An American in Malaysia - 20 Aug 2003

This story was written well after the fact and so was never sent.
An American in East Malaysia

The sand dunes east of Terengganu appeared on the horizon. Tan colored hills bordering pastel blue water. The color of turquoise Indian jewels. The current was carrying the dirt brown water south out of the mouth of the Terengganu River.
I watched several shallow bottomed fishing boats vanish behind the dunes. It was hard to pick out the entrance to the river. There were no markers or buoys. It was a local knowledge kind of entrance and I was a bit nervous about the whole thing. I was not at all familiar with river mouths and the sandbars surrounding them.
I was worried about other things as well.
It was the height of the Iraqi War. I am an American. North East Malaysia has the largest Muslim population in Asia besides Indonesia. I was sailing a yacht into the heart of Muslim Malaysia. I wondered how it would look to the citizens of Terengganu. I pictured a riot of locals attacking me with Molotov cocktails and old AK 47s. I envisioned scowls from old men and young men spitting in the dirt in disgust. I pictured dusty roads with small schools and a few scattered hotels.
All these visions addled my brain a bit. I motored further south along the coast and approached the actual mouth of the river. It was extremely narrow and the water was running quite fast. It was the beginning of the ebb tide. I watched more boats enter and leave the river.
I considered skipping the Terengganu River all together. It was a very new world