July 2010

My father used to call me his absent-minded professor. Just like your papa, he’d say. One love called me his little calamity, and was wrong only in magnitude. The married love of mine quoted Fitzgerald, and smiled, each time my infinite carelessness ended with a signature of tiny disasters. The Beautiful and Damned is right. The poet still addresses his letters to Little Lady Trouble and most recently a friend coined T.Rex the Train Wreck, saying it was a miracle I wasn’t extinct. I don’t doubt it.

A cell phone floats down the sewers of Columbia Heights, another makes a muffled call for help from the backseat of a North Carolina taxi, just two in a long line of brethren fallen. The camera under the seat of a bus in Arusha belongs to someone poorer now, and only a week passed before its twin left me for the Indian Ocean. A glass of milk, a glass of wine, a bottle of beer, all murder weapons of the various valuables in my life. Five cars were totaled before I learned to give up on the highway. My fourth iPod in two years finally forced me to be silent, and brought my mind back to paper. After all, they are only just things: little lessons in impermanence and patience, to help recall those things that truly matter. And with each minor loss came a brief mourning for whatever small joy it brought me, whatever minor hassle its loss entailed, and a smile as I thought of the one on the married man’s face if he could only see me now.

But something was different this time. A square, black journal, sharp in its youth, the red thread laced through the inner binding already beginning to fray, could never be replaced. Malaysia stole a thousand ringgit and the use of my right foot for a month. And along with that journal, my first day in Thailand cost me five thousand baht, a new wallet, all of my debit cards, my very last iPod, and my much-loved spectacles. Struggling to find a way to stay in Thailand with no access to money, and struggling harder to cope with the loss of my words, the fever hit. On the third day tossing through sweat in the heat of dreams somehow both vivid and cloudy, I lost the poet too. Overwhelmed by all that was gone from me, for the first time I felt a part of myself giving up. The girl who never did, the stupid romantic who would love a bullet in her heart if it gleaned the right way from the barrel, finally walked away from the man with the gun. But in that same pitch of hopeless fever, a soft Irishman came instead. He sang the songs whose chords I thought had vanished when I left him: the fragile movement of his wrists, each soft note less apprehensive than the last, glances darting quickly downward, awkward and guilty with wanting. I’m not quite sure how, but in the third dazed day of dreaming fever, he saved me.

Still disoriented, but on my way, words flowed faster than thoughts to every scrap of paper I could find, as I pressed my way on to Phnom Penh. I at least had a friend there, and a place to stay while I pasted the remaining shreds of my life together. The journey was as exhausting as the fever itself. I was ripped off twice more in the desperation to get to somewhere that every bus-ticket-selling Thai could smell from a mile away. But when the fever cleared and the sweet faces of Cambodia smiled each place I went, I felt a happiness again beginning to settle in me. And then the last five thousand baht I had hidden was stolen as well. I shook in disbelief. It hadn’t been a week since the first robbery. I couldn’t even pay for my room at the guest house in Siem Reap. I could feel the last remnants of resolve inside me unraveling. With the help of a somewhat stranger, I made it to Phnom Penh with $1.50 and a friend my only assets, weakly struggling to find the self I used to know through yet another knot in this long string of calamities I call my life.

From the first day in Phnom Penh, I felt like an apparition in the busy capital city. The smile on my face a pale shadow of the one that used to stretch through every limb as I discovered a new part of the world. As it was, Barbara and I explored and enjoyed the sweaty streets, she an easy distraction from the precarious sorrow that burrowed itself quietly inside. Knowing all along that one last card would topple my shaky tower, I took careful care to keep it standing, my breath ever baited, afraid to blow it all down. And when the laptop, with every word I had written since I left, inexplicably died, I was hopeless to stop the tumble. For the first time in a long time, I gave up, and gave in to the tears that had been waiting for their turn to fall.

