“Is this your first time in Malaysia?”
“No, I actually spent a month travelling around the country when I was 18.”
“Awesome, did you have a good time?”
[thinks to self] “Now there’s a question, where the hell do I start…”
Since setting foot back on Malaysian soil after nearly a decade, I’ve spent my first month fending off friendly curiosity about my previous Asian adventure. Now, a relatively clued-up twenty-something with a husband, a job and a fairly decent understanding of ‘who I am’, I couldn’t be much further away than the teenage girl who set forth on what would prove to be something of a pivotal trip ten years previously. At 18, with a few long years of schooling under my belt and another three years of academic slog stretching ahead of me in the shape of university, I was chomping at the bit to experience “proper travelling” for the first time. So when my boyfriend of the time suggested that I fly out to meet him at the end of his gap-year in an exotic, far-flung location, it seemed like the perfect time to get the stamp in my passport that I was craving.
I don’t know what I imagined – I probably had some hazy vision of cocktails on the beach, skinny dipping in the sea and ‘finding myself’ – but I know for sure I didn’t get what I bargained for. In some ways I got so much more, and in others I lost out.
I experienced highs that my teenage self had only previously imagined, and felt sadder and lonelier than I ever had before.
I learned a lot about who I was; I came into my own, defined myself as an adult, but I also discovered parts of myself that I did not like.
I placed myself in situations that taught me more than a decade of traditional schooling had previously managed; I both wised up and I acted stupidly.
I made decisions that would shape my still burgeoning personality, and choices that I still deliberate over to this day.
It’s fair to say was a meaningful trip.
Ten years is a surprisingly long time to wait before dredging up old memories, particularly when some of them are ones which you have quite happily repressed for the majority of your adult life. But the process of revisiting my bygone travel exploits, of breathing life into faded memories, has so far proven to be a rejuvenating one. After nearly a year of honing my blogging voice and tiptoeing round the edge of some of the more gritty anecdotes that make up my formative travel years, I think it’s finally time to revisit my Malaysian adventure.
So I find myself teetering on the edge of the story, just as I do whenever I’m faced with a public retelling – where the hell do I start? They say that a picture tells a thousand words, but I don’t have any to show (we’ll get to that later). It’s just me and my writing and a potent cocktail of ten-year-old memories. Can I do this brief but poignant chapter of my life justice with nothing more than pen and paper? Well, I’ll keep it simple, follow the Julie Andrews / Sound of Music school of thought, and start at the very beginning (a very good place to start) in Kuala Lumpur airport…
For some people, the best part of saying goodbye to someone is knowing that you’ll see them again soon. They see the reunion in every departure, and live by the mantra that “it’s not goodbye, it’s farewell for now”. Take my Mum for example; she treats my arrival back from any trip, however long or short, as if the Prodigal Son himself has returned home. She’s been known to crawl through bushes, hurdle ticket barriers and elbow her way past grown men at least three times her size (she’s not a tall woman) just to be there, ready and waiting, to greet me off a train or plane. Yep, she’s that crazy lady wielding the oversized ‘welcome home’ sign at Arrivals. And I love her for it.
You might imagine that my first solo trip abroad – three weeks in Australia at the tender age of 15 – would invoke new levels of welcome party fervour in my mother. I was convinced this would be her grandest display so far and braced myself for the giant ‘WELCOME HOME!’ sign / helium balloon bouquet / small mariachi band that was inevitably waiting for me on the other side of baggage reclaim. So imagine my surprise when I wheeled my trolley passed Nothing to Declare, through the sliding doors and emerged into an Arrivals hall empty except for a couple of underwhelmed taxi drivers, half-heartedly flapping hand-scrawled signs in my general direction whilst they eyed their watches, counting down the seconds until their next cigarette. Mum was nowhere to be seen. Highly unusual.
I spent the next hour and a half twiddling my thumbs in the desolate arrivals hall, feeling like a piece of unclaimed baggage and trying my best not to picture ten-car-pile-ups on the M25. 15-year-old me did not have a mobile phone (that’s a lie, I did, but it was eternally ‘out of credit’) and my Mum still subscribed to the school of thought that says ‘you should only turn it on when you know someone’s going to call – to save battery’, so I was starting to get fretful. Just I was considering unpacking my sarong and using it as a begging mat to scrape together some change for the payphone, Mum appeared, running full pelt down the hall with tears streaming down her face, and a helium balloon bobbing ebulliently along behind her oblivious to the drama of the situation.
So eager had she been, it transpires, to welcome me back from my longest sting away from home that she’d arrived at the airport three hours before my flight was due to land. Just in case. She’d then promptly placed herself on the highest pinnacle she could find – the viewing deck – in order that she could waggle around her ‘welcome home’ paraphernalia and wave at any passing Qantas plane on the off chance it’d be mine.
