Vulnerable, guilty, exposed and dealing with it alone

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January 12th 2012
Published: January 24th 2012
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I have had a wonderful Christmas, a fantastic new year and Malaysia has truly been a joy to experience and is my most favourite of all the countries I have seen so far due to the dynamic inhabitants and mysterious traditions intermingled with other cultures and religions. But, I have only a few days left which means only a few days with Carl. I have been travelling alone for five months but when I reflect upon this time I have never really felt too alone. Teaching in Cambodia surrounded me with people every day, in Vietnam I met three wonderful travel companions who honestly made Vietnam a memory to cherish and I miss them greatly, then in Malaysia, Singapore and Borneo I was able to experience new things with the man I love. It’s funny to reflect upon each of these moments because the country where I was surrounded by most people was the one where I found myself at my lowest point; Cambodia.

Still when I look back I only feel warmth and love for each of the countries I have been to and the people I have met. I have no ill feelings towards those who caused me upset; instead I feel I have learnt from each of those precious moments. We have to move on, and although I can still be surprised by the behaviours of others whether they are actions towards me, fellow dorm mates, travellers or even locals we need to rise above it. I find this hard, more and more I find myself fighting against those who are clearly inadequately prepared to be around other humans or who are selfish individuals needing a reminder that their behaviour is highly inappropriate. But it is not always my place; I need to know when to pick my fights. In Malaysia Carl and I watched as ‘Buddhist monks’ clad in their saffron robes traipsed around China Town and Bukit Bintang (a huge shopping area) preying on unsuspecting westerners who are uneducated to realise that monks don’t beg. These two monks would thrust their bowl in to the faces of their victims forcing them to part with their money. The locals looked upon is with disdain and would comment to me about my ability to shake my head at the fake monks. I however was left feeling disgusted. As a teacher of religion in the UK, a lover of Buddhism with high appreciation of those fragile practices the monks retain for their alms giving, for it to be abused made me livid, especially when unwittingly tourists empty their pockets in to the phony bowl. It is not just the day light robbery, what upsets me most about this is that precious religious practices are being exploited by individuals whom could cause great upset to much of the local community and religious factions but also to the name of Buddhism itself. A monk is in a position of trust, and that position is being abused. But I guess I have seen this elsewhere in my time here. In Vietnam we see hotels and travel agents with good honest reviews being imitated by gangs who have little care for the foreigners safety; and all over S.E Asia Lonely Planet, clearly a corrupt source has sold it’s good name to researchers who support criminal gangs in their endeavours to out-do their worthy competitors just to line their pockets with a bit more dollar. All for money.

Still, this is nothing in comparison to the BIG things going on in the world eh? And I am not getting started on that.

Still, these last few days leave me heavy with heart no matter how hard I try to push Carl’s imminent departure to the dark recesses of my mind. We arrive back in KL earlier than expected; we had planned on going to Port Dickson for two days and had booked a small suite overlooking the sea with a little swimming pool. We thought we would spend these two days relaxing together. After several different bus rides we arrived in Port Dickson and got a taxi to our hotel. Lagoon Paradise apartments was hard to find as it is a part of a shared complex with other businesses and hotels. The lady at reception was friendly and handed us our key and towels directing us to the lift to the first floor. The lift doors open, and Carl turns his head to me suspiciously. I agree the thing looks like it is going to fall the moment we step in. The doors close precariously behind us and we rise to floor one. The doors slide open revealing a greying walkway and Carl walks out first, I follow but the doors suddenly swing shut nearly trapping me in between. I jump backwards in to the lift, doors shut anf it begins to move but I can’t tell if it is up or down because the lights on the button panel don’t work. The doors open and there is no Carl in sight so I press floor one again in the hope that he might be there. The lift moves, again I cannot tell if it is up or down but finally the doors open to reveal a worried looking Carl as I scramble out as quick as I can with my broken roll bag trailing behind me. We find our room and are met with a little kitchen, a little lounge area and a bedroom. It’s sweet but sadly the sheets are stained with god knows what, the bathroom is dirty, the floors have not been swept, there are ants all over the seats which are also stained and the kitchen hob is caked in something that is orange. Oh dear. We make do get our swimming stuff and go to the pool to relax. Of course the pool is in a similar condition, full of algae leaving the sides encrusted in green slime. Even at a distance you could see it and our hearts sank. We trudge back to the apartment, open the door to our lounge and neither of us feel we can sit anywhere because it is dirty. Clearly we won’t stay, it’s just a matter of plucking up the courage to go – but where to go? Do we stay in Port Dickson or do we go back to KL and spend more time there. After a lengthy discussion and a heated argument which should never have happened we went back to KL; both full of sadness because we wanted desperately to enjoy our last few days together and make them special.

