I awoke eager to check out the silos over the chain linked fencing, but a welder dove into his work in the adjacent yard, early morning, lacking gloves and a face mask to avoid the white light, so I turned around after little exploration and continued south down Route 1 for Singapore. I scuttled through the fierce heat and before I knew it I journeyed 15 kilometers outside of Melaka, reading the KM markers with each passing hour as I stumbled closer to the city of Muar.
No one picked me up this time, not on these desolate country roads, winding through rampant jungle and small villages of adobe houses on the outskirts of the city. So I walked, my feet felt like flounder wiggling underneath of me and my scuttling slowly turned into dragging my feet short distances across the smoking asphalt. I walked through the greenest of jungles, with one-story mud houses and the kindest village people waving at me, saying, “Selamat tengah hari” as I passed. Their sincerest smiles harbored their genuine emotion as they nodded, unabashed of their missing teeth. I took refuge under palm trees off the highway, curbing my appetite with bread, until eventually finishing a full loaf.
I neared closer to Muar and entered the depths of village life away from gentrification and into more poverty-stricken neighborhoods. As I entered Serkam I found myself mesmerized by the clearest aqua blue water surfing underneath the roadway with small fish zigzagging beneath the ripples. I dazed at the sight of Komodo Dragons, and floating driftwood, breaking into my book yet again from a nearby concrete tower.
After a full day of walking I drug my feet further into the center of Serkam, with little place to spread my feet for a night’s sleep. The brisk night chilled my bones as I moved on further, stopping to see a group of neighborhood children from the ages of five years old to 21 play kick volleyball, “Sepak takraw.” They split teams evenly on both sides of the volleyball net and kicked a small soccer ball furiously back and forth like a hacky sack until someone dropped it, resetting the volley. They noticed me from the road and I immediately became the center of attention as they invited me into the Klinik, “Bala Raya Serkam.” I watched a diverse group of kids from Chinese-Malay, Malay, Indian, and all mixes between hustle behind the net, diving to make intense saves, in a sport I never before saw with my two eyes, until this moment. Everyone stopped to smoke, and when I say everyone, even the littlest kids, slightly overweight for their size, drowned in cigarette after cigarette, showing off their smoke rings and chuckling to their friends in Malay. Slowly, kids turned in for dinner and bedtime and a few of them stuck around, allowing me to sleep in the gated confines of the Klinik shielding me from the rain.
I walked further south towards Muar and in total I approached roughly 30 kilometers by foot before finally getting picked up by two teenagers at a stoplight. They blasted Malaysian techno and dubstep in their pimped out gray Honda as we sped along weaving in and out of traffic. We drove to a vacant lot by the Muar River and Khairul, the driver, taught his friend how to drive manual before he left for work. I watched as the car stalled multiple times, chuckling under my breath, since I did not know manual either, but slowly I lost interest with my attention completely focused on the Mosque behind us, adjacent the mouth of the river. Khairul stopped his lesson, his face slightly swollen with cuts over his lips, a chipped front tooth, and bruised skin from a motorcycle accident. He strolled over with a swagger about him, trying to flirt with two young Muslim girls yonder, but they took little interest and just giggled under their blue hijab, slowly walking further away. He noticed my interest in the eloquent Mosque behind us as I re-positioned my body, Indian style, facing the blue and white sanctuary. They called it, “Sultan Ibrahim Jamek Mosque.” It looked like a mansion with light blue trim covering the bottom exterior of the walls. Circular domes lined the entrances held up by white pillars to mark the transition from the outside world to a place of worship. It mixed western and Middle Eastern architectural practices and reminded me of a Victorian style building, with its thin tower (minaret) and a muezzin inside where they called Muslims to prayer at their five ritual times per day. This central domed Mosque unified a central space using wood construction. The building in this region and others along the sea routes to Southeast Asia preserved their own traditional forms based on the Javanese Pavilion maintaining its central two- to five-tiered pyramidal roof. Four columns support the main hall (saka-guru) and the roof of this Mosque covered with clay tiles or wood shingles. I did not go inside the Mosque, but the outside looked visually immaculate and architecturally mesmerizing.
Khairul warned me of Johor Bahru and dropped me at the bus stop in Muar before the start of his work shift. His horror stories made me reconsider hitchhiking down to Singapore, but after a few minutes I despised the burden of waiting, so I started trekking back down the road, stopping at a vacant building under construction. Mortar clumped between the stacks of brick, three stories, by the roadside. I climbed the concrete stairwell, my legs shaking with soreness and muscle spasms, and plopped in a dusty corner on the third story overlooking the roadway. I watched vehicles speed by out of the corner of my eye while diving into more of my book, “A Thousand Splendid Suns.” As the mosquitoes resurfaced in the shadows of the heat I found myself between nylon, squinting through my mosquito netting at the sunset burst its deep shades of purple, red and orange across the city. Covered in concrete dust and a chilling sweat I shut my eyes, waking every few hours to the chatter of city noise throughout the streets below.