At four in the morning on the bare tiled floor that night, I sat. Next to the poorly padded mat that had been my bed for weeks, legs to my chest, eyes staring towards something they know they can’t see, I asked for the Irishman. Wiry and unsure, as thin and frail as his words, but stronger so for his honesty, I needed him now. I asked him to tell me what I wanted so badly here, what I was supposed to find in the romance of these ancient kingdoms. But instead of his reassuring voice, only unanswered questions coursed through my mind in the hot, empty room. Instead of peace, my guts turned over in me, cramping in inexplicable pain as they had been for two days. And instead of darkness, a tiny red blip flashed from the failed attempt at saving my now deceased laptop, nonchalant in its inconsistency, as if taunting me with the fact that it was never coming back. My back ached from the unforgiving floor and I felt a feeling to which I am wholly unaccustomed. I wanted to go home. But I knew all too well I had no home to go to. I felt as if Asia was kicking me out. As if I wasn’t supposed to be here now, but then where was I supposed to be? So accustomed to these tiny mishaps slipping from my shoulders in happily resigned laughter, so used to a decade of cheerfully careless calamities, now I could barely breathe under the weight of this avalanche. And in that moment of pre-dawn desperation, I wrote. I wrote every desperate thought that had been chewing my limbs to pieces. Just before the sunrise, I closed Barbara’s laptop and let myself give into one more thing: sleep.

I awoke the next morning understandably exhausted. The urge to find some silent and unknown solitude had been slowly pulling on me since that train to Bangkok. And after my failed attempt to let the ocean revive me in Sihanoukville, a dirty, overwhelming party town on Cambodia’s southern beaches, I knew I needed to head out on own again. But every part of me still felt defeated. I left my paperweight of a laptop at home and went to the internet cafe to find a friend to lay my troubles on. I found Iva.

For eight years, Iva has been stern and unyielding in her advice. Sometimes harsh to hear, cutting and even hurtful, she is as reliable and unforgiving as the sea. I put everything I have bared here onto her and asked her what I was supposed to do. I cried in a self-pity that led me only to self-loathing and told her for the first time I didn’t think I could do it anymore. In the lofty melodrama of a writer’s ways I told her there wasn’t anything left anyone could take from me.Trying to offer solace and encouragement in any way possible, she told me the one thing I guess I needed to hear: “Don’t be ridiculous, you’re the toughest girl I know.” Such a strange thing when you are weak, and frightened. Crying for no reason other than you don’t know what else to do. Afraid of nothing, and everything, and longing for comfort in a place with no comforts to offer, but she was right. I hated myself enough just for feeling this way, and giving up would only distill the regret in my bones. The pride that stopped me from leaving, that foolish hubris that kept a broken traveler from turning around, from finding a home, wasn’t foolish at all, it was me. I have always been scared. Through every journey, listening to the words of family and strangers calling me brave, I never understood it. It was never courage, it was a frightened, secretly shy girl still trying to prove to herself and the world that she could do it. Petrified of falling into another rut, and running as fast as she could away from anything that might make her feel small and stuck again, the next foot just kept falling in front of the other, a thousand times again. It wasn’t courage, there simply wasn’t anyway I couldn’t do it.

And so the tears dried tight on my cheeks and I started to write. To write everything I had felt and everything that had helped me get out of it. Finally now I am left with the sly, weightless smile that blooms familiar in the pit of my gut as my next adventure awaits. Finally, I feel like myself again. So, perhaps this post offers not the thrill of danger, nor exotic adventure, or sordid love story. Perhaps this self-indulgent ramble isn’t something anyone even cares to read. I have struggled enough in the past few weeks with where my writing will ever go, and who it is really for other than myself, so if you have come this far and feel disappointed, my apologies. Who knows, maybe I will find love with a long lost Khmer Rouge rebel guerrilla who kidnaps me in the hidden jungles of Ratanakiri next week, but I make no promises. Today, these words are for me: a much-needed exercise in catharsis. And maybe also for anyone who thinks it takes some mythical courage to do the things you want to do, or the things you are scared of, or the things that seem impossible from the easy comfort and structure of everything that is familiar. Because trust me, it doesn’t. You just do it, and it works because there isn’t any other way. Because even the girl who never spoke, simultaneously praying to be noticed and not, staring at her feet as she shuffled through the hallways of her youth, closed her eyes and jumped, and left it all behind.


