The morning I left Pulau Perhentian Besar, I noticed some durians growing out of the side of a tree right by my rustic beach chalet, an exciting send-off from this beautiful island to my exotic-fruit-obsessed mind. Still, that moment of foodie bliss, unimpinged even by the fact that I didn’t even get to cut one open, let alone devour it, was little comfort during the trials of the rest of the day, which was uneventful but, for one specific reason, painful. From the time I departed the island, racing across the strait that divides it from its partner, Pulau Perhentian Kecil, in a rickety motorboat in order to catch the ferry, which had departed from its usual course, I sat on my severely sunburned legs (Who would have thought that three applications of sunblock would not be enough to prevent an entire day of lying face down in the water, as snorkeling would have one do, from causing horrible damage to the skin? I guess being about one degree away from the equator (to the north) didn’t help that situation.) for two hours on a boat rocked by the huge waves stirred up by the monsoon the night before, for an hour in a taxi from the jetty to the airport in Kota Bharu, and then, after paying $80 for the last available seat–it was first class!–on the Malaysian Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur, since it was leaving in 40 minutes and the next Air Asia flight, which probably would have cost only $40, wasn’t leaving until six hours later, for another hour on a plane.
By the time I got to KL, I was utterly exhausted, plagued both by my fried thighs and the call of my internet addiction, unsatisfied for the prior two and a half days. It was then that I posted my photos of the island itself, after which I headed out to grab some dinner, stumbled into the closest fast-food establishment I could find, and ate there because it was an A&W–which I’ve only seen in the airport in Columbus, Ohio, but which I know from my friend M. exists in Asia as well because the first one he ever saw was in China–and because they had onion rings and what was actually a really good Belgian waffle, complete with an embossed corporate logo in the center. Also, all fast-food restaurants in Malaysia have two sauce pumps by the napkins, where in America we only have ketchup. They’ve got ketchup as well, but the red liquid that squirts out of the other shouldn’t be mistaken for our favorite condiment: it’s chile sauce, sos cili in Malay, and familiar to me as the Indonesian Sriratha brand. A couple drops of that mixed into the ketchup actually makes the perfect accompaniment to french fries, far better than the standard Heinz alone.
In any case, I spent that night at the Pudu Hostel, since it was the author’s choice in Lonely Planet and, as I saw from the thumbs-up sticker on the door when I arrived, a Let’s Go top pick in both 2003 and 2005. The vintage of this most recent decal actually means that it was my friend A.F., from Singapore, who recommended it, since he worked as the Let’s Go Researcher-Writer for Singapore and Malaysia in the summer of 2004, when the 2005 guide was compiled. (I know this so well since during that summer I too was an employee of the fabled guidebook company popular with student and budget travelers who aren’t as interesting as Lonely Planet readers–I was the editor of the Spain and Portugal guide, so it’s not entirely relevant here…another time, another story, perhaps.) Despite its high marks, however, this hostel was one of the crummiest and scariest in which I’ve ever stayed. The bathrooms were far from hygienic, as the book had described them, the bedrooms smelled of mold and rot, the bunkbed threatened to collapse with every toss and turn, promising to send me flying down onto the sketchy guy asleep below me, and the “sociable” lounge was a dingy parlor with, yes, a nice flat-screen TV, but also with a not-so-nice crowd, busted sofas, and mean-faced Malaysian employees hovering over the room. I managed to survive the night somehow, sad that my $4 had bought me only this level of comfort, and eager to make it to the Chinese embassy in order to submit my application for the work visa that the communist bureaucracy had made so difficult to obtain back in China itself.
But the Chinese embassy only left me sadder. The line was tremendously long, the dirty room flooded with visa applicants trying to head north and make some money off of the awakening giant’s sky-high growth rate. In the course of the four hours I spent there that day, at two different times, I spoke with a man from KL who now lives in Jakarta and owns a company that manufactures pipes–and who had three long hairs growing out of a mole on his face, like the whiskers of a catfish–an Indian Malay whose family owns a fireworks factory in Changsha, a nondescript city in Hunan, and who was heading up to check on production there, and then to check out the new Disneyland in Hong Kong, and a KL-based Chinese businesswoman who was off to Shanghai to conduct very important business and make some deals. If the conversation wasn’t riveting, at least it kept me from trying to stab a Chinese official with a glue stick meant for affixing photos to application forms. Eventually I got what I had come there for, having spent an intervening two hours trying to find the nice part of KL, and succeeding, to some extent, by visiting the great shopping mall that forms the base of the Petronas Towers, which are, of course, the world’s tallest buildings–though it’s certain they won’t remain at the top of the heap for much longer. The mall was gorgeous, but comparable to much of what I’d seen on Orchard Road in Singapore, and in Singapore, at least, I knew I could stay someplace nice, let alone someplace that didn’t make me feel like a crazy drifter, capable of doing strange-in-a-bad-way things in this disturbing city, this sprawling, traffic-logged, polluted metropolis dotted with marble shopping centers, mosques, and Citibanks that seemed like an overwhelming cross between the city-state I’d just visited and the capital in which I now live.