing. Or, I suppose I could just take it easy, wake up late, and then go see a movie. But that would mean that tomorrow night, I'd probably just wind up going out with the Australians again. And I'd just wind up getting drunk again...in the same bar...in the same hotel...in the same city...and basically in the same situation in which I now found myself. And this trip wasn't about 'the same' to me. I wanted new shit. New shit everyday! I wanted to wake up somewhere different every...fucking...day if I could help it! And I knew that a lot of that was just the booze talking. All the booze presently in my system that was currently keeping me amped rather than letting me sleep. Deep down, I knew the practical thing to do. But this trip wasn't all about practicality either.
So I bolted. I opened the door to our shared room just as I'd done this morning; cautiously...carefully. Creakily. And from off the rickety, creaking bed, I grabbed my backpack and whispered an apology to anyone who was awake or had been awakened by these actions. Then I shut the door behind me again and muttered the words, “It's been fun, you guys. But this kid's on his way to Singapore.”
Shamelessly, I even had the nerve to ask for my couple of bucks back downstairs in the lobby. And surprisingly, the guy gave it to me. He hesitated a little at first but, perhaps after getting a whiff of my jet fuel breath, he decided that I truly was crazy and liable to make a scene...not that I would have. But I'd already prepaid for tomorrow night's stay and why shouldn't I be able to get that back...especially in a room that I'd occupied all of five seconds today...and a perfectly disgusting room at that.
Then it was back into the black and humid night. I'd come. I'd seen. I'd conquered. Mission accomplished and it's not like I had any time to slow down now. I'd just feel my way back to the light-rail station and maybe catch a quick nap under the fluorescents before the trains started running again...which, by my internal calculations, had to be soon. Granted, I didn't know for sure what time it was...but it had to be late. And granted, all I had to do was stop for a second and turn on my cell phone; the clock on which I'd already reset to Malay time...but I didn't even want to know just yet. It didn't even matter! I had my books. And if there were to be hours that needed passing then they would help me to pass them quickly and comfortably.
Building by building again and corner by corner; I found my way back to this morning's point of origin under the sparse and poorly lit streetlights. The sidewalks were empty as were the roads. And it was cool out. Cooler than it had been since arriving in this city. Cool enough to take a nap.
For better or worse, it didn't take me too long to locate the light-rail stop. I'd say, 15 minutes tops and that's including one wrong turn and a brief jaunt in the wrong direction. But ultimately, I was able to get back on the right path and it was the mosque that had shown me the way. Masjid Jamek. There it was again just as cool and tranquil as it had appeared to me a little less than 24 hours ago. It's white domes and minarets along with its tile floors and open air design surrounded on three sides by the confluence of two rivers. Its unique beauty causing me to realize, unmistakably, that that's exactly where I'd popped out this very morning just across the way.
And there it was; the doorway that led to the long hall that led to the light-rail. Yep...there it was; blocked by bars and an overhead door locked with latches and chains. And it was dark around here since, oddly enough, this exit spat out on a side street. But...what if this was only an exit? And this was a perfectly reasonable question. In the end, though, it didn't do me much good. With my satchel and heavy pack, I walked around the building (the size of a giant parking garage) twice. But nothing. That overhead door with the bars and the locks; that was the only way in or out of the place. It was just... Well, it was just closed. Simple as that. And I'd just have to wait it out.
Alright. Time to check the time on my phone. I was already hopeful, though, that dawn was near. Those Aussies and I had practically closed the bar...plus the little bit of hanging out we did up there up on the balcony after that...plus the time it took me to get my shit together and walk down here; I estimated the local time to be somewhere around 3:30. And I liked to do that; guess at things that I already had the answer to right in my pocket. It served as a way to keep my head in check.
As it turned out, my thinking had been a bit wishful...but not too badly. It was only two 'o' clock. And since I really had no idea when this door would open back up again... What time had I arrived this morning? Four-thirty? Five? Five-thirty? Or even as late as six? Not a clue. But I could determine, right now, that I still had a couple of hours to wait at the very least. No big deal though. I'd had to wait for the train station to open when I'd arrived in Bangkok a few days ago...and that had gone fine. Actually, it had been kind of fun with people still stirring and cooking and eating. I'd simply taken my pack off and, like so many of the sleeping bodies all around me, used it as a makeshift pillow. And if I'd done it there, I could do it here. And down the darkness of this side street; even if this type of loitering was considered to be illegal here in Malay, there wasn't anyone who'd be able to see me less they really came looking. That is, if they came walking all the way back here from the main road. But there didn't even appear to be any cops out just now...not that I could remember having seen a single one since I'd been in this country. Nope. It would be just me and the darkness and the soft, white light emanating from the mosque (albeit across a narrow river) but still basically right behind me. And that soft, white light would be just enough to read by without having to squint my eyes. But was all that ghostly light emanating from in and around mosque only? I had to turn around just to be sure. And sure enough...