Kuala Lumpur welcomed us home with open arms and immediately we knew this was the right thing to do. We went straight to the hotel we had booked, washed and hurried out the door towards the Petronas towers in the hope we could grab something to eat. We can see the towers beaming out their great fluorescent light guiding us nearer. We are so close, we can see their overpowering height tower above us. But we come upon a huge wall that seems to run the length and could not see a way out of this. We met the highway, the periphery but we did not know this until we had walked for half an hour in the wrong direction. In desperate need we met a scrunched up man with sticky out goofy teeth but with electric eyes which lit up as we asked for his help. He told us to follow him so we walked the three of us in a line for an hour. Yes, one hour. We circled the Petronas towers around the motorway as the tiny man talked animatedly about something or other which neither of us could understand. I think he spoke in a mixture of English and Malay but his teeth prevented him from creating syllabic sounds. I did manage to catch that he hated the Chinese, the Sri Lankans, the Indians and just about anyone else who had migrated to Malaysia in the hope of a better life. As we walked past shanty’s and densely packed flats he would shake his head and moan about which ever nationality inhabited the sorry looking place. When he saw a flat with a Malaysian flag outside he would point but I never understood the meaning of this. I found myself laughing when he laughed, looking at what he was pointing at and repeated the word ‘yes’ millions of times to show I understood something I didn’t. Finally he brought us to an area where busy junctions intersected and he guided us across the frantic roads with traffic hurrying past. We said thank you and goodbye and walked off again towards our towering glory but found ourselves looking at the other side of them – we did walk a long way.

We both love it here under the huge dazzlingly lit towers intensified by the surrounding darkness. I eat my food as Carl reels off more facts about them and delight in his company. My feet ache, neither of us had intended on such a hike but it gave us a healthy appetite. Tired we head back and decide to get a taxi but not before we had to be challenged by every taxi driver demanding ten dollars for a walk that should take fifteen (now we know where we are going). We opt for walking but manage to find an honest taxi driver who refuses to barter and points to his meter machine. The trip cost has $2. Well, we felt good.

In our last few days we revisit places we loved when we here three weeks ago such as China town which was still lively and full of excitement. We went back to Bukit Bintang to see the decorated bears. I love those bears, I love that every country has participated and I want to have another look at each one. When we arrive there we notice The Pavillions decorations have changed from Christmas themed to Chinese New Year. We enter and are taken aback by the incredible ornamentation which embellishes the interior. It was simply spectacular. A huge red scaly dragon winds its way from the tip of its tail at the top of the mall curling graciously around the circular venue to the entrance steps where its angry head greeted shoppers with open mouth. I make Carl follow me around the mall up and down even from back and front as the shutter on my camera snaps away eagerly capturing every conceivable angle.