That I could sit, silent, in the dingy yellows
of lanky grass, frail and translucent

as my grandfather’s hands. And the way each
blade moves just as he does. Full of care and

always to the same places. That I could follow
the single ant marching adamant through

the drought-hardened canyons of my heel. His
seemingly random procession an infantry,

a victory parade for the strongest creature
on earth. And that my nanometers of nerve

endings will never register this glory until
he reaches the fragile dunes and plains

of ankle and calf. And while he charges blindly
into unknown lands, the first salty solider

of my own treks cowardly in the minute valley
of my nape, afraid to find resistance even

on a path smooth with wear, and aims to settle
in the shadowy foxhole peeking above the elastic

at my hips. That he does not know I saved his life
when I lifted the light cotton from my skin to let him

pass into the promised land. But this is a train
to Bangkok, and solitude is not a city. From this maudlin

vinyl, it is dust suspended in sunlight precisely
divisioned by four steel bars. The vapor

of dream that dissipates further with each moment
once you wake. That leaves you nothing but

a void and a grasp and the ineluctable realization
you can’t ever get that precious sliver back.

Eyes open in weak defiance, fingers arched
against the dirty glass clawing their way to a place

they can’t recall and when they dropped limp like
broken bones or hearts my solitude starved to loneliness.

After thousands of miles and thirty straight days of rain, I had finally reached the sun-glinted waters of the South China Sea. In electric, unapologetic blues I thought of nothing but forgetting myself in those tropical waters, as yet untouched by my eager toes. With plans to relax and write on the beach for a few days before heading north towards Thailand, I watched with simple delight as the ferry approached the dark, verdant mountains stretching out lazily from the sea. As we disembarked, I decided arbitrarily to turn right from the jetty onto the small sidewalk that passed for Ayer Bitang’s only road. Wide enough only for a single motorbike with a sidecar to pass, the small children driving them yell “beep beep! beep beep!” as they come up behind you. Smiling at the kids, barely ten years old with their infant siblings perched happily on their laps as they giggled and drove past, I knew I was going to like it here. As I continued south down the narrow sidewalk the wretched stench of garbage overwhelmed my senses in the stagnant heat. Though I had read about the lack of any orderly waste disposal system, I was flooded with shock, curiosity, and nausea as I passed the burning pile of rubbish, which was conquered and conquered again by ten different monkeys in their own subsequent coup d’états. Oblivious to the rancid smoke wafting through the trees, they stared in territorial possession of their kingdom of rubbish, tightly clenching their half-rotted watermelons like priceless gems. I walked cautiously past and tentatively snapped a few photos, knowing just how aggressive they could be.

King of the Landfill

After exhausting every guest house on the southern side of the jetty, I turned around and headed back past where I began. The island was packed on this Saturday afternoon, as it was a Malaysian family holiday weekend, and I was relieved to find a chalet for twenty five ringgit just on the other side of the jetty.

The Jetty

Growing slowly accustomed to pressing my way through the tropical humidity with all of my gear, I threw my pack down on the bed unfazed and headed back towards the sandy beach I had found at the southern most point of ABC. The sun was just beginning to set as I walked in refreshed excitement, and the sky lent itself to my soul in dusky blues and golds.

First South China Sunset

Coming up to the aptly named Sunset Corner, I ordered the happy hour special of three beers for ten ringgit: duty free and pleasantly cheaper than booze on the mainland. I chugged the first beer near instantaneously, set free a massive belch, tore off my dress, and ran into the sea like a crazed religious nut into the promised land. I opened my eyes under the water, clear as glass, and let the salt soak into my skin with ineffable relief. Since I was too young to understand it, I have needed and adored the ocean in a way that is beyond words, even to a rambling writer like me. As I collapsed salty and reborn onto the pleasantly busy beach, I noticed a group of six or seven travelers from scattered nations laughing over beers just a few feet away. I walked up with my second cold beer, the sea still pouring down my body from the long, wet mop on my head, and asked if I could join them. Immediately greeted by a young, blonde, Scot who looked more like a California surferboy than a Scotsman; we sank easily into travelers’ introductions and the questions you find yourself happily asking and answering in each new place you stumble upon. There are some kinds of loves in life that take only moments to recognize. Danny, my fair-haired Scot was one of these. Contented through every electrified molecule in me, I was instantly at home with the friendly crew and ready to drink straight through to dawn, everyone eagerly awaiting the 2:30 A.M. World Cup match between the US and England.

