A nineteen page account of the first part of our adventures in Malaysia...
From my seat here in the restaurant, a cup of thick Malaysian coffee next to me and my computer nearly charged, I look out over the white sand beach. I am ten steps from the sand, on beach with only eight cabins, and, things feel quite different than they did two nights ago when I was having a major panic attack as our train pulled away from the station. Somehow, we have ended up in a little paradise, the kind you dream about but are pretty sure is reserved only for the super wealthy.
A few nights ago, laying in a cramped sleeper car on the way from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, I was seriously doubting my sanity. I was, in fact, having a panic attack, but I don’t like to admit that. Bodhi was counting on me, you see, to keep him safe. He thought that even though we were “winging it” that in the end, there was really not going to be any huge catastrophe. That was kind of my job. To avoid huge catastrophe and keep us solvent.
We’d been in Bali for two months. Bali in and of itself is an adventure, it’s hot and dirty and chaotic, friendly, open and incredible. Bali has a heart that runs deep in its mostly Hindu culture, and right next to the Balianese’ deep belief in magic, shamanistic practices and its own unique brand of Hinduism, is a joyful doggedness which includes the belief that if you either pasty white or sunburnt, you are in desperate need of either a taxi or a massage.
The Balinese are also pretty sure that you just stepped off the proverbial boat (though in the case of Tiger Air, flight 904 which landed last month in the water NEXT to the run way, this was true for all 108 passengers on board, all of whom survived and required transport from the rocks next to the runway in to the hospital in Denpasar...) and are ready to sell you whatever they can sell you for about 60 to 80% markup.
Bodhi and I have gotten used to people asking us where we are from and where we are staying and how we like Bali. We’ve had several people say thank you. “You come here from your country and spend your money in our country, this is very good for Bali and Bali people. Thank you.”
So when we hopped on the plane to make our required Visa Run (although I’ve heard there is a woman at a certain hang out who can do a reliable illegal extension for about $110 USD), we were excited to go explore other countries. I’ve been to Thailand before, which I recall being equally friendly, and the plan was to spend a day in Singapore, then take the overnight sleeper train to Kuala Lumpur, and from there, take the overnight train to Bangkok, about 22 hours in a private cabin for about $35 each. I figured as long as we’d had to fly somewhere, we might as well use the plane ticket and go see a country somewhere.
We are still on a super tight budget, I’m relying on my bikes being sold in America to help us through July and August, and a lot of good massage work I’ve been able to do under the radar in Bali during May and June. Consequently, while the work has been great, we’ve been spending our cash on surfing lessons for Bodhi and good organic food in Ubud, and we’re a bit lean right now. I knew it would happen right around the time of our visa run. But I had enough work that I thought we’d leave Bali with about a grand in our pocket. I expected to spend between $500 and $700 on this trip, with about $300 in reserve in case things went “pear shaped.” as it were.
About a week before our scheduled trip, I swam through a cloud of jellyfish eggs with a tattoo that had only been healing for two days. Anyone who has a tattoo knows that this is completely the wrong kind of after care... you aren’t to go in the water at all for two weeks, and salt water is perhaps the best way to destroy your tattoo into a mass of bled color and fuzzy outlines.
However. While a tattoo is forever, there was the matter that my nine year old, Bodhi, had swum out to the big break on Kuta Beach without a surfboard, and while he was having fun hanging out with the surfers out there and diving under the waves, when it came time to come back in, he was suddenly struggling.
The rip was strong, which is why it had been so easy to swim out, and his nine year old legs were used to getting a nice break resting on the surfboard. He got lower and lower in the water as the sets came in. I sat up taller and taller on the beach, and then I went in up to my hips, gesturing for him to swim in and calling his name. He was swimming towards me, but not really moving, his head getting lower and lower in the water. Shit. I’d have to go get him. I dove in and swam out, by the time I’d got to him a couple of Indonesian guys had let him grab onto their board and they were towing him to shore.
By the time we got out of the water, Bodhi dripping and grinning and saying “Did you see me? I was way out there! I’m a good swimmer, mom! Wow the rip was strong. Did you see me?”, my arm was stinging like I had rubbed it on a cheese grater and then dipped it in alcohol.
At least if that were the case it would be sanitary. As it was, it was itching and burning. I started rinsing it in cold water, and I could see the skin moving around, puckering and getting blurry. My beautiful Balinese garden tattoo was about to become a testament to the fact that I do, in fact, love my kid. So be it. The fact that we were supposed to shoot it for an article in a tattoo magazine later this month was not as big of an issue as making sure Bodhi got back on land and lived to surf another day. But, well... bummer, man. By that night, my forearm was hot, my skin looked very strange, and every part of my right arm was stinging like mad.
Two days later, I had puss filled bumps in my tattoo, a mad fever, and a rash in my mouth, my ears, my eyes, and on the palms of my hands. I was in bed. It was Friday. We were supposed to leave on our manditory visa run on Monday.
I had managed to book about five massages a day before we left, which was perfect. The local ex-pat population appreciated my work, and I, in turn, was grateful to have it. This would allow Bodhi and I to do some special trips, like going to see the Reclining Buddha and the floating market without too much worry.
Knock ten massages off that plan and we were suddenly pretty screwed. We were required to leave the country. We had paid for the plane tickets. I couldn't now afford to go see the visa extension extension lady. It was beginning to look like we might spend four days hanging out at the Singapore airport, where I’d heard you could rent a sleeper lounger for $6 for the night. I couldn’t change our ticket to make it shorter, we were locked in with a cheap-o Air Asia flight, and we had to go on Monday, the penalties for missing your visa date are severe.
Never mind that by now the nagging certainty was in the back of my mind that I had picked up something nasty in the pollution in the water off of Kuta beach and that I was dying of some strange consumptive fever.
My friend Erika arrived bearing a thermometer, a bottle of green juice full of turmeric, cayenne, and coriander, and other assorted nasty and not very tasty things, and a giant papaya. “The seeds are good for fever. Mash them into a pulp with mortar and pestle and drink it.” I nodded. I would do that as soon as walking to the bathroom wasn’t exhausting.
