By the River

It felt a fitting end that we spent our final evening in Vientiane, by the bank of the Mekong River.

Laos is a country bordered by rivers, but there’s something about the Mekong in particular that sets apart from the rest. I still don’t quite understand it myself – perhaps I’ve simply bought into the mythic kind of quality it possesses, or that I recognize it’s significance as a “lifeline” for so many.

Whatever the reason, I revere this river, it being the subject of so many books, it being the path upon which so many journeys have been taken.

My path, meanwhile, was simply to walk alongside it, along with hundreds of other locals who have it as a privilege to run, jog, and stroll on the newly paved road right by this body of water. Hoards of women have even taken to performing high intensity, guided aerobic workouts at sunset, a sight that, at first, a curious thing to witness, turned quickly into the one spectacle about this incredible gathering of locals by the riverside that interrupted the tranquility of the late afternoon transitioning to dusk.

The sunset was majestic. I’ve seen my share of incredible sunsets in my travels, but this one in particular will be seared into my memory for years to come. I think it’s because this one felt the least bit private. It was almost, communal, as though everyone had gathered by the river bank to witness something sacred together – the meeting of sun and river – and it implored stillness from my restless soul.

After a long walk, we met up again with a friend from Malaysia, Tommy, who is on an internship in Laos for a language program. We walked back the opposite way, basking in the waning moments of sunlight, meandering slowly through crowds starting to gather at the night market. Finally, we arrived at a bustling local restaurant, which felt more like an after-work drinks destination, mostly for locals looking to end their day with Beer Lao served with ice, a platter of steamed fish and vegetables, and a view.

Doing as the locals do, we opted for the same meal we saw on everyone else’s table, and sure enough, it didn’t disappoint. It was the right meal, for the right way to end the trip – simple and unceremonious, but supremely satisfying nonetheless.

We had a quiet evening despite the crowds becoming increasingly raucous by the river, and our night would end earlier than most other evenings we spent throughout our travels the past two weeks. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

I wouldn’t have done any of our trip, any other way, for that matter. Not even the unbearably long bus rides through hills, and valleys, and hardly-inhabited rural towns. Nor the uninformed adventurousness of our street food sampling that likely led to several days worth of stomach pains. And certainly not having to walk, everywhere. That is, whenever we weren’t boarding a boat or bus or train. For me, the walking might’ve very well been, everything.

Surely, there are things I’d never do again. But I want to make a distinction between regretting what we had done, versus learning not to do those things again. Chances are, I’m never choosing to do an 11-hour bus ride again. Or an 8-hour one, for that matter. Or eating meat parts from a roadside stall whose origins were a little too ambiguous.

Never again, for some things. Glad, nonetheless, that at least, I had.

Luang Prabang, then, the Worst Ride Ever

Gone was the sensation of being on-foot while taking in the serenity of a riverside stroll, without minding the mild sweat building on my back and forehead. The glistening surrounding waters and preserved colonial-inspired architecture of many of the town’s guesthouses looked far too pretty to feel perturbed.

Instead, Shuli and I were back on the road, on what would amount to be the longest bus ride we’ve ever taken together.

Mostly, the languid pace which seemed to characterize much about Lao people and their culture had been the sort of charming quirk we’d find rather appealing, as we journeyed through quaint little towns like Muang Khua and Nong Khiaw, across Laos.

But the trip to Vientiane had reached a level of lackadaisicalness that was almost beyond bearable.

We bore through it because we had little choice. We were stuck in a bus filled with other sweaty tourists, foolishly expecting that it live up to the “VIP” class it had boasted when we bought our tickets.

What we got instead was a decades-old liner without any air-conditioning, run by a trio of guys who appeared determined to take up the entire, 9 hours the trip had promised, and perhaps longer – whatever suited their fancy.

I can understand traveling at a relaxed pace to get somewhere, but that should have no bearing on actual timeliness. Rather than promptly leaving at 8:30am, we actually left the bus station an hour later, already pushing our ETA in Vientiane back significantly.

This was particularly frustrating because Thongbay Guesthouse had been so comfortable for us and so accommodating it was a little disappointing to have to check out so early, only to depart so late.

We were off to a bad start, and we were at the mercy of guys who took tardiness to a whole other level when dozens of passengers were waiting, without explanation.

That should’ve been the sign to me that this particular leg of our road-tripping was going to be painful. I held out on the belief that the ride from Sapa to Dien Bieng Phu had to have been the worst. Shuli was convinced we had another thing coming.

Several factors contributed to making this part of the trip terrible:

1. No air-conditioning – I’d have preferred an all-or-nothing sort of scenario where it was either full-blast, frigid A/C or it was completely broken and we cracked open every single window we could on the bus and lived off of fresh air. Instead, the blower spewed out what seemed to be a very, very light stream of air that did nothing for no one other than tease them of how good, actual functioning “air-con” can be for, everyone.

