We were quickly running out of options.
What appeared to be our final way home from Langkawi had quickly become just another dead-end. When we arrived at the bus station in Kuala Perlis, a gaunt, silver-haired man smoking a cigarette noticed our panicked, weary faces and decided to give us the finality we needed to hear.
“You can’t buy tickets here,” he said.
My wife and I and our two visiting friends, Ryan and Marian, huddled together without any other plan.
Then the old man broke our silence and said, “I have a van.”
But taking up his offer could be the makings of some terrible headline the following morning that would read:
“Four Hitchhikers Found in a Field”
Desperate for a safer alternative, we rushed the driver the moment his bus pulled in, asking if he had any room, offering him whatever cash we had. He counted the number of seats available. He only had one.
We went back to the old man, our spirits deflated. He told us it would cost RM300 for the three-hour ride down to Penang. We really had no bargaining power whatsoever.
“Give me a few minutes,” the man gently asked.
“Why?” I said curtly, surprising even myself.
“I want to pray.”
My wife and I live in Penang, and it did not take long to discover Langkawi as a go-to destination for Malaysians, particularly those on the western coast of the country. It is an easily accessible getaway from cities like Penang and Kuala Lumpur, so locals and tourists alike head there for decent beaches, good, affordable food, and a respite from a faster pace of life.
Ryan and Marian were long-time friends from my college days who are much acquainted with urban living in Oakland, California. It was my idea, then, that an island excursion for all of us would be most appropriate.
The morning of our trip to Langkawi, however, we found ourselves already on a mad dash just to reach the jetty.
My wife frantically weaved through traffic with the clock ticking, so we could pick up the tickets I chose not to print out beforehand and reach the boat departing at 8:30 a.m.
Miraculously, we made it, and after a smooth-sailing, three-hour boat ride, we booked a car to travel around the island. We proceeded to the northeast of the island, to the idyllic Tanjung Rhu beach.
While the waters weren’t as green and pristine as we had hoped, we stuck around until the sun became a burnt orange to witness another shore emerge from underneath the water, making for a picturesque, sandy “walkway” dissecting the shallow sea.
My wife and I took a long stroll along the new shore that surfaced, while Ryan and Marian bought some fresh coconuts. We took our time drinking up the warm juice and scraping up the coconut meat. By the time we were through, it was dusk.
Suddenly I remembered we had to head to our hotel before dark. We had already missed our original check-in time so we could head to the beach instead.
We drove in circles in the middle of the island, lost and panicking about how to reach our hotel until, after finding the coast, we noticed a dimly lit road with a makeshift billboard that read, in tiny letters, “Ocean Residence” the name of our hotel I couldn’t remember earlier. For some reason, I hadn’t written it down anywhere.
It was too late to appreciate the actual ocean view the hotel had boasted, but at least, the four of us could enjoy a cozy, loft-style, brick-interior lodging for the remainder of the evening.
The following morning promised to be a little less stressful.
After checkout, we couldn’t leave our hotel right away, because I had accidentally set our car alarm off and it wouldn’t turn off.
The workers at the residence started to gather around us, confused and visibly annoyed. One of the men decided to take the keys from me to look at the car himself, fiddling with the exposed wires underneath the dashboard, popping open the hood, and eventually, unscrewing the plug for the car battery altogether, just so the noise would stop.
The manager made a call to the car rental office. In 15 minutes, the agent arrived, and in less than five, he managed to stop the alarm for good. Apparently, there was some broken switch in the middle of the dashboard that we needed to press if the alarm ever went off – something he didn’t bother explaining when we first took the car. Without saying much else, he encouraged us to get the car back to the ferry office well ahead of the boat departure.
That much, I figured, I could handle. We had several hours still to roam the island before boarding at 5:30 p.m.
Driving along Pantai Cenang, the main drag by the coast, we found a decent Thai restaurant for lunch. Afterward, I suggested we get all get massages. But after phoning one parlor after another, we found that none of them offered a massage for under a RM100, or had enough private couples rooms to accommodate all four of us.
Ryan wanted no part of the massage idea anyway. He was much more looking forward to a visit to the local aquarium. Underwater World was about as family-friendly as it would get, wasn’t too costly, and wouldn’t require us to drive much farther. From there we would head straight to the jetty.
After watching penguins waddle and witnessing the aquarium staff feed the other neighboring sea creatures, we decided it was time to head for the jetty, a little after 4 p.m.
My friends and I finished a light meal at the food court at 5:15 p.m., thinking we had plenty of time to spare.
But as soon as we arrived at the main departure hall, we found no line of passengers waiting.