There was the moon. Or rather, there was half the moon rising quickly. It's pale brightness illuminating everything as it ascended behind the mosque in a picturesque way that only a Muslim or a tourist could ever truly appreciate. And it was big and fat and full and heavenly. So fat and full, in fact, that it must have been near the pinnacle of its lunar cycle...or just past. Something just wouldn't let me believe, though, that tonight was the night that it was at the peak of its waxing. Because, if it were, didn't it just seem like there'd be more Muslims out and about and observing and worshiping this wondrous and natural phenomenon? Weren't their holidays sort of based on the lunar calendar and wasn't that metal crescent up there atop that minaret presently representing the very moon now rising behind it?
But there were no worshipers about. The entire mosque appeared to be as dead and empty as the buildings and streets all around. And the only discernible sound was the river water gently lapping up against its very foundation. The whole scene; magical. And I definitely thought about taking a picture or a video but, from this distance, I knew that neither would come out. So how would I ever explain this to people?! This moon and this mosque and this crazy, foreign land?! And if I were even able to explain the scene properly; would they even believe me? Because I really, really wanted them to. I wanted to re-live this experience by sharing it again and again and again. But in order to do this...and in order to do it properly; I was going to have to get closer.
Without having to walk all the way around the mosque which, from my present position, looked to be about a quarter mile; I quickly scanned around and located a small bridge about halfway back towards the main road. It was more of a narrow platform really but had been erected in true suspension style and even bounced once I'd taken the few steps up and walked out onto its actual platform. And the river wasn't tremendously wide or anything...perhaps 7 meters or so. So in no time, I found myself on the other side and face-to-face with it. So close, in fact, that it now seemed to tower over me. There were the open air corridors surrounding Masjid Jamek with their intricate tile and perfectly symmetrical pillars supporting a thin shelter of white masonry. They formed a long rectangle and I was standing at one of the short ends. And if the corridors acted as outlines then the whole rectangle itself was filled with water; a long but shallow pool that lead all the way up to, and served as, a grand entrance to the actual church with its gigantic and open doorway so far away that it was difficult to make out at first and almost impossible to see into. That is, I could tell that the huge chamber was illuminated from within and that the walls were...blue? Or perhaps that was just a reflection.
And still, there wasn't a sign of anyone which boosted my confidence as I became more and more convinced that this mosque had no night watchman or caretaker looking after the place. And why would they? This was a predominantly Muslim country, after all. And if Muslims are known for one thing; it's their strict laws like stoning people to death or chopping people's hands off for stealing. So just what sort of punishment would I have to look forward to if caught in a mosque? Or was what I was doing even illegal? That is, did one have to be Muslim to walk in a mosque? I didn't know but, since there was no way of finding out just now, I figured it didn't really matter because there were no 'no trespassing' signs that could have forewarned me and nobody around anyway to give a solitary shit whether or not my drunk ass stepped onto their consecrated grounds.
Oh yeah, that's right; Muslims don't drink.
But partially due to the drink still in my system and, no doubt, still on my breath; I was possessed with the idea of proceeding onward and had the courage to do so. So just in front of one of the open air corridors, I dropped my backpack and satchel on the grass and stepped up onto the intricate tile. And this was risky; I realized this and didn't really want to have to turn my back on my stuff for even a second but...this wasn't going to take long. And who the hell would steal someone else's shit from such a sacred spot? They'd get their hands chopped off for sure! And probably more.
The urge to take pictures was gone now since suddenly this had become something so much more serious. For Allah and the inner workings of Islam were such a mystery...especially to Westerners such as myself. And of course, despite the fact that I'd been the the Middle East a couple of times and knew that devout Muslims could still just be regular, everyday people; there was always that sentiment ingrained so deeply in the minds of all Americans since 9/11. The sentiment that Muslims were the enemy or, at the very least, just didn't like us very much.