I had taken myself to the Ubud clinic earlier that morning, to Erika’s horror. “Kate, the standard of care here is so low. They have no idea what they are doing. Lets see what they gave you, there is just the slightest chance they got it right.”
It was actually Bodhi who said it first, while I was driving him, my eyes slowly swelling shut, on the scooter to meet his friends for a day at the beach. “Mom, I think you are having an allergic reaction to something. You need to take a cool bath to calm the itching down and stay out of the sun and the heat.” It wasn’t an allergic reaction. I could tell. It was a systemic infection from toxic sludge and I was slowly bleeding out internally. But I wasn’t going to tell him that.
“Okay, babe. I’ll think about that.”
“Yes, its just like what happened to me with Cow Parsnip, remember?” he asked.
Ubud clinic said the same thing. “You are sick inside and outside?” Yes. “You are very tender in your abdominal?” Yes. But please, poke it just to make sure. She did. And then she put her stethoscope down to listen. She raised her eyebrows at me. She who has, I’m certain, diagnosed more than her share of traveler’s dihiarreah. “Your abdominal is very noisy.”
“You are allergic to the sea. Something inside. It stings you inside and outside. Your abdominal...” she makes the sign with her hand of it squeezing, freezing, and then swelling. “You take this once, and this many times, and then this once.”
Zyrtec, Benadryl, Predenzone.
450,000 Rupiah, please. Another $45 off our travel budget.
Now we have $600 to travel with, and I’m having a systemic allergic reaction to something. My fever gets worse. The rash gets worse. I develop a sore throat, it becomes difficult to breathe.
There is still the matter of the taxi to the airport and the tax to leave the country. Shit. That’s another $50. Where are my sister or Kurt when I need them, those of impeccable logical thought? Why am I incapable of thinking things through properly?
No matter how well I think I’ve thought of all the incidentals, my mind forgets to calculate that its TWO people eating breakfast, and that yeah, we need to eat. Or pay the tax. Or replace Bodhi’s flip flops when he leaves them at the fishing village in the Perhanthian Islands. (But we’ll get there.)
Erika gets on her smartphone and we go through the symptoms, the various creatures in the sea. I remember to mention that I am desperately allergic to all manner of things that sting in the sea, especially jellyfish. As I am describing how my tattoo feels, it occurs to me that I have felt this before.
From the ages of 1-7 years old, every summer, we lived on a boat with my father. (This probably explains my insatiable desire to be near the sea, and the soothing affect of the sound of sail rigging clanging against masts in the harbor has on me.) One afternoon, we went out on a little sunfish sail boat, just my dad and I. I was in my first bikini, he belted down the last of his burbon and off we went into the bay. Curious about the floating chains in the water, I asked my dad what they were.
He pulled up a crab pot, full to brimming with the creatures and put it on the bow of our tiny boat. As I was examining it, the boom swung across the boat and knocked me into the water, and into a swarming mass of jellyfish who began to sting me with singular purpose.
By the time we got off the sunfish and back to our boat, the La Don Anita (named after my beautiful mother), I was covered head to toe in welts, and I felt like I had been whipped with nettles. We were both in trouble. I remember writhing in misery of the acutest kind, I’m sure I was howling and whining, although my memory is just of the intensity of the burning sting. My mother heard from a woman down the dock that you could make a paste of meat tenderizer and in short order, I was frosted with the stuff. I don’t know how long I suffered from the stings, but I do remember that I developed a fever and was fairly miserable for a couple of days.
Erika stared at me while I related the story from my bed in Indonesia. “Kate, that would have been helpful to know...” she continued to search.
Sea Lice. Jelly fish eggs. It was likely that I had swum through a bloom of them in Kuta, and been stung all over my body. Usually benign, I had also been stung in my most susceptible area, the open wound of my fresh tattoo. Bodhi had been right.
I began to down the Benadryl and Zyrtac, we decided to forego the Prednesone as it does strange and unpredictable things to one’s insides.
Saturday came. I missed the first two massages on my schedule. I rallied for the third. I went home and went to bed and missed the fourth and fifth. Sunday came. My ears had developed a gnarly hive that went from inside the ear canal and wrapped all around the lobes and onto my face. The hives on my hands had disappeared, but my mouth and eyes still were swollen and painful. I was exhausted from the Benadryl, weak from the reaction, and we were being picked up for the airport at 4 am.
I fell into bed, having finished packing us for the five day adventure. The only thing missing was my phone charger. And any train reservations I was supposed to have made in the five preceding days. I was relying heavily on information I got from a great website, The Man in Seat 61, all about train travel. Advanced reservations are highly recommended. Well, highly recommended doesn’t mean absolutely necessary. We’d get a seat. I had to go to sleep. I couldn’t read train tables and make charts.
That night, I couldn't sleep. I was worried about not having a charger. (“You can buy one in the Singapore airport they have everything” said Erika. ($35 also not in the budget)) I was worried about traveling with now only $500 all the way to Thailand and back. I was worried about getting stuck in Thailand and not being able to get a return ticket. I was worried.
With about two hours of sleep under my belt, Eddie arrived like clockwork to take us to the airport in Denpasar. Our cozy, protected home in Bali was about to be no more. Funny that I had been exactly this worried about leaving America for Bali with my kid only two months ago. We acclimatize to anything, I suppose. I had found in Bali a home, a job, and happiness. I was loathe to leave, even though this whole trip was meant to be about adventure.
Bodhi got into travel mode. I woke him early and he hopped out of bed, brushed his teeth, and picked up his backpack. We drove through the dark, and bought snacks at the airport (6x the price we would have payed in town had I had the energy to buy snacks ahead.) Bodhi looked at me as we walked through the airport. “Clearly, you’ve never been to Singapore.” he said. A line from his favorite movie, Pirates of the Caribbean. His eyes were shinning. We were going somewhere new, unknown. I tucked my fear inside my bag and let his good humor lift mine. Our financial situation would be the same whether I let the fear rule me or not. The unchangeable fact was that we had to leave the country to be able to stay, we had a plane ticket and we were going.
