Time melts away.
Misplacing my travel mojo in Kuala Lumpur
From the meandering spicy-sweet streets of artsy George Town I was spirited southeast by tourist bus through the haze and dropped into the crazy maze that makes up Kuala Lumpur. Before the first taxi driver had even had a chance to try to rip me off on a fare, I felt exhausted. By the time I finally made it to my sleek, air-conditioned high-rise apartment just outside the city centre (with the infinity pool on the 37th floor) I had more or less resolved not to leave again for the entire three days.
Sometimes you just don’t feel brave. And sometimes, that’s fine. Travel is generally exotic and reserved for those of good fortune, but it can also be hard and tiring and confusing and if you’re not careful, it can get the best of you. After the ease of George Town I didn’t feel like deciphering street maps that resembled 2D tangled balls of wool, or figuring out how to navigate 4 different public transit systems that didn’t actually connect with each other so that I could go see all the tourist attractions that I frankly wasn’t even particularly interested in seeing anyway. Maybe that sounds spoiled. But sometimes, you just don’t feel brave. And I didn’t.
The next morning I gathered my resolve and stepped right into it and figured it all out, of course. But it would have been just as fine to spend my time lounging in air-conditioned comfort in my apartment and bobbing around in an infinity pool while watching parachutists hurl themselves off of KL Tower, and letting that be the sum of my Kuala Lumpur experience.
Harrowing journeys, changing tastes
What was supposed to be a 3- to 4-hour bus ride from KL to Mersing, the port town where I’d catch the ferry over to tranquil Tioman Island, turned into a 7+-hour ordeal. The bus’s AC broke down, and the windows on tourist buses don’t open, so there we were charging along winding roads in a speeding sauna on wheels. Five times we veered off course to try and find someone who could get us back into the deep freeze that generally characterizes all tourist buses in Southeast Asia, and on the fifth try we succeeded. As we got rolling again we discreetly re-bundled in all the layers we’d peeled off in a heat-stricken panic hours before and didn’t say another word about it.
The cheap Mersing ‘hotel’ was a fright, but what was more disconcerting was realizing that this is pretty much the same type of hotel I frequented while I was on my big backpacking adventure in ’08-’09, and back then I thought it was just fine. My tastes seem to be changing a little as time rolls on. I don’t need the Four Seasons every night but I do like clean, and safe, and decent bug-free bedding that doesn’t require me to use my emergency sleep sheet, and doors that lock, and AC that works, and showers that don’t have black gunk in the corners. I’m not sure how many more grungy, bring-your-own-paper squat toilets or dingy ferry boats or broken-ass buses I want to wrangle with.
Have I become a flashpacker? The royal palace I stayed in in India was really nice…
Tiny islands and I seem to be a natural fit. By the end of my first day at Juara Beach on Tioman Island, another tourist was asking me if I lived here. Travellers I meet on these islands are often surprised when I proclaim I’ve just arrived, saying things like “You seem like you’ve been here for a long time already.” I’m not sure why that is. I guess we just get each other; these remote, sandy places, with their heat and their peace and their placid pace, bring out the best in me.
I’ve had major connectivity issues since I arrived, which sadly highlighted how un-resourceful I’ve become when technology doesn’t work in the way to which I have become accustomed, which is all the time and everywhere. I panicked, which isn’t very cool. I lost my first two days here to ridiculously unproductive tech calls with Apple and spinny thoughts about not being able to deliver on client deadlines. I never resolved it, but I got some of my resourceful instincts back and figured out a workaround. Still I sheepishly admit that, for business reasons at least, I’m kind of looking forward to getting to Singapore tomorrow where network connections are everywhere and everything presumably works hyper-properly.
Dropping off the grid wasn’t really an option on this trip. I actually haven’t taken a vacation in the classic sense of the word in the six years since I started this business, and it’s completely by choice. I consider it an absolute privilege to be able to earn my living while, say, smelling the South China Sea—but I need to be reachable by my clients in order to do it. Valuable lessons learned. Tiny remote beaches on tiny remote islands: fantastic. Connectivity: essential.
Here and now
It’s early afternoon on my last day here. It’s too hot to be in the sun before 2 pm, so I’m taking time in the shade to write some. In a while, when late afternoon takes the sting out of the heat, I’ll go walk the beach and kick sand around and float in the ocean and eat a late lunch of noodles, always noodles; and then meet the gang at sunset for one last happy hour drink.
Tomorrow morning at 5 am it’s back to schlepping between shuttles and ferryboats and tourist buses as I make my way to the sleek, disconcertingly perfect bubble of busyness and straight streets that I imagine Singapore to be. Then it’s a quick hop back to India to begin the long trek home to Canada.
As challenging as travel can be at moments, it almost always comes to an end too quickly.
“Delay and dirt are the realities of the most rewarding travel.”
― Paul Theroux