My family moved sixteen times when I was a little girl in Malaysia. Back in the 70s, in those days and country, moving homes more than once was considered strange, so moving sixteen times and each time to a different state was really bizarre.
My “abah” (father) was a policeman. When abah brought the wooden crates out of storage, we understood that he had been given a new assignment, and we would soon be moving to another place.
As a kid, news of moving made me jump up and down gleefully. As a teenager, the news made me cringe because of the packing and unpacking that needed to be done…again! As an adult, I discovered that changing your house sixteen times in twenty years could be an intriguing conversation filler.
In between the rush, sweat and stress of packing up and moving homes – there were always picnics at the sandy beaches of Penang, road trips to cool green hill resorts, visits to old Portuguese forts and night trips to mosquito laden fruit farms to satisfy cravings for durians.
When we lived in Johor, the southernmost state in Peninsular Malaysia, my parents took us across the border into Singapore – the first time we kids had our very own passports.
We made weekend trips back to my grandparents’ to catch fireflies and grasshoppers at the vast golden paddy fields. Let loose in the wilderness of the village life, I had been chased and almost bitten by Wan’s (grandfather) newly widowed and deranged rooster.
My brothers came back one evening caked in mud, having plunged face down into the paddy plot while riding pillion. When we were old enough to be left in the care of my grandparents and wise enough not give them heart attacks by pulling outrageous stunts – abah would whisk my mum off to Istanbul, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Chicago. I travel because I inherited my parents’ travel itch.
India was the first place I traveled to as an adult. I went to India with 5 girlfriends and the intent was exploring Goa. We had become besotted with the coastal state after watching “Dil Chahta Hai”, the box-office Bollywood movie that was shot on location there.
We traveled southwards in the 12-hour Mumbai-Goa train. Feeling outrageously daring, we bought tickets for the three-tiered bunk compartment. Yet, all of us chose the lowest berths once we boarded the train and saw how high up the topmost bunk beds were. The thought of climbing up and down the berths throughout the journey was totally unappealing.
Locals called us bold for taking the train considering stories of thefts and molestations in the sleeper cars.
Ignorance was bliss, I was more occupied with my discovery of the delectable “Masala Doodh” (Masala Milk) than with anything else. A hot glass of Masala Doodh was comfort flowing down my throat in all its creamy sweetness, with an aftertaste of spices, cashew nuts and almonds. It was unlike any other glass of milk I had drank before.
There were quiet moments when we would rest by our window seats, lost in the changing brown and green landscape and our thoughts. I did try scribbling notes in my travel journal during those moments – my early feeble attempts at travel writing.
I took my writing much more seriously after I got to know “The African”. We met in Tokyo while doing our master’s degree. He is a free-spirited Mozambican Portuguese; an atheist, ancestor worshiper and at six feet, the tallest person I would come to know.
When we met, it was winter. His curly black hair was long and unkempt, covering the sides of his face already hidden by untrimmed beard.
One fine summer day, he shaved off all his beard and cut his hair short. As he stood grinning down at me in his blue soccer jersey, his fair skin just glistened under the Japanese summer skies (no, his name is not Edward Cullen).
We talked constantly. Yet, the relationship truly flourished through our countless email exchanges. Love transformed me into Maya Angelou, and The African was my muse. I realized then that I enjoyed writing and could even have a knack for it. This insight drove me to start blogging stories of my Japanese life.
The love got lost one day as unexpectedly as when it came. The correspondence turned sporadic and what was left of its content grew increasingly bitter by the day, till it finally ceased. I stopped writing for myself as The African and I stopped writing to each other.
About 10 years and 6 countries later, I had the sudden yearning to revisit the stories I had stowed away in my blog. As I sat revising this piece, my mind traveled to Imran, the “auto wallah” (auto driver) in Hyderabad, India. He ran with me in the rain amid the busy Indian traffic just to make sure that I got across safely, so I could try the newly baked bread at Karachi Bakery. I write to give voice to all the strikingly beautiful people I met in my travels.