We don’t just revisit sites we go to new ones after taking the ‘hop on hop off’ bus which snakes its way around the city slowly. We embarked just outside our hotel after waiting twenty minutes to find the double-decker was a closed roof. Well there is clearly no point of us going on this when I can’t take photos of poor unsuspecting civilians through glass. So we wait for the next one which is supposed to have an open roof. We pass the thirty minutes with a coffee at a local coffee shop only to find the next bus is also a closed top. We hop on and deal with it. The bus takes us to parts of the city we would never otherwise have visited and gradually it winds its way back to the city centre to the Petronas towers where we hop off for some drink as I start to feel unwell. After lunch we hop back on again and it’s an open top! Yay! We sit outside with a middle-aged group of four and a mother and daughter in her late teens. The mother films EVERYTHING whilst the girl snaps away at EVERYTHING. I know Carl was finally thankful that although my camera dominates our every day, it’s not as bad as that. McDonalds sign ‘SNAP’, building ‘SNAP’, car ‘SNAP’, another car ‘SNAP’, a tree ‘SNAP’ AAAARGH! The mother and daughter were harmless but their haphazard inability to recognise the constant leaning over to take photos of inane objects was irksome but they were both extraordinary characters to watch. The mother, attempting ‘glamorous’ would pose almost gracefully for her photos, the daughter meanwhile would pose sexually and enticingly without encouragement from the mother looking longingly in to the lens. I felt a little embarrassment watching but could not avoid it seeing we were cramped in to a very small area. As we trundled along the beeps on their cameras did not subside, but the daughter continued to lean back provocatively across the rails in the centre of the tiny seating area. Older men would sneak a cheeky glance whilst the wives would look upon her with disdain and jealousy whilst all I could see was one of her nipples making the entire journey quite awkward seeing that it was right in my face. We disembarked gratefully relieved to be away from all the sexual provocation which at first was funny but after the incident with the nipples just meant I couldn’t enjoy the view fully as they were in the way. I felt I could only look right as she was sitting to my left which meant I could only see the view from one side – typically all the good sites were to my left.

We galloped off the bus and found ourselves at Little India without much expectation but maybe just the lingering hope of seeing a Hindu Mandir but what we actually experienced is like entering another world. Bollywood chants shout out to us, the fountain ornately decorated with splashes of vibrant colours and big elephants spraying water, the main street lined with colourful archways hiding eateries and sari shops. We walk the length, cross the bridge and walk back again. We continue walking and end up at KL Sentral, all the time mapping these points in to my mind. I have a good sense of direction and pride myself on it; I only have to see things once before it is permanently seared on to my memory. Shame I don’t have this as an intellectual capacity as my memory becomes a sieve when I have to remember anything important. All the useful information is siphoned out replaced by insignificant trivia like where Topshop is or how to find Cadburys chocolate.

That evening we make our way to China town again in order to buy me a bag as my roll bag handles broke along with the extending handle required to pull the thing along. It came out in my hand as I picked it up when I got in to Kuala Lumpur, the porter had a fit. Had to carry it in to the hotel and up the lift, well I didn’t have to. We don’t buy a bag for me but we do spend a lot of money on belts for Carl, Carl’s brother and his friends. We spent the last two nights here looking at Paul Smith trainers, boxers (which we also bought) and shirts. In the Petronas towers I find myself in the Paul Smith shop watching as Carl tries on £300 jackets, £200 shirts worrying that he is enjoying this too much – he never shops for himself usually but he has suddenly chosen an expensive brand. He told me a few days later over Skype that he had bought a Paul Smith shirt on Ebay. We spend our days exploring more unseen areas of KL, evenings are squandered haggling and bartering but rarely buying at street stalls, but all the time we laugh and we laugh a lot. I realise I am the happiest I have been ever.

Then 7am arrives on the 12th January and it’s time for him to go. When the door closes behind him I suddenly feel lost and empty. I feel small and pointless. The entire trip becomes insignificant and meaningless. I don’t see the point of continuing further and seriously consider buying a flight home. I pack my bags alone, I shower alone, I leave the room alone, I walk the streets alone and I arrive at Reggae Mansion hostel in China Town alone. The receptionists are the friendliest I have ever met, the owner is there laughing and joking and showing me around. I don’t feel like laughing, I don’t feel like being friendly and I don’t want to smile. I want the whole world to feel the emptiness that has consumed me. I am shown to my room which is in a mixed dorm and when the door opens revealed are big single beds in rows which are pods. Each little section has a bed, a wall either side so you can’t see others and they don’t see you, a mirror, behind the mirror shelves, a plug socket a light and at the other end is a curtain which once I climbed in to the bed I drew the curtains and hid from the world. There I cried. I cried because Carl had left leaving this gaping hole inside me, I cried because I didn’t want to go back to Sapa yet but couldn’t deal with the guilt of letting people down. I cried because I missed my family and friends, but most of all I cried because I suddenly felt afraid. Again I was on my own to have to deal with unwanted attention, problems, travel, money, safety, choices.

