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.
Hitchhiking Labis to Singapore – look out below at all the palm trees in the jungle. They go on for miles and miles…I climbed another radio tower on top of Mount Raya, the view was immaculate as well, looking out at nothing but ocean and Thailand.
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.
Hitchhiking Labis to Singapore, but first climbing a lattice tower off the side of the road.
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.
Hitchhiking Chaah to Singapore, but first handling a baby python in a dungeon with the Ting Brothers!
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.
Hitchhiking Singapore – These sun flowers made for an interesting architectural addition to the country.
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.
Hitchhiking Singapore – Getting dropped off by the Marina Bay Sands Hotel…I slept in the South Garden by the Bay in a bush near the restrooms.
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…
The night sky dispersed after a few hours of walking into the radiant sunrise. A revitalizing breeze cooled my skin in this time, but shortly after the sunrise I sought refuge in the shade, stopping at a small food shack in a village outside of Muar, on my way to Pagoh. An old, Malaysian gentleman stepped out from behind the counter offering me a stool to sit in as he plopped down onto a bench. His chubby cheeks drooped as he looked down into his box of cigarettes, the red and gold capturing my eyes. They read, “Gudang Garam” an Indonesian brand he exclaimed. My olfactory glands reminisced in the plumes of smoke. The aroma reminded me of Cloves with their sugary, herbal fragrance. He pushed one towards me and from that day forward I became a social smoker in Southeast Asia seeking out the sweet taste of these cigarettes, but always falling short. We talked about Malaysia and its friendly, outgoing people I met along my journey south. I told him how I loved the food, the coffee and trekking through the jungle seeing new wildlife foreign to the Americas. He reached over and grabbed the keys to his motorbike looking me in the eye with a sparkle about him. His gray parted hair waved below the brim of his helmet tickling his eyes and then he handed me a spare helmet. The muffler buzzed like a loud chainsaw as we cruised down the back roads perpendicular to Route 1. I did not know our destination, but held on tight until we stopped in a driveway at the bottom of the hill. Coconut trees flourished in the man’s back yard and he leaned over asking me if I ever ate a fresh coconut straight from the tree. Before the words exited my mouth he pulled out his knife, stripping one of the many trees. He carved out a square hole in the thick, hard exterior shell and handed it to me. I tilted my head back tasting its sweet nectar in every gulp, and cooling my body off substantially as it gathered in my belly. He mentioned the benefits of Coconuts on my travels. As I researched more, I found they were ideal in oral dehydration and rich in nutrients acting like carbohydrate-electrolyte infused drinks. He handed me a spoon to eat the endosperm along the walls of the coconut and once finished I felt more full than I ever imagined. But surprisingly it regained my vigor and endurance unlike the sluggish feeling I normally feel upon overeating.
Hitchhiking Pagoh – My first Coconut straight from the tree…
For the first time on my trip I scrutinized the Malaysian architecture of his home. Culturally it maintained its own traditional values separating it from Western influence while maintaining its indigenous roots. Aside from its decorative intricacies that adorned the exterior giving it its own uniqueness, the house built on stilts, took elevated stairs to reach its interior. It sported a gabled roof with enticing colors which caught my eye. I recall several colors pinks, light blues, and yellows fitting into Rumah Limas type architecture. The interior reminded me of America with separate bedrooms and partitioned walls separating the living room from the kitchen, with a traditional bathroom. He offered me a shower which I quickly accepted using soap and a bucket of cold water to scrub the dust and dirt off my skin and grease from my clumpy hair. Then we set off on our way back to his peaceful paradise, the roadside convenient store.
He learned of my destination. As I strapped up my pack to head south towards Pagoh he stopped me to meet his friend, Agem. I hitched a 9-mile ride closer to the city with him in his dump truck. We sat awkwardly trying to comprehend each other but I did not speak Malay and he did not speak English. He pointed at the, “No Trespassing” sign for Sime Darby indicating he needed to make a stop to dump a stone load there. We entered the plantation driving on dirt roadways falling deeper into the jungle through a blanket of rubber trees until reaching an open patch of industrialization. Dump trucks ran rampant throughout the plantation dumping stone loads as we waited in line for the weight scale ahead.
