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.

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Do-Over

Day 21, 500 words, 31 days.

The days here are getting longer. My body is telling me it’s 3 in the morning, but somehow my mind won’t shut down. It’s probably best I turn in soon, and but I won’t, without looking back at my day and where it all went.

For most of the day, I sat in the same spot and “tweeted” and Facebook-posted and practiced all the theoretical principles I preached earlier on in the week about using social media. It doesn’t really feel like work when I do the aforementioned things only when I feel compelled to do so. But when I’m doing it non-stop for an entire day, then I remember that it’s actually my job, and I better do it well.

My credibility depends on it. As does my team.

We started earlier than the day before, and we finished much later. The sun had officially set by the time the last of our workshop participants trickled out of the conference room with us. It was about dinner time, and we didn’t try very hard to think up a different place to go this evening, so we re-traced our steps back to the Forum mall we had gone to the night before.

This time around, though, I brought my camera with me – the Canon D20 DSLR my wife had inherited from her brother, which I then inherited from her. It’s a bulky camera with a broken flash and a screen comparable to the size of that which you find on a “dumbphone”. But, it’s the camera that I use anyway, and it is well-loved.

I decided to test out taking panning shots by the side of the road. Surprisingly, the side that we were on hardly had any cars on it, so I felt safe being on the street. I had to ask my pro photo-buddies to assist me with the technical details – as I had already forgotten how to shoot these shots. We actually had a new friend join us in the evening, a world photographer, as he would describe himself, and he was testing out the Fuji camera Matt had leant him.

So there we were, the four of us taking panning shots on the side of the street over and over, with locals passing by, staring at our odd collection of tall foreigners (minus myself, that is), shooting slow-moving “Ambassador” cabs and taking up too much space.

At one point, I started feeling that we were probably a bit of spectacle ourselves and so I wanted to move on a bit further from the rest of the group and conspicuously shoot my shots, the way I always do, hardly making the effort to talk to strangers and ask for permission to take pictures of people. But my friends’ boldness to do so was encouraging, and challenging, and compelled me, at least, to try.

There was the girl selling grilled corn whom I didn’t manage to take a picture of, and the guys at the shop making some kind of sweet, local delicacy whom I did, though, accidentally – I was actually trying to take a picture of their fryers, but one of the men noticed what I was up to and raised his arms wide, totally photo-bombing my photo, and in turn, saving it from being utterly banal and completely lifeless.

It ended up being a blurry picture but I liked it the most. It made me laugh.

I’m learning to enjoy photography again, and perhaps it’s because I’ve stopped putting pressure on myself to be great at it. I’m perfectly ok with being good enough, which isn’t something I can say for most things I pursue. It might have to do with the fact that I’m around guys far more experienced about the craft than I am, that I figured, instead, to approach photography as though I was learning it all over again, rather than having to show how much of it I already knew.

And it’s absolutely more freeing for me this way. I’m not obsessing over taking the perfect photo. I’m delighting in the process of finding a good one worth taking. I’m curious to see if I’ll stumble upon an unexpected story, freezing all these moments in time to see what I captured, even if, it turns out I actually missed everything.

Really, the more meaningful thing for me, is that I’ve remembered to stay curious. That I’m ready and willing just to learn it all, all over again.

That, in this particular way, I have nothing more to prove.

Hitting the Streets

Day 20, 500 words, 31 days.

I can barely keep my eyes open. It’s been a long, exhausting day.

We arrived in Kolkata just after midnight. Given that we didn’t have any luggage with us, we assumed we could quickly file a claim for “lost and found” as was instructed to us by the Air Asia attendant in Kuala Lumpur, and then head straight for the hotel.

The Air Asia representative in Kolkata explained to us that we had to wait until all the baggage was claimed before we could file the report – even though we already knew that our luggage didn’t even make it on the plane. It was a policy they weren’t willing to compromise for us as we desperately tried to assert our Western-ness and explain how we needed to expedite things as much as possible to rest before our conference the day after.

Rules are rules.

We were at the airport for another hour longer than we had taken into account. By the time we booked a pre-paid cab to send us to the hotel, I didn’t even have the energy to feel the least bit frustrated. It was, what it was. I just needed to find a bed to plop upon, fast.