But I was a respectful American tourist...as much as I could be. I'd run into plenty of other travelers who would have been shooting video all over the place just now...but not me. I only wanted to sit at the bank of the shallow pool and contemplate Allah for a few minutes not unlike the way I'd prayed to Ganesh just a bit earlier today. To immerse myself in the culture here. And to see if I'd feel anything in the way of a celestial bump or a metaphysical nudge. But ultimately to better understand my fellow man and why they believed the things that they believed in and behaved the way they did.
I'd left my sandals in the grass too, believing this to be the custom, and now walked along the cool tile corridor with the long pool on my left until reaching one of the corners. And there, sticking up from the tile and looking somewhat out of place, was an ordinary water spigot that had been left running at a slow stream and emptying into a white marble looking basin just below it with a drain. And just above the spigot, there'd been posted a small sign that read only in Arabic. And even though I couldn't read it, I already knew what it meant. The message was something short and simple like, 'Please Wash Both Hands And Feet Before Entering Mosque'. And so I did. Fuck it. It's what it was there for anyway. Not to mention that both my hands and feet were fucking filthy again by this point and, as if to prove just this, the white marble basin became instantly filled with giant dirt cloud as a result.
After that, with hands and feet feeling nice and new and clean, I stood up from the sitting position I'd been washing them in and continued to walk down the open air corridor...the long side of it now that eventually led to the entrance of the mosque itself. But I only walked about halfway down. Drunk as I was, I was still at least able to reason that strutting right through the threshold and into the actual building would have been pressing my luck...drunk as I was. But I was perfectly content with the idea of just sitting cross-legged at the edge of the pool and contemplating Allah from a distance safe as this...which I did.
I sat and I contemplated. By the gentle sounds of the water lapping up against the edges of the shallow pool, I tried to feel Allah in or near this place...to feel what they felt; the devout Muslims. Did they find peace at these mosques? And just what was it that kept them praying their steady regiment? Was it a nice break from their day? Or was it just a rule and, in that, a rule that could be easily slacked upon in any other religion that came to mind at the moment.
Also, and quite to the contrary of what I'd already seen today at the site of Hindu holiness, Allah was faceless and even Mohamed was practically so. In fact, I knew that it went against the Muslim religion to even attempt to describe either of these beings in pictures or drawings. And that's exactly why I was presently surrounded by masonry work and white marble in an edifice completely void of shrines and idols. Ganesh was not here and his elephant head would never be welcomed. And if I could think of two opposites more extreme just now, I would have been hard-pressed. Hindu with its gold and ribbons and pictures and incense. And Islam with its cold and empty and echoing stone. It was peaceful here though. I'd give it that. Just like I'd also give myself about another 5 minutes to sit less the threat of Allah and all of Islam reign down upon me.
Glad to have had this experience, though, I sat back up again with no regrets and casually made my way back to where my backpack and satchel were lying in the grass. And thankfully, they were still there. And why wouldn't they be? For I hadn't heard but another footstep the entire time I'd been here. Plus...my passport and cash had been safely with me the whole while in the the oversized wallet in my hip pocket so...really, the risk had been minimal. And worth it. Well worth it as I now felt happy and fulfilled and truly ready to leave this city feeling that I'd done absolutely everything I'd wanted to do here and more...and without any regrets. And all I had to do now was wait for that fucking overhead door to open. Which it would in a few hours. A few hours more...tops.
Once I'd strapped my pack back on and made my way across the bridge, I parked it just where I had been...in a gravely sort of area overlooking the mosque and the river and just across the walkway from the overhead door itself. And that's where I dropped my pack once again, took a few pictures of the mosque from this distance that didn't really come out, and eventually popped a squat using my backpack as sort of a support for my back. And from there, in this propped up position, I did something I really didn't want to. I removed the phone from my satchel once again, powered it on again, and waited for any messages to pop up. And it took a couple of minutes for the phone to gain its bearings and 'find itself'. But eventually it did go 'beep-beep'. And there was a message. And, of course, it was Mindy.
The response was quite simple: That is so awesome! And I am SO jealous! P.S. Gave your dog a bath cuz she was disgusting.