Sime Darby did business in five core sectors: plantations, property, industrial, motors and energy & utilities. I remembered seeing signs all along Route 1 stating private property: No Trespassing Sime Darby. With over 900,000 hectares of land they destroy jungle every minute of the day through their rubber and palm oil plantations which account for 5% of the world’s supply. From hitchhiking it appeared they owned the majority of land in Malaysia, meaning they influenced much of political decisions involved with government.
Hitchhiking Pagoh – Meeting Chewbacca
Agem dropped me off shortly after his stop and I walked down the 1 towards Pagoh fully aware of Sime Darby all around me like Big Brother. The sun sweltered away at my skin as I boiled in its dense rays with nowhere to run for shade. My two liters of hot water tasted the least bit refreshing, guzzling them down as drops of sweat poured down my face, making my eyes flicker with irritation. No one drove by for miles and it felt the hottest day of the summer so far. My soles baked against the asphalt and just as I nearly fell over from suffocation another dump truck driver pulled over. His name, Alan, the long lost brother of Chewbacca with a husky frame, long nappy black hair, a puffy nose and brown skin reflecting both Malaysian and Indian roots. He became my personal chauffeur for the rest of the day taking interest in my Western heritage as I sat along for the ride. The leopard skin interior of his rice burner Honda suited his style perfectly as he waddled about with flip flops and a plaid collared shirt from the early 90s. We cruised around Pagoh, which did not interest me much at first, but he enlightened me with the wisdom of his hometown. I wanted to see more monkey’s since I only caught a glimpse of a few knuckle-walking across Route 1 into the depths of the jungle.
Hitchhiking Pagoh to The Cave of Natural Statues…this is a Long-Tailed Macaque
Alan knew of just the spot, “The Cave of Natural Statues (Nagamalai Alaiyam)” or as he called it, “The Cave Temple.” We chugged down windy dirt roads through the lush tropical rainforest. My eyes saw every shade of green as we putted along going deeper into the jungle. My heart raced, palms perspired and fear overtook my thoughts contemplating the worst possible scenario, ending up in the jungle with no gear and no idea where I was at to get back to civilization. He looked goofy and harmless in his weird getup, with his dorky smile, full cheeks and keen resemblance to Chewbacca. So I put all my trust in him and ended up climbing the stairs to a rural, miraculous secret, hidden in the depths of the jungle. Alan told me this holy place held many tales of unexplained phenomena. He claimed the temple held secret powers and he came there often to pray away sickness, disease and personal problems. Locals visited from all over for prayer at the holy cave. He prayed to, “NAGA AMMA” the Mother and Queen of all the snake gods, but others prayed to Supreme Mother Naga Amma, Lord Ganesha, Lord Shiva, Lord Maha Vishnu, Lord Muniswaran and Seven Kannigal, being the more popular gods, known as the Seven Fairies. The rock which sat above the small temple for prayer at The Cave of Natural Statues held more interesting wonders as people claimed it to grow in size over the years, one of them, Alan. He claimed it nearly doubled in size since his early childhood. Maybe it had, I did not question it; but instead I took in the natural wonders of supernatural creation with full interest listening to his every word (Source).
After a long climb up the stairwell to the holy cave we stopped and Alan prayed to Naga Amma for my safe travels leaving a food offering at the small temple devoted to the Hindu deities. No sooner he placed the food on the idol monkeys swung from the tree limbs above snagging it between their little hands. I stood there in amazement as they entered my vision like a flock of seagulls fighting over bread scraps. The monkeys, known as Long-tailed Macaques, huddled around us begging for food like stray dogs. Alan warned me of their dangerous behavior and advised me to put my jacket back on since any items held in my hand they deemed as potential food. They looked cute and harmless to tourists, but to homeowners and the Malaysian Government they deemed them as pests and in recent years killed them off by the hundreds of thousands. For me, it made my experience all worthwhile as I never saw quite as many monkeys on the rest of my trip.
Hitchhiking Pagoh the beautiful bright green rice farm.
We walked back from the cave and I tried to locate my shoes while Alan tried to find his jacket. The monkeys took both of them for ransom. Annoyed we yelled at the little pests, who held out for food, but we showed our hands and our pockets and they quickly scurried back into the jungle. They wandered back to their friends near the holy cave where they feasted on food offerings. I slid my rough feet into my shoes and pranced towards the passenger side, but Alan through me the keys and said, “Drive.” I knew shit about driving manual, let alone in a Malaysian car where the driver sat on the right side of the vehicle, but I gave it a whirl. My foot barely reached the pedal even with the seat moved all the way up. The gears grinded making him cringe as I tried switching into 2nd and then 3rd easing off the clutch with little success. After a few kilometers we stopped in the dirt road and he swapped into the driver’s seat to take command of his leopard shag wagon.
