I have made a new discovery.
In addition to the park benches, spaces between two close-together palm trees, bus stations, train stations, ferry terminals, and airports of the world, I have added another tool to my handyman’s box of places to sleep in a fix (or in a particularly acute moment of frugality). Ready for it?
Hospital waiting rooms.
I’m surprised the idea didn’t occur to me sooner. You arrive late and have an earlyish transporty-type thing to catch. You’re not particularly interested in seeing or doing anything in town, and if you can clear the night without getting raped or mugged, you consider it a “win.”
Where to go?
I’ll tell you where! The 24-hour, orderly, spanking clean (by that country’s standards, anyway) security-patrolled hospital, that’s where! There’s one in every town, and what could be better? It’s relatively quiet, there’s food available at all hours, and nobody harasses you. After all, you must be waiting for your ailing friend. What kind of person would sleep in a hospital otherwise? (Muahahah)
My night here was unfortunately peppered with unsolicited visits from mosquitoes, but security felt bad for me after a while and brought me some repellent. A bit later, a sweet father-daughter duo invited me to have some nasi and a fried egg with them. Score!!
This wasn’t my plan. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when I arrived on Pulau Batam. I originally wanted to sleep in the terminal, but since it closes at 7pm, I think my plan at the time was to just juice myself up on a ton of coffee and try to stay up the whole night. After all, I didn’t want to go 20km out of my way to some crappy town where the hotels were expensive and I’d need to catch a taxi in order to make my ferry in the morning. Ironically, the answer to all my troubles was given to me buy a cop. I came upon him while he was working hard, intensely patrolling the inside of his coffee cup while shooing away a hungry cat with his bare foot. He first asked me where I was from, then whether or not I had come alone, then whether or not I had children, and then why not? Didn’t I realize I wasn’t getting any younger? What about my shriveling ovaries? And only then, perhaps feeling very sad that I was on the cusp of dying alone, did he tell me about the 24-hour hospital just up the road.
Anyway, I’m feeling gleeful. I love adding a new option to the travel toolkit. It lessens the panic of a rough situation with the knowledge that, “Hey, that worst-case scenario? I’ve already been there and it isn’t so bad.”
At any rate, this post was originally going to be a thought-provoking ode to Malaysia and Singapore, but I haven’t been thinking much at all recently — Whee! — so I’ll just do a quick inventory of the last couple months or so:
I left Turkey and had a pretty rough time hitchhiking from Sarajevo to Zadar in one day. I knew it was ambitious before I started off, and yeah, I managed to do it, but I nearly punched a whole slew of churchgoers in the mouth on my way. Know who doesn’t pick up hitchhikers? Croatian churchgoers! Know when is a bad time to hitch on a tight schedule? Sunday morning — when everybody on the road is a Croatian churchgoer!
It didn’t help that Bosnia was equally rough and slowed me down more than I could ever have imagined from my previous experiences hitching in the north of the country. There was apparently an international hitchhiking competition going down a practically identical route that same day, and every car that would have picked me up was already full! Damn!
Thankfully, I managed to bottle up my initial reaction (unmitigated weeping), and I made it to Zadar and caught my flight to Holland in time for Queen’s Day.
What can I say about Queen’s Day?
Packed. Orange. Madness. Although my girl Isabel tried to make it an educational experience for me by turning on the news coverage of the ceremony bright and early on the morning of the event, it was somewhat diminished by the fact that we were eating breakfast hungover from the night before and packing cans of Heineken into a duffle to take out onto the streets with us while listening to the speeches. I also vaguely recall her shouting out snippets of historical trivia as we danced to techno and tried not to spill our beers. Unfortunately, though, I was a bad pupil. I don’t recall anything aside from the following: I ate bitterballen and watched Isabel bitch out a drunk who had the audacity to piss on her doorstep. We danced all over the city, picked all the chicken off of her brother’s paella, and at one point in the night, I was trying my hand at Dutch swear words while air-cycling on the floor of her apartment.
It’s incredible how partying can really be kicked up a notch when you don’t have to worry about driving home. Isabel carted me around on the back of her bike like I was a prostrate barnyard animal. I suppose I should have been grateful that I didn’t actually have to ride one myself, but sitting on the back of a bike isn’t all mangoes and sunshine. It really hurts — in all kinds of places. Of course, I didn’t feel justified complaining to Isabel about how hard it was to keep my abs clenched sitting sideways. After all, she’s the one carting around 60 kilos of dead weight, and I’m complaining that I’m tired? I think I have duly ceded my right to complain there.
Anyway, we finished up partying, and I spent the next day having a fabulous meal and even better conversation with a couple of my homegirls from Peru 2007… then I boarded my flight to Bangkok.
I have nothing to say about Thailand (do I ever?), but both Singapore and Malaysia were nothing short of wonderful. This is my third time traveling through the region, and I’ve only just now dipped into these 2 countries. Why, you ask? Because ALL of Southeast Asia is such a pleasure to travel, and I wanted to hit them in a systematic way. I suppose the other reason why I didn’t come sooner was because… eh… I dinnwanna.