By the time the sunset had found the other side of the world, Tioman sat shrouded in pre-dawn darkness, and I found myself drunkenly stumbling into to the sea for a night swim. The solitude of the ocean at night calls to me again and again, like an undeniable sorrow aching to be soothed. The horizon of inky water indistinguishable from where it meets the sky envelopes me, and floating alone in the great darkness punctuated only by stars, I barely even exist. But on this night, the tide was as low and far as it goes, and I found my inebriated feet stumbling over sharp corals, begging to find water deep enough to swim. Finally floating in my secret solitude I reveled in the powerful majesty of the universe that never fails to overwhelm my tiny soul until I heard the cheers for the game in the distance calling me back to shore. Struggling as much to exit the water as I had to enter, I tread as lightly as possible on the dead shards of coral and made my way back to dry land. But with the first ounce of pressure on my right foot, a nerve tensing pain shot straight up my leg. As I hobbled back to the bar to inspect the damage, six black spots smaller than the period at the end of this sentence arched their way across the ball of my already swollen foot. I had stepped on a sea urchin. Immediately, every nearby local began offering me the necessary home remedies, which are to beat the painful calcium barbs very hard with a piece of wood for an extended period of time, soak it in vinegar and lime juice, and of course, pee on it. Taking care of all but the last suggestion for the time being, I returned to my new found friends and watched the USA-England match in drunken, oblivious camaraderie.

I awakened the next morning with the familiar wrenching of hangover wringing my guts. Stepping out of bed to find the greasiest food possible, I had forgotten entirely about my foot, and stumbled still half-drunk into the wall with a hint of pressure on the useless appendage. As I slowly made my way to the restaurant of the guest house, just steps from my door, it quickly sank in exactly how much this sea urchin had changed my plans. Tioman is a mountainous island; its beaches connected by long and often difficult treks through the jungle, snaking yourself up and down barely marked paths and fallen power lines to reach the next bay. My plans for my few days here involved doing almost all of these treks, up to Monkey Bay and Salang, across to Juara on the eastern coast and down to the less-inhabited southern side of the island to the supposedly stunning Asah Waterfalls. With my foot as it was, I was painfully aware that I could do none of those things. And with plans after Tioman consisting of hiking around the tea plantations and strawberry farms in the Cameron Highlands, and jungle trekking through the ancient rainforests of Taman Negara, I resigned myself to remaining beached until my club foot returned to its normal size. I smiled silently over my breakfast as I realized there are certainly worse places to be stuck in the world.

Clubfoot's Prison Paradise

As if confirming that very thought, my sweet Scot happened upon my greasy breakfast for one, and sat down to join me. I quickly realized it’s hard not to run into people when there is only one road. Danny and I found each other’s company in rare form: easy like old friends, but not without the subtle, tingling thrill of possibility. My first five days on Tioman we were nearly inseparable as each morning he would stumble upon my daily hangover necessity: western breakfast, and we would spend the rest of the day lying on the beach, doing the limited amount of exploring I was capable of, most certainly drinking and having a laugh, and through it all, learning each other. Danny was easy, and without pretense, and I find myself now struggling to articulate just exactly what (and the abundance of that what) Tioman gave me in the short time I was there.

I have labored through many drafts and variations in figuring how to relay this imparted gift, this intangible souvenir. Even the word souvenir seems to cheapen it, almost by definition a magnet or t-shirt or some other kitschy knick-knack to be forgotten as soon as it’s given. Except perhaps, that the word comes from the French memory, and I will certainly never forget what I took from Tioman. The drama of my consistent and failed efforts to describe this lack only in the romance of their arduous frustrations in that there is no graveyard of crumpled pages surrounding the wire-rimmed trash can in the corner, only remnants of paragraphs that will never be used, and a backspace button that may wear out on me soon. But from my weeks on this island, and the people I know I will not forget, here is the best I can do.