We arrived in the Singapore airport at 9am, where we began the quest to buy a charger and charge my phone. Part of my duty is to let Bodhi’s father know that we are safe and have made it to each destination, and with free WiFi almost everywhere we go, this hasn’t been a problem. Chargers purchased, I was already deliriously tired from my busy week of dying first from consumption and later allergic reaction, topped with not sleeping all week under the weight of my illness and the responsibility of feeding this little urchin that was following me around the world.
As we had only a small backpack and day bag, we made a plan to get our train tickets squared away and then go find the Singapore Science Center ($35 each). It all began optimistically enough. I found an app in the airport called Next Stop, which helps you see yourself as you navigate through the public transportation system in Singapore. The train station was three buss changes and an hour away from the airport, the Science Center was another hour away in another direction.
We boarded the first bus to the hostile stares of the local population of light skinned, elegantly dressed asians. I looked down. I have a full sleeve tattoo, and I was wearing a sensible black traveling skirt and a nice, simple t-shirt. My hair was in a bun on my head, and my flip flops, while flip flops, are of the high-end sort. In Bali, I might be complimented “Wow, you look nice, are you going to dinner?” In Singapore, accompanied by my board short wearing long haired sea urchin with stains from his $17 Singapore airport Starbucks Vanilla Steamer (free wifi with purchase), we looked homeless. Tall, female, tattooed, blonde and homeless.
For the first time, I wondered if I had made a horrible mistake putting this beautiful tattoo on my arm. I dug into my bag and put full sleeves on. Singapore has a large Muslim population, maybe it was offensive that I have tattoos?
“Why is everyone so serious?” Bodhi asked.
“Don’t spit or drop anything, Bodhi, it’s illegal..” I responded, remembering the case of an American boy who spit on the sidewalk and was punished with a caning that I had heard on the news when I was young. I was just putting it together that that was the city we were in.
We got off the double decker bus at a massive interchange with vending machines (lunch!) and thousands of people hurrying this way and that. Amidst the modestly dressed Muslim women in beautiful headscarves were Chinese students with short shorts and high heels, women in saris, and women in elegant casual city wear. I began to think that it wasn’t necessarily the way I was dressed. I saw the occasional tattoo on foot or ankle on Asian women without headscarves. Still, people did not look at us. No eye contact. The whole environment felt hostile and afraid. Bodhi and I were enjoying trying to find our bus, but I was also afraid to smile at anyone lest I break some code of moral behavior that I was unaware of.
This whole time I had the nagging sensation that it might be me projecting this feeling of apology and out-of-place-ness. I know that Singapore is a multinational city, there was no reason for me to feel like I was breaking the law. But I felt like my presence was offensive, and I couldn’t shake the feeling. In Bali, people stared, but they smiled and said “Hey, nice tattoo. Where are you from? How long you stay in Bali?”
Here, they looked alarmed that we were boarding the bus. And I knew I was breaking a million small rules for how to behave in Singapore, even though we sat up, paid our fare, did not eat on the bus, moved to the back of the bus and I immediately put my long sleeved top on to cover my tattoos in spite of the sweltering heat.
On our way to the information center, we came across a huge billboard proclaiming: “See immoral behavior? Call the police! (phone number)”. I wonder what is on the list of immoral behavior...
We decided as we went along, finding our way through the public transportation system in Singapore that we were doing SO well, we might as well go across to Johor Baru and buy our tickets on the Malaysian side, where they were about 1/2 price.
As soon as we crossed the straight, and emerged on the Malaysian side, Bodhi and I found ourselves in a thick local population of tall, very dark skinned people, more flip flops than in Singapore, some more smiles. Here every woman we saw was in a headscarf, which ranged from the utilitarian to the beautifully decorated. There were also women in full Bhurquas occasionally. I realized that my understanding of the culture we were visiting was even more lacking that I knew. Were the women in Bhurquas the same religion as the women in headscarves? How could I not know this?
Do Malaysian people feel okay about American people? How did Malaysian muslim men feel about an unaccompanied woman with her hair exposed walking around near their women? We managed to navigate customs and change busses, the next task was to find the KLM ticket counter where we planned to purchase our entire trip to Bangkok and back.
On the Malaysian side, we were definitely in with the working class crew, and we got a lot of puzzled smiles but no English language help. Unlike Singapore, the signs were no longer in English, so we started following the crowd, looking for the train ticket office. It proved to be about a fifteen minute walk, just following our noses, and then we took a number and waited on the hard plastic chairs. This was a great place for people watching, and an interesting place to be watched from. This was the first time that I felt I really needed to keep an eye on our bags and stick close together, we were out of our element and not entirely certain we were welcome here.
We figured out where the money changer was, did some quick calculations into Malay Ringits (About 1/3 of a dollar), and bought our tickets to Kuala Lumpur. Train leaves at 11:30 pm. “You buy Bangkok tickets in KL. No buy here.” said our helpful ticket agent. This meant traveling to Kuala Lumpur, 7 hours overnight, on faith that we could book the rest of our travel from there. Fair enough.
Starving, we wandered around the dirty terminal. We definitely were not in Singapore, land of the super clean everything, anymore. We’d had breakfast at Starbucks in the airport, and now it was looking like a lunch of RotiBoy in the terminal, a sort of Malaysian donut. As much as I love street food, I wasn’t about to take chances here. Better deep fried sugar than meat. This didn’t seem to phase Bodhi at all.
We navigated our way back across the bridge and back through customs in Singapore once more, Bodhi appreciating the adventure of finding our way much more than I expected him to. We hadn’t really “done” anything yet, we didn’t get to the Science center or explore downtown Singapore at all, but the trip through the throngs of locals and the contrast of Singapore to Johpur Banu was fascinating to him.
Three more busses and a long train ride later, we emerged at the JCube Mall, home of the Imax theater. We were right next to the Singapore Science Center, but we were both so wrecked with traveling, we decided to go into the mall and see an Imax movie. Bodhi has never been to an Imax, and I remembered loving the educational movies that I’d seen on them when I was a kid.