And that was my Mindy. Always outdoing herself by acts of kindness and devotion despite the fact that I, her boyfriend, was here alone in SE Asia and getting into who knew just what sort of trouble. I'd have to buy her something really nice. And take more pictures with my phone and send some of them to her. And ultimately treat her like she meant the world to me once I got back.
'Love you and thank you so much again for everything,' is what I wrote, 'Heading to Singapore first thing this morning. Be back before you know it. : )'.
Then I turned the phone off again...again for fear of her texting me back right away and becoming involved in a full-on conversation via the written word. Placing it back in my satchel then, I swapped it for my novel which I opened and continued to read under the natural light of the close-to-full moon now high up overhead. Yep. This was the fucking life. No job to worry about (because they'd granted me a month off). And nobody but myself to even direct me...to keep me in check...to keep me grounded. To keep me...
Gradually is how I'd describe it. Languidly like a lens so slowly coming into focus. At first, it was blurry but then...a shoe. A high-heeled shoe as it stepped and kept going again. And the foot attached to that shoe. And then the leg. And then more legs. Hundreds of them. Thousands even perhaps. And they all seemed to be stepping in the same direction. Not one...not a one moving against the tide. And they were in a hurry! All these legs; fucking motivated! So what gives?
The atmosphere was perfectly cloudy and cool. Dim as only perfectly sleeping-weather ever could be. So why was everyone in such a hurry? Even the cars. I couldn't quite see them but I could hear them rushing past. Their horns honking every once in a while.
I just wanted to pull my sheet up and roll over. But or course, when I went to reach for it, it wasn't there. And not even a mattress! In fact, what my hand now pressed against so flatly and firmly felt like...dirt! Wow. It was all coming back to me now.
But, oh well. No harm, no foul. And it wasn't like there was a cop standing over me and poking me with a stick or anything. Still... I sat up and gave my brain a moment to...
How long had I been out? The day, as I'd observed, was overcast but...it was daytime. The cool air hanging around, though, let me know that it was still morning. But how had all this commotion not woken me sooner?! Right in front of me! Just across the way on the sidewalk that led straight into the overhead door (that was now wide-open). This full-on rush hour had been happening mere feet from my unconscious body and nobody had even been paying me any mind. Thankfully, I guess.
Sitting up a bit further now and contemplating the act of standing up, I felt something small and light slide down my chest a bit and come to rest just over my stomach. And it was my wallet; my day-to-day wallet that I used back home. In it, there'd probably been about forty dollars American but of course that was all gone now. But no big deal. He'd left me the rest. Even my ATM card which would probably come in handy if I ran out of the cash in my hip pocket...which I probably would. The thief, whoever he was, wasn't quite ballsy enough to venture into this pocket though, thank God...or Allah...or Ganesh. And who's to say? Lying there out cold as I was, who's to say if I would have even felt the little bastard go for it. And that's where the good shit had been; like my passport and a variety of currencies. And the only other 'good' shit I had was right here in my... Next to my...
The turn to look felt unnecessary...something like reality just needing to confirm itself. I'd been lying and sleeping with almost half my body on top of my backpack...so there was no way the thief was about to get ahold of that... And even if he tried to roll me over and make a break for it, the little fucker probably would have been hard-pressed to even lift it. But my satchel. Of course! My satchel! Because that's where my wallet had been!
Sitting up fully on the balls of my feet, I spun around in a complete three-sixty just to be sure that it hadn't been kicked or tossed anywhere...not that there would have been anything left in it. But still. In and of itself, the thing was handy to have around. But no. It was gone. Along with my cell phone, my house keys, and most importantly; my cameras. Every last one of my cameras. Gone, gone, and gone. A digital. A 35mm. And the video camera that my parents had sent me and that I'd received one fucking day before leaving. The very same video camera that contained, somewhere just below the surface of its memory chip, that awesome clip of the monkey snatching that poor lady's necklace. Ah, man! And my pictures of the Petronas Towers! And what about The Batu Caves themselves?! Gone and gone.