I figured he would drop me off somewhere in Pagoh to start walking further south, but the fun continued. We drove by the Muar River and he asked me if I ever saw a rice farm before. I thought about it and only remembered seeing wheat, corn, sorghum and soybeans on my journey through Kansas years prior. He smiled with a giddy expression and sped off down the road for one last venture.
We approached a dirt road, and on both sides, an endless sea of lime green rice cascaded off into oblivion. I loved every second of it admiring the picture perfect blue sky and yellow beams shooting off the horizon. He sensed my passion for nature and mentioned one last stop for my travels, Puteri Waterfalls, where we departed ways.
This took me further east, going inland, and I knew little of my whereabouts except knowing Segamat was the next town south. Despite the uproar I heard of Puteri Waterfall it did not live up to the expectation Alan ranted about. I hiked for an hour or so climbing the many steps and obstacles in the park to reach a waterfall without flowing water. I wanted to climb further, but I needed to sign in with the office to acquire permits and pay for a guide, which dissuaded me from anymore elevation gain. My hands swatted about at the horseflies following me through every inch of the trail. The rubbish blown through all parts of the jungle made me furious at the tourists who littered and the staff whom did not clean it up. I quickly retraced my footsteps down Gunung Ledang and sought out shelter, finding an area between two food carts in the vacant parking lot where I tied my tarp between.
Hitchhiking Pagoh getting dropped off at Puteri Waterfall in the middle of fucking nowhere…but shortly I found my way to the next city while hitchhiking Muar…
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.
Hitchhiking Muar – Sleeping in an abandoned 3-story building by Route 1
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.
Hitchhiking Muar with the boys listening to Malaysian Dubstep and Techno Music
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.
“This is another excerpt from a rough draft of my book detailing my adventures hitchhiking Melaka when I traveled through Malaysia in 2015.”
Walking in the dead of summer sucked. I felt inebriated despite not drinking alcohol from dehydration and heat exhaustion. The majority of my time I spent hiding from the blistering sun under anything that offered shade, rubber trees, bus stops, roadside shacks, abandoned buildings and sometimes the homes of complete strangers who picked me up off the road. No matter how hot my skin boiled in the inferno of the jungle heat, I always walked south inching closer to Singapore with each passing day. Every person who picked me up warned me of the potential hazards of criminals looking to steal my money, gear and harm me, but I handled my own and used my own judgment. Nice people existed everywhere in the world and I declined certain rides based on instincts, but generally I found people used race as a social pariah and I did not fit into this generalization based on my white skin color. “Don’t get rides from a Malay, they can’t be trusted,” said the disgruntled Chinese man. “Don’t get rides from the Indian, they’re all thieves,” said the irritated Malay man. And it went on and on with each future hitchhiking experience. No one trusted anyone outside of their race who lived inside their country. The only reason I gained trust was because I walked freely with white skin, minimal gear and looked foreign, which locals took an interest in my whereabouts and experiences, picking me up off the shoulder of the road. I felt like a peacock flaunting my feathers, but really I just smelled of sweat and looked of grime.
The dirtier I looked the easier the rides came, but really running water became a hard commodity unless I walked through the more gentrified regions of Malaysia with Shell gas stations and other monopolies, where I utilized their public bathrooms and outdoor faucets to take hobo showers in the sizzling sun. Today was no different than any other day. It involved walking an average of 10 to 15 kilometers and hitching a few rides by motorbike and car. As I edged closer towards Melaka a beat-up rustic red Honda approached with its rice burner engine, tinted windows and fake chrome plastic rims. A Chinese-Malay man in his 20’s pulled off to the side of the road to pick me up. He headed towards Melaka with a few errands to run in between so I tug along for the ride. The trust factor in Malaysia made my mind boggle with our first stop at the bank. He left the keys in the ignition, his phone in the center console, the AC on full blast and casually walked in on the far side of the building to make a deposit. He treated the situation like his long time friend waited in the car and no qualms or trust issues existed on whether his vehicle might get stolen, his phone snagged or both. He gave me full trust within minutes of meeting me. We made a few more pit stops inside Melaka Industrial Park and he treated me to a lunch of Pork Noodle, not accepting my money when I offered it to him, as a look of perplexity crossed his crooked smile and scarred harelip. A look of excitement spread out on his face, dimpling his cheeks as he drove through town; we crossed the Malacca River and his long, pointy fingertip bent out towards a flotilla of small tourist boats. He suddenly became my tour guide blurting out facts and information on different tourist sites in Melaka. The boats meandered down the Malacca River through the town of Malacca all the way down to the Straits of Malacca passing historic buildings, abandoned warehouses, old mills, mangrove stands, intricate churches and villages along the way.