Two things I found surprising right as we stepped outside the airport: first, it was actually chilly. All the taxi men hanging around outside the airport for potential customers possessed scarves bundled around their necks, noses, and mouths. I couldn’t believe how cold it was. Granted, it was definitely a bearable kind of cold, the sort that you experience on an average evening in the Bay Area. But I was mightily surprised at the need for warmth in a place like India. I simply never imagined India to have a use for sweaters.

The second thing I noticed were the cabs.

These “Ambassador” model cabs had the look and feel of bumper cars belonging to to a bygone era. The short story I was told was that these British-manufactured vehicles were being churned out as such even after the Brits themselves had already left India. For whatever reason, India didn’t decide to upgrade these models and have continued to manufacture “Ambassadors” ever since. They are now an iconic staple to the gritty urban scene Kolkata’s streets have to offer.

It was well past midnight and hardly any cars on the road, which felt like another surprise. Our cab driver must have felt an absurd amount of freedom to maneuver his way around the maze of streets like a madman. He turned the steering wheel with such exaggerated movements, it was like watching a child  sail a boat, blindfolded. I was both wildly amused and genuinely frightened for our lives, alternatively. By God’s grace, after taking a route I wouldn’t be able to re-trace even if you handed me a satellite to navigate with, we made it to Chrome hotel.

I could barely sleep. I wasn’t sure whether it was the pre-workshop jitters, pulsing adrenaline, or the constant, cacophonous honking of horns I could hear outside the window – likely a combination of all three, and I figured I was in for a long night.

I managed about four hours of intermittent sleep, abruptly interrupted on numerous occasions throughout the night by noises out from the hallway or next door. Then, as insult to injury, I woke up about 15 minutes ahead of the time my alarm was supposed to ring, and I wasn’t getting back that time I had to spare.

Without getting into it here, by some miracle of heaven I got through my workshop. Equally surprising, and encouraging, was how generally engaged our participants were. We threw at them a lot of tips and terminology throughout the course of the day, and I commend them for their patience, and eagerness to learn. I was just glad I didn’t conk out halfway into it, myself.

We had just enough energy to venture out into town to find the nearest mall and pick up a few pieces of clothing to hold us over while we wait for our luggage, should it ever come. Getting around on foot and avoiding the whirlwind mix of cabs, buses, bikes, and rickshaws zooming in and out of traffic was, to say the least, a high-blood pressure inducing adventure. I can’t remember how many times I jaywalked tonight while cars rushed right at me, headlights flashing violently, as if to signal my demise. The horns, of course, were absolutely, non-stop, as if they were the only language that made sense on these streets. They hardly made any sense to me, and disorienting as it all was, I did my best to do as the locals did – I committed, crossed, and conquered.

There’s an authentic energy to this place that I only began to feel in full effect, after stepping out on its streets on foot. It is at once, both unapologetically intimidating, and inexplicably thrilling, walking these open streets, knowing full well how I really don’t belong on them, unattended. Perhaps it’s that strange and delicate balance struck when fear and excitement collide, and you have not the time or the energy to fully brace yourself for it, that make adventure exactly what it is – the purest sort of rush you can ever find.

Luggage

Day 19, 500 words, 31 days

In transit, Kolkata-bound.

Things went from bad to worse, very quickly.

Our flight was delayed from Penang to Kuala Lumpur by half an hour. It wouldn’t have been a big deal if we had just one flight to take, but we were catching another from KL to Kolkata, and we were officially cutting it very close.

When we did arrive to KL, we realized right away that the luggage we checked in wasn’t arriving anytime soon. We still had to re-check our luggage in for our flight to India, but we only had 15 minutes until boarding. After pleading our case with an Air Asia employee (which wasn’t getting anywhere), we decided that the best alternative was to have our luggage sent to India, without us, so we could catch our plane. We’d just have to find a way to pick it up the next day in Kolkata.

I still have no idea if our bags will be delivered to us, or if we’re heading back to the airport. I’m not sure if we’re getting them at all.