After a long night of local rum with friends, watching a lightning storm crash its way in purple flashes across the expansive sea, I stumbled my way back to my room. With the light on I lie on the bed letting pen float over paper until something came to me. Instead of words, that thing was Veronica. A sunset haired Norwegian, I don’t believe there is a person on this planet who could claim she had done them wrong. And if they did, I wouldn’t believe them. This sweet girl of a woman knocked on my door, and when I opened it, I saw the tears in her eyes. I had seen a glimpse of a drunken argument between her and her Malaysian boyfriend, but as it is with those things you tend to turn away and mind your own. But as this somewhat stranger sat on my bed and choked words and tears from her throat as if there was no room for air, she stripped herself down to bone. Her boyfriend had struck her that night. Swung a drunken fist at her freckled porcelain face and threatened her with a knife. There was no use for a single word in English, or in any other language. I held her tightly. As if I could squeeze the pain from her chest out to her arms and through her fingertips, I held her. For more than an hour she poured her story, their story, into me. We passed two hours, and three joints, and though sometimes hard to understand through her accent and her tears, we occasionally enjoyed those priceless laughs that come through unstoppable tears and remind you it won’t always be that way. And I thought. It had been fewer than two weeks since I had arrived on Tioman. In any other world, Veronica would be a perfect stranger. But here, on my bed, smoking joints in our underwear, we knew each other for ages. And though there was a tragedy here that brought Veronica and I closer that night, I realized the more important piece: there are no boundaries to keep any of us apart.

A week had passed since Danny and Gilly left. I missed my best friend, my partner in crime, my half romance that didn’t get a proper chance. And Gilly. She was a spunky, well-humored, and admirably honest woman who understood me from the moment we met. Always good for a laugh, she could give and take shit with the best of them in the true Scottish tradition. One moment she’ll say she loves you, and in the next, tell you to go fook yourself, all with the same sly, devious smile edged in the corners of her hard-lined lips. Once they were gone, and Veronica found herself bed-ridden with a debilitating infection,Tioman was just me and Helen. My sweet, cheeky Brit was my soulmate on this island. At only twenty-two she understood years ago some things I had only just figured out. She knew the things really mattered in the world, the things that didn’t, and had the courage to leave the latter behind. The course of her journey not around the world, but within herself was so similar to mine, she so aware of everything that pulsed within her, and as ever smiling as I am, I couldn’t help but love her. We spent our days at the dive shop, completing my three day open water course in six lovely, lazy days. We enjoyed three hour lunches, and rainy days off watching movies in bed. And each day we spent together, another little corner of our histories was discovered.

The thing about traveling to remote places, far removed from the plethora of overwhelmingly unnecessary western conveniences, is that instead of being busy driving places and calling people on your way to meeting other people, making plans for next week, next month, next year, all you do is talk to each other. So perhaps back in D.C. it takes months to know a person: to pull them out of the structured comfort of their familiar, to infiltrate a circle of friends that is longer and stronger than you, to learn those little details that matter more than the big ones. But when you are a traveler, and to be honest I’m not exactly sure when I became one, these connections are easy, and strong, and slowly transcend any other experiences as the ones that define you.

We each come to these places indelibly tattooed with our families and educations, our loves, tragedies, and disappointments, which are simultaneously the chains that weighted us to the ground back home and the gusts that blew us away. We struggle to grow against it all, while knowing that without these things we couldn’t have been. And so you learn these little caverns in your loves. You try to navigate your way through their hearts, the same as your own, and in those explorations between open souls, as narrow and cobwebbed as they can be, is where we find love with another person. So thank you, Tioman, terima kasih for reminding me what it, what everything, is all about: love.

