We’re sitting on the ground outside a gas station in the middle of nowhere drinking white coffee, eating cake. Que vamos a hacer? My bike is propped upside down, my panniers are all over the place. No sé. Ceci gets up and tries to yank it out. She sits back down and eats more cake. Then I eat more cake. And together we keep staring at it. Que vamos a hacer? I put my coffee down highly determined & have a go at it. Then I sit back down and eat more cake. No sé. The 3″ nail sticking out of my rear tire is way waayy settled in there. We were crossing a busy highway onto a steep bridge with no shoulder when it decided to hitch a ride with us. Clavo necio! We almost laugh because it’s almost funny but we don’t because, well because there’s work to do & the day is far from over.
Down the road about 60km we stop in a tiny village to ask for directions but mostly to drink about a liter of sweet milk tea, iced and with grass jelly (google it) floating around in it like leeches. The day is sizzling and we’re positively melting into our cycling shoes. We’re sweaty to the point that the salt crystals reflect light making it hard for the locals to look straight at us for any extended period of time. At least that’s my sense of it. Or maybe it’s our smell. Hell, I don’t know, they’re shy enough to begin with, and anyway, like I said, there isn’t much time for in-depth analysises because there’s work to do still. This isn’t an ordinary day by any measure. See because another 30km down the road, we’re running to catch a boat that will take us to realizing Ceci’s lifelong dream: meeting Orang Outans!
A little ecstatic from our encounter with the orange beings so full of character & personality, we returned to the food court next to the jetty to find signs announcing no food we could recognize, and seeing us a little hesitant, a family from Kuala Lumpur decided to buy us two lemony fish soups and a syrupy shaved ice desert full of quirky toppings such as sweet corn, red beans & a bunch of other chewy sticky delicious stuff. And, well, since we received both at the same time, we, well we ate both at the same time. The soup was getting cold & the ice was melting & threatening to become a mess of dirty water, anyway why do I feel like I need to justify this.
We’re down the road again! Huddled into a small abandoned shelter and the metal sheets of the roof are lifting in the whirlwind. We’re getting soaked anyway because the torrential downpour is coming in completely horizontal. Our bottles are outside collecting the rain for later hydration purposes, but then by the time the rain stops, there’s a dead cricket in my bottle. Ceci and I stare at it for a moment. Que vamos a hacer?
•M a l a y s i a•
There is a time, once we’ve cycled, once we’ve showered & eaten, when the door finally closes on our little hotel room. Outside the town sleeps in the shade. Nothing moves here in the peak of midday heat. We’ve accomplished our main task for the day and we finally get to slow down the hectic rhythm of life on the road. It’s a time to replenish energies, to learn about the world, to read our books, to research what’s to come on the trip, and sometimes to completely disappear from the world into a deep sleep. It’s one of my favourite little rituals we’ve developed over the trip. A few hours go lazily by, and by the time we step out of our little windowless world, the sun is lower on the horizon and we’ve transformed from brutish sweaty creatures on bikes into semi-civilized human beings open to the world around them and with interesting topics to discuss over masala tea.
•M a l a y s i a•
Hello GoodMorning Where From?
An elderly gentleman is positively shouting at us from the next table. “Oooh Mexicoo! Canadaa!” As if two foreigners eating breakfast at 6am in a small Indian cafeteria dressed in full cycling attire wasn’t quite enough to attract total curiosity & attention! And somehow, in that instant, this 91 year old Chinese-Malaysian man showing us black & white pictures of his handsome 21 year old self & of his lovely wife who had recently passed away, teaching us about his life & that of his sons & daughter in a country he referred to with utmost pride; somehow, this beautiful man became the embodiment of our fascination with Malaysia.
With 3 prominent religions, 4 official languages, and a dizzying array of daily traditions & festivals, Malaysia is a clash of worlds unique to this earth, where conviviality is survival & diversity a matter of pride. As we travelled its most rural reaches, its most urban centres, we were confronted with such scenes as to clear any doubt from our minds that this was indeed so: Muslims participating in Hindu festivals; Chinese temples next to Mosques where clouds of incense mix in the air with the call to prayer blaring from megaphones; Women wearing beautifully intricate Hijabs & women wearing extravagantly colourful Saris sharing tables at street food stalls… In a world that tends more towards xenophobia with every passing day, Malaysia serves as a powerful example that diversity is strength, that modernization is not synonymous to loss of cultural identity, that extremism lives on the extremes and should not overpower the overwhelming examples of peaceful practice of religion.
•M a l a y s i a•
A young girl hands each of us a banana leaf neatly folded into a triangular prism. Young men are dance-fighting with sticks, while others are walking by covered in bells that are hooked into their skins. Others still are pulling loaded carts with ropes hooked to the skin of their backs, their tongues pierced by two metal rods in the shape of a cross. And everything smells like soured milk & spices.