All I have are the clothes on my back, and all my work equipment – as in, camera, phone, Macbook. Thankfully, I have with me some leisure devices – an iPod I loaded up last night and my book, “Bird by Bird”. But I’m three-fourths of the way in it and I fear it won’t last me the rest of the week.

That of course, is a minor problem, compared to the larger one at hand – not having our stuff with us.

I’m trying to exercise a healthy perspective here. We’ve been “assured” that it will arrive in Kolkata, though when, we don’t exactly know. My luggage is just filled with clothes, and clothes are expendable. It’s a minor inconvenience, more an annoyance really, that I don’t have a fresh change of clothes tomorrow, but I’ll live. It’s not like I’m breaking much of a sweat by sitting on a four-hour flight.

These are just, things, that we’re missing. And if all goes well, not having them would only be temporary. As far as our traveling mishap goes, I suppose it could have been worse. We could have missed our flight entirely and ended up losing an entire day of work.

But we’re off to India with nothing more than what we have strapped to our backs. I didn’t envision packing this “light” on the first night, of course, and yet, I’m dealing with this unforeseen hurdle about as well as I could, considering I have no extra underwear to spare.

My friend, Nathan, and I actually managed to laugh off this misfortune, somehow finding the humour in the hypothetical event that we managed to miss our flight. We didn’t, of course, and that makes it funnier, and yet, we have another hurdle to cross tomorrow and I can only hope to take that in stride as well as I have, this one.

I’m proud of myself for not losing my cool. I just felt like I was at the mercy of a flawed system and figured it best to resign myself to any other inconveniences that might come our way.

Because maybe we don’t get our bags until tomorrow evening. If so, chances are I’ll be a sticky, smelly mess by day’s end. Of course, I can’t help but hope that’s the extent of my problems tomorrow. If the Lord could bestow extra mercy upon me and help me just get through the morning. A sudden surge of energy and optimism, supplemented by a  strong cup of black coffee, an air of unfamiliar confidence, and enough interesting points on my presentation to outweigh the unhelpful . Or at least, to make the apparent “unhelpful”, appear a little less so.

My stomach is now grumbling like a rabid animal , and I haven’t even really eaten anything all evening. A single sugar donut, followed by black coffee and a granola bar, do not, a proper dinner, make.

It’s 11:40 in the evening and the unsightliness of the fluorescent lighting the plane has to offer is killing any attempts at relaxation. If this is Air Asia’s idea of lulling us to sleep, I might have some suggestions. I’m not sure how long the snack delivery is going to take, but I’m praying that it wraps up soon so we can hit the off-switch on the lights.

Because it’s time for me to let it all go. Most of all, my consciousness. It needs a bit of a break.

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1 am. The break was short-lived.

It’s fun watching people sleep on planes. The lady that was next to me earlier managed to get herself an aisle seat across from me and proceeded to plop her face on a plastic bag. One man looked downright worshipful, with both of his hands pressed upon his face as though his sleep weren’t merely a state of unconsciousness but a spiritual experience.

Me, I sit straight up, arms crossed, and elbows in, slipping in and out of a daze. At times my eyes droop heavy and are hardly open. But right now – I’m wide awake.

I should be grateful that we’re gaining about an hour and a half of sleep once we arrive. But because the sleep cycles are broken up, it might not matter. I’m preparing for a rough, zombie-like morning, and I can only hope our workshop participants are especially gracious hosts.

Considering that I’m even on a plane, thousands of miles above sea level, en route to a place I’ve never been, these sort of inconveniences won’t undermine the gift of travel. Perhaps these aren’t the perks of the job, but I hope, still, in the surprises that await us, whenever we packs our bags and go.

Visa Run

Day 12, 500 words, 31 days.

It’s out of my hands now – my passport, that is. I’m now at the mercy of the designated runner that’s taking my passport to Kuala Lumpur to get my Visa to India stamped in, rushing it back to Penang in time for my flight.

If all goes well, I hope he gets to pocket the extra RM150 I forked out to send him off in the first place.

Apparently, there are two Indian holidays this week – neither of which I was aware of, which prompted the expedited return of my passport, and hence, the extra cost. Otherwise, it should’ve been in my possession by this coming Friday, stamp and all.