Turns out this is the regular movies, and they were playing Star Trek in 3D on the Imax screen. We decided instead to see a regular movie, and spent $18USD on tickets to Epic. To kill the two hours we had before the movie, we at dinner at Chilli’s ($35USD even with kids eat free), both of us remarking on how disgusting our choice of dinner was (Mall food. It can’t be beat), and watched the people skating in the ice rink.
It was interesting to watch the local population enjoy skating in the mall. I recognized all the same characters from every public skate I’ve ever been to. The social dynamics are exactly the same. Here are the couples holding hands, the young girl, ankles collapsing in, wearing a headscarf and cute tights under a skirt, the boy, not much better than she is, trying to help. They skate around and around for hours, never once breaking contact.
Here are two boys skating together, late teens, faux hawks and skinny jeans. After the initial wipe out and Bambi legs, the one that is new to skating gets it together, and the two of them spend the next forty minutes gliding awkwardly in circles, deep in conversation.
Public skate seems to be a miniature version of the Promenade of 18th century London, a time to walk and talk, see and be seen.
Then there are the three boys who want desperately to be associated with a professional level of skating, they rip around the rink, trying to impress the general public with their depth of skill and their close personal insider’s relationship with the girl who works as public referee. Secretly they want to be allowed on the ice when the Zamboni is out, secretly they are bored because they have reached a level of competency turning to the left that leaves them with nothing to do other than practice going faster.
Unfortunately, in this public skate, they never reverse direction (as once the general public has reached a level of competency in one direction, it can create mayhem to ask them to replicate these fine motor skills in reverse...) and so our friends are left with an amazing cross over to the left, and absolutely no ability to remain upright while trying to turn to the right.
There are young girls who have shopped at the “Winter... moments of warmth” store in the mall, and are wearing the cute skating costume of the moment, ear muffs, thick sweaters, tights and skirts, in spite of the fact that outside this over air-conditioned mall is a tropical jungle. Yes, it has been beaten back and paved, but the trees in the median are Banyan and Banana trees, a common spider is the Singapore Blue (can grow to 9” across, has bright blue legs), and billboards along the roads proclaim “Help stamp out Dengue, do the Mosqi 5”.
With an hour left, we wander around the mall and come across a giant arcade, like likes of which Bodhi has never seen. His eyes widen. I splurge. $20 on a game card. Go get em, kiddo. Bodhi gives me a huge hug. “OH MY GOD MOM!” he says and disappears into the insanity of sound.
I expected him to run straight to the first game he could find and blow through his card immediately, instead, he walks slowly through the entire arcade, taking in the dance games, drum games, flight simulators, car races, zombie hunters and gambling games. He climbs up into a flight simulator and reads the directions. His first $1 lasts about 10 minutes. The seat moves. The radar lock is in ThX like sound. He is in heaven.
I hang out in the back watching, for some reason, maybe its that we’ve been awake for a long time, and I already am desperate for a Benadryl and a shower and a good nights sleep, but giving Bodhi $20 to blow in the biggest, fanciest arcade he’s ever seen makes me a bit misty around the eyes, and I have to excuse myself to pull it together. I start chatting with the kid that’s in charge. “Where are you from?”
This is the first person who has asked us, and I’m relieved to have made a connection. I tell him that we live in a cabin in the United States with crappy internet and no TV. I tell him that Bodhi has access to a computer, but he doesn’t own any big games or hand held games, and he’s never been to an arcade before. The kid looks shocked. “Well, that’s pretty cool.” he sweeps his hands in a wide gesture. “Welcome to the world of modern technology. He should start right where he is, with the flying games, then I would suggest this driving game over here. He can move on after that if he likes...” We get a full blown step by step technology tour of the best the arcade has to offer.
Over stimulated, full of crappy sugary expensive mall food, and exhausted, its time to go to the movies. We bid our friend good bye, and head over to the Shaw Cinema on the fourth floor. This being Singapore, the seats are assigned. I could sleep here overnight, I kid you not. The seats are leather, reclined, and incredible. Lazy boy style. The $18 ticket is starting to feel more worth it.
Our pre-show announcements come on and remind us that piracy is illegal. Then they inform us that they have sensors in the theater that can tell if we are using our cell phones or other recording devices, and that recording the movie is punishable by... (death?). I quickly put my phone away. I was going to take a photo of the Chinese sub titles and the cool seats for my blog. Bodhi leans over and whispers “Make sure you turned it off, mom. If they come get you, I’m going to tell them I’m not with you.” Thanks, kid. I thought you had to actually BE a pirate for the pirate’s code to apply to you...
The movie is cheesy but pretty cool, funny, even though its full of one trite and spelled out lesson after another, Bodhi enjoys it and there are some quotable moments. I have a hard time getting past the voice of Byonce or Rhianna or whoever it is playing the Queen, but that’s my issue. It doesn’t seem to bother Bodhi at all. I’d see it again, and it passed the time.
Now, its dark and time for us to find our way back to the train station, about an hour away, and hope that our bags are still locked up in the office where we left them. We need to be there by 10pm, the train leaves at 11:30.
We hop on the train and get successfully back to Marsiling station, and Bodhi, who is sitting on the floor of the MRT, gets offered a seat by a nice woman. He gratefully takes it and then spends the next hour wriggling but keeps it together. As we are walking to the bus to take us to the intercity train, Bodhi asks, “Why is everyone so serious here? Everyone is on their phone or iPad, no one smiles.” I think about this. Maybe its not hostility towards us I’m feeling. Maybe its just Singapore.
“I don’t know, babe.” As we board the (wrong) bus, I look, and Bodhi seems to be right. No one is actually looking at us any more, aside from a first glance. People are plugged in. But no one is smiling, and people aren’t relating to each other. I think about this in contrast to the clogs of scooter traffic in Bali, where people nearly kill each other constantly and smile and grin as they push through. People are on their phones, but more often you see people sitting together on the steps talking and sharing a coffee, or making offerings together.