2. 11 hours – 11 hours!!! We were told it would take 9, which would have been devastating enough. Further, as if we hadn’t already departed late, for much of the trip the driver insisted on driving at a speed reminiscent of that of a child in a sack race (Shuli told me I could’ve beaten him, on my bike, which, if you know my poor track record with biking, is saying a lot). And this doesn’t include the extra time it took to travel on a tuk-tuk from the bus station to the city center where we would be staying. Why not just round it up to 12, then?

3. The usual windy, bumpy roads – At this point, this was all too familiar, which, for that very reason, made them a bearable pill to swallow. That said, there were no shortage of stomach-churning turns to brace for, so getting sleep was next to impossible. Podcast bingeing as distraction was critical.

4. Music – I don’t really mind Lao music. Not even unbelievably loud Lao music. What I did take exception to, which, to no one’s fault really, was how so many of the melodies sounded so exceptionally…cheerful. They just didn’t fit the collective mood swelling in the upper deck of utter despair. Not a good match.

5. Unapologetic – Which really, was the worst. The guys running the operation simply offered no explanations for any of the delays, did next to nothing to make the trip more comfortable for us outside of opening the bus’ sun roof window, and didn’t bother telling us how long the journey would take until, I had had enough and tugged at one of their shirts, pointed at the time on my iPad, and did the best I could with vague gesticulations to ask when we’d arrive.

He took some time to consider his response, and finally, smugly, said, “8 o’clock.”

It would’ve a little better if he had been right. But he wasn’t.

The kicker came here:

It was already dark. My eyes were trying to shut to sleep but my body had gone beyond the point of sleepiness and settled instead on the terrible combination of hyper-alertness and weariness. A young girl dragged herself to the front of the bus carrying an inflatable neck pillow, plopped herself on the open two seats available, kicked up her feet, and reclined her chair. She had had enough. For her, it was just over.

It was as if she had finally confronted the possibility that this bus ride would simply never end, so she might as well make herself comfortable.

Something about witnessing her resign herself to our collective fate was both incredibly defeating, and strangely comedic.

I started laughing to myself, quietly. It had gotten to that point, where the misfortune of losing an entire day on the road had simply become another humorous footnote on an, otherwise, arduous series of travels, by water or by road, between Vietnam and Laos.

The real unfortunate thing was losing that sense of appreciation for what we had just had. It had become a quickly distant memory – taking our sweet time, walking through the night market without getting hassled by vendors to buy their ethnic handicrafts (which we bought anyway, since most everyone was so respectful about the whole exchange). It wasn’t that long ago that we had lay down on our balcony to feel the calm breeze emanating from the river, brushing our faces as we watched the sun go down just as quietly as the rest of the town had moved.

The bus ride, for its length and lack of comfort and lack of accommodation and hospitality, caused me to stop feeling good feelings. For stretches, it was as if I had been purposely ignoring the beautiful, lush, scenery that still surrounded us – jagged mountains that pierced the clouds and rolling, green hills that followed us closely as we ambled along.

At some point, I had a better idea about what one of our fellow travelers from the Netherlands had said, referring to an experience he learned from passengers taking a speedboat from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.

I’m paraphrasing, but the essence of it was, “At the end of a trip like that, your body just feels…broken.”

Indeed, after this one, this 11 hour bus ride, it was. At some point, the appreciation of the natural beauty before us had subsided, replaced only with a faint, but lingering despair – the kind that comes over any weary traveler, I would imagine.

Perhaps, I was missing Luang Prabang and all its’ quiet comfort. But likely, I was starting to miss home, even more. Finally, it was catching up to me. The desire for the familiar – for my two gentle cats resting by feet, for the soft couch I could kick up my legs on while watching a long film, for the street food around the corner – became increasingly palpable.

I’m just a few days away from a plane ride home, and I’m caught between missing what I had just left, while longing for what’s ahead – Penang.

Hopefully, when the weariness subsides, when a strong cup of Lao coffee enters my body, and when my energy picks up from covering ground on my own two feet again, maybe I’ll remember to appreciate what’s still fully before me – Vientiane.

Recovering from the Road: Vietnam to Laos

Again, a late post. Currently in Luang Prabang, heading to Vientiane tomorrow. Photos soon.

I’m writing this in a hotel room in Muang Khua, a town not too far from the border of Vietnam and Laos. The Sannali hotel is the only hotel in town. Other lodging available are modest guest houses suited for backpackers. We’ve been backpacking as well, but this place, at this point of our trip felt most suitable for us.

Tomorrow we venture down the Nam Ou River. The water is the color of mud, and the current flows at a pace moving as languidly as the people seem to be in this quaint town.

There doesn’t appear to be a night life to speak of, and the local market when we visited it lacked the kind of frenetic energy I’ve grown accustomed to from the other markets I’ve visited in Southeast Asia.

I’ve read and heard that everything in Laos moves at a much slower pace. Such was the drive to here from Dien Bien Phu. Such is the steady, quiet flow of the river.

Perhaps there couldn’t have been a more appropriate easing in to Laos and the slow pace of life than arriving first at this tiny town by the river. There also couldn’t be better conditions for writing, when there isn’t much else to do but embrace the stillness.

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The last few days after Hanoi have been a strange combination of experiences I’ll likely never do again. Not that I’d hate to do them over, but realistically, they may very well be the sort of things I’m happy to have done, at least, once in my lifetime.

