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Road Trip

 


Dr. Malachi Edwin Vethamani

Professor of Modern English Literature

University of Nottingham

Semenyih, Selangor, Malaysia

 

Four  Indian guys, east-coast-virgins of sorts, decided to visit the two Malaysian states under the control of the only overtly Islamic political party in the country.  My friends and I had been deferring our visit for the last decade or so. We did not fancy visiting Kelantan while it was governed by an Islamic party with its strict social restrictions and religious laws. Then, the most recent general elections results made it worse as Terengganu returned to the Islamic party rule and Kelantan remained entrenched in its control. Seeing no dramatic political change in the near future, and unable to resist  the lure of their cuisine we gave in, all aware that there is no free flow of alcohol in the two states. We kidded ourselves that we could survive an alcohol-free holiday.

Over the last decade the four of us grew into a relaxed camaraderie. We were a bit of an odd lot. Samy, the youngest in his early 30s, Regu slightly older (never told us his exact age), David had just hit 40 last year and I was the oldest, about to hit 50 and, the leader of the group. I guess working in the same company though in different departments, and being active members of the company’s social club,  and most of all being Indian kept us together. 

Yet, we were all not that similar. Sami was a vegetarian and homely, David was a divorcee and a father of a young son, and Regu, the sportsman, he played football for his department in the company’s football competitions. He was also a gym freak and our computer-savvy guy. And I had become accustomed to living on my own. I moved away from my family home at a young age and did my obligatory visits to my only sister’s house for Christmas and the occasional long weekend holiday. My parents had passed away over the last decade. My house often became the place for the four of us to watch movies and drink beer.

*

The much-talked about road trip arrived on a Thursday morning. We had all taken couple of days off from work for a long weekend getaway. With the help of the Agoda App, the hotel rooms were booked and a very flexible itinerary had been drawn out. The first day will see us arrive at Kota Baru and then we would make our way back southwards through Kuala Terengganu, Kuantan and back to Melaka.

While it was still dark, even before the sun had awakened from its rest, we were all wide-awake in our car heading eastwards towards Kuantan. We stayed away from the highway and took the country road. Traffic was light and there were few fellow travellers on the road. The single-lane county roads would at times double to allow for easy over-taking. Still, it was quite a challenge for me, so used to city roads with dividers and traffic lights. Despite the signs to beware of cows we saw none along the way. It was mostly green foliage on both sides of the road.

As we passed a few kampungs, we heard the muezzin’s first call for prayers for the day. Soon the street lights were replaced by the rising sun breaking through the thick morning clouds. The temperature rose and we wound up the car glass windows and switched on the air-conditioning. We didn’t want to smell each other’s odours too early in the trip.

We continued along kampungs nestled in small towns whose names I only hear once in four years as the election results are announced. I loved the rustic atmosphere but our mobile phones showed weak internet connections and I had no desire to live in these vicinities.

The small food-stalls, all Malay-run, were beginning to open for business. Samy asked, “Guess there is no chance of a Starbucks drive-through in this neck of the woods?”

Regu, amused, replied, “Just be grateful if you can get good kopi-tarik.”

Our aim was to arrive in Kuantan before the morning traffic jam in the city. The only breaks we had were pee breaks, that too was difficult to keep in sync with petrol stations that popped up along the way. I was willing to wait it out after hearing reports on the state of the toilets. This made me remember of billboards on some petrol stations informing prospective customers that their toilets were clean. These days you hardly see any more of these welcoming signs. Must be due to a shortage of foreign workers to do our dirty jobs, I thought to myself.      

*

The breakfast at Kuantan was a very regular fare. Samy complained that we had gone to the wrong Kopitiam and not to the one mentioned in TripAdvisor.

“It could only get better after that shop,” he consoled himself.

“I’ll ask my contacts in KT and KB to give some recommendations,” Regu said.

“You have contacts in KT and KB?” Samy asked.

