I had been enjoying a leisurely late breakfast at my accommodation in Kuala Lumpur. After almost a week of strenuous leg-work in Taman Negara and the Cameron highlands, during which I climbed every mountain in sight and trekked more than a hundred kilometres of jungle trails, my body was beginning to take on the suspicious dysmorphia of a Tour de France cyclist. Looking at my watch and doing the mental maths that I probably should have done a day beforehand, I realised with a start that I was cutting it fine to make my flight to Brunei. Very, very fine.
For the previous two months my backpack had been a model of efficiency and organisation. Everything has been neatly rolled or folded, classified according to clean, dirty, or a few more hours of acceptable wear, and compartmented in compression cubes. Its a system that has proven to work, and other backpackers have commented that I look like I’m dressed like I’ve just stepped out of a salon. On this particular morning, with an emphasis on the need for speed, my routine came apart at the seams. My legs, which had been appreciating the unexpected low-octane start to the day, were less than enthusiastic about been whipped into an uneven gallop by my over-excited and much more well rested upper half. Bobbing around the room like an arthritic emu, my ears full of the sounds of a ticking clock, I collected armloads of clothes from where they were scattered on the bed and floor. These got hurled into the pack and tamped down firmly into the corners with a swollen, reluctant foot, before frantically limping off for the next load. In a similar style and panic as a burglar stuffing banknotes into his bag to the soundtrack of sirens, my bag was packed in moments.
The train from KL to the airport is fast, clean and cheap, and generally a pleasure to ride. During peak hours, and especially on a weekend, the apparent difficulty is getting on it. Loaded up like a Sherpa, I wasn’t in the most streamlined position to cut the crowds with speed and versatility. On this morning, the streets were packed with people. All shuffling in random zigzags, all with their noses to the screens of their mobile phones, and as my luck would have it, all apparently heading in the same direction as me. After a few minutes of stuttering effort, with every half-step of forward progress cut off by a new body, I reached the short stairway to the monorail. I tai-chi’d my way through the waving arms of the taxi drivers that had formed a thoughtful guard of honour at its base, trying to solicit my business. A cluster of people was compressing itself onto the escalator going up, and with legs that weren’t fit for tackling stairs, I squeezed myself in with it. The queue for the ticket machines curled around on itself like a snake’s tail, and cursing myself for taking the time to have that third plate of scrambled eggs and toast, I joined the end of it. After a further five minutes slow-stepping in the conga line, I clutched my train token in a white-knuckled fist, aware that if I dropped it and I needed to bend down, fully packed and in this crowd, I may just be trampled by a thousand pairs of thongs and never see blue skies again.
Within minutes the train whooshed into the station. The doors opened and a tide of people swelled out of it, as if propelled by the crowds within releasing a collective deep breath. Immediately the hoard around me surged forwards into the already packed carriage, taking up every niche and pocket of free space that I could see. Everyone took a deep breath in, the doors closed, and it was gone. I stood blinking the sweat out of my eyes, mouth open, the weight of my packs biting my shoulders. The train was gone and I hadn’t even made it to within spitting distance from the doors. In fact, I hadn’t even seen opportunity for a forward step. Already, fresh crowds were collecting, making ready for the next train, another ten minutes away. Checking my watch, I realised that at this rate, I would only make the airport in time to wave au revoir to my most expensive flight in two months from the windows of the departure lounge. A little wave of panic washed over me. I turned and pressed my way back through the sluggish tide of people, milling in confusion like a mob of bespectacled, tech-savvy sheep in desperate need of the guidance of a border collie. My size and the weight of my packs gave me the advantage in forcing a path down the stairs, thighs screaming their objections, only to collapse into the waiting arms of the taxi-drivers at the bottom, all delighted at seeing me again so soon.
They clustered around me like groupies, chattering good naturedly about where I might like to be going, and where perhaps I was coming from. I picked out the youngest – a crooked little sandalled fellow – fully aware that reckless speed was now essential and that in his youth, he might have the least regard for its consequences. He led me to his shiny little proton and introduced himself as Faisal, giving me a gap-toothed smile. I explained my situation and asked if he thought he might be able to make the 45 minute trip to the airport at a slightly more desperate pace than usual. Obviously happy to spice up an otherwise boring drive, he winked encouragingly and we took off with a neck-snapping acceleration. His right foot stamped to the floor, right hand occasionally gripping the wheel, and any remaining body parts alternating between brake, horn and mobile phone. I sat in the back, having abandoned the search for a seat belt, wondering if it was such a good idea to have left Australia intestate. Instead, I passed the time hugging the backrest of the front seat with both arms and a pair of lifeless knees. Trying to ignore Faisal’s defiance of road rules and the expressions of the other startled drivers as we hurtled past them, I kept watch of the time and the speedo. After a few minutes it seemed that provided I sprinted through the airport like Usain, and hurdled any barriers or pedestrians in my path, I might just make the final boarding call. Optimism crept in, but then came crashing down again as we veered off the freeway with no indication that I was aware of, and joined the rear of a tangled procession of cars lining up at a petrol station. Inwardly, I was an erupting volcano of expletives. Outwardly, I smiled at Faisal in the rear vision mirror and politely enquired as to how long this might take. Double quick, no problem, sir, he assured me through his gaps. I sat back in the seat massaging my aching core muscles, remembering past horrors of trying to sleep in airports, and trying to control my breathing.
To the credit of my little driver, we were double quick. With lightening fast reflexes he jumped the queue at the first opening, parked askew with one front wheel jammed against the kerb, and sloshed in 20 ringgit of petrol. Answering the vitriol of the other drivers with a mouthful of his own, he sprinted to the cashier with sandal-slapping determination. Before I knew it wee were off again, and as if in apology for the delay, Faisal redoubled his efforts behind the wheel. We weaved through the traffic at a ridiculous pace, Hollywood tyres screeching as we veered left and right, the lane markings a serving suggestion only. I continued to hug the backrest of the front seat, my cheek pressed firm against the cushion, but still flailing about like an unsecured load in the wind. He would skid to a stop at the last moment at toll booths, fling a rumpled note or two at the bored face behind the window. At first opportunity we would be scorching off again, the aerial twanging against the still rising boomgate, and the transmission shrieking in protest. I wondered if the other drivers began to think that he was escorting a medical emergency. Given that he drove like an ambulance I thought it best to grimace as though in pain. It was only partly theatre. Whatever the strategy, it seemed to work. The other cars yielded and we put distance between ourselves and Kuala Lumpur.
At the airport taxi drop-off, Faisal flung the gasping little proton into a sideways double-park. Ignoring the serenade of horns and unpleasant suggestions in Tamil and Hokkien, he quick-stepped around to my side. Prying me loose from the front seat he threaded my shaking arms through the tangle of straps in my pack, politely ignoring the herring-bone pattern imprinted on the side of my face. Fully loaded, he sandal-slapped along behind me, pushing me and my non-compliant legs up the footpath as though trying to roll-start a bus. Slowly gaining speed, my legs eventually engaged in gear, and I accelerated away to his encouragements of double-quickness and best wishes of good luck to all of my family. The airport doors opened with a blast of typically frigid Malaysian air conditioning.
to be continued…