In sum, they went a little like this:

Shuli and I shared an overnight sleeper train car with a French couple from Hanoi to Sapa, a mountainous region in Northern Vietnam heavily populated by the Hmong people and other ethnic groups, famous for giving guided trekking tours through the indigenous peoples’ villages, valleys, fields, and rice paddies.

The trek, was at times, absolutely breathtaking. I found myself stopping, less so to catch my breath, but rather, to let it slip away, and make room for the awe to seep in more fully. I was surprised by my own feelings of envy, assuming that the families living off of their own harvest have it so much better than we do, being situated so remotely, in the midst of such lush greenery.

We opted for a Homestay with a Red Dao family deep in the mountains which we couldn’t have possibly have reached without our guide, Sang, a young, Black Hmong man who works for Sapa O’Chau, the locally-run trekking company that arranged our accommodations. They also run a school, through which Sang and many other Hmong have learned English. We hiked a total of 8 hours.

(Chances are, I’ll write more about the Dao – pronounced ‘zhao’ – family later. They were incredibly warm and welcoming, treating us even to a ‘medicinal bath’ of fresh herbs, and an inordinate amount of Vietnamese cooking for dinner, highlighted by a copious amount of homemade rice wine, followed by the worst headache I’ve had in a while.)

From Sapa, we arranged for a bus to take us to Dien Bien Phu. The bus failed to fetch us, so Sapa O’Chau had to hire two motorbikes to take us to the bus while it waited for us several kilometers ahead.

When we arrived, we found that the bus was actually a mini van, filled mostly with locals, except for a bright-eyed couple from The Netherlands – Ruth and Thomas – who stood head and shoulders over everyone else and occasionally posed for pictures for curious locals. Two of the young women in the van were incredibly scantily-clad, wearing overly tight dresses and high heels – which wasn’t a good sign. Other passengers were a mother and her young son who was transporting several bags of fruits, and an old woman belonging to a tribe I couldn’t identify, who said nothing to anyone.

Our motley crew of travelers experienced a flat tire not long into a trip, followed by the unfortunate episode of getting stuck in a muddy path and needing another bus to pull it forward. I volunteered my help to try and push our van, stupidly enough to get my running shoes absolutely immersed in their own puddle of mud. It was silly on my part, but we all had a good laugh about it once we got moving.

After we were halted a few more times along the way due to construction work on the roads, we finally arrived in Dien Bien Phu, to a throng of aggressive men jockeying for business at the bus station. I was just relieved the ride was over, but I feared a little for the two girls that got off at the station with us. They disappeared quickly. We were on the road for a grueling, absurdly bumpy, 8 hours. It was by far the worst bus ride I’ve ever taken. Our new friends from The Netherlands were in such good spirits, however, that we figured it best to stick with them.

This morning we crossed over from Vietnam to Laos, leaving at 5:30 am on a bus headed for Muang Khua. We hit the border in the middle of the morning, got our passports checked, fell in and out of sleep the rest of the way, only to wake and find ourselves deposited into the middle of town by 10:30. Another five hours on the road, finally over.

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I’m finding that on this particular trip, I’m doing much of the “writing work” in my mind more than anywhere else. I’m taking mental notes of vivid scenes I want to jot down to unpack in depth later, or I’m snapping a quick shot or two on my phone for the situations that feel fleeting.

The actual writing I’m doing, when things have finally slowed to a deafening halt, is done primarily for the purpose of not forgetting. I’m writing for my own memory’s sake, really. Much of this trip has exhausted most of my mental capacity, if not for all the varied details I’m absorbing day to day, then surely due to all the seemingly endless hours spent on roads that are mostly, unforgiving.

And then we still have the boat ride tomorrow, down Nam Ou River.

Then another stop at another Lao town – Nong Khiaw – another small town which boasts a little more activity of the “eco”-variety. After which, Luang Prabang, a surefire haven for tourists visiting Laos…for better or worse.

But there I also expect to sleep soundly at a quiet, comfortable abode, riverside. For that alone, and for more strong Lao coffee, I have much yet to look forward to.

Scenes from Hanoi

Due mostly to unpredictable WiFi connections, this post was actually written about a week ago, and only going up now. Also, photos to come later.

I’m on an overnight train, leaving Hanoi, headed to a town further north called Sapa. I know very little about this place, other than having read it is mountainous and beautiful, and that the Hmong, and other indigenous tribes like the Dao, have made Sapa their home.

Truth is, I still feel I hardly know very much about the place I’m leaving.

Shuli and I have spent three days and two nights in Hanoi, sampling local dishes and sleeping in a run down “Homestay” operated by Pham and Hung, a husband and wife couple that had done their earnest in giving us a warm, comfortable welcome.

Pham looked like he’d much rather be by himself, though. It seemed as if being accommodating to strangers was learned behavior – a ready smile, a firm handshake, a quick offering of food or drink, a willingness to engage in small talk. Most of it appeared exactly as such, like willingness more than genuine interest. But perhaps much of his actual feelings about us, about his work as a budget hotel operator, were really lost in translation. I didn’t leave feeling disappointed by his seeming desire to just do his own thing – I just didn’t know if it was us that left him feeling disinterested.

