I hitched two rides the next morning, one to Segamat and the next to Labis. My map labeled every city in Malaysia in both English and Malay. For the rides where people did not speak English I merely pointed where I wanted to go on the map. We shook heads signaling, “Yes” or they pointed to another destination and if it was south I went with it. This stood true for Labis since the gentleman who picked me up did not speak English. He dropped me at a bus stop where I faded into a brief nap over too much bread and water. I woke up on the stiff concrete bench looking up at the sky, beyond the tops of palm trees and between the skies I locked onto a lattice radio tower, pondering the view from above. I held my own freedom in the palm of my hand, and with that known, the possibilities became endless.
Stealthily I moved across the road hiding in a cluster of palm trees. The non-existent traffic made it easy to position myself inside the green fencing of the lattice tower and with multiple access points from previously cut fence, I did not even need to climb over barbed wire. My blood pumped rampantly, giving me a similar feeling to climbing the crane in Xindu, and adrenaline took over as my hands tingled against the metal ladder. Loose wires held together by electrical tape dangled in front of my face as I steadily scaled the tower to get a glimpse of the jungle from above. Each climb as fearful as the last due to my fear of falling, but I always appreciated the different perspective of the world around me. This one offered dense dark green palm leaves cascading through the jungle for miles and for the first time in Malaysia I witnessed the true third-world development of the country outside of Kuala Lumpur. The cities between the tourist attractions lived off the land in their small villages or commuted several hours to work. The poor lived in small traditional homes some comprised of only bamboo, which I would shortly find out in Chaah. They referred to them as the People of Malay.
With little to no traffic I booked it further south hoofing it with my two feet in a lackadaisical manner. My water supply came to its demise as I approached the last drops walking closer towards Chaah. The sun never ceased to shine when I wanted it to, but dusk approached quickly, so I endured its fierce rays and hoped for a hitch closer to town. White crust starting forming on the corners of my mouth and my lips fissured from dehydration as I trudged onward moistening them with a small drop as if it made any difference in my current condition. I finally saw a trucker parked ahead with its flashers blinking off the road. As I approached the semi I peeked inside to see two Indians smiling and waving down at me. I continued walking and heard a faint beep of the horn, which startled me in my miserable state. I turned around to see the passenger door swung open and suddenly I broke out into a luminous smile as I hopped up into the big rig. The AC blasted and I basked in heaven shielding me from the hell-bent heat of the summer sun. I looked over at a skinny Indian man, with his son sitting between the seats, looking at me with bewildered amazement. The communication barrier made conversing impossible so I used sign language along with my map to point to Yong Peng, but he moved my finger to Chaah and nodded. His death-grip on the wheel made his scrawny arms pulsate and I noticed the funniest tattoo as my eyes locked onto his bicep. The words, “BORND TO DIE” stood out as I held back a snicker. I tried looking away but it captured my attention as I sat back for the ride unsure of my exact destination. My mind wandered as the truck lugged onward, but at least a city meant an easier time for finding water.
He dropped me off outside of Chaah. All the complexes looked abandoned and closed so I drug onward sipping my last drops of water as the sunset. I began to panic from lack-of-water and badly wished for a liquid to quench my thirst. My throat dried to a sore, uncomfortable, scratchy lump, deprived of water as I searched for a stream or store. I stumbled further upon a restaurant, “Restoran Hefu Lau” as I walked deeper into Chaah. Running out of water changed the road I traveled in the coming weeks as I entered the glass swing door, leaving my shoes among the other scattered pairs, at the entrance. I plopped down in the closest seat to regain my composure. My legs shook in utter exhaustion and pain flowed through each of my temples. A little group of Chinese-Malay kids ran around playing while the rest watched television in the far corner sitting Indian style on the hard-tiled floor. They all looked at me with a set of shy eyes as if they had never before seen an American. I walked over to the fridge, grabbed two chilled bottles of water and placed my RMB on the counter. One of the owners strolled into the store and stared at me in a slightly confused manner. Just as I stood up about to leave he called me over to his table in broken English, “Where you from?”
“America,” I said in a rapsy, dehydrated voice.
“You wan see somethin’ coo? I take you back room. Show you? You wan see?”
I stuttered as fear of the unknown circled through my thoughts. Was he going to lock me up in a dungeon out back? I did not know, but I took the risk after chatting with him for about an hour. He rose from his chair. His pudgy stomach jiggled under his collared shirt with each step as he waddled to the back lot. He reached down to unlock the hangar and a gold chain dangled from underneath his shirt. He pointed and smiled as he opened the door exposing the inside for my eyes to see. Bins full of giant turtles, and bags of frogs and pythons sprawled out across the floor by the hundreds in an underground skinning business. Untwisting a bag, his fingers clasped the head of a baby python, which he handed off to me. My eyes glazed over in fear and my hand twitched as I grabbed the snake and held it with my bare hands. The fear faded and a splash of joy erupted across my face. This is what adventure felt like. Now where would I sleep?