Nobody really talks about these two countries. Sandwiched between easy, cheap, and yummy Thailand, and thrilling, exotic, and almost heartbreakingly beautiful Indonesia… Malaysia and Singapore look a little… bare. I’d heard about how expensive Singapore was. Everybody spoke of Malaysia with a yawn, while lazily batting away a mosquito. Too expensive they said. Only worth a week or so, they said.
OK, paying $22 bucks for a dorm bed in Singapore isn’t exactly pleasurable. Prices put the e-brake on partying, and Universal Studios and the zoo are definitely out. Malaysia is split right down the middle, and its capital, Kuala Lumpur, is probably best known as the primary hub for Air Asia –– Asia’s leading budget airline and employer of the cuntiest flight attendants I’ve ever met. Most people just use these countries as a stopover on their way to somewhere else.
What a mistake. First of all, even though I love to haggle, it’s nice to be somewhere where the people are, by and large, pretty honest. Very few people are trying to scam you, and there really seems to be some interest in showing visitors a good time. Secondly, most people speak pretty good English and are ready and willing to help. Thumbing in Malaysia is a treat partially because you can really TALK to your rides. In Singapore, a sweet lady on the MRT kindly offered to help us after watching me assault a hapless Malay with my broken Cantonese.
The third, and most compelling, reason to stay a bit longer here is that the people I’ve met on this little patch of peninsula (travelers and locals alike) are some of the most interesting and 3-dimensional of all that I’ve met in Southeast Asia.
I met a Canadian/English guy who spent the ’70s riding a motorbike down the east coast of Africa, then back up Latin America, culminating in a few weeks spent in a Cuban jail. He read the paper every day, stayed abreast of news going on all over the world, and was always ready with snippets of information about the most far-flung places. He had traveled so much, he had even returned to some countries and not realized it was his second time until he disembarked, looked around, and said, “Shit! I’ve already been here!”
I met a handful of Iranian students who found me on a strawberry farm and adopted me for the day. We went all over the Cameron Highlands and I had one of those “otherworldly” experiences that are so precious — the realization that although your governments may be completely at odds, people all over the world like hip hop, and drive too fast, and laugh at off-color jokes, and chivalrously help you cross rivers when the water is moving fast.
I met a German on his very first backpacking trip, who decided on a whim to join a silent Buddhist retreat and spend hours sitting completely still on a stone floor. He actually tried to sell me on the beneficial qualities of sleeping on a wooden pillow. “It’s great because it’s so uncomfortable that you never get any more sleep than you absolutely need,” he told me.
I met an incredible brother-sister duo from Kuantan who were spending Zu’s (the sister) only day off work driving 4 hours to see some friends from school. Hassan (the brother) was studying Islamic studies in Yemen. They picked us up hitchhiking at nearly nightfall, drove us around trying to feed us as much as possible, then spent another 2 hours refusing to let us sleep at the ferry terminal, driving to every single hotel in Marang and calling in favors from friends until we finally found a room (180 ringgit!) which they knew we couldn’t afford… so they paid for it themselves. We frantically tried to repay them, but they weren’t having it. You could tell that the money was dear to them, but giving it freely was their way. “Maybe one day you will see people in need, and you will help them,” they told us.
I met a vivacious American school counselor who had worked on a Native Canadian reservation, was allergic to oranges, and seemed to keep running into people who lie about having cancer. I suppose the most telling thing about how much I enjoyed her company was the fact that we traveled together for 2 weeks — the equivalent of 2 years in real time. We made Preparation H jokes, and listened to Justin Timberlake, and hitchhiked, and laughed so hard that we nearly choked on our murtabak. We jerry-rigged mosquito nets and she read me snippets of Anne of Green Gables while I (not so silently) wished for Anne’s painful demise. We paddled out to sea just as a monsoon was sweeping in, discovered that we have the oddest things in common, allowed ourselves to be as American as we could handle, tried to get to the bottom of my commitment issues, and talked about our eternal love for Jonathan Taylor Thomas in the quiet of the dying sunlight with glasses of Milo-brand hot chocolate gripped tightly in our hands.
Yes, different countries draw different people, and I loved those I met in Malaysia. I didn’t meet so many in Singapore. In fact, since we spent almost all our time as a tight little group of three (Spiro, Sharmen, and I), the only person I can even distinctly recall is a brown-haired, morose-looking fellow from Atlanta who couldn’t keep his eyes off of Spiro’s rack.
Sharmen (a former traveling mate from Eastern Europe) is a Singaporean and acted as our guide for a few days. Although I think we drove him crazy by stopping either to eat or to take pictures of ads for orange juice or chicken-and-bacon sandwiches every few minutes, he somehow always managed to get us to the most panoramic spots at the best times (a.k.a. just in time for Marina Bay’s light show or fireworks over Sentosa). I found the city to be beautiful and intriguing, and it is perhaps the only big city in the world that I think I could tolerate for more than a couple of days at a time.
OK, I’m tired of writing now and want to go drink a juice and play in the sunshine. I’ll write again before another month has elapsed!
“He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars.” – Jack London, Call of the Wild