I’m convinced that it was Hung who more than made up for Pham’s well-intended, but somewhat unnatural hospitality. Her smile was genuine and inviting. She had the sort of charm that seemed to soften her husband’s rather serious demeanor. She never undermined Pham’s rants on Vietnamese society, politics, or on the occasional bad review his Homestay might have received. She let him speak his mind, but whenever it was her turn, she always came across far more gracious, and even apologetic. I doubt that the warmth she exuded wasn’t the least bit contrived. But I could never really know.

What I do know is that Hung cooked amazing meals for us time and again, shared about her life as openly as she could, went out of her way to get us whatever we had requested, let alone, merely inquired about, and still insisted on giving us a parting gift of a free bag of Vietnamese coffee, and an accompanying filter.

Their home was our home for a few evenings, and they let us in on their story.

From Pham and Hung we had learned how property is really expensive in Hanoi, and they are lucky to even have a home, albeit a small one, to call their own. They gave us an explanation about how land was scarce after the 80s, which had inflated the price for land for many Vietnamese. We learned that many of the women carting around vegetables in the morning are, like them, from nearby provinces, who had come to Hanoi primarily to work and make ends meet.

I have no idea how they are really standing to make a profit. For a modest $15 a night, aside from room and board, we were treated to several generous meals a day – one evening included a feast of Bun Cha, essentially a mix of fresh leaves, noodles, and barbecued meats – certainly much more than what they had made it appear they would offer on their AirBnB listing. (I’m sure 15 USD goes a much longer way in Hanoi than what we might’ve done with it, but I can’t imagine they were saving that much of it given how much food they seemed to keep offering. I really don’t know.)

Another visitor at their homestay had confirmed the family’s incredible, genuine warmth and hospitality, telling us that the reason Hung and Pham weren’t around to properly check us out of their homestay was probably because they had taken out this visitor’s wife and kids for a swim at a local pool. We had to make our goodbyes over the phone.

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Everything seemed to move at such a frenetic pace in Hanoi, ourselves included. Walking slowly was a concerted effort on my part, as I found myself having to fight off feeling like I needed to move just as quickly as the motorbikes whizzing by us. Getting around on foot felt a lot like running for cover, at times. If we weren’t trying to dodge cars or bikes, we were still having to elude people.

People were everywhere. Sitting on little plastic chairs and low tables by what appeared to be these makeshift tea-drinking stations on the side of the road, sleeping on parked bikes, squatting on sidewalks, or peddling all sorts of items for sale, from tissue paper packets to cigarettes to the day’s leftover produce.

Hanoi’s Old Quarter was teeming with – well, everything. Calling what was before us (and behind us and surrounding us) a frenzy of motion and activity still doesn’t quite describe what it was like navigating its tiny streets. ‘Controlled chaos’ seems more appropriate. Never had the expression “method to the madness” felt more fitting than here, as if there was an order to the disorder that made perfect sense to the locals, and left the rest of us both bewildered and amazed by everything that was happening. Like I said, the Old Quarter was teeming, with everything.

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I’m tempted to go lengths describing the food but I’m afraid there are many other more seasoned “foodies” who have already done the due diligence of breaking down the unique flavors found on the streets of Hanoi. Besides, I’m perfectly satisfied leaving it up to the experts to differentiate between quality broths of pho.

Simply put, I enjoyed just about everything. I ate whatever was put in front of me, and more often than not, Shuli and I hardly bothered with a menu. We went to local joints that specialized in one or two dishes and gave our order as a quantity. “Two bowls”. Sometimes just holding up our fingers.

We had our fair share of bowls of pho that seemed to strike a delicate balance of freshness and fatty-ness – crisp vegetables served alongside heaping bowls of noodles swimming in broth infused with the fat from the chicken or the beef. The fish sauce was abundantly available, yet subtle enough when incorporated in dishes that it never felt so overpowering. Or perhaps my palate had grown so accustomed to the taste, that it had already changed. I’m not so sure.

I only know that I was surprised at my willingness to gnaw at what was clearly a pig’s hoof included in my Bun Bo Hue, or “choosing my own adventure” with spices whose power I couldn’t possibly predict until after my nose was immediately dotted with beads of sweat. If I refused to eat at a particular road side establishment, it was primarily because I didn’t really know how to make my order. Picking places that were populated with locals was a safe bet, and even better if they only served one dish.

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If I had it my way, (and it’s probably best that I hadn’t), if I had been traveling alone in Hanoi for a week, I’d have blown all my money just on coffee.

I still don’t have an explanation for the abundance of cafes (spelled ‘ca phe’) in Hanoi. The number of options to choose from is seriously overwhelming. I’ve lived in several cities that pride themselves in their “coffee culture” but I’ve never been to a city that’s taken it to the level that Hanoi has. Between the local coffee shops offering the standard “ca phe su da” (iced coffee with milk) to higher end establishments offering ‘Americanos’ and other espresso-based drinks, Hanoi is littered with options for the casual drinker to the caffeine junkie.