After four easy days couchsurfing in KL, I abruptly wore out my welcome with an awkwardly denied sexual advance from my host. As it was, I was beyond relieved to find myself en route to my next destination. Though the bus to catch the ferry to Tioman was sold out, I settled to head a few hours south to Melaka for a day or two before I made my way east for my first dip in the South China Sea. My once tanned skin had paled in the maudlin Wellington May and begged for the ocean, and for the sun. Clouds had continued to hover above my cheerful head from New Zealand to Kuala Lumpur and I was happy to be battered and abused by the equatorial star when I arrived in Melaka. After a brief connection with a Dutch couple at Melaka Sentral, I found myself on Jalan Melaka Raya, a quaint commercial road on the outskirts of the small city center. I parted ways with the friendly Dutchies as they found a hostel a bit above my price range and wandered into Shirah’s Guest House, just around the corner. The façade of the building was as promising as any on this unknown road: a skinny cement staircase tempting passersby with nothing but a gate and a pile of shoes.

Little did I know...

I made my way up the sweltering promise in search of a bed for the night. As with the last failed attempt at a room, when I arrived, the place was silent and still as the heat. I peeked my head cautiously around the corner as if I had broken in and uttered a tentative ‘hello?’ After a minute or two, a deep sienna-skinned man with a proper pot of a belly made a half-naked appearance. Clad only in a white towel around his waist, he proceeded to check me in as we both pretended he was fully clothed. As he showed me to the modest single room, I liberated my shoulders from the weight of my pack, and rubbed hot hands into the reddened imprints the straps had left. The overly eager owner, Esam, struggled to explain to me in gestured fragments of phrases the conditions of the room and hostel, and I obligingly nodded in feigned understanding. All I knew is that the room was fifteen ringgit, and I saw an ashtray and two beers on the table in the kitchen-slash-hallway-slash-toilet-slash-reception desk. In a small Muslim town, a cheap room where I could drink and smoke was more than I could ask for.

Fifteen ringgit and a fan

For eight sweaty hours from the apex of midday sun into the still heavy cloak of nightfall, I wandered the streets of an unfamiliar city in that favorite way of mine, with wide wonder for eyes and rhythmic curiosity for feet. Constantly smiling and letting the energy of the city sink into my skin with the sun, I quickly realized there wasn’t much to see in the tourist-infested historical center of Malaysia. Two days of history, museums, and aimless wandering would be more than enough, and with that decision I picked up a few overpriced beers and made my way back to the hostel. Despite the crumbling façade and untrustworthy lock on my even less trustworthy door, the rooftop deck of the narrow cement sliver of a building was a welcome retreat. I took my three beers up the shaky spiral of twisted metal that passed for stairs and sat down to write a letter. One of my favorite pastimes as a solo traveler, I revel in clipping and taping the small scraps from my journey into cards, notes, and envelopes. As I sat surround by chopped up maps and torn bus tickets, the owner came up to the deck accompanied by a younger Malaysian guy. Despite my desire to continue, I put away my little craft project and engaged the two locals in a difficult and broken conversation. Through the limitations of our languages we discussed the city and our respective cultures over beers, saved from the night’s heat by the soft, sporadic breeze.