The fact that I was flying Singapore Airlines is neither here nor there. It is because of her heartfelt but frankly insane dedication to greetings that I’ve always felt compelled to be the best possible return-ee, to make every reunion a warm one, to smile and laugh and run into the waiting arms of a loved one ready to burst with happiness like a particularly exuberant pinanta. It’s because of this that my arrival into Malaysia felt so very different. So very wrong.
Relationships when you’re younger are funny old things. They’re made up of a lot of firsts – first date, first kiss, first ‘proper’ boyfriend. Reaching my first ever anniversary with the boy I met at a party and fell into a relationship with was, I recall, a strange sort of achievement. Strange because I remember many a conversation with friends about how I wasn’t sure if I really wanted a boyfriend; strange because, at 17, a year was still a decent chunk of my whole life; strange because said boyfriend was about to depart on a lengthy round-the-world trip. I remember feeling torn on the night that we celebrated – a fancy restaurant that felt far too adult and stuffy for my still developing tastes. I wanted to be swept up in the emotion of it all, to applaud my maturity and embrace the romance of the situation, but a voice in my head was asking “what’s the point?”
I mean, I liked the boy sitting opposite me and everything, but I wasn’t that sure that I could commit myself to full blown love; I felt like we were play-acting, two kids pretending we were a ‘real’ couple, eating at a ‘real’ restaurant and trying our best to emulate ‘real’ adult emotions. But was it really worth playing the full-blown “serious relationship” card when he was just on the brink of leaving the country? My common-sense told me that, this time around, true love hadn’t come a-knocking, that it would probably be better for both of us to just cut our losses and accept that this was where our paths forked away from one another, leaving us free to enjoy the next few months independent and fancy-free. But my inner teenage emo yearned for lovesick nights, heart-felt emails sent across continents and emotional reunions on the other side of the world. Teenage hormones won that particular tug-of-war and within weeks we’d arranged for me to meet him at the end of his travels, once my exams were out the way, in Malaysia.
With my flights booked and his bags packed, we said our tearful goodbyes and I settled into the role of ‘girl in a long-distance relationship’ that I’d be playing for the rest of the year. But as A-Levels came and went and my departure date grew ever closer, I started to feel nervous. My friends had booked a relatively last minute holiday to Cornwall; a few hours down the English motorway, it was hardly an exotic alternative to five weeks in South-East Asia, but I felt overwhelmingly disappointed that I wouldn’t be going, that my travels would be taking me back into the fray of my relationship that I couldn’t honestly say I’d missed all that much.
The time ticked by and, with only a few days to spare, I began to panic. We’d spent a third of our relationship away from each other, this boy and I. During that time he would have had new, foreign experiences that would define his golden years, and I had been growing into my near-adult self, strengthening friendships both new and old and adapting to planning my social calendar around me and me alone. I’d enjoyed it – a lot – and was worried that things would just be too different when the boyfriend and I attempted to start up something that was already running the risk of petering out. Picture an airbed: it’s not the most substantial thing in the first place and, left alone for a while, it begins to sag. Imagine then jumping onto it with all your might, throwing your weight down from a height before it’s even had a puff of air pumped back into it… you’ll hit the floor with a painful crash and realise that there’s not enough left in it to hold you up. That’s what I imagined our reunion would be like.
But the optimist within me won out and I determined to get on the plane, fly the thousands of miles across the globe and rekindle whatever it was we once had – it would be an amazing trip, I could make it work. I spent the near 24-hour flight worrying a hangnail on my chewed down thumb and trying my best to drive out the anxious flurry of queasy trepidation that sloshed around my stomach. Kuala Lumpur neared into view, a toy town of skyscrapers within which a tiny matchstick boyfriend was waiting for me. As I collected my shiny new rucksack and boarded the monorail to Arrivals, I told myself that I was sick with excitement, that it was normal to be nervous after so long apart, that absence makes the heart grow fonder. But when I arrived at those sliding doors I couldn’t bring myself to step outside. As my fellow passengers spilled out onto Malaysian soil – business men striding purposefully towards smartly dressed chauffeurs, families cajoling their careering trolleys towards the shrieks of excited relatives, lovers falling into eager, tearful embraces – I found my feet rooted to the ground. Planting myself behind a pillar, it was all I could do to peer out and catch a glimpse of the boy who I had flown across the world for.
My heart sank. I could see his face, eager and expectant. He watched as the crowds diminished, as the last dribbles of stragglers made their unhurried exit and still his bright eyes searched for the small, bubbly English girl he’d said goodbye to months before. And all I could think was “it wasn’t supposed to be like this”.
A £500 plane ticket, a 6000 mile journey, a 6 month wait, and I just wanted to turn around and go home. But we Brits believe in a stiff upper lip, and now was not the time for cowardice. I holstered my backpack, plastered what I hoped was a convincing smile onto my face, and stepped out to face whatever the next month of my life would have in store for me. My Malaysian adventure had begun.