Half an hour later, we are back at the bus interchange to go to Johur Baru and have to figure out how to get back to Woodlands Checkpoint. At 10:30 we drag ourselves into the KTM office, where our bags sit, untouched. Bodhi brightens up, he was concerned about our stuff being ripped off.
We walk up and sit on the bench, an hour to sit in the que. “My tummy hurts.” says Bodhi. Oh dear. I hope its just that he has been awake and on the go with no real food that’s doing it and not some strange digestive issue. My ears and eyes are itching like mad and my tummy hurts, too. Tonight’s train ride is only seven hours, so we won’t get a full night’s sleep. I am looking forward to 22 hours on the train to Bangkok and a private room. I’m definitely not fully recovered from the great Jellyfish Egg attack and could use about 12 hours of sleep...
Finally the doors are open, the last fifteen minutes were agonizing, but we weren’t the only super sleepy travelers. Families were laying all over the benches waiting for the train, and we got and gave sympathetic smiles to the Indian family to our right and the Malaysian Muslim family to our left. While we were waiting, I finally decided to take my long sleeves off. After seeing a couple of Chinese students walk by with tattoos, I decided I could’t stand the heat anymore if I didn’t have to. The Indian woman asked me if my tattoo hurt when I got it. “Yes.” I answered. “In some places more than others.”
“But not very much” she said. I remembered something vaguely about Indian etiquette, I reached back in my mind. Something about humility, that you never take credit for your effort, giving credit to your teacher instead, and the greater the pain you have suffered, the more you say, “Oh it was nothing, just a little difficulty”. I nodded at her. I wanted to ask her a question, as well, try to keep the conversation going, but I couldn’t think of anything.
The trip through immigration made Bodhi laugh, in spit of his sick tummy and desperate desire for sleep. We walked the entire length of the train down one tunnel, went through immigration on the Singapore side, then walked back the entire length of the train to the Malaysian immigration, then walked the length of the train AGAIN to get out onto the platform, then AGAIN to get to our car. Each time we made the U-turn, Bodhi would crack up and say “Oh, COME ON!”.
Probably one of the coolest moments of the trip came when we were standing in line at Malaysian immigration. I knew Bodhi was tired. He had that sick tummy feeling that you get when you’ve pulled an all-nighter and eaten nothing but sugar. I was delirious and itchy myself, I couldn't imagine what it would be like to be nine years old on top of that, and carrying a heavy back pack.
“Mom, do you want me to take that bag?” Bodhi asked. I looked at him. “And here, hand me my passport.”
“What’s up, kiddo?” I asked. Bodhi had proven himself to be a worthy travel companion, but this was unusual.
“I was just thinking about what this will be like when I do it on my own in a couple of years. You know, when I save up $500 and travel around the world by myself. I’ll need to be able to carry the bags and keep track of my things while I go adventuring and meet new people.”
“Oh.” I said, kind of stunned. I half expected that his internal experience at this moment was more along the lines of missing his comfortable bed in Aspen and wishing I had never drug him around on this crazy adventure to begin with. “That’s cool babe.” I handed him his passport.
Inside, part of me was screaming “Do it with more than $500!! This is so stressful! We are going to run out of money!! We are going to get stranded!! What the fuck was I thinking!!? We are going to get the time tables screwed up! We are going to be on the way back from Bangkok and miss our flight and get stuck in Singapore!! I’m a moron! I haven’t thought this through!! I am NOT responsible enough for this job!!”
I followed Bodhi through Immigration. He handed over the passports and stood there like a little man. We found our sleeping births, numbers 20 and 21, right across from each other. Bodhi dropped his bag and crawled into bed, over taken by a fit of giggling and laughing. “This is the best bed I’ve ever seen. Ive never been so happy to see a bed in my life. In my whole life. This is a bed on a train and I don’t know why I’m laughing so hard!” he babbled on for about five minutes, then rolled over and passed out before the train even left the station. I looked at him, stunned by his faith in me. Stunned by his fortitude, his huge adventurous spirit, his flexibility, his adaptability. He was doing it. I hadn’t heard a whine or a complaint out of him in months, and it seemed the harder the situation we were in, the more he rose to the occasion.
I didn’t know how I was going to get him to Bangkok and back in time and have any cash left at all, but I knew I needed to be at least as brave as Bodhi was being in this moment.
I laid down in my berth, and looked at him. What was I thinking? How was it that I had ended us up here? Clearly I was not adult enough, responsible enough, grown up enough, clear thinking enough to pull off a trip like this. Maybe you did need to have a wad of cash and a back up plan after all. Maybe all I’ve thought, that you can wing it, that you can follow your passion, that things work out in the end, has been wrong, foolish, naive. Maybe this was my lesson. That it was time to own up to reality and play the game right.
I felt my heart beating faster than was comfortable. The train pulled out of the station, taking us to Kuala Lumpur and from there to god knows where. Why hadn’t I booked the tickets ahead? Why hadn’t I changed plans when I got sick? Yes we needed to leave the country, but why had I booked a five day trip on faith that I would make enough money to make it safe? Things happen, have I not learned to live so close to the line that I shouldn’t have even considered the trip unless I had an emergency fund? My little sister has an emergency fund. How can I be 41 years old and have PUT us in this position?
There was no end to my self deprecation, I laid in the bunk flogging myself, my neck seizing up, my shoulder throbbing. My spine began to ache from the base of my skull into my tail bone. I felt this deep loathing inside for myself. Had nothing really changed? Is that what I was to discover that with all my hard work on myself, with all the years of therapy and journaling and introspection, that when the shit was laid bare, I was still, at my base, just the same old irresponsible nine year old kid who had to learn every lesson the hard way, who refused to think ahead, who lived irresponsibly, spending someone else’s money with no regard for safety, for future, for... I felt the tears coming. Shame. It was right there. I struggled against it.
It didn’t matter, here we were. My job was not to hate myself, even if I deserved it, but to find a way out of this mess. Which wasn’t actually a mess yet, we had $300 in cash and $100 in our bank account. But the mess was impending. And I knew that I wasn’t good enough, smart enough, enough of a planner and big picture person to pull this off. We were going to get stuck in Malaysia and miss our flight back to Bali and then, oh. Then we would be well and truly fucked, because I couldn’t afford another plane ticket if we missed our flight. And as the train rolled further and further away from Singapore I became more and more sure that I was leading us steadily to our doom.