So much of this Visa application process has been a headache that it’s a little overwhelming to think I still have a job to do when I get there. Just getting approved to go has been a journey in itself.

First I had to get my passport back, as it was being processed for my spousal Visa that allows me to even be here in Malaysia. That took several days longer than I had in mind, so I was already set back from the very beginning.

Then I needed to fill out an online visa application and make photocopies of my passport, my wife’s passport, both our Visa pages, and our marriage certificate. I managed to get everything together quickly and jetted over to the Visa office located in Little India in Georgetown, only to find out upon arriving that I had printed and filled out the wrong form.

The office staff suggested an Internet cafe down the road and gave me the URL to fill out the right form online. We raced down Chulia street to find the first cafe was saw and pulled up the form, only to find out I needed to have a local Indian reference, or at least provide the information for  the residence I’ll be staying in. I opted for the latter, picking some random hotel I could, hypothetically, stay at while I’m in Kolkata. I still have no idea where I’ll actually be staying.

We filled out the form, printed out, rushed back to the Visa office, only to run into another issue – our printed form left out an entire column indicated how long I was to stay. The staff was kind enough to pull up my form online and punch in that I was applying for a multiple entry Visa.

I was wrong. Since my trip is so short, I should have opted for a “single” entry. They had to re-do the entire form, for a fee.

I was fuming. At this point, what should have been a quick trip to their office turned into a series of unfortunate events that would have delighted Lemony Snickett himself.

So we waited at the office for the secretary to fill out the form for me. Once she was through, I was finally able to pay the application fee and submit it. The process would take a minimum of five business days. Or worse, a maximum of three months.

Fast forward to two days ago – I had been waiting for over a week, giving it ample time to check my Visa application status, only, I couldn’t get through the website whenever I punched in my reference code. Turns out, I was given the wrong information. I should have been checking on an entirely different website, and when I managed to find it after some digging, I had been approved several days before.

So, this morning, I drove like a madman to the Visa office to make sure I was there once it opened. I maneuvered through Georgetown one-way streets like a pro…on too much caffeine. Except, I hadn’t had any all morning. It was my adrenaline kicking.

I parked on Chulia street, raced down the opposite way to the office, and explained my urgent situation – I needed my passport and Visa back by January 20, or I’m missing my flight.

That’s when the secretary gave me the bad news – my passport wouldn’t be back in time after getting stamped because of the holidays (which holidays???) and the only way I’d get it in time was if I expedited the processing. For a fee. Another RM200. I explained the whole website fiasco and, because it appeared she felt sorry for me, she was able to get the manager to negotiate the fee price down to RM150.

On top of RM288 for the actual Visa. Not the application fee. The Visa fee.

Somehow, I felt both irritated and grateful at the same time. At least I got it in, in time. According to them, it should be back in their office by Monday morning. I fly out that evening.

I whipped out my wallet and took out my debit card. “Sorry, cash only…”

Insult to injury – one more stop before this saga is over – the bank. I had to head down to Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street) and take out some cash to pay this exorbitant fee and get my passport sent out. I drove again like a man on a mission, a very particular and drawn out one which I was absolutely ready to end.

After withdrawing a couple hundred ringgit, I headed down Lebuh King and parked at the first spot I saw open. It was a ways from the office so I brisk-walked like a competitive power-runner back to Chulia.

And that’s when it started to hit me. A week from now, provided I get my Visa back in time, I’ll be on a flight to Kolkata.

That’s when the sights, sounds, and smells of Penang’s Little India started to come alive, a precursor for things yet to come. The Hindi music blasting on giant black subwoofer speakers in the DVD shop on the corner couldn’t have been more fitting. The booming bass and high-pitched, nasal-singing, the soundtrack for my journey ahead. The enticing smell of fresh naan bread baking, the vibrant sight of desserts the colors of the rainbow, being peddled on the side of the street. This morning, I caught Little India while it was still waking.

But so was I. Waking to the impending reality that, I’m actually going to India, for the first time in my life.

Silence and Scenery

Day 9, 500 words, 31 days.