Me, I stuck mostly with the local Vietnamese way – incredibly strong, dark, coffee served with condensed milk and a single cube of ice.

I’m not sure anything else can really compete, in my book. The list of other caffeine-based drinks that are as consistently satisfying is a short one, and this one may very well be the runaway winner. The jolt I get from the very first sip is unmatched. The subtle sweetness of the creamy condensed milk mixed in makes for a nice contrast to the robust flavor of the roast. Vietnamese coffee is, in my opinion, well worth the patience it takes to prepare it well. It is not the kind of coffee taken, on-the-go, even if everything else around seems to be flying at that pace around you, as you take it. Something about the drinking of Vietnamese coffee requires a concerted slowness in intake to appreciate all its flavor. I just can’t get myself to “down it” if I had to. It would feel disrespectful.

Unfortunately, what I know is what I know. No one could explain why there was such a glaring proliferation of coffee establishments around the city. And no one could quite explain the magic behind a single cup of Vietnamese coffee, served simply, with a cube of ice. Sure, I could probably read about it somewhere, but that would just seem like I’d be doing myself a disservice to the experience. I’d rather someone walked me through it – someone wholly invested in the genuine look of pleasure on my face as I took my time with every sip.

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Shuli had asked me if I was ready to leave Hanoi.

The pace has certainly taken its toll. I wouldn’t mind an evening that wasn’t serenaded by the incessant honking of horns. Nor would I mind regaining the experience of crossing the street without thinking each stride was a matter of life or death by motorbike.

Truth is, I’ll remember how overwhelming everything appeared to be, but I’m not sure I’ll remember if I had actually felt, overwhelmed. The sense that I could’ve handled so much more of what the city offered, yet didn’t handle quite enough of it, makes me feel like, if I could, I’d at least want to give it another go. Just a little longer, for the next time – enough to actually feel ready to leave it behind.

Now, it feels like I’m leaving with too many questions still unanswered. But perhaps the lingering mystery will help me remember Hanoi with a distant sort of fondness – the kind you feel after having experienced too much without having much explained to you. The details might be fuzzy, but the feelings, even the ones I don’t quite understand, remain.

Roti Milo

Roti Milo

It may not look as if the slightly sweet, mildly bitter “milo” powder was incorporated into this delightful concoction, but inside that fluffy exterior is a surprising, subtle addition to an otherwise standard-fare snack in Malaysia.

The man running this particular stall explained to me as I was preparing to leave that he had just given a training session to the boy standing there with him – whom I presume to be, his son.

It appeared he had, gathering from the little that I could understand as I watched him explain the steps to the boy while whipping the roti (generally, an Indian unleavened bread) onto the table, spreading dollops of butter across the flat dough, and finally, sprinkling milo powder evenly around.

“Milo”, by the way, is a chocolate and malt powder typically served mixed in with hot or cold water, and sometimes sugar, for extra sweetening. It holds a particularly special place in my own childhood as my chocolate drink of choice, growing up in the Philippines.

The man laughed when the boy seemed unsure of how much milo to put in, as if he were doing so too sparingly. Even I know that you can never use enough milo.

He then folded the roti to create a pocket that kept the butter and milo altogether before placing it carefully on the well-oiled, rounded skillet that looks like the kind you would use for a crepe.

Each side of the square piece of roti was perfectly cooked to a flaky crisp, while maintaining a slight fluffiness to the dough inside.

It was worth the wait – watching this man and this boy, carefully make this roti for me. Perhaps he was preparing the boy to the run the business for him in the future. After all, he did refer to this morning as a training.

Which leads me to wonder how many of these makeshift establishments here in Penang will survive another generation growing older, and perhaps, further removed from carrying on this kind of family business. While roti would, on average, cost the customer no more than two ringgit a piece (around 60 cents), the labor cost is significant.

From the preparation of the dough ahead of time, to the cooking of various sauces (in my experience, typically a curry and a tamarind “daal” for dipping), to the kneading, slapping, and frying creation of the ordered roti, all in all it is a labor-intensive process. Not to mention, the man working this particular roti stall said he’s open from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m.

After preparing mine, the boy immediately took a piece of dough and started pushing his palms into it, getting ready for the next customer’s order. As I was leaving, I told the man, the next time I come by, perhaps I’ll be buying my roti from his son, and not him. But after saying so, I realized that I wasn’t so sure.

Lost in Langkawi

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.”

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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.

Langkawi_Shore-1024x768

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…

I slept.

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.

Barber

For whatever reason, my barber had employed some new techniques with me today. Mostly with my shave.

I do not recall him having used a brush to foam my face with shaving cream before. I always assumed he had been using his hands. I am never sure because my eyes are closed every time.

This time around, he also decided to provide me with a gentle face massage, rather than pounding my neck and back with his palms after my haircut — which always served as a welcome sign that he was through.

The barber shop I go to is a nondescript room, adjacent to a residential property along Jalan Sungai Kelian. It is not right alongside the road, but rather, further inside the property, at the end of a driveway leading into a house.