Hitchhiking Melaka walking through the tourist parts of the town to get to the urban blight
We continued downtown and he gave me a tour of the whole city stopping briefly in Red Square at the Stadthuys, city hall, the administrative capital of Malacca. A series of roundabouts covered the highly trafficked area and my eyes radiated off the deep vibrant reds of every building in the vicinity. Originally built by Dutch occupants, the Stadthuys, and red clock tower still stand to this day in Red Square along with the oldest Dutch historical building in the Orient, Christ Church. This 18th century Anglican Church situated in the city of Malacca is the oldest functioning Protestant church in all of Malaysia. The Dutch heavily influenced the architecture of Melaka with their conquest of the Portuguese Empire in 1641 reforming buildings to Dutch Colonial architecture, which still remains to this day. Christ Church sits with three Norman windows of entry on the façade, covered in a bright red coating of paint in unison with the other structures of British Town. Its red exterior trim extends along the walls and the doors, where one can see “CHRIST CHURCH MELAKA” in bold white letters and “1753” centered underneath it. A big white cross lines the red arch, followed by a bell and spire depicting Dutch Colonial architecture at its finest, making this a keen interest for tourists coming from all over the world.
The picturesque setting of light maroon painted buildings set the scene for a postcard, and I regrettably wished he dropped me off in the city of Melaka rather than the outskirts where the buildings decayed to bits of rubble, and half-completed construction projects. Nonetheless, my mind fast forwarded through hundreds of years of history in minutes and I avoided walking through the tourist pits in town, where they trapped tourists into buying overpriced souvenirs and unnecessary tours. I lucked out as I indulged into hours of reading, dipping into more of, “A Thousand Splendid Suns” sprawling my feet out across a half-built concrete structure, adjacent dilapidated silos, as I peered out through scaffolding at the perfect blue sky, losing my thoughts in its beauty. My mind erased into the oblivion of the night sky, fading away to the faint sound of mosquitoes, and crickets as I sweat profusely in my bivy sack, which smelled of putrid sweat from several restless nights in the jungle.
Hitchhiking Melaka – Reading “A Thousand Splendid Suns”
Below is another excerpt from my book, which I have decided to call, “The Nectar of Life: Misfit Travel” it outlines my first few days in Malaysia ending up in a Resort Town in Port Dickson with a nice man named Mr. Azaris.
After days of a polyphasic sleep cycle I finally caught up on a full night’s rest. The sky wanted to drown its sorrows with another storm and I started wishing I picked another time to travel to Malaysia. I spent the past days avoiding the rain trying to get as far away from Kuala Lumpur as possible. My mind rested, but my fatigued muscles made it a chore to walk just a few steps down the road. Blisters split open oozing with fluid, my quads ached and the bottom of my feet spurted with pinholes of pain as if I walked barefoot across an endless field of rocks. I took a break from the asphalt and trudged through the grass, damping my shoes and easing the stress on my feet to the soft, wet, ground. The sky cast its angry, dark-grey, clouds above me ready to yell with thunder and then a man with a jack-o-lantern smile parked his motorbike in front of me. My first time on a motorcycle I spent hitchhiking through the Malaysian jungle trying to avoid a downpour. The wind flicked my greasy hair about my face as I held on tight to his waist to avoid falling to my death. He dropped me off further in Sepang and suggested I head to Port Dickson for fresh, white, sand and crystal-clear beaches. The aroma of chicken and beef floated through the air as I walked by restaurants serving breakfast noodle. It triggered my appetite and I ordered a large platter of noodle experiencing my first time with chopsticks without stabbing sushi rolls. I pried the sticks between my index finger and thumb and failed miserably at capturing enough noodles to satisfy my hunger. At the rate noodles entered my mouth I might starve so I tipped the bowl up as if sipping soup and the noodles flowed freely down my throat. I ate every last morsel as the last bits of tangy sauce dripped onto my tongue. My hunger eased and I walked further south to an even more isolated roadway. The canopy of palm trees shaded the sun from the roadway as they framed my path towards Port Dickson. I walked alone for hours unsure of the distance to the next town or the next encounter with a person. As I walked deeper and deeper into the jungle I only heard the faint echoes of chirping critters and the constant buzzing of pesky mosquitoes anticipating their next blood thirsty meal, a feast on my skin. I wandered in the shade, happy to be out of the sun, and slightly frightened on my whereabouts as the only view for miles, simply jungle and the paved road my feet trudged against.