My lack of panic was the strangest sensation. But the fact of the matter was...I still had my passport. And money. And I might have been a little freaked out had my wallet with that ATM card not found its way onto my chest but...wait a minute. That wallet had been tucked safely into one of the satchel's interior pockets and sealed shut with Velcro or something if I wasn't mistaken. Which meant that the thief had to have actually dug around inside the bag, found the wallet, taken the cash, and thrown it down for me to keep...probably on purpose? At the very least, the little fucker wasn't sadistic. He could have thrown it right back in the satchel itself (or even the river for that matter) thereby fucking me right out of my driver's license. He could have done that. If he was sadistic. The cameras and phone were a no-brainer, of course. Obviously, those electronics might be worth something around here on the black market. Or perhaps just; the market. And my house keys, probably buried at the very bottom all the while, went along for the ride as innocent victims of circumstance. Poor bastards.
And, oh yeah, one more thing. Actually, make that two or three more things that all sort of fit into the same category. My books; my novel and my fucking travel books. Actually...make that Mindy's travel books. She wouldn't kill me though. She wouldn't even get mad. And for that, I'd feel disappointed in myself! Not to mention that it had been one of those books that I'd picked up randomly one night at her place that had inspired me to even take this trip! Jesus, this just keeps getting better. I loved looking through those travel books. For months now, they'd been my little window into this dream. And they were handy. Even yesterday while flipping through it, I'd learned a lot about the basic infrastructure down there in Singapore. And that particular bit of knowledge would be the last I'd ever suck out of that book. Unless it was around here...
Finally standing, I strapped my backpack back on despite the fact that I was only going to walk a few feet over to the river bank. I just didn't want to have to turn my back on it...ever again! Plus, it's always been my experience that losing stuff tends to build momentum and, if I wasn't extra cautious; I felt like I might wind up naked and with nothing in a matter of minutes.
Building up a little nerve, I walked along the bank some...up and down...hoping to find something. Any trace of the crime. Just some solid evidence that might help me to come to terms and prove to myself that I wasn't somehow just tripping out...like maybe I'd misplaced or hidden it somewhere and then just forgotten about it. But of course, that was just delusional...even for a drunk as irrational as myself.
Hmm. Well... Hmm.
I couldn't help but run through the scenario in my head...through the thief's eyes, that is. I imagined that he was Muslim and that, to steal something directly in view of a mosque (especially one as grand as Masjid Jamek) had tested his conscience. And that's why he'd given something back. He knew that Allah would have smitten him and Ganesh, whom I'd made friends with only yesterday, would have fucked him in the eye hole. He knew it. I knew it. And I found solace in realizing that he'd also made off with my broken iPod and hoped that for just one second, it really got his hopes up.
And then I regretted hoping this. Maybe he was just poor. Or starving even. And then, in a flash, I felt sorry for him (or her, to be politically correct). And in another flash...I was over it. For I was still living on the road and deep in a foreign land an entire ocean away from home. And I still had to survive; the instinct kicking in again. An instinct that I now knew alcohol had no room to partake in. So was I going to quit drinking for the duration? No fucking way in hell. But, by this specific incident, I'd definitely learned my lesson in the sense that I would no longer make any major, trip changing decisions while I was drunk and to just sleep in those dirty sheets, from now on, no matter how energetic and impulsive I may have been feeling. But for now...
I just had to keep moving. And here was the overhead door like a wide-open mouth right in front of me...with hundreds of people working their way through the corridor and attempting to catch the very next light-rail. It was Singapore time and I was still Singapore bound...just not quite as soon as I'd originally predicted. And I'd just buy another camera. I had funds...still on me...thankfully. Because, what was I going to do? Just not take any more pictures the rest of this trip? Fuck that. In fact, I should just be thankful that I'd had my shit stolen on the third day in and not at the very end of my journey. Then I'd have something to be pissed off and distraught over.
And so far as getting another travel book was concerned, I didn't need one. I'd pretty much studied the one I'd had enough to gain a bearing of the place.
And so far as getting another phone was concerned; how the hell would I even begin going about that? It was impossible. There was no way. I'd just have to utilize my email in the internet cafes...which was probably going to save me a lot of money in the long run anyway. And maybe this whole robbery deal had been a blessing in disguise. Because I'd gotten what I'd wanted. To be in this far away place completely...and ultimately...on my own.
“Oh, I am very sorry to hear that this happened,” the officer answered me amidst his tiny, white cell of a police station.
“Really?” I'd already made up a pretense for how I'd lost it, “Because...it's not that big of a deal. I mean...I'm sure stuff like this happens all the time. I mean, even in my country...”
“Yes, but we are not in your country. And I am afraid that, after this, you are going to think that Malay people very bad people.”
“I promise, I won't do that.”