There are two swivel chairs in the room – the kinds with built in head-rests designed precisely for holding your head back for a shave. There is only one barber, however, so customers sit on the same swivel chair furthest from the door when receiving their cut. I’ve never seen anyone sit on the other chair.

There is only enough room for about four customers to wait their turn for a cut and shave. When I arrive today, an old Chinese man was already seated before me, ready for a trim. There was another man waiting, presumably Indian, with whom the barber was conversing. Between the three of them, I hardly understood a thing. Most of the conversation was either held in Malay or in Tamil. Naturally, I took out my phone.

When the barber had finished trimming the Chinese man’s hair, the man then paid him a little extra, and the barber took out a DVD from one of the drawers. Perhaps it is a side business, I had thought. I couldn’t get a good look at what sort of film he had handed him, but I stopped myself from assuming.

It was my turn. The barber already knows me, by face anyway, and so he gave me a welcome smile. When I come by, he usually attempts to guess beforehand what sort of haircut I want, which isn’t that hard to guess, since it’s almost always the same – short on the sides, long on top. He gets it right, usually – I’m the one that can’t seem to make up my mind on what I was hoping for.

Today I told him I wanted something different. Short on the sides, but higher, I instructed him, but leaving the top uncut. I mumble another direction, something to do with getting it blended in, but I mutter it mostly to myself, thinking neither he, or I, might really know what that even means.

This was a new cut for him, and me, and I figured to keep the expectations low. He started off with a bigger guide comb attached to the electric clipper and got it all even, all the way around the sides and back of my head. He switched down to a smaller guide comb to fade it in for a boxier look, and as I requested, he hardly touched the top. It was a quick cut, and reasonably good for the first time around. I felt relieved and satisfied, and he wore the look of something of a proud stylist, pleased with his own handiwork.

As is often the case with my visits, he assumed I wanted a shave. He was right — my facial hair had gotten scraggly and I was too lazy to give myself a close shave. I often am. It gets to be a messy, sweaty endeavor here in Malaysia.

I find shaving to be a rather intimate experience. When else is one examining his own face so closely. Is there not any sense of fear at the prospect of discovering features you hadn’t known existed? A mole here, a wrinkle there, a zit you forgot to pop until your razor brushes over it and the sharp pain of the blade scraping against your pimple feels like fire…

Shaving for me, is in large part, acceptance. It is the admission that my face continues to change in ways I cannot fully fathom, even though, in my mind, I feel as though I ought to be able to control. It is one of those activities that signal to me my own age – not simply the mere act of shaving as symbolic of adulthood, but rather, the residue of time, leaving behind its inevitable trail on my face.

Mainly, around my neck. Especially there. There I have all sorts of extra baggage, a true testament of time. I once had a jawline and I miss it dearly. I fear I may not ever see it again.

Only my wife caresses my face, and even with her, I feel a tinge of shame, for not having maintained the same sort of face she fell in love with years ago. My hope is that only I really think this, and she could really care less. The face she has before her is, close enough to the original thing.

But my barber – he gets special privileges. He’s the only other person who touches my face in ways no one else would. Today, he decided it best to pinch my cheeks repeatedly, after he had finished with the razor, as if they needed to be assuaged from the trauma of metal. That was a first, and a welcome surprise. It got my mind slightly distracted from the sting of the aftershave that would soon follow.

This is a man whose hands touch dozens of face shapes and head sizes throughout the course of the day. He is entrusted with a special task.

As his hands and fingers held my face and head, I sensed that, he too, has placed himself in a vulnerable position. His hands are exposed to our senses. We can smell what he might have had for lunch, as I did today – it was curry. We can see whether or not he had trimmed his fingernails before coming into work.

My barber gets to share time with me at my most exposed, and in turn, he too, exercises his own level of vulnerability. Perhaps, it’s all business for him, but I want to believe, that with time, he’d be just as willing to carry the burden of our secrets, as he would, cradle our heads.

I finally asked him for his name, which is a bad habit I have — always putting that exchange last.

He told me it was Jodhit, and how you see it is how I think I had heard him spell it. I had to ask him to. I learned that he’s been a barber for 24 years. In his current shop, he’s been cutting hair and shaving faces for 14 of them. The man has earned the right to be trusted. The least I could do is reward him with my loyalty – that he can trust I’d always keep coming back.

Singapore

It’s 8 a.m. here in Singapore.

I’m sitting outside on a balcony on the 16th floor of the Espada condominium in the Somerset neighborhood. From here I can look ahead and into other people’s property – that is, other homes in other luxury abodes surrounding me. There are at least a dozen within a two mile radius of where I sit of similar high-rise buildings exuding the same posh status akin to the one I’m staying in also represents.

According to my friend Ryan, with whom my wife and I are staying, many of his building’s residents are expats – and this particular neighborhood is well-populated with Westerners from around the world. Ryan is American, as are my wife and I, though we are all also Asian, which we all agreed, makes for many less-than-ideal introductory conversations surrounding “where we’re from”.