“You guys aren’t  my only friends, you know,” Regu replied.

We were back on the road again and still staying away from the highway. The sign to take the highway seem to be popping up every few kilometres. “They want our toll money rather badly,” David smirked.

Soon we were passing durian stalls along the country roads.   Small make-shift stands with durian vendors emerged as we passed the kampungs. We made our first attempt at buying durians as we headed towards Dungun. All four of us were in the mood for the fruit. After we passed a few stalls, we picked one with lots of durians, arranged in small pyramid piles.  Unknown to us, they were arranged according to types and prices. 

 

We got out of the car, and immediately, we were self-conscious that we will be seen as tourists and male tourists at that! Easy prey to these experienced durian-sellers. The  stall was managed by three women, not an uncommon sight in Terengganu where many of the businesses were run by them. They looked at us, four Indian men, in shorts and t-shirts. I didn’t venture into what ran through their minds.

David, the most competent Malay-speaking among us, started the transaction. One of the Makcik, said, “Lapan ringgit satu kilo”. Eight ringgit a kilo. We looked at each other. We had seen signs for five Ringgit a fruit along the way. There was a durian glut throughout the country and prices had really dipped. 

David, exclaimed in Malay, “It’s expensive. Earlier we saw signs for fruits at much lower prices.”

“For that price, you need to go to the orchard and get them yourselves,” the Makcik replied. 

We knew the price she wanted was still cheaper than those in Melaka. She guaranteed that they were sweet and she’d pick the best fruits for us. 

Regu decided to throw in his bit, “These are kampung durians. There are so many rumours about chemicals being used in the huge orchards. Seem a good choice.” 

“That’s probably in Thailand or China,” David replied. 

We asked the Makcik to choose a fruit for us. She picked one, shook it in her hands, and said it would be a good fruit. 

We agreed for the fruit she had picked for us. She promptly opened the durian shell. Lovely thick beige coloured pods lay within the shell. 

We took one each. It felt like sweet custard and tasted quite divine. We were in durian heaven. She took a second fruit weighed it and  went through her routine. We waited like expectant chicks for their mother to pass them the freshly found fleshy worms though certainly worms we did not want to see in our durians.

“Two durians is enough for us, for now”, Regu informed her. “We’ll spread our durian-eating along the way. Kelantan awaits us,” he told us.

Regu asked her why shook the durian. “To feel the pods move. If they move, they are ripe and won’t stick to the shell,” she explained in Malay. We made a mental note of the tip from the Makcik.

We broke into an easy conversation with the Makcik. Her women workers looked on. She asked us where we were from and if were on holiday. “Ya, jalan jalan,” we said. She added, “jalan jalan, cari makan”. She didn’t hear Regu say, “jalan jalan, cari kawan.” We broke into giggles like silly school-girls. 

Unfazed by our laughter, she added that she still goes to Klang to sell “jamu” to lorry drivers. The change in topic struck me as odd. 

“Is she saying what I think she’s saying”, I asked Samy. He nodded. 

She continued, “Mereka kata pagi, ah! itu keras”. The men said in the morning that was very hard.

We made no query about the other product she was also pedalling. She was probably hoping to sell some of that aphrodisiac to us. But we weren’t wanting in that department. We just nodded our heads, paid her the sixteen Ringgit and got into our car. 

“Stop by on your way back,” she called out to us.

We replied, “Ya,” waved and drove off. 

“She probably thinks we are on a dirty weekend away from our wives,” Samy said. 

More laughter in the car. Silence for a short distance. Then suddenly, an awful smell wafted through the car. Automatically, we wound down our windows and yelled, “Who belched?” This was to be repeated for the rest of the journey till we stopped in KT for lunch. 

*

“I need to pee,” I announced. Giving no thought to the state of the toilet in the next petrol station.

“Well-timed,” David said as we were about to pass a petrol station.