His brother, Wai Loong Ting, entered the dungeon. He spoke Malay directing employees to different sectors, a group of them worked on skinning frogs, while the rest lugged a shipment of Pythons off the back of a box-truck. My eyes shifted around the room at the whole operation before me soaking in every detail. Bins enveloped the floor on the far right side of the room full of giant turtles with enough water to survive, but not enough room to turn around or swim. As I veered left, my eyes locked onto dozens of blue mesh bags full of adult Pythons, coiled up with their bodies against the cold concrete floor, awaiting death. In front of them, lay piles of freshly skinned frogs, their translucent vascular bodies trembling from shock. Workers drove razors into their skin slicing them for their next destination, the freezer! In the back room, behind sealed doors, lay stacks of Python snake skin, spanning ten to twenty feet in length across the floor. It’s black and gray scaly, shiny texture made big money in the illegal skinning business worth billions through global trade.
They exported the skin to Europe for handbags and other fashion items and shipped the leftover meats to China for food production. I never saw them kill a snake, but judging from their living conditions I imagined it a cruel and inhumane death. According to BBC a report on the snake-skinning business estimated that half a million python skins get exported annually from Southeast Asia making it an extremely lucrative business worth $1 billion per year (bbc.com/news/science-environment-20509720) Although International agreements like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species allow for some wildlife protection, trade in the python-skinning industry is often exploited. Snakes bred in captivity are allowed for sale, but oftentimes snakes are captured from the wild. In this instance, the Ting brothers exploited the Village of Malay people to capture pythons from the wild in exchange for chump change, knowing they would take any offer because of their poverty. Loong estimated their gross profits at $ 3 million RM per year. Strong financial incentive along with the demand for snake skins made their business “hot.” Killing pythons on the current scale may result in extinction threatening species survival, but the brothers do not care, as long as their pockets stay full.
I stood in the center of the action, encircled by businessmen in the illegal international skin trade. This trade, in their family for generations, supported luxury vacations, expensive cars, multiple homes, maids and the schooling, food and clothing for their 8 kids, spending an average of 120,000 RM per month.
We exited the dungeon to a pitch black night sky. Loong invited me to rest in their guest room, an adobe storage shed covered with sheet metal roofing. Black mesh bags and sewing machines scattered across the dingy green tile flooring. Normally his employees utilized this room to sew the snake skins together for shipment to their dealer in Europe, but tonight I used it as my bedroom. He cleared a space for my bedroll and I dropped my gear on the floor.
We walked back to the front of their restaurant and feasted on scrumptious dishes of calamari, fried rice, frog legs, eggs, broccoli and the famous fish of Muar. My mouth devoured the mackerel bite pieces of fish savoring the spices as I fumbled with my chop sticks, splashing it down with a few cold Tiger Ales before heading to sleep. This would not mark my only encounter with the Ting brothers.
The next morning I awoke to a hard knock at my door in the early AM followed by a faint, “Huh-row!” The youngest of the Ting brothers entered the dark room where I slept on the floor. He stood there, arms crossed, ready to leave for Yong Peng. I peeled back my eyes in my drunken stupor, forgetting all about our conversations in the past night of booze and food. I threw my gear together quickly and stumbled to the box-truck, regretting the beers I drank the night before as my head thumped against my skull in a dreadful hangover. I hitched a quick ride to Yong Peng, but not before indulging in its famous noodle, Nasi Lemak, before sending me on my way, closer to Singapore.
The next events remained a blur, but my goal of hitchhiking Singapore shortly came to fruition. I hitched multiple short rides by motorcycle finally getting picked up by a Lexus from a Chinese-Malay student who studied at MIT University. Matthew took me straight through Johor Bahru all the way into Singapore dropping me at the Marina Sands Hotel. His deep interrogation made me question why I even wanted to go to Singapore in the first place. He kept pestering me about drugs. Did I have any? Were they legal? Did I have prescriptions? Did I have opened cigarette containers? Did I have any weapons, razor blades, or gum on me?
“Fuck, this sounds worse than America, a country with too many laws and not enough freedom.” I disposed of my razors, and threw away my Nexium, sucking up any heart burn in the coming days with different food choice. We crossed border patrol with relative ease, but suddenly I found my heart stuck in Chaah with the Ting brothers despite hitchhiking Singapore in a straight-shot I wanted the jungle back in Malaysia.
At first glance, Singapore looked like a mini version of New York City, with amazing architecture covered in bonsai hybrids, ivy, and other foliage blooming between window panes on skyscrapers. On the other hand, it felt like prison. Jay-walking, spitting, walking on the highway and camping were illegal. But I managed to enjoy its cleanliness and beautiful scenery by foot, setting out on a few days of walking through the country. Everything cost more, but I still managed to sleep outside, finding cozy shelter by the south garden by the bay and near Bukit Panjang bike path connector off the highway.
All of my meals came from Chinatown, buying the cheap noodle dishes, compared to more expensive restaurants. From a nomad’s perspective, Singapore fell short of anything but a tourist pit full of expensive attractions, which I avoided. The architecture on the other hand did make for interesting eye candy along my long walk following the MRT into the woodlands. The Marina Bay Sands hotel stood with its three monoliths, towering to the sky, its blue tinted glass shimmering underneath the stranded ark rooftop. In the night it looked like a strobe light of camera flashes as the rich took their rooftop pictures in luxury. Hitchhiking Singapore was not for me, as I quickly found out hoping to get back to Malaysia…