Ryan is placed here temporarily for work and he’s been put up handsomely. From his bedroom he has a panoramic view of the Somerset neighborhood at his daily disposal. Each room of his “modest” apartment has floor-to-ceiling windows, as if peering into other people’s places is one of the many understood perks of living in such residences at all.

If I had actually lived in this unit, I would likely be engaging in unhealthy amounts of people-watching and would probably indulge in my fair share of voyeurism (My wife acknowledged that she would probably do the same, and so I feel a little less alone in my admission).

Because it is still quite early in the morning, Singapore at its most bustling and buzzy is less apparent. It feels more like a quiet jungle interspersed with high-rise concrete structures darting up from the ground (Which appropriately, beckons the the “concrete jungle” saying).

To the left of the balcony is another development, the only blight to an otherwise, stunning view from above. It looks to be the beginnings of another residential building, still in the stage of exposed beams and rusted metal. According to Ryan, next to the development is a tiny residential building, which apparently, houses the migrant workers that have been hired to work on the development next door.

It is Sunday, today, and early, but I can already tell, these workers won’t be having today off.

Besides the rumored worker housing and the eyesore of early construction, there is little about this neighborhood that feels any less manicured into a self-contained sort of perfection. It looks like the neighborhood was built especially for their own residents to walk around in, to bask and delight in the magnificence of where they live.

I write this knowing full well that this temporary fantasy world of luxury will cease in the next 24 hours, as my wife and I will return to our humble abode on Penang Island, where we must downgrade to the 15th floor balcony view instead.

Where we live in Penang is far from shabby, as well. What we earn, however, is absolutely modest which requires us, in turn, to actually live modestly, as well. Still, we both value living simply and with unwavering commitment we hope to actually do so (Which makes having a partial ocean view from the 15th floor of our rented apartment already a slight compromise).

I told my wife last night, that I didn’t want, to want all of this.

What I mean is, I don’t want to have this festering desire to accumulate more than what my family and I need, simply because the kind of lifestyle around me seems to demand it. As if luxury, begets more luxury – which I believe, it would.

And to be clear, I mean this not as an indictment of my friend Ryan’s lifestyle. He was gifted with an opportunity to come to live in Singapore temporarily for work, and he’s genuinely taken to this little, powerful cosmopolitan city-state. He didn’t choose this way of living for himself – it was given. And if I were in his position, offered a chance to live in a safe, exclusive neighborhood, high above the rapid living below, there’s a good chance I’d take it in a heartbeat too.

But I’d want to be able to leave it all behind, just as easily, if I could.

I want to live with enough conviction to walk away the moment I felt a borrowed lifestyle consumed me more than my own integrity did. I’d much rather, still, the latter.

I can imagine the comfortable living here to feel, almost contagious. Like a kind of good-feeling disease people wouldn’t mind having, or sharing, for that matter.

I’m allowing myself a little room for judgment here, so I’m just going to say this: in Singapore, to have things, just seems so utterly, Singaporean. As if there isn’t another desirable way to live, than to accumulate wealth and establish comfort. That said, I want any Singaporean friends to show me something else. I invite any passionate sort of retort to my judging, American ways.

Had I had loads of cash at my disposal, I’m afraid I may have burned it all quickly on this short trip, as if I needed to purchase things I didn’t really need because purchasing things is exactly what people did here. Even those without much money, I imagine, still found things they could afford to purchase.

Perhaps I’m not saying anything particularly egregious when I say that this country reeks of rampant materialism (Though, I suppose, by saying it that way, I’m not exactly saying it, nicely either, even if it were true). I can’t help but imagine some thoughtful Singaporean citizens having already made this sort of a self-condemnation long ago, and often. I don’t imagine everyone is swept up by an uncontrollable desire to accumulate things, or to literally “rise up” into a luxury home. But I do get the sense that the pressure to want this for oneself, in a place like this, that beams with material success, is more than just palpable. The pressure might be boiling over, for many…

Though, maybe not for everybody.

When I see women sweeping the balconies of the apartments across from where I sit, I wonder what it is that they really want, living here. Or the men hired to build an apartment complex they likely could never afford living in in their lifetime – what do they desire? Or perhaps the maid pushing around the stroller behind the family with a newborn – what would she like to have for herself?

I’d hate to start assuming everyone wants the same things.

As I said earlier, for me, I wouldn’t want, to want any of this, really. Perhaps luckily for me, I actually get to leave it.

Everything in Motion

There is an advantage to spending most morning meals on my own, whenever I head to the market.

I get to watch.

The privilege of being a conspicuous observer isn’t lost to me – it helps not having a pale, white face, a loud, booming voice, or a restless band of children orbiting me like little planets. I get to have a quiet meal, virtually uninterrupted.

But I allow myself the slightest bit of distraction anyway, and it’s hard not to do so – not when I’m sitting in the middle of a collection of hawker stalls that make the wet market more than just a welcome source for the day’s fresh stock of produce, or meat.

After all, everything appears to be in constant motion here.

The chattering of chopsticks being dried and rubbed altogether after a quick rinse. The stirring of silver spoons in tiny, porcelain cups of piping hot Kopi.

The silent whirring of electric ceiling fans, dissecting the direction of fluorescent light, casting ghostly shadows dancing upon the red dining tables.