As we exhausted the last of our beer, Esam’s friend Zam got a call from their mutual boss. He insisted they bring me and a few Italian girls from their sister hostel out to his nightclub, just around the corner. Excited for a taste of local flavor, I nodded my head affirmatively and Esam and I made our way to the bar while Zam went to pick up and escort the Italian ladies. The immediate gesture to take my arm in his seemed a friendly one, but I remained unconvinced of the nature of such actions for the remainder of the night. Traveling alone as a woman has a definitive uncertainty that never truly leaves, there is a drop of doubt ever in your gut that can course itself through you, wringing every muscle to tension quicker than a glance. A level of skepticism of any man, most notably foreign ones, that offers to do anything for you is necessary. And while most of the time, these friendly strangers are harmless, uncomfortable advances are not something with which I am unfamiliar. As it was, we walked arm in arm for two short blocks to the local club, Ginza. As we entered, the pulse of the music vibrated my limbs and I smiled as I noticed the colored lights reflecting off of Esam’s bald, sweaty head. I followed him to some couches and a table on the edge of the dance floor and the overly excited man ordered us a bucket of beers. Already a bit uncomfortable and wondering when Zam and the Italian girls were to arrived, I listened to the live local music and watched the girls dancing what appeared to be a standard Malaysian dance, in sync with one other and the powerful voice of the singer. Esam explained to me that first the girls would dance alone, and then it would time for the couples to dance. Ever fascinated by cultural differences, I watched the pattern in which the girls moved their hips and feet and let the simple movement sink into my memory. When it came time for the boys to join the girls, I humored Esam and took his hand to the dance floor. Little did I know that the male/female section more closely resembled the slow hands-on-shoulders back and forth swaying that is most widely performed in America by nervous, pre-pubescent sixth graders. As we moved slowly with the sentimental music, the unwashed stench of Esam suffocated my senses, and as he pulled me closer to him I maintained pressure to keep him at a distance. Once he rested his wet, glistening head on my shoulder, the uncomfortable dance lost its novelty and I broke free from his awkward hold to find the relative comfort of the couch. I was unaware at this time just how much I would pay for the seemingly innocent encounter. As the cold beers sweated their way to warm, I continued to look around anxiously for the rest of our party. It was now past one in the morning and with one beer for each of us left in the bucket, I was ready to go home, ever more skeptical of the intentions of a pushy and unappealing man. Tipping the last sip of beer into my mouth I told Esam I was ready to go back, forced to insist against his tiring protests.

I awoke the next morning to knocking on my door so incessant I thought there was a crew of people hanging pictures in the hallway. It was not yet ten and Esam was already calling to me, “Liti, liti…monin, liti.” After ignoring him for over an hour I was finally annoyed to the point of getting out of bed and answering. “Yeah, hi, good morning, what do you want, Esam?” I asked with irritation punctuating each word. Without an answer, Esam offered to make me some tea and I accepted, with sleep still crusted in my groggy eyes. The imposition of a man brought the delicious tea into my room and sat himself uninvited on my floor while I slowly let the hot beverage wake my body. As he started to ramble somewhat incoherently about how much he liked me, and attempted to begin kissing my shoulder, I realized the shit I had gotten myself into. I asked him to leave as I needed to shower and head out for the day, and just moments after he left, knocked on the door and professed his love for me, “Liti, I love you, I love you, liti!” Disregarding his awkward confessions, I left the hostel with the speed and discretion of an escaped convict. Planning on catching the night bus from Melaka to Mersing I stepped out into the day to explore Chinatown, a smaller, more authentic version than I had found back in KL. By the end of my wandering I went to purchase my bus ticket. The last night bus was sold out. Go figure. The next available bus was at eight the following morning. Too exhausted to pack and move all of my gear to change rooms for just ten hours, I headed back to the hostel with the plan to lock myself in my cell of a room and write until I fell asleep.

As I sat with my laptop on the bed and my door as locked as it got, I wrote until my eyelids dropped their now weighty curtains. And just moments later I heard my phone chime loudly with a text message. Excited, as I rarely receive messages from back home, I got up and dug my phone out of my bag. Shock and disgust dripped with the sweat down my face, pulling my mouth to frown. It was Esam. After giving him my number so he could book my bus ticket (which he failed to do), I could only have expected him to use it to perv on me as well. “Liti, we kan injuy, im nao sexcewaal desayr?” Taking a moment to decipher the struggling English, I choked a bit as the thought of his proposition lodged itself in my throat, and did my best to swallow. Another moment later, and there was a knock on my door. Knowing exactly who it was, as we were the only two people in the guest house that night, I ignored the shadowy figure casting itself through the slats. When he refused to give up, I gave in to the incessant knocking once more and asked him what he wanted in a frustrated grunt. “Please, liti, come to door.” Opening the door enough for him to see my face I sternly informed him that I was going to bed, it was late, and I had to catch an early bus in the morning. Apparently this made absolutely no difference to him as he proceeded to offer me a foot massage and ask if I got his text and if I understood what his “sexcewaal desayr” was. My tone turned to stone and as my rejection stabbed through the air in harsh staccato, he finally nodded his head in understanding and I closed the door in his still sweaty, and now repulsive, face.