Mr. Azaris and his resort town in Port Dickson.
But with hope on my side I felt unstoppable and then it happened. A car stopped. A black pickup pulled off the road and I hopped in, taking me a few miles to the next town before Port Dickson, the constructor operator let me out while he continued to his job. This is where I met a young boy named Cheng who welcomed me into his home for breakfast. Cheng was half Indian and half Malay. His father was born in Malaysia and his mother was from India. He looked like your typical young kid, hanging out with friends, riding bicycles around the neighborhood, getting into mischief. His brightly colored face broke out into a huge white smile when I accepted an invitation to his home. I felt like a celebrity for the mere fact that I was American. His mother whipped me up a big cup of coffee. When my lips touched the sweet sensation of Malay coffee they instantly fell in love. The sweet delectable taste crushed any Starbucks coffee, but the amount of sugar cane in a cup made me fear diabetes.
In the living room sat an isolated area with a small temple dedicated to their God. Since Cheng’s mother was Hindu they used this area for worship in their household. She called it the, “Puja” room or prayer room. It looked like a shrine to multiple deities containing pictures of Gods and Mahatmas. The smell of incense filled the air and a lamp illuminated the photographs making it feel like a sanctuary fit for meditation, and pray. Food offerings placed in front of the idol near the adjacent lamp stood out as a symbol of thankfulness. It looked like I stepped into a completely new world, and I did. They took pleasure in my interest towards their culture, but our encounter remained short-lived. As I walked out the door Cheng looked at me with a sincere glare in his eyes and one last request, a picture. We all huddled up linking shoulders and snapped a photograph to show his school friends he met an American wandering the streets of Malaysia.
I waved goodbye and continued south into the jungle hoping to make it to Port Dickson before sundown. The road made my mind clear as I wrapped my head around my thoughts with each step forward getting a little further south each day and experiencing a little more of the culture. By now, any shoulders ceased to exist on this part of Route 1 making hitchhiking futile, but I did not look for rides, they just came to me, when I least expected them.
Behind me I heard the engine of a beat up van sneeze, and whimper sounding on its last life. It slowly approached me, the thumping and clunking louder, until it stopped dead in the road. An older Malay man picked me up, Aman, and the whole ride I listened to him ridicule and belittle Chinese people expressing his racism and fury using me as a means to vent his frustration about their existence. I sat their confused how to respond and spent the ride nodding in agreement waiting to hop off in Port Dickson. He mumbled about never picking up any kids before, but he saw my white skin and felt I looked harmless. Attesting any native might pull a knife on him and try to rob him of his money or van. My demeanor immediately changed when he reached under his seat, I became more stern and stiff, as I sat upright in the passenger’s seat, concealing my fear as he played with a pistol. He pulled it out and flashed it in front of me for a few seconds saying he came prepared, they would quickly feel the barrel of this gun up against their chest had they fucked with him. He looked at it; he looked at me; and then quickly shoved it back under his driver’s seat. A look of relief sweat down my brow since my only weapon of defense, a tiny, rusty, razor blade found off the side of the road, was no match for a deadly weapon. He continued blabbing about the Chinese, their faults and dirty country, and in that moment, I chuckled, thinking, “Thank god I am not Chinese, this guy would have shot me.” He dropped me off in front of Saujana Beach (4th Mile Beach) where I dipped my toes into the Indian Ocean for the first time.
The white sandy beaches behind Mr. Azaris’ house in Port Dickson!