What other decision could I have made? I mean aside from planing the trip out on the computer and reading the train schedules and paying ahead, like a normal, responsible person would. Where was my friend Cindy when I needed her? She knew that April 27 of NEXT YEAR would be a Tuesday. Why didn’t my brain work that way? Why couldn’t it learn to?
I thought I had changed this pattern. The last two ski trips I had taken, I had saved enough money, paid ahead, and booked my hotel room in advance. Success. I was able to have coffee in the morning and eat out at night and still have enough gas money to get home. My car didn’t break down, my PSIA dues were even paid on time. My days of running out of cash due to over optimism and poor planning and just plain being poor were squarely behind me, I had thought. And I had worked hard to get there.
But now. Now I had my child with me. It was one thing to get stuck in Malaysia by myself. But Bodhi. What would he think? He was trusting me. And his trust was misplaced. I was miserable. My bunk was too small. I had six hours to sleep and no way to stretch out. The pain in my neck and shoulder took my breath away. I could not reason through this problem without arriving back at hating myself for being here to begin with.
I knew I was ruminating. And I could not stop the cycle. I dove into the bottom of my first aid kit. Percocet. Completely illegal on penalty of death to bring into Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. It has traveled to all three countries, just in case. I cracked the bottle, ate a couple of sour cream and onion Pringles, purchased at the train station, and for the first time since April, took a pain killer. I laid gingerly back down. Were we going to spend three days on the train with my neck and shoulder growing ever tighter and tighter? Was I too old, injured and decrepit to even attempt an adventure like this? And what of India? We still have two months in Bali and then we are supposed to travel by train through India... were we going to get stuck there as well?
I longed for Bali, for the safety and security of Indonesia, of my friends, of known quantity, of the ability for me to work and make money. I longed for the chaos of Kuta, with friends in every corner. What was I doing, venturing away from the known? (Never mind that when we stepped off the plane in Bali I was having the same fears...) But I hadn’t seen a smile or a friendly face all day, and I wanted to go home. Forty five minutes passed in a flash of judgement.
I rolled over and looked at Bodhi, asleep with a smile on his face, his sheet pulled around his shoulders, the train rocking him gently back and forth. For now we were safe. I felt the Percocet begin to work, my shoulders began to loosen, my mind began to relax. I looked at the ceiling of my berth. Whatever we would need to solve, we would solve in the morning. I needed sleep, I was sure. Awake for 21 hours and stressed to the max, I was incapable of clear thought. I pulled the curtains tight around Bodhi, closed my own, unable to keep my eyes open any longer, I let the train rock me to sleep.
At some point during the night, I was vaguely aware of pulling into the station, of people getting on, speaking in a language I did not recognize. Not Bahasa, not Indonesian, Maylay sounds distinctly different, some sort of mix of Chinese and Arabic. I drifted in and out of consciousness aware that to some extent, whether by virtue of sleep, practice or Percocet, I had surrendered to the situation. We were on the train, we would face the next challenge in the morning, whenever that came.
KL Sentral. I set my alarm so we wouldn’t miss the station and we pulled in right on time. Six hours of sleep, we threw our stuff together and rolled out of the train and into the dirty bathroom. Alongside women in headscarves and babies, I brushed my teeth in the trough sink. I hadn’t brought a hairbrush with me, I only brush my hair about once a week anyway, but now I was looking at myself, 28 hours on the road and I was a mess. Bags under my eyes, my clothes soaked with sweat, my hair was becoming a big dreadocked tangle. I changed into clean underwear in the wet squat toilet stall. I put shorts on. New day. New clothes, new attitude. We had to figure out a couple of things: could we book the train to Bangkok, and what would we do until then, and how much money would we spend and should we just get back on the train and hang out at the Singapore airport in the free resting recliners for the next five days?
I got my bearings. I knew nothing about Kuala Lumpur, and my guide book, my cell phone, was out of batteries. We had bought a universal charger at the Singapore airport, the next challenge was to find a place to plug in that had wifi. We walked out to the KTM ticket counter.
“Two sleeper tickets to Bangkok, please.” I said.
“Sorry, sold out.”
I stopped. Oh shit. She continued to look. “No seats, sorry, train is full, whole train sold out.”
Well, in some ways this solved part of the problem. I had calculated the trip over and over again, and I was pretty sure on paper that it worked out for us to have a day in Bankok and get back in time to catch our plane. But I was worried I had read the time schedule wrong and we’d be in KL on the day our plane left for Bali.
Now we didn’t have that problem. We had several others. I had planned on not spending money on a hotel as we would be sleeping on the train. I didn’t know anything about Malaysia or where to go or how expensive it was. It was definitely less than Singapore. One Malaysian Ringit was about 35 cents, whereas one Singapore dollar was about 75 cents.
I couldn’t make any other decisions until I had access to the internet. No time to panic, it was pointless to panic until we had more information. We needed food and a place to plug in and think.
But first, I had to tell Bodhi he wasn’t going to see the reclining Buddha or the floating market in Thailand. My heart was heavy, I was really excited to share these things with him. We’d been talking about them for days. If I had been able to plan ahead and book our train tickets ahead, we’d know the time table, we’d know exactly how much cash we had for food, and we’d be on the god damn train to begin with. But that was water under the bridge, nothing I could do about that now.
“Buddy, the train to Bangkok is full, I’m sorry.”
Bodhi looked at me. “That sucks.” he said, matter of factly.
“Well, what shall we do? Lets go somewhere else, have a different adventure. Where can we go from here?” Bodhi asked.
“I’m not sure. We need to go plug our stuff in and find some free wifi and we can make some decisions from there.”
“Okay, can we get breakfast?” he asked.
“Yeah, lets charge while we eat.” I answered.