As soon as the door clicked shut and I pushed in the sorry excuse for a lock, I stripped back down to my underwear and tank top and sprawled out on the tiny single bed. I reveled in the momentary relief from the heat as the fan oscillated its way from my bare, outstretched legs, to the back of my neck. As my breathing began to sink and slow in sleepy rhythms, my ringing phone jostled me to alertness. No one ever called this number. Knowing who it was, but scared to confirm, I picked the phone up off the nightstand. It was him. Something had to be done. No level of stern warning or steady insistence was going to deter this balding perv from my doorstep. I was scared, and nervous, and unsure of how harmless he really was. With each insistent advance that crawled over my limbs like a nightmare I grew more and more cautious. This time, I screamed. “Leave me the fuck alone! I need to get some sleep so stop fucking calling me, or texting me, or knocking on my door, I want absolutely nothing to do with you ever again!” I knew he wouldn’t understand half of the English that spit from my mouth in fiery indignation, but there isn’t a single person on this planet that doesn’t understand a woman screaming her pretty little head off.

Satisfied that the creep would not attempt another proposal, I once again shut my eyes, but found them fluttering nervously open with each and every creak of the aged building. Then in a loud, sudden burst, the TV upstairs came on at full volume. The sound boomed through the window at the top of my towering ceiling, presumably leading to the small lounge on the second floor. It took me only a moment to realize what Esam was watching. “Ohhh, ughhhh, yessss, ughhh, ughhhhhh, ohhhhh….come at the same time baby, come at the same time!” My stomach did a backflip. The dirty old man was watching porn upstairs that shook the walls of my room with each laughable convulsion of the textbook orgasm. Putting in my headphones I tried to drown out the slutty screams ringing through the hostel. After several unsuccessful attempts at willful ignorance, I screamed to the ceiling for him to turn off the fucking porn. After another minute or two the hostel fell into an even more disturbing silence. The comedic and somewhat irritated disgust I originally felt had congealed into a cornering fear. My body sat stiff in the bed as my eyes watched the shadows, barely perceptible in the eerie green light from the window above. Wearing nothing but a thong and a tank top, I felt beyond naked. The curtain on the window looking directly over my bed was hung from the opposite side, and I swore I saw his figure shifting the thin fabric. There was no blanket on the bed to cover me, and I intently stared at the window in exposed, violated fear. Afraid my bare, sleeping ass would be the next porno this forty-something creep would rub one out to, I texted the poet and told him I wish I had listened to his sole piece of advice before I left: to buy a knife. Not that I would ever be able to use one on another human being, but just the thought that I had some way to defend myself was a more than appealing daydream. It was now past midnight. The drop of doubt in my gut had bloomed into limb-stiffening fear. I lay in my bed, texting any and every person I could think to text trying to keep myself awake until I could tell whether or not the awkward sexual predator had gone to bed.

I awoke the next morning thankfully unharmed and ready to get the fuck out of Melaka. As I looked at the phone still clutched by my right hand under my pillow, I jolted up as if on springs. 7:47. My bus from Melaka Sentral was departing in thirteen minutes and apparently dejected from my unapologetic rejection, Esam decided not to honor the wakeup call he had promised the day before. With my bag already packed I threw on the clothes I had thoughtfully laid out the night before. Running down the already unbearably hot streets I searched for a cab. The local bus would take at least twenty minutes and at this point I was willing to pay almost anything to be en route to Mersing. Catching a cab a few minutes from the hostel, I threw my shit in the back and told him we had seven minutes to catch this bus. An experienced local he told me to get my ticket in my hand and be ready, because he was going to chase it down, flag it to stop and I was to get out running and waving my ticket at the driver. Skeptical of the idea, I didn’t have much of a choice, and as the cab caught up to the already moving bus, I jumped out and ran ahead waving my ticket like I had surrendered the war. As I collapsed in exhausted relief onto the cool air conditioned seat at the back of the bus I wondered just exactly where this crazy journey was going to land me next.