The soft, powdery texture of the sand rubbed between my toes encrusting my feet in a white film as I ran towards the ocean, eager to splash in the clear, clean waves of Saujana Beach. The salt water cooled my skin from the harsh rays of the sun and made for my first shower in a few days. I slicked back my greasy hair and dipped my head under basking in the comfort of the ocean. My body bobbed like a buoy with each splashing wave that crashed in with the tide. I stood on my tippy toes between floating to avoid the sharp sea shells and rocky floor under my feet, soaking up the ocean breeze for a few hours until making it back to the shore.
I dreamed of camping along the beach, hearing the soft whispers of the ocean lull me to sleep while looking up at the twinkling sky, but this thought quickly vanished from my mind upon further exploration. I found myself breaching occupied territory as I wandered further down the beach past abandoned buildings and homeless camps. A group of stray dogs foaming at the mouth ferociously barked, showing their vicious teeth just a few feet from where I sunk in the sandy shoreline. Again with the dogs, my most feared animal in my travels. The leader of the pack squared up with me vigilantly watching my every move. I dropped my pack and slowly scrambled backwards with a blank stare of shock plastered on my face. I hated dogs, at least when I traveled and I just wanted to walk away unscathed regardless if my pack got destroyed in the process. Curiously, he trotted closer, blowing wafts of sand away from his snout as he crammed his face near my pack. He sniffed, and sniffed some more, quickly losing interest and then one-by-one the pack of five dogs dart off towards Route 1, leaving me shaken in my tracks. I whispered to myself, thanking whatever God existed out there, as I slung my gear back on over my shoulders, which brought up my next problem, where would I sleep?
A section of vacant jungle made for my humble abode that night, or at least I thought. A rush of clouds scampered in early that morning abruptly awakening me at 3 AM. What started off as a soothing pitter-patter of rain drops cooling me off turned into a quick shuffle towards shelter as they thrashed about the air, soaking every last single piece of my gear. Hastily, I grabbed everything and jolted, flinging up mud and grass with each swift movement as water poured down my body. Through blurred vision I spotted a pavilion where an old bus stop once was and fled for cover. I rung out my hair, and my clothing, my bare ass lying against the cold concrete footing, listening to the sharp sound of rain hit the ground like an army of nail guns. My body shivered from the chilling drop in temperature and all my clothes lay scattered out to dry, praying for a bright day of sunshine early morning.
I never slept that night and the sun never even winked the next day, shadowed behind a myriad of clouds. As morning came I slipped back into my soggy clothing. The stagnant smell of stale sweat surrounded me as I waited hour-by-hour for my clothing to dry with little change in its wet state. Fully loaded, my pack weighed too much to carry, so I dumped my jeans, a shirt and underwear leaving me with wet shorts, a t-shirt and thermals. I felt like a zombie and it took every last bit of energy keeping my eyes open as I moved along down the highway like a slug, completely miserable and hopeless.
I tried hitchhiking; standing there with a melancholy stare, and limp thumb, for an hour, but no one picked me up. I looked like a homebum straight out of a dumpster. My damp, raggedy clothes, greasy hair, and mud covered calves said it all as I moseyed down the road. I wandered with my head down staring at my shoes, squishing along the shoulder of Route 1, hearing the repetitive sound of traffic whiz by me. But that all changed as a Range Rover came to a stop. I did not know what to think, so I kept walking. No one with luxury vehicles ever picked me up in the past, but with each step the car crept forward, and I watched the face behind a tinted window appear as it slowly rolled down. The man in the passenger’s seat advised me to get in, directing his driver down the road to his, “Resort Town.” I sat with my knees close together and ass towards the end of the seat, worried my damp clothes would ruin the upholstery of his vehicle. He kept telling me his God would never forgive him if he did not pick me up.
What a beautiful sight!
I did not know what to expect. A rich man taking me to a, “Resort Town” seemed quite unexpected and sketchy. Nonetheless, I felt deathly tired, and rolled the die, hoping to wake up fully clothed with an intact asshole and not his next BDSM slave in a dungeon. We pulled up to his gated driveway entrance and it felt like we entered the gates to a castle. I arrived as a guest in his beach-side resort town where he paid workers to live on-site and attend to any maintenance issues on the property. They lived well in their one bedroom beach houses with hardwood patios, ceramic tile flooring, hot water shower heads (uncommon in Malaysia, except among the rich), cherry wood chair and dresser drawers, a ceiling fan and a Tempurpedic mattress. We feasted on a smorgasbord of Malaysian food, fried noodles, fried mantis prawn, and indulged in Tiger Ale’s. My stomach squirmed from overindulging and after one beer I felt drunk from a day full of dehydration, lack of food and what felt like endless walking, so I stumbled back to the room for a quick shower. I ended up flopping on the bed to rest my eyes and sunk into a deep sleep with my body floating on clouds of comfort.