Shuli and I have traveled up and down the North-South Expressway five times in the past two weeks. We had taken this road on the way back from Kuala Lumpur after celebrating Christmas there, and made stops in the historic town of Ipoh several times, to and from Cameron Highlands. Today, we went on a school-sponsored “retreat” to “The Lost World of Tambun” – a water theme park and resort for visitors to the Ipoh area.

The park itself is surrounded by stunning, green cliffs towering over the grounds. Today it was especially beautiful – the steady rain had brought with it patches of fog blanketing the tops of these enormous rock formations, making for misty, scenic view, shrouded in mystery.

I’m not one for water parks usually, but I decided to tag along for this particular trip and to my surprise, I actually had a good time.

Of course, you can only go down water slides so many times before the thrill begins to wane. This particular park, since it functioned as a resort as well, offered heated pools and even a sauna inside a cave, if you can believe such a thing. This too, was a pleasant surprise – a nice reward for parents and adults that fancied a “good time” for themselves to be as slow and relaxing and thrill-less as possible.

We arrived there around 12. I was tired, hungry, and sleepy by 3:30 in the afternoon. It was dreary and wet the entire day and so, for most days like this, I resorted to hot, caffeinated drinks to get through.

By the time we hopped on the bus back home it was past 5. We were in for a 3 hour journey, including some rush hour traffic so I made sure that I was prepared. The iPad was loaded up with podcasts for days. I had my music going. The book I’m reading on writing, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, came in handy whenever I couldn’t sleep.

But the thing that put me most at ease, there and back, might have simply been staring out the raindrop-covered window. It’s beginning to be a familiar view – the vast, grassy farmland, the hills sitting just above the horizon, the swaying palm trees lining up each side of the road. We’ve gone up and down the same road so many times recently that I was even anticipating where the next rest stop would be in case we wanted to “makan”. (eat.)

It needs to be said that Malaysia is a beautiful country. The diversity of it’s peoples is already reason to celebrate, but the countryside itself is such a calming sight for me to behold. These hours-long road trips up and down the highway have been life-giving times.

I’m not entirely certain what it is about these long drives that put me at ease. Maybe I just enjoy them the most when I’m not the one driving. Then I can look out and pay attention to all the tranquil details outside the window, or do the complete opposite and take note of nothing at all, letting all the scenery merge into a greenish, untarnished blur.

Today, on the bus, I faded in and out of sleep. Whenever I woke, I felt rested and refreshed. And even at my most alert, there was little desire to speak. I was quiet for long stretches of the ride – happy to listen to old recordings of This American Life or The Moth, and letting the chatter around me dissolve slowly into the background.

For the first time in a while, I found myself rather content, not feeling the need to have to say anything to anybody, embracing the silence like a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time.

Back Home

Day 5, 500 words, 31 days

My mountaintop retreat came to an end today. We made our way down from Cameron Highlands this morning, feeling refreshed from clean air, breathtaking scenery, and copious amounts of tea. If I had it my way, I’d still be sipping on a cup of tea by the balcony, keeping on a few layers to keep warm as the cool fog settled in.

But every season of respite must still give way to work that beckons. We all have a job to do – my wife and our friends are all teachers, and their job right now is, well, to rest as much as possible, before the school year continues after the holiday break. They probably could have used a longer retreat than I did.

We all, also have pets – and for this reason, it was time to go home.

My job remains, to write regularly – something that had proved to be a challenge on a weekend retreat that seemed only to bring about in me a sloth-like approach to my work. Along with my pace, I wanted the time to move as slowly as possible.

After all, isn’t it commonplace for writers to retreat and just clear their minds and create space in their head for the generation of new ideas? As our time away had drawn to a close, I couldn’t help but wonder how I could have still spent it differently. I would’ve wanted to read a little more and write a little more, and somehow, sleep a little more too. I wanted more than 36 hours away from Penang.

But here I am, back in Penang, typing away in the relative comfort of my own living room, wondering where the time had gone and how much more there is still to do.

There aren’t any more majestic rolling hills inviting my mind to wander. I’ve just got to make do with what I’ve got…

And yet, I have the sudden fall of rain, a welcome gift from a scorching day on the island.

I have the suspense of unpredictable traffic. I have the clanging sounds of kitchen utensils scraping against sizzling woks on the road side hawker stalls.