I washed and cleaned the mascara from my cheeks before braving the streets. I walked to Bukit Bintang to see the bears. I don’t know why, I think I just wanted to be near something I had shared with Carl. It is a westernised part of the city and I pretended it was a Saturday at home and I had gone shopping alone for the day but would be back at home with him in the evening. I sat and ate a pain aux raisin and drank coffee thinking about what I was going to do wiping away the few tears which escaped. Later I went back to China Town where the hostel was but found myself harassed and followed. Suddenly No thank you was an invitation to pester me continuously. A curt No! became a challenging provocation to follow me. Vulnerable I realised I had lost my confidence and the stall keepers were feeding off it. I hurried back to the hostel and stayed in for the evening. Drained I slept restlessly awoken by the chatter of others in the dorm in the early hours. I lay awake reminding myself of the reasons why I hate mixed dorms – girls and boys trying to impress one another makes for a cacophony of noise and does not bode well with me.

I wrestled with my future travel plans. Feeling misplaced about Sapa and Vietnam. I had to return to Hanoi in order to collect my bag but do I go back? Why am I going back? What do I want from my travels? If I could go anywhere where else would I go? All my answers led to one thing; home. I wanted to go home. Disorientated and unsettled I could not make sense of my options or compartmentalise them. My mind was a mess overflowing with ideas, feelings and could not make sense of what my head or my heart desired most.

I know going home is the easy option. Its safe isn’t it? Your loved ones are there and all this discord disappeared when I imagined myself there. I lay there knowing that in a few hours I would be up to catch my flight to Hanoi but what if I didn’t go? Would it be so bad if I stayed in Malaysia a little while longer? But still I had no answers. Gradually my eyes drifted shut through sheer emotional exhaustion.

Additional photos below
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24th January 2012

It all gets overwhelming sometimes....
This was really well written and it sums up perfectly how down you can sometimes get while travelling. Even travelling with someone you can feel like this, vulnerable and exposed....we just wanted to say a big well done for getting back out and sitting having a pain aux raisin and coffee. We hope you are feeling a little less alone now, we assume you made it back to Vietnam? Amazing pictures as usual, oh and we completely agree with you about the mixed dorms...grrr! Those Petronas Towers are sometimes buggers to walk to, they always seem so close don't they? We did the same thing as you once and spent about 2 hours in a roundabout way getting to them!
24th January 2012

quite agree
thanks for the message - yes those pesky towers tricked us twice!! Im not in Vietnam anymore - I collected my bag from the hostel and flew to bangkok and leave tomorrow for burma. Im both excited and terrified by the prospect since I will be alone and without contact to the outside world I so depend on when alone. Im sure Ill be fine - i have heard wonderful things about burma and the people.
24th January 2012

being human
when I travel it seems like I am entranced equally by the things that connect us between cultures and those that make us unique. I don't know about everyone else but reading about your emptiness and angst when Carl left taps into a feeling (that you have written so well) that must connect us ALL as humans, the need to share the joy and challenge of a situation. I've been there and know where you're coming from. For years I thrived quite nicely on my own and hadn't yet become bewitched by the need of companionship but now sharing an experience has become almost as important as the experience itself. It's hard to fill that hole when it opens up. Great writing, great blog. :)
24th January 2012

Yes, you say it well - I suddenly feel the need to share experiences. I sit in Bangkok as I write this and feel strange that Carl is not here to share it with as we were here three years ago together. Thank you for your message

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