While they others stretched their legs, Samy was looking for the next recommended restaurant on TripAdvisor.

“The best local Malay food seems to be in KB. Top on my friend’s list for KT is actually, a Peranakan restaurant,” Regu reported.

“Is your source reliable? Are there nyoynas and babas in KT?” David asked.

Regu nodded in response. “Apparently, you can also buy beer in a supermarket in Chinatown,” he added. On hearing that, our eyes lit up. It day had grown hotter and quite humid.

We found ourselves in the middle of Kuala Terengganu Chinatown, called Kampung Cina. This time no one complained about the food though we had not expected Peranakan cuisine in KT. Malay food was put on hold till KB. We bought the beer after our meal. Not so taboo after all. But no chilled beer in the supermarket fridge shelves. Fortunately, the supermarket was air-conditioned. It stood to reason, to our beer-thirsty throats that the beer won’t be warm.

“Still no sign of a Starbucks,” Samy lamented.

There were no sympathies from the others. Samy declined the not-so-chilled beer and took over the wheel. For now, we settled for a six-pack and drank it in the car.

*

It had been a long day and we were getting a little weary of being on the road. Waze indicated another hour and thirty minutes. We were making good time taking turns to drive but it was certainly a long journey.

Kota Baru eventually came into sight. We were more than pleased to find our hotel next to the river. KB like other state capitals had its fair share of traffic jams and traffic lights. It was quite amazing, at the least for me, to see some large old wooden bungalows next to dull concrete shophouses. The ugly was devouring what must have  once beautiful. The town would at some stage lose all its old buildings, I feared.

After a brief rest in our hotel rooms we met at the lobby for an early dinner. A Grab car took us for some serious Kelantanese cuisine. Regu’s friend’s recommendation was all he said it would be. Yati’s Ayam Perchik restaurant did not let us down. We also had the first taste of local keropok. We ate to our hearts’ content. 

“You know what will go well with this fabulous chicken?” David asked. 

“Beer,” we all responded. 

We decided to take a detour and went to Chinatown before heading to the hotel. The Grab driver dropped us off under an archway, named after Admiral Cheng Ho, heading into Kota Baru’s Chinatown. 

“Cheng Ho came to KB too?” I asked. 

No one bothered to reply. My beer-thirsty friends had spotted something and they could not believe their eyes. The longed for beer was within sight. They  saw the iconic tiger logo, announcing the lager beer, pasted on the glass at almost all the food stalls. We couldn’t believe this was in KB. 

The food stalls were buzzing with customers. Looks like the KB Chinese were all here, and we four Indians. Later, spotted a few Indians in the food stalls. We clearly didn’t look local. We were the only guys in shorts. Samy and Regu bought the beer we wanted for the night. These were really chilled cold beer unlike those from supermarket shelves in KT. 

Amidst all the food stalls we spotted a few durian stalls. Their prices were most unappealing compared to what we had seen along the kampung roads. Then we noticed the only durian stall with a bunting claiming organic durians were being sold. 

“Organic durians? Really? Is it really possible to grow organic durians, in our orchards?” Samy asked. “Who are they kidding? And did you see the price? I’d just settle for a musang king durian for that price,” he added. 

Samy said we should ask them if they really meet all the requirements to call it organic. “Want to be quarrelsome with the locals, is it? Worse still, we might get whacked!” David said.

David was being street-wise and so we got another Grab and left for the hotel before the beer got warm.  We seated ourselves outside the hotel. It was a cool evening with a very pleasant evening breeze. It wasn’t clear who had set up tables and chairs along the riverside across a row double-storey shophouses. The four of us sat at one of the tables, drinking our beer. We were a contented lot after the very long drive.

The evening grew on and we were on our third beer can. Regu’s phone gave off the same tone we had been hearing throughout this journey. He briefly looked at it, typed a message and re-joined our conversation.

Why do you keep getting messages with that tone? David asked. Samy and I looked on. Regu looked a little uneasy.