Sweat started to break on my face and armpits, immediately. All the signs said the departure time was at 5:15 p.m. I remembered watching Ryan devour a piece of chicken at 5:15.
I swore to myself and to my friends, repeatedly, that I had seen the departure time listed online at 5:30 p.m.
I looked at the tickets in my hand closely. 5:15.
I pleaded with the staff—as if they could somehow make the boat turn back for us—to no avail.
Naturally, I kicked my backpack, thinking no one was looking. Except, everyone was looking. Worse, my iPad was in there, and I regretted it immediately.
My wife took over the planning for us. She had to – I was fuming mad and couldn’t think properly, let alone say much else other than swear. She quickly gathered from the staff that, if we booked another ferry to Bukit Perlis, we could catch a bus at 7:30 that would head down to Butterworth, which was on the mainland of Penang.
That was our best option because it was the only one we had.
I hardly said a word, nor could I look at anyone around me. I just stared blankly ahead, still perplexed by the fate that had befallen us. A familiar sort of anger, the one that overcomes me when I perceive myself making blatant, avoidable failures, consumed me.
While I did my best to avoid eye contact, my wife, who is hardly ever confrontational, was determined to get my attention.
In her most direct, nonsensical way, she said, “If you can’t handle these kinds of little problems you can’t control anyway, what about the bigger things?”
My eyes were quickly filling with tears getting too heavy to hold back. I was already blowing an undesirable situation further out of proportion as if I had to make my singular planning mistake feel even worse by playing it on a loop in my head.
Worse was how I couldn’t spare myself the shame of a public meltdown for something so small, and stupid.
So instead of creating a bigger, more embarrassing scene, relenting and making more excuses, or justifying my own irrational anger explosion…
We arrived at the station 15 minutes after 7, so we blitzed over to the bus terminal, only to receive our bad news.
Whatever words I had to offer to my wife and friends would have felt like another empty promise, the residue of yet another failed attempt to make things right. So I offered up none.
The old man at the terminal, however, offered up his van, and his prayers.
He also offered to switch cars for us. I didn’t feel I was in a position to negotiate, so, we just let him decide.
The van seats offered comparable leg room to what a budget airline would afford its passengers. We all sat up straight and I couldn’t figure whether this was because we couldn’t adjust our seats, or we were still in shock that we took this man up on his offer.
But the longer we drove along the coast, watching the horizon getting absorbed by a blanket of midnight blue, I noticed the tension in my body beginning to erode and I slowly started to gain that feeling I had longed for the entire trip – a quiet calm – finally setting in.
After about half an hour, we reached what appeared to be his house. It looked like a flat, one-story block of concrete. A cat jumped out of the window to greet him, and then, a woman stepped out, presumably his wife. I was afraid we might sit in on an awkward exchange between her and the old man, due to what I assumed was the inconvenience we were causing. But there came no such tense conversation.
The man had a Toyota Camry parked in his garage. I figured that was the car he was referring to, and it made sense that he would want to switch—he would be saving a lot of money on gas.
All our stuff fit snugly in the trunk of his Camry. And while I had to sit up in front with a complete stranger for a few hours, I couldn’t help but at least feel grateful for the extra leg room.
After bidding his wife a brief farewell, we hit the road again.
The old man slowly reached his finger over to the car’s CD player. A few seconds passed, and then a song I’ve heard a hundred times before came on.
So wake me up when it’s all over
When I’m wiser and I’m older
All this time I was finding myself
And I didn’t know I was lost
Aloe Blacc’s voice on “Wake Me Up” would stir anyone up into a momentary frenzy. The thumping beat of the bass line when the chorus hits wouldn’t allow for any sleeping on the ride home. Soon we were then serenaded by the likes of Pitbull and Macklemore. He had this “top hits” CD on repeat.
I finally asked the man for his name, feeling silly that I hadn’t bothered to do so the entire time we were with him.
It was Abdur Rahman.
He explained how we were driving through the state of Kedah. He then pointed at a bright, beaming white tower standing alone on the horizon, towards Alor Setar, the capital city.
He mentioned his daughter lived in Penang, and it was with her that he would spend the night.
He drove like a much younger man. He tailed and bullied and whizzed past three or four cars at a time throughout the duration of the trip, even racing towards on-coming traffic on the right side of the road, just to pass slower vehicles. And since I sat up in front with him, I did a little praying of my own, closing my eyes every time I could sense him revving up to pass.
It wasn’t safe. And yet, I felt absolute relief that it was Abdur Rahman, and not I, who was fully in control.