We open the banana leaf package and eat the fermented rice and dhal therein but not the tiny dried anchovies and soon we have to move aside because people are hurling coconuts against the pavement, dozens of them, splashing the sticky sweet water on everyone around, and it’s hard for us to ask each other what exactly is going on because the Bollywood music is sooo incredibly loud that it’s making our hearts flutter, and we try to wash the whole thing down with a glass of chocolate milk someone has just handed us but things are only getting stranger and wild and actually quite fun. There are so many gods on display, most with their eyes bandaged, and suddenly, from behind a huge tamarind tree comes the sight of the moon, huge, blood red and starting to eclipse much to our amazement and that of the crowd and all the Malay politicians are trying to take selfies in front of the temple while a constant flow of men & women dressed in the brightest colours wrestle their way through the thick crowd with offerings of warm milk to pour over the statues of gods with animal heads and limbs, and everybody is barefoot and some have shaved their hair for the occasions, some have shaved their children’s hair and lathered a sort of clay there instead and most are dancing by now in every which way possible when a huge ox-driven altar shows up where money is exchange for we can’t quite see what, and it’s over now, we’ve made our way through it all thank god boy that was intense!
Indians know no half-measure when it comes to their festivals and this is certainly undeniably true about Thaipusam.
•M a l a y s i a•
The speed at which we travel on our bicycles allows for an immersion of sorts into the wildly different worlds of the countries we visit. To observe life unfold in all its different manifestations as we drift by on the edges of the road is an experience rich in learning. Yet, interestingly the farthest distance traveled has by far been the space between the two of us. The immersion into each other’s worlds has been a far rougher ride than the mountains of Laos, the endless stretches of Thailand or the perilous space between potholes & mad drivers in Malaysia. And the trip might as well have ended prematurely several times as we met with each other’s boundaries. Yet, as every thread of the fabric of our relationship came to be tested, the stronger ones gradually began to outnumber the weak, until very little possessed the strength to tear us apart. Only once we learned to respect our respective history, culture & traditions, did our differences truly become our strength. A lesson no doubt learned from our immersion into the Malaysian culture of acceptance.
•M a l a y s i a•
Incense stick the size of tree trunks have been smoldering upright for days shrouding the whole village with dense perfumed smoke. Ceci & I are sipping some really potent medicinal tea served from gigantic gold teapots embossed with flying dragons. The Chinese New Year is a time for family and the result is a town where every store & restaurant is closed yet where the streets are filled with dancing dragons & pedestrians dressed in red on their way to visit the many temples hidden inside the city.
Isolated from their country, it became very important for Chinese-Malaysians to conserve their identity, and what makes Malaysia so interesting, and this is true of the Indian-Malaysians as well, is that that which has been conserved is a very pure sample of ancient tradition which dates back to the time of their immigration. And whereas China & India move forward in their quest for globalization, time has mostly stood still in Malaysia. And as the midnight fireworks of the Chinese New Year went off, we certainly felt grateful to have been able to experience such a unique and improbable place and time.
•M a l a y s i a•
It’s two o’clock in the morning. Ceci & I are eating empanadas & drinking tea in her parent’s kitchen in TulanYork, Mexico. We woke up from an 11 hour nap hungry & disorientated. The last 30 hours of travel were the whipped cream on top of the exhaustion milkshake of the last 111 days cycle-touring 6,000 kilometers through Laos, Thailand & Malaysia. We’re beat.
In fact, for Malaysia, the last leg of our trip, we had to completely rethink our strategy. Our cycling day average of 100k had become a chore. The suffocating humidity & the blazing sun meant we had 4½ hours from sunrise to complete the distance to our next destination before burning to a crisp. And what with getting lost and suffering minor mechanical breakdowns, needless to say, we rarely made it in time. In fact, we had to come up with a whole new expression for the overheated creatures we became. So we crafted Orang Goreng or ‘Fried People’!
•M a l a y s i a•
If you were to ask either of us to resume our experience in Malaysia in three words we’d probably both come up with the same: People, Food & Bicycles, although the order of the first two might vary depending on hunger! Chinese food with its exquisite blend of mushrooms & vinegars, its hearty broths and superb teas made for a most contrastful pairing with Indian food and its audacious use of spices, its colorful sweets, its thick gravies & wide range of teas & yoghurt drinks to wash it all down!
There is certainly a decent amount of Wabi-Sabi required to take in all the mess of what we witnessed in a day: cycling by Palm (Oil) plantation for days on end where pristine rainforest once thrived, taking selfies with kids selling coconuts & cane juice by the highway, getting honked at aggressively by a heavy hauling truck only to realize that the driver is our number one biggest fan as he waves at us zooming by, sharing stories with elderly men & women in bustling tea shops, seeing waterways contaminated with so many chemicals that they literally burn the grass on their shores and then seeing locals fishing in them… Yet given the chance, neither of us would ever think of changing a single ounce of the experience we have lived. We will no doubt need months if not years to unpack all that happened during our trip, and that is certainly one of the most interesting aspects of such an intense experience!
Thanks everyone for sharing this journey with us!
We hope you’ve enjoyed the ride!
To watch the videos of our trip click here!
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