I have the soft, longing meows from Madu, my cat as she sits silently by my feet late into the evening. Even her brother, Miles’, incessant pining for Shuli has it’s own endearing, albeit, distracting, charm.

These are what I have most days, and they are deserving of my gratefulness, for they are good.

Yes, life is slowly rounding back to form – soon I’ll be taking my wife to school still bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, I’ll be monitoring how much meat Miles eats per meal while making sure Madu eats at all, and I’ll be logging into each and every social media platform I manage, hoping to discover the next best way on how to get more “likes” and “follows”.

If I had it in my way, I’ll still be far away from all of this, taking deep, unpolluted breaths and taking in excessive amounts of caffeine because I like having it in the form of hot beverages, and that goes real nice with the cold.

But maybe the way I had in mind isn’t what’s best for me. Maybe it’s best that I’m here now, searching hard for the unfamiliar in the midst of all that I’ve already come to know. There’s more to be had – more to give and more to grow, and it begins right here where I sit, on this poorly constructed dining room chair, in the quiet of my own home.

And here, in my home, I also have caffeine.

Time for Tea

Day 4, 500 words, 31 days

It’s early in the project, but I’m beginning to feel the burden already of having to churn something out every day. I realize there isn’t any pressure to have to publish whatever I write, but for me, I could use the accountability.

Briefly reading some of the other entries people have been putting up for this project tells me two things: 1) People are writing about absolutely whatever they want. 2) People who actually have projects to pursue are putting those aside, just so as to keep writing everyday, even when they are experiencing writer’s block.

As for me, my objective is really simple – just as advertised, at least 500 words, for a month. When I would otherwise be a stickler for my own rules, in this case, what I believe(d) my blog to be about, I’m ok with writing about anything, so long as I’m writing.

The randomness of my subjects is freeing, and for now, it’s what I need to keep going.

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Today, it was my turn to get behind the wheel and explore Cameron Highlands a little more with our friends.

Our first stop was the Big Red Strawberry Farm in the town of Brinchang. It was a bit unnerving driving up a steep, gravel road to reach the summit of the farm, but our little car made it just fine. There were hardly any strawberries to pick so we settled for some strawberry souvenirs from the gift shop.

This entire area is covered by strawberry farms. There are all sorts of strawberry-related trinkets in the markets lining up along the road – keychains, t-shirts, mugs, and even doormats designed with some sort of strawberry image printed on it. Clearly everyone is cashing in. We left with two jars of jam and our friends, some strawberry-infused tea. At least ours are edible.

From there we proceeded over to the Cameron Valley tea plantation, which produces what our relatives have said is some of the best “strawberry tea” these grounds has to offer. Yes, we felt compelled to leave with a box of tea, but to me, it was the view that was the gift.

The tea plantation spanned several lush, verdant hills – the field before us was a vibrant green and from a distance, it was beautifully dotted by the bright hijabs Muslim visitors were wearing on their heads. It looked to me like a canvas painted green, speckled by small spots of red, pink, blue, and yellow. And with the sky a pure blue and only a few white, cumulus clouds hanging above us, it couldn’t have been more picturesque.

I don’t often recall moments that really do take my breath away, but for some reason, this was one of them. Perhaps it, again, had to do with feeling so small amidst natural vastness. Something about that feeling, of being at the mercy of what is before me, gives me a clarity I can’t find in many other places I visit.

Soon after we headed out for a late lunch and decided to pull over at a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant along the road. We weren’t sure what to expect from a place that didn’t even offer a menu, but we took comfort knowing that at least some families eating there had food on the table. Most of the folks inside this ‘kopi tiam’ were old Chinese men all bent over newspapers and puffing away on their cigarettes. Maybe they didn’t care much for us, but I felt their stares anyway, as if we had barged in on an exclusive club that required all their patrons to be male and over 50.

The food at Tepi Sungai Chong Kee was surprisingly good – standard fare sort of stuff, fried rice, a tangy chicken dish, some greens we didn’t know what to call and soothing, jasmine tea. But the uncles’ cigarette smoke was just too much to bear and we were compelled to head over to our final destination.

