“The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view.” Jack Kerouac
“Oh no, don’t go to Malaysia by yourself,” he said, looking up from his online poker game. He put his laptop down, stood up and looked at me with an expression of pure concern. “You’ll be lucky to be robbed there. But more likely, you’ll be robbed, raped and killed.”
He was a Singapore national, living in the backpacker hostel and making his living gambling. He’d never been out of Singapore and had more than a few unsavory things to say about the Muslim population in Malaysia. I wasn’t even talking to him. The woman who ran the hostel and I were arranging my room for when I got back from Malaysia. During his interjection, she rolled her eyes and shuffled papers around. She was the not the type that welcomed distractions from business.
Riding in the taxi to my hostel in Malacca as the sun was setting, his words rattled around in my head. According to the guide books, Johor Bahru, the city closest to the Singaporean border, is notorious for robberies – a person will ride by on a motorcycle, grab your bag and take off, with you attached. But everywhere else is meant to be relatively safe, inasmuch as anywhere is safe.
Malacca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in part for its melting pot of Portuguese, Chinese, Dutch, Malaysian, and various other bits and bobs. Colorful and vibrant places of worship from Anglican Churches, to ancient Hindu and Taoist temples, mosques and Buddhist shrines coexist along the streets like a buffet of routes to heaven. It is also highly reputed as a culinary destination, and I was going there to thoroughly test this theory.
I arrived at the hostel to find it empty save for the night manager, a broad faced and friendly Malaysian man called Peter. I was, evidently, the only person staying there. A far cry from the dens of inebriated backpackers and sub par hygiene standards that I was accustomed to, I felt like I was walking into someone’s home. Straight away I asked Peter to recommend a restaurant for me, expecting the usual unrolling of the map and directions that I’d invariably forget. Instead, his face lit up like I’d told him he won the lottery, and he said, “I know a great place, I’ll take you.” He put on his coat and handed me an umbrella. We were out the door before I could respond. I followed him through short cuts and alley ways in the dark, while we tried to communicate – what we lacked in common language, we made up for in enthusiasm. We shared a deep love for food. He was taking me to his favorite Chinese restaurant. Frogs sang in the thick grass, and the rain exploded softly on the pavement. I eschewed the umbrella in favor of letting the rain kiss my skin and rinse away the travel stupor.
The restaurant was cluttered with people and dirty dishes; conversation roiled and undulated in Chinese, Malay and English. Peter waved to a dark man getting out of a dark vehicle. “That’s the owner of this restaurant, he’s my friend.”
Ah, the old ‘bringing my friend some business’ ruse, I thought.
The man crossed the distance between us, all handshakes and salesperson smiles. He was exceedingly ugly. His face was so pockmarked it looked like a weasel had chewed on it, and he had a serrated scar running from the crease of his left eye down to his chin. He was thin and jittery, like a stray dog. He quickly excused himself to answer his perpetually ringing phone. We turned to the menus. “What do you recommend, Peter?”
“I love the porridge here. I like the frog porridge best, but you’d probably like the chicken better.”
I kept an eye on the owner, and in the time it took us to order, he had jumped in and out of two noticeably nondescript cars, answered countless phone calls and weaved through the large circular tables in the restaurant with the sure footedness and impatience that Important People tend to exude. Whatever he was up to, it looked shady.
As the waitress was directing a platter towards us, the owner followed her and sat down beside me. She placed one large bowl of porridge – frog or chicken or oatmeal, porridge can’t help but look unappetizing – in front of me. I asked Peter whether or not he’d ordered anything for himself. “No, I already ate. I just want you to try this.”
Both men kept their eyes on me, drinking their beers, and waiting for me to take a bite. I shifted in my seat. This was weird. At the exact worst moment for a thought like this to crop up, I thought of the scene in A Clockwork Orange where the wronged old man was feeding Alex a poisoned dinner. Beady eyes were boring into me, waiting and watching, watching and waiting. Shit, I thought. I dawdled, pretending to be interested in my drink. It was all in my head – but what if it wasn’t? Robbed, raped and killed: the words wound through my thoughts like snakes.
I took another empty bowl from the table, and filled it up. “Here, I can’t eat alone,” I said, and handed it to Peter. He smiled, and dug in like he’d been waiting for me to do that. The ugly man sat and watched us both eat, smiling.
When the check came, Peter snatched it out of my hand and paid it with a flip of his hand that said, “Not up for discussion.”
So much for assumptions.