Bodhi stood up and put the backpack on, headed for the main door of the train station. Fortitude, the ability to roll with it, the ability to let go of the script, of the desire for it to be this way when it has to be that way. He was doing a better job than I was.
We walked outside, and into the oppressive heat. The sounds of the jungle were thick in the city. The Hilton Hotel was directly across from the train station. Awesome. I was sure there was free wifi in the lobby. Maybe safe breakfast with some protein as well. Fancy hotels in the morning sometimes have all you can eat buffets that work out to be surprisingly affordable. We walked in like we were staying there.
We found the hotel breakfast and got seated, sure enough, all you can eat for 15MR, kids eat free. Bring me an espresso and a place to plug in please, we have caught our first break.
Bodhi attacked the buffet with vigor, bowls full of steaming noodles, fish cakes, prawns, broth, hard boiled egg, a couple of apples, a banana, honey dew... Bodhi ate like he had been homeless and lost at sea for months. I had a steady supply of espresso flowing my way, and the battery light on the computer was glowing amber, soon, soon, we would be able to connect to the internet and look up “Things to do in KL, cheap points of interest in Malaysia” and maybe just maybe get ahold of Kurt, and ask him to apply his considerable brain power to this situation, or at least just say hello, adding to the sense of calm and safety in this otherwise almost out of hand situation. We weren’t broke yet, and we were eating like we were rich, but I figured we needed a base, some way to get a quantity of good food in, just in case it was roti boys and mi goreng street food from here on out.
The restaurant was full of business men of all races, one woman who looked like my mother must have looked a dozen years ago when she was traveling on birding expeditions. Understated but well enough funded that she could start at the KL Hilton and get her bearings. I longed to be as together as my mom had been, as poised and as travel wise. I wished with all my heart for a credit card, or a job, or a means to book a hotel room just for the afternoon, just to use the shower. I had yet to find a bathroom clean enough or inconspicuous enough to take a sponge bath in, I felt disgusting and exhausted.
My eyes and ears still itched with a vengeance, I could feel the hives raising on my eyelids from the jellyfish attack again this morning. There was not enough coffee in the world. But Bodhi was okay. He was smiling at me. “This is a great idea, mom. I can’t believe we can eat all this food. How do you know things like this?” He dove in for thirds. I did not look like my mother on a birding trip, but Bodhi thought that the fact that I knew how to poach the free buffet was a miracle. I’ll take it.
Buoyed by his enthusiasm for the adventure, grateful that he wasn’t upset about Bangkok, I turned my attention to the fun that was to be found in our ridiculous situation. Here we were, the two of us in Malaysia. There had to be a way to find something in our budget.
We finished up breakfast, but there was no wifi in the restaurant. We hopped on the elevator and found the Hilton business center. The door was open. We snuck in. The attendant smiled at us, did not ask our room number.
“Can I log on?” I asked.
“Yes, madame.” he said. Bodhi sat on the floor and got his book out. The attendant logged me on. Me.com. There was my email. Relief. I fired off a couple of quick emails, unsure how long we’d be able to poach this internet before they told us to get out. I had no way to look up Internet cafes in KL, as my phone was still dead. I opened a couple of tabs and got some searches going, “Things to see in KL, cheap trips in KL, points of interest in KL, Internet Cafe in KL...” I emailed Bodhi’s dad, Kurt, my sister and Erica in Ubud. “Arrived in KL. Slightly stressed but okay. Worried about the cash situation. Train to BKK full, no seats. Making a new plan.”
I checked our bank balance, and found the Kuala Lumpur bird park was walking distance from the Hilton. Whatever happened, we had something interesting to do for the day that wasn’t tooooo terribly expensive. The world’s largest walk through fly in Aviary.” That sounded pretty good.
We left the business center feeling a bit better, but still needed a charge on the phone and the computer. On the way back out of the hotel, we passed the concierge.
“Excuse me,” I asked, “Can you tell us how to get to the Bird Park?” I hoped he would think we were hotel guests.
“Of course, Madame. Follow me.” He took us over to the lobby cafe and pointed out the window. “Just walk across the road there, and follow the stairs, and you can walk from there. It is not a problem.”
“Really?” I asked, relieved, expecting a $20 cab fare.
“Yes, no problem.” he said, smiling. “But the park does not open until 9 am, and it is only 8. Would you like to have a coffee while you wait?” I looked at him. He was inviting us to crash our dirty back packer bodies in his nice, clean, comfortable cafe for as long as we liked while we waited.
“Oh!‘ I said, my relief and happiness probably as obvious as ever. “That sounds lovely. Yes, Bodhi, shall we have a coffee?”
Bodhi smiled at me, impish. “That sounds great, mom.” As though we hadn’t just spent an hour eating our way through the entire buffet upstairs. “Can I get something to eat?”
I looked at him. Since he started surfing, he is always hungry. His body is growing, changing, getting stronger and more resilient. “Of course.” I said. We sat. We plugged in. We ordered espresso and some little chocolate raspberry yummies. My phone came on line.
I started firing off messages, my phone came on line, and miracle of miracles, Kurt was there, on the other end.
“Hi.” I said, relief washing over me. It was nice to know that a sane person with a working brain in good order was on the other end.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
I felt the tears coming. We were safe, we were okay, Malaysia wasn’t nearly as expensive as Singapore, we would make it, but the stress of the last seven days and his simple, caring question was enough to undo me.
“I’m scared and sad and frustrated and almost out of money. But we are okay. We are finding our way. But can you help us? We are trying to figure out trains and plans.” Kurt got to work on his end, I got to work on mine.
I sent a message off to my sister and to my friend in New York, something I hate to do. “Things are leaner than I’d like. We are okay, but I’m a bit worried about running out of cash and getting stuck in a few days. I’m sorry to ask, but are you able to help us out?” I felt sick and defeated at asking. But I knew it was the right thing to do. We couldn’t go back to Bali and work for four days. We needed to do something cheap until then, and the screaming stress worry in my brain telling me that we were going to fail would be relieved with those couple of hundred dollars that I was supposed to make doing massage before we left.
Five minutes later, Liat replied. “$500 on the way to your account in the morning. You owe me $530. Have a good trip I love you, happy to help.”