The Boh tea plantation is somewhat of an institution in Cameron Highlands and so, it felt like an obligation to at least pass by and see the hype for ourselves. What we found was yet another stunning sight of this region, tucked away into a valley deep into the mountains. In order to even get there, I had to drive down a winding, one-way path that required all drivers to honk their horns before turning corners, so as to signal to other cars that we were coming through. This was mildly stressful, but once we arrived, the view was enough to justify the means to get there.

I won’t give a Boh history lesson – this plantations legacy and contributions to this region are well-documented. In fact, we didn’t need to drive all the way out there to buy their tea – Boh is widely distributed all over Malaysia and can easily be found at local supermarkets.

What we came for was to take in the view, drink local tea, have some pastries, and let our afternoon wane slowly. We stayed until closing, when the Boh workers started sweeping up the floors of this beautiful cafe Boh erected upon the edge of a hill.

It was exactly the experience I had hoped for. I’m no tea connoisseur, nor do I desire to be. I’ll readily admit that I’m a black coffee sort of guy, but, I wouldn’t let my caffeine preferences prevent me from experiencing the finest Cameron Highlands has to offer.

For my relatively low standards, we’re living this weekend like kings and queens. High above on mountaintops draped by the clouds and kissed by the sun, here we are sipping on tea and basking in this momentary blessing – the blessing of being in the midst of so much beauty, and so far away.

Retreat to Higher Ground

Day 3, 500 words, 31 days.

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Today, my wife and I took a trip with two friends over to Cameron Highlands, a destination here in Malaysia known for numerous tea plantations and strawberry farms. It is an idyllic getaway from the relative busyness of Penang, but more than anything, it is a welcome respite from the baking heat that we get on the island. I welcome any excuse to layer up and dust off my sweaters from our cabinet, so this is retreat will be well-worth the 4 hour trip it took to get here.

Our journey took us through the town of Ipoh, which in these parts, is popular to visitors mostly for it’s “white chicken” dishes and famous white coffee.

Sure enough, the food did not disappoint. Which was extra satisfying, considering we almost got swindled by a “parking attendant” that refused to return the change we needed back. It’s a longer story, I won’t get into it. I just know the chicken and bean sprouts we had at Restoran Lou Wong was tender and terrific. I had an ice coffee to-go as well from the store across the street, and it wasn’t bad at all, maybe a bit milky for my liking but it displayed a strong, surprising kick at the end, comparable to a shot of Vietnamese coffee.

We also made a stop to see Gua Tempurung, the limestone caves in Perak. Despite how incredibly humid it was in the caves, the imposing rock formations were a fascinating enough distraction from the beads of sweat cresting upon my brow and collecting on my arms. We were gifted with the occasional breeze in some areas of the caves – and there’s probably some elaborate scientific explanation for that which I won’t get into either, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you.

There was a dark, vastness to the caves that made me feel small. We spoke in hushed tones, as if the pure, uninterrupted sound of our voices made everything sacred. The silence was beautiful down there – broken only by the short and steady breaths I took in between strides. Inevitably, places like this remind me of how we remain, so much, at nature’s mercy and we’re left but to stand in awe and marvel at what great and mighty things have already come before us.

After we worked our way out of the caves we briefly rested our weary legs and dried ourselves from being drenched in our own sweat. We ate some flaky Kaya Puffs we had bought from Ipoh to hold us over for our final leg of the trip toward Cameron Highlands.

The road we took up to Cameron Highlands was predictably winding, but as we had been told, it wasn’t nearly as narrow as the older way to get up there. We’ve been told enough stories by relatives about how dangerous the old road was and we were sure to steer clear of it. Yes, we still had our share of close calls driving, but otherwise, it was a pretty pleasant ride up.

What I found particularly notable was the amount of construction being done in the area. I hadn’t expected any part of these mountains to look so industrial, and yet, interspersed between fruit farms and tea plantations were large patches of dirt-brown earth and half-finished metallic structures erected to soon become what we imagine to be new hotel developments.