“Sorry, I’m being kaypoh and intrusive,” David apologized. We continued drinking our beer. The street lights had come on a while ago. There was a cool breeze and we were quite comfortable just sitting there drinking our beer.

Regu looked at us, he hadn’t drunk his beer since David asked him about  the repeated  message  tone. 

“Hey, Regu. David was just curious, lah. We all have been wondering about the messages you keep getting. It’s quite different from the WhatsApp notification sound we all have. And during this trip, guess we kept hearing quite a lot of it since we were together in the car.”

“Okay. I really don’t know how you are going to take what I’m about to tell you. If I can’t tell you, there’s no one I’m going to be able to say this to.”

The light-hearted atmosphere suddenly slipped away and an unplanned serious moment emerged. 

“Those are messages from a dating app. Actually, it’s a gay dating app …. So, now you know. I’ve just told you …. I’m gay.  I really wanted to tell you guys some time ago. It’s been bugging me that there’s a part of me you don’t know. And somehow, here, in the middle of our holidays, and in of all places, in Kelantan, I’m coming out to you guys.”

That was quite a surprise. We had never suspected Regu of being gay. “I’m glad you’ve told us, I’m fine with it.” I was the first to respond to Regu’s unexpected announcement about his sexuality. David and Samy echoed what I had just said. 

“We want you to be happy. Glad that’s out in the open. We’ll keep it to ourselves, of course,” Samy said. 

I got up and gave Regu a hug. He looked like a nephew who was suddenly vulnerable and needed a hug. He gently hugged me back. 

As if to ease the atmosphere, Regu added, “No worries, I don’t fancy any of you.” That comment relaxed a slightly odd moment and we broke into laughter. We weren’t sure what we were supposed to do with this information.

“I guess there won’t be any wedding presents to worry for you,” I said.

“Don’t be too sure. If the right guy turns up, I’ll certainly let you know. It will be payback time for all the presents I’ve been buying for your relatives.”

I was happy for Regu. The younger generation seems to be more accepting and willing to come out of the closet. A burden had been removed for Regu. I have been holding back from my close friends and still did not have the courage Regu had just shown. I felt it will be a secret I would carry to my grave. I hoped that Regu would have a happier life than me. These three friends have kept me occupied and happy even. I had not even thought of any of them in a sexual way.

Unlike Regu, I had never thought of a relationship let alone casual sex, meeting men through dating apps. My only companion has been Internet gay porn, which I accidentally discovered. From then, I didn’t have to watch hetero-porn to look at the naked men. My thoughts were broken on hearing someone call my name.

“Hello? James, a penny for your thoughts.”

“Sorry, I think the fatigue is finally catching up with dear old me,” I replied.

“Old? You’re not old at all. Lots of miles to go in that tank of yours,” David teased. “Here, have another beer.”

“All of a sudden, I’m peckish. Let’s order some fries to go with our fast finishing beer,” Regu said.

“I thought we won’t not get a drop of alcohol in Kelantan. Not bad that it is allowed to be sold to non-Muslims,” Samy said.

Suddenly, Kelantan didn’t seem all that bad.  It was I who was feeling a little sad for myself.

“David, don’t come knocking on our door, if Regu gets lucky on his dating App and throws you out,” Samy said. 

“I wish,” Regu replied. “But looks like it’s not going to happen. Both the Digi connection and the hotel WiFi suck. They whole of the Internet is against me meeting a nice guy,” Regu replied with a new laugh.

“Hello, you are in Kelantan. Keep your pants on, please!” David reminded Regu.

“Calm down, you guys.  It’s not all about meeting guys for sex. I’ve actually made some friends here. And I’m getting better tips on where to eat which is better than Trip Advisor. Gay guys know where to find good food. Have I ever let you down with my restaurants recommendations?” 

 

“Ah! Yes, you just wanted to have small talk with these guys, I see,” Samy said. 

“The good news is one of the guys has recommended a great place for breakfast tomorrow. See,  it’s not all about hooking up with guys for sex.”

We went back to our usual banter. Regu’s startling revelation had gone down well with us. We ate the fries and drank our last can of Tiger beer. I wished I could have the same confidence Regu had. My secret will be mine only.

*

 The night passed fast. We were fatigued and slept rather soundly. We soon awoke hungry for a big Kelantanese breakfast. One of  Regu’s chat friends had recommended a kopitiam which was the must eat place in KB for a local breakfast.

We got into our car, switched on Waze and headed to the kopitiam. Parking was a bit of a problem. Good to see locals cars, I thought to myself. If the locals were here, it must be a good place, that was my take when going to new restaurants.

It was quite an amazing place. All kinds of local nasi dishes and local kueh were neatly arranged, as if on a buffet spread. Names of nasi we had only heard of, we now saw laid out on trays, each neatly packed in brown waxed paper and labelled. Among ourselves, we bought enough variety of food to sample the local delicacies. The coffee was ordinary and I was surprised Samy had not mentioned Starbucks.

We weren’t visiting KB to buy its songket or batek or visit its beaches even. The once popular ‘Beach of Passionate Love’ had long been eroded away and its name changed by the Muslim state government to something banal so that the locals do not get any wrong ideas while visiting it.

We left for our overnight stay in Kuala Terengganu early. We wanted to make the most of it for the price we had paid. We were going to take it easy. We had planned to lie under a shade on the beach, read a book and just relax. And that is what we did. We pampered ourselves for a night stay in one of the most exclusive beach front hotel resorts in Terengganu. The resort did not disappoint us for the price we had paid. We only came out of the hotel at night for local food. We didn’t want  to eat the western food or the upmarket local cuisine in the food outlets in the resort. 

Oddly enough, we ended by in an Indian food-stall and had one of the best mutton-curry and rice. Samy had his vegetarian nasi lemak which he seemed to enjoy. The food-stall was run by an elderly Indian woman. Malay-tudung girls in pants served the customers, who were mostly Malays too. What struck me was that there were no halal sign in this food-stall. The east coast food stalls and restaurants were certainly quite different from those in the west coast, where obligatory halal signs hung loudly as if they were part of the d├ęcor.

We reluctantly left the best hotel we had ever stayed in. The beach, the bed and breakfast  certainly made up for the price we had paid. Like most return trips, our drive back was certainly quieter as heading back to small town Melaka was rather less enticing. This time round, we saw some of the things we had not seen before along the roadside. But we certainly, didn’t see the aphrodisiac-peddling Makcik on the other side of the road. My request for one last durian stop was not received enthusiastically.  A few miles outside Kuantan, David stopped the car near a durian stall and I was the first one out.

Two Pakcik  were in conversation, sitting behind their durian stand. The durians were rather small and certainly looked like kampung durians. I asked for a durian. One of the Pakcik asked me to try a durian which he had opened. He offered me a few more pods from the same fruit. They are delicious. Just the taste I liked.

I asked him to pick an unopened fruit for me. The Pakcik sitting next to him pointed to a fruit. So I asked the Pakcik with the knife to open it.  I tasted the first pod from the fruit. It was slightly dry and hard. It was semi-ripe. I complained and said I didn’t like it. 

The Pakcik with the knife replied in Malay, “Why you listen to him? The fruits are from my trees not his.” I was a little puzzled with the turn of events. The other Pakcik remained silent.

David who had been watching the whole scene, added salt to my wound. “Why didn’t you pick up the fruit and shake it? The Makcik told you that is how to check if the fruit is ripe. Didn’t learn anything, ah? Wasted road trip on you, lah.”

I asked the durian-tree owner Pakcik to choose and open another fruit for me. I didn’t want the last fruit for the trip to leave a bad taste in my mouth.