The mystical wafting of smoke, escaping the ends of dangling cigarettes, casting a slow spell upon the air.

I watch the same white-haired men congregating around the same corner table, and I can’t help but imagine they’ve occupied the same, red plastic chairs, for years. Their banter is constant but unforced, as if they’ve been saying the same jokes they first told one another on the playgrounds of their elementary school. 

The hawker stall workers, employing their keen sense for when it’s appropriate to bus their own dishes and clean up after their customers. With one hand gathering back their empty plates and with two quick swoops of a wet cloth upon the table’s surface, you almost forget that they came by at all.

Time simply refuses to stand still at the market. But perhaps, only for me – affording me the pleasure of watching all the slow, quiet, order of things, unfold.

 

Back On Foot

For reasons I won’t disclose here, our car is in the shop for some minor repairs, and so we have been relying on public transportation the past few days.

Our little car, a Viva model from Perodua, a local auto manufacturer in Malaysia, has served as our main means of getting around Penang. We’ve taken it around the entire island, all the way up to Cameron Highlands, and shuttled it to and from the airport, somehow squeezing into it visiting friends and entire families into what feels like the local equivalent of a Mini Cooper (or so I’d like to think).

But currently, it is out of commission, and so we’ve returned to life being car-less, as it was for us when we first moved to Penang over half a year ago.

It goes without saying, how much of a hassle it can be without a way of getting around on your own. This is true, and nothing brings home this truth more than having the oppressive heat of these rain-less days weigh upon you while you wait for a bus that’s sure to be overflowing with passengers.

The only solace is the (at times, unbearably) frigid air-con to cool you off inside the bus, and the relief of not having to navigate the traffic at rush hour.

But I’ve discovered something else during our car-less escapades.

Finding new things, by bus or on foot, makes the process feel fun again.

Being utterly dependent on a shaky transportation system and having to meander about the maze that is Georgetown without the guidance of a GPS has made our little excursions around town actually feel like we’re visiting Penang, for the first time. As if, we didn’t actually live here, ourselves.

There is a freshness to the experience that I had forgotten, having gotten used to feeling so sheltered in my little car, weaving in and around one-way streets I’d never imagine traversing on foot.

Even the streets we had been meaning to pass through were likely missed many, many times, whizzing by in our car, determined to beat the jam and get home.

When walking, the adventure can’t help but last a lot longer. And you don’t really know where you might end up, or what you’ll run into.

Today, for example. I wasn’t counting on having what might very well be the best Char Kuey Teow you can find on the island. But being on foot led us down Lorong Selamat, and eventually, to the lady in the red, mushroom-looking hat – a very visible, trademark look for the woman responsible for producing one of the best, staple dishes Penang has to offer.

We took streets we had never taken before – little inroads connecting the major thoroughfares we usually drive up and down upon by car. I stumbled upon a unique view of one of the tallest buildings in town – KOMTAR, walking down Lorong Madras. I see this building all the time, but not in this angle, and not framed so symmetrically as I had seen it, today.

Eventually, we ended up on Burma Road, which we usually take when driving back from town towards home. But it had been so long since we were actually walking down this road, on foot, stopping at little shops we had forgotten were there – like Ming Xiang Tai, makers of our favorite salted pastry, the Tamun biscuit.

We were so comfortable taking our time that we even made an impromptu trip to the nearby Starbucks – which is something we never do, together. (I doubt we’d ever actually drive to one, unless I needed to get work done)

Yes, there were, of course, inconveniences.

We picked the wrong day to finally visit Bangkok Lane in Pulau Tikus. We got off the bus, only to find all the shops closed on Sunday. Then, we paid nearly a full fare for a bus ride that lasted all of 5 minutes. And, it goes without saying, that riding a packed bus, sticky from your own sweat, doesn’t make for the most comfortable coziness.

Still, these were not problems capable of spoiling what had otherwise been a fine afternoon. We have had far, far worse experiences waiting for the bus (for hours!) in the past.

We couldn’t have picked a better time of day to set out for the city – that pocket of time between the end of lunch and the beginning of dinner. The pulse of the city that beats at its peak at midday and again, at dusk, can, at times, be an overwhelming sort of energy (for us introverted types anyway).

Catching Penang at rest, with the sun laying low readying for its own escape into the horizon is like experiencing a quieter, subtler sort of magic. It is the time of day when dilapidated buildings look even more historic, and easy-going cart pushers trudge along more slowly. Motorcycle riders appear less aggressive, as if they, too, are still waking from their afternoon slumber.

The more I’m on foot, discovering this enchanting city, the more I realize how impossible it is to appreciate Penang as fully, and as slowly, when I’m driving.

In my car, the town becomes a stressful, anxiety-inducing, pollution-emanating maze of one-way streets, crowded with obnoxious jaywalkers.

It’s no wonder pedestrians look far more at ease than the drivers do. They’re in on a secret I won’t soon forget, now that I remembered what it’s like to be on foot. And there’s really no point in saying more, now that I’ve come to know it – it’s just best you find out for yourself.