Needless to say, our view from the hotel room once we arrived is a tad obstructed. In the distance you can see the fog rolling over the hills and beautiful swaths of green countryside, but I have to fix my gaze far away to prevent my periphery from witnessing the construction projects below. Still, I’m grateful to be high up, which we hadn’t anticipated – we were upgraded to a deluxe room on the 12th floor. And apparently on this floor, we don’t need air conditioning. Still, the ceiling fan is spinning just in case. You can never be too cool – not in Malaysia.

Yes, we can’t escape everything. But we’ve escaped enough – the heat, the loony traffic, the constant noise – to name a few things. We’ve come far enough to forget, for a little while, how amazing it actually is to live in Penang and to just enjoy being elsewhere. Who cares what we might be missing?

Sometimes, retreating is just what the soul needs.

Airport

It’s 6:40 in the morning and I’m at Ninoy Aquino International airport waiting for my “sundo” to get me in an hour. I’ve decided not to brave the rainy conditions outside and wait indoors, in a marble-tiled area where all the banks and ATMs are located. An hour or two from now, I can’t imagine this place feeling all that peaceful, but this early, most of the people walking about work here at the airport, and the buzz and bustle that usually takes over this point of transit has yet to build into its loud crescendo.

Strange being back in a place where I can understand what everyone is saying. It probably wouldn’t surprise anyone, of course, if I replied back in Tagalog to anyone’s questions but I’m left to my own devices and I’ll merely eavesdrop as I please.

I’m a foreigner here, yes, and yet hardly anyone here would know it. My crisp, blue US passport is safely tucked away inside my khaki belt bag discretely attached around my waist, and so no one will know, and no one has to know.

I suppose the airport workers like it like this too. Quiet and no commotion. Gives them a chance to take slow strolls with a colleague they’ve had their eyes on perhaps, or huddle around with their buddies and listen in on the radio. Must be a good break from the norm, provided they don’t mind having to be here when no one else is.

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To pass the time, I write, bleary-eyed and bad breath and all. My yawns feel as regular as the commas I employ for my sentences. My body is achy everywhere – which is a given, considering I couldn’t settle into any one comfortable position in the 5 hour plane ride it took to get here (total). Not including the 2 and a half hours I spent at Changi Airport in Singapore, roaming around with all my luggage, looking for a travel adapter and an excuse to unload the handful of Singaporean coins I had in my wallet.

Which reminds me…

The guy’s name was Jay. He handed me a piece of paper with his name and number as I prepared to leave after finishing my cheap meal of Milo, toast, and runny eggs. He must’ve known, the moment I walked up to the counter, that I was “going home”.

I found out that Jay was actually from Mindanao, and that he had also spent some time in Malaysia, in Kota Kinabalu, working as a masseuse, some years prior to his gig at this Kopi Tiam in the airport. He’s been in Singapore for 3 years. Who knows what  sorts of other odd jobs he’s taken.

He was open, without saying very much, and I didn’t really ask too many questions, either. I figured the least I could do was keep him company. So in between making coffee drinks and toast for other customers, he’d ask me something, anything to keep the conversation going.

“Taga-saan ka doon?” (“Where are you from there (Manila)?”)

“Ganong katagal ang bakasyon mo?” (How long is your vacation?)

“Mayroon kang Facebook?” (Do you have Facebook?)

That’s how I ended up with his number. I guess he figured I could look him up.

There wasn’t anything unnervingly strange about our interaction. But the whole exchange felt a bit odd. Here I was just finding an excuse to eat in Singapore, and I ended up leaving with some guy’s personal phone number that I didn’t ask for, who I’ll likely never call. It’s just weird if I did, isn’t it? Even if I bothered looking him up on Facebook – will I ever actually this person again? And what did he really want from me, exactly?

Most times, I’d rather be left alone with my toast and my drink. I made an exception for this moment, assuming he had me pegged right away that I was Filipino like him, and I was home-bound, as he’d probably been, many times before. Perhaps he just wanted another friend to add him on Facebook.

Perhaps, he just wanted a reminder that he was more than just a man making coffee after midnight. That he had a story – and that it was worth telling to someone else. That at one point in his life he was a masseuse, and that he got tired of it. That he gets to go “home” in October for an even longer bakasyon than I do. And that he has a name.

Jay Santamaria.

Now, I know it, and at least I’d know where to find him.