Again, with the tears. Massive relief. Gratitude. Guilt, but no shame. We would be okay. Fifteen minutes later, my friend in New York “On its way, no problem. $1500 by paypal”. This was unexpected. This would make this same situation less likely to happen again when we went to India. This was our emergency fund. This was our salvation.
“Why are you crying, mom?” Bodhi asked.
“Because I’m an idiot and an asshole and I don’t deserve the amazing help I’m getting.” is what I wanted to say. “Because I am happy, and grateful.” is what I answered instead.
Kurt continued sending supportive texts, telling me I could do it, I could figure it out. I believed him. I looked on line. Rainforest treks, Temples, the Perhanthian Islands, 12 hour overnight trip, one hour fairy to the island, pristine white beaches, snorkeling. Cheap.
“Bodhi, do you want to go to a deserted beach and go swimming?”
“Sure!” I showed him a photo, it sounded too good to be true. “Yeah, that looks amazing, lets go there!”
I wrote the whole thing down, and all the charges, times 2. We could stay there all inclusive for $250, train tickets were $18 each sleeper class. I wanted to do the trip without touching Liat’s help, just to prove to myself that I could do it, that we would have been okay.
We let the computer and phone charge up, gathered our strength, paid our bill ($6 usd) and headed back to the ticket counter.
“Two overnight tickets to Tanah Merah” I said to the same lady who had told us the train to Bangkok was full.
“Sorry ma’am. The train to Tanah Merah is full.” You have got to be fucking kidding me. “But if you come back in a few hours, around noon, they might add a coach. Check back at noon.”
It was only 11, no time to go to the bird park yet. We killed an hour in the train station reading Esquire magazine and looking at the books. Walking back at noon, we crossed our fingers. “Sorry, still full, no coach added yet. Come back later, maybe they add one.”
Fine. Lets just get out of here. We checked our bags into left luggage for 3MR and headed outside. Free of our light luggage, we headed by foot to the bird park. It was about a two mile walk, through the Lake Garden district. Bodhi told me stories the whole way, and finally, we found a set of enormous stairs that led us on the right path to the entrance.
The bird park was beautiful. Really, truly incredible. A huge open netted aviary, there were tropical birds of all kinds flying around. People of all nations and religions were waking as well, apparently the bird park is a good place to go while on honeymoon. It was interesting to see that by now, Bodhi could see all the different costumes but didn’t notice them as different, really. He mixed with all the people, reading the signs, looking at the birds, unfazed by how different everyone was than him. I was still holding on to some fear and prejudice.
There were lots of women in full burqua, saris galore, two indian brides with henna on their hands and feet, large Chinese families, headscarves, and us in shorts and flip flops. We saw great horn bills, parrots, milky storks, scarlet ibis... the oasis of this park and this moment was a welcome relief from the stress, Liat’s gift of a cushion helped me to feel that we could eat lunch and get a coconut without worrying that we would blow our last train fare back to the Singapore airport accidentally. Budget, Kate, Budget....
At four pm we took a break from the fascinating trip through the park “Mom, can I have a great horned bill as a pet?” and took a 5MR cab back to the train station, where we discovered that they had, indeed, added a coach, and had not sold it out yet. We were going to the Perhanthian Islands! Bodhi and I bought our tickets, and our return ticket all the way back to Singapore from Tanah Merah (Sorry, sitting up only on the overnight to Singapore, no sleeping). Whatever else happened, we were going to make it back to the airport in time, we already had the tickets.
We headed back to the birdpark for the last hour of operation, milking it for all it was worth, then headed back to the train station where we killed the last two hours before our sleeper train to Tanah Merah.
Tucked into the overhead bunks, this was now old hat. The cart rumbled by, Bodhi ordered hot tea and pulled his curtains for the evening. I laid there thinking of the luxury of being in a sleeper bunk, of the relief of connection to home, of the intensity of my connection to my iPhone.
A few years ago, we would have truly been on our own. A few years ago, we would have had travel books with us, and winging it would have meant a different kind of planning ahead. A few years ago... was not now. We would have faced different challenges. I would have had the guidebook in my bag because I would not have had internet, or portable internet, gps and all that.
In 1998, I traveled through Nepal for an extended period, and there was no lifeline, no connection to home, no FaceTime, no GPS tracking, no Siri. I remember running out of money in Lukla and walking five days through the Himalaya to a hotel that someone told our friend JangBu that was being built and might have a credit card machine.
A few years before that, or maybe the year before that, there was only one light bulb in Namche Bazar, no espresso machines, no credit card machine outside of Kathmandu.
So things change, and we had overcome our obstacle for the moment, which I had let absolutely consume me, my fear had been huge and palpable and overwhelming. We had survived it together, and I had managed it well enough not to scare Bodhi in the mean time. Now we were on a train to a place called Tanah Merah, where we would emerge in the morning after 12 hours of sleep and find a taxi to take us to the dock.
Bodhi was reading happily in his bunk when I walked down the quiet, swaying train to brush my teeth. I looked at myself in the mirror. I was really, really stinky. I needed a shower badly. My hair has definitely been in a more orderly state than the one I was seeing reflected back in the black spotted cracked squat toilet mirror. (“Do not use toilet when train is stopped”) (Because the toilet empties straight onto the tracks.)
It also occurred to me that we were okay. And we were doing that thing that I had wanted to do, we were traveling together by ourselves, in a place where we knew no one, did not know the language, and as fate would have it, had no guidebook. Nothing had power, we had no WiFi, and therefore, we were truly on our own. We were going on our gut, and it was going to be okay. Bodhi found a deep sense of happiness, and gratitude for his bunk, and so did I. Our necessary home space became the respite of 12 hours in a 6’ by 3’ cubicle en route to who knows where.
On the way, the train broke down.
This meant, of course, that we had a solid 15 hours of sleep, which we both needed. We read and slept through the night, bought Jaffels with honey and Tea in the morning, went back to sleep and finally, pulled into the station at Tanah Merah.
(Part two coming soon!...)