I remember phasing in and out of a fuzzy state of mind, unable to move my body from sleep paralysis. I gave in to my sleep deprivation and awoke 14 hours later, refreshed and alive, to breakfast packaged neatly on the end table. I lay in heaven and as the warm pellets of pressurized water thumped against my skin I felt eternally grateful to bathe in the warmth of cleanliness for the first time in weeks. The luxury of not having to take hobo showers out of outdoor spigots, gas station sinks or creeks made me appreciate this whole scenario I found myself in just by walking down the road.
He took pride in his success as an MD, which allowed him the luxury of a private beach resort off the shore of Port Dickson. Each weekend he drove down from his home in Kuala Lumpur escaping the stress of business life in the congested city, leaving behind his family to attend to his horse stable, drown himself in alcohol and view the limitless waves, sunrises and sunsets cast out in an almost surreal setting. We talked about life. We confided in our deepest desires and regrets and he envied my simplistic life, living out of a backpack. At 60 years old he owned everything he ever imagined from hard-work, but no matter his money he could not buy his only desires, love, happiness and friends. Each passing week he asked his wife and sons to join him down at his beach house already knowing their answers; he sat alone, reminiscing on his accomplishments over wine and beer, despite his many accomplishments. I shortly realized Mr. Azaris, as he introduced himself, just wanted a friend.
The next days I wallowed in the refreshment of a scenic beachside setting, dipping my legs into the brisk ocean feeling the splendor of nature all around me. Mr. Azaris rarely left his living room, sipping Tiger Ale’s and peeping through the windows out at the thrashing waves, seashell filled sand and blinding sunrays. He did not swim, as much as I persuaded him to, he just lurked inside content with the picturesque view of the ocean behind his curtains.
I foraged for seashells, spending a few hours rummaging through the white sandy beach behind his property. Never before did I see such an array of seashells, vibrant, depicting all colors of the rainbows, with pointy tips, curvy shells, and intricate patterns. I filled a jar with a variety of seashells, Thorny Oysters, Propeller Arks, Kitten Paws, Cardita Shells, Floridian Egg Cockles, Jingle Shells, Singapore Scallops, Leathered Donax, Rock Oysters, Dog Conch, Chameleon Nerites, Butterfly Surf Clams, and an assortment of other bivalve shells. They shimmered from the salt water of the crashing tide and made the perfect souvenir for my travels.
My olive skin tone by this time turned bright red after singeing in the sun for hours, so I moseyed inside. I felt like a king in Mr. Azaris’ presence. We feasted every few hours digging our taste buds into a wide selection of seafood, fried calamari, steamed fish, and oysters with eggs and vegetables from Restoran Port Dickson. The chef cooked the whole fish, which looked peculiar from my western roots, but I happily indulged, eating the crispy, fried tail and skin, spitting out the bones with each bite as my tongue worked its way into the scrumptious, fresh, meat.
As his butler drove us through town in his sleek black Range Rover, little Malay children stared, running around the streets barefoot, playing stick ball. Everyone knew Mr. Azaris and his admirable prestige. His clout shimmered in the reflection of his spotless vehicle, showing his crease-free Armani suit, and proper stature before entering any establishment. With each errand he introduced me to the store owner’s and clerks of the places he frequented on his routinely weekend schedule. He always ate lunch at Restoran Port Dickson and on his way home his butler always stopped at the local banana stand to purchase a bundle of fresh banana’s along with fried bananas. Dinner usually consisted of a fried noodle dish, with Tiger Ale’s and a bottle of Domaine Laurent Merlot, one of Malaysia’s more expensive bottles. He looked forward to every weekend of this, the only change with this weekend, my company.
Those three days in paradise quickly came to an end with the start of the new work week. He let me borrow a book for the road, “A Thousand Splendid Suns” and we gave our goodbyes with a brief hug and firm handshake. He set off for the first time that weekend in the driver’s side of his vehicle towards Kuala Lumpur and his butler pointed me in the direction of the bus stop. My adventure continued as I hoofed it down the road towards my next destination, Melaka.