While serving abroad I have had many opportunities to travel and explore what I had only known before as the other side of the world, and a few weeks ago Anthony and I decided that we were going to venture to the very southeast of Southeast Asia— Malaysia and Singapore.
We bought the tickets a month or two in advance when the tickets were affordable, and even tried to buy bus tickets for finding our way around there too, but after numerous attempts, the website would not register our payment so we were just going to have to wing it!
Of course, we spent a considerable amount of time researching and planning for everything from laws of the land to activities and attractions just to make sure we were as prepared as possible. Our main goal was just making sure we made it back to Cambodia, but there’s always the unexpected.
The first leg of our journey began as we hopped on the seven a.m. van to Phnom Penh and braced ourselves for the worst, as the usual trip by van or taxi to any location in Cambodia is just short of traumatizing. One could compare it to a roller coaster on the opposite side of a boundless and rutted track, careening at maximum speed for six hours while blasting the cheapest version of local karaoke and dodging successions of other cars headed the opposite direction on the correct side of the road, people riding casually by on wobbling bicycles, and cows mindlessly searching for a new spot to graze. So not really like a roller coaster.
We rejoiced at the ceasing of our journey and went to find our trusty tuk-tuk driver who would take us to the airport. We enjoyed a well-priced meal (meaning: the airport food remained consistently and outrageously expensive) with one of the other missionaries stationed in Phnom Penh, said our goodbyes, and took to the skies.
It was a quick flight into the future as Malaysia is yet another hour ahead of Cambodia which meant that it was an hour past my bedtime by the time we landed. In other words, I was tired. But little did I know that this was to mark the beginning of a particularly unpleasant characteristic of our travels. Still, we had to keep moving to make sure we could find a bus to take us to the place where our host, Faizah, would bring us to her home.
We sped off the airplane and down the vacant halls of the airport oftentimes passing by the travellators as they were occupied by more leisurely individuals. The airport was so empty of people and the signs so unclear that we could not be so sure of our course of travel. Fortunately, though everything was such a blur (not only because we were approaching comparative light speed but also because I was half asleep) that I didn’t even notice her, an elderly Asian woman pulled up beside us in an equal if not greater swiftness of forward motion. She very amiably assured us the way to the check-out as she had been through that airport many times, and began to ask us questions about ourselves. Anthony, more conditioned to function properly at such hours of the night, spoke for both of us as I followed along.
We had finally made it through customs and found the bus Faizah recommended we use, so I quickly pulled out my wallet to purchase the tickets only to have my currency rejected. I assumed that since they take U.S. dollars in Cambodia they would take them anywhere in Asia, but only Ringgit would do. So, after finding a currency exchange we bought the tickets and entered the dimly lit yet oddly colorful bus to choose from the many open seats that would soon be filled by a crowd of Malaysian folks fast approaching.
After about an hour or so of riding, we arrived at the bus station and stepped off to find the arranged pick-up spot. We strode through the massive bus station trying to remember the directions Faizah had given us while also trying to connect to Wi-Fi to make sure of the directions because during this trip we would have no consistent way of contacting people or acquiring information or directions. Eventually, we made it to what we thought was the correct place and waited for Anthony’s phone to connect just to make sure.
As we waited I looked around for a water fountain, but none was to be found, only a bathroom, but also a prayer room, of which there are many in just about every airport and bus station in Malaysia (not to mention Cambodia). I was hesitant to ask any of the security personnel where I could get water as they were carrying Ak-47s or assault rifles (though I am not actually sure what type of guns they were carrying, all I know was that it was too large to hold with one hand or to have in a holster). Not that I was afraid they would shoot me, but more just because I am not used to having people walking around with large and intimidating firearms. Smiling didn’t seem like a very popular activity either, but I knew they were kind people as I saw them interact with each other, and the one man I did ask politely gestured that water was down the hall.
Finally, Anthony was able to find that we were in the correct place and was even given a license plate number and car description from Faizah. We eagerly waited outside running up and down the street looking at all the cars, but after some time we were not seeing her and began to second-guess ourselves.
We no longer had any internet connection, but we decided to ask a man if we could borrow his phone to call Faizah. And though it seemed the man was blind, somehow we were still able to contact her and find out that she was almost there.
At last, she arrived and gently rearranged her sleeping children so we could have a place to sit. We made a brief and cordial introduction and right away we could tell we were going to really like this family.
As we drove they shared with us about Malaysia, the culture(s) (namely Malay, Indian, and Chinese), and their own family too, but for some reason, they kept asking us if we were Jews. And even though there is a history of animosity (and still today) between Jews and Muslims we could trust that they would still treat us well even if we were Jews.
We arrived at their house around ten or ten-thirty with growling stomachs and heavy eyelids (though I can’t speak for Anthony). Removing our shoes, we followed them through their immaculately decorated family room overlaid with beautiful carpets, resplendent curtains, and intricately designed sofas, pillows, and chairs into the kitchen where our dinner was waiting. Curry with eggplant, fish, and a carrot, cucumber, and something else tasty salad, and rice. Boy am I glad they had rice! After having it so much in Cambodia I can hardly go a day without it.
They continued to share as we asked questions, and they continued to ask if we were Jewish, and after I had filled every nook and cranny in my stomach and then some just to be polite, they led us to our room so we could finally get some rest.
As Anthony and I prepared for bed we both agreed that these folks were downright awesome! We connected right from the get go and had running jokes throughout the course of our conversation. Already we regretted having to leave for Singapore the next day. But we were glad to know we were coming right back!
I guess that’s the beauty of being human. No matter who you are or where you come from you can get along with just about anyone despite differing culture, race, or religion. It just takes a little humility, confidence, and a willingness to try. And if you’re still a little shy or maybe even skeptical, stick with these next few blog posts as the journey through Singapore and Malaysia continues so you can see for yourself and even be prepared to take such a journey too. But as we were soon to discover, no matter how well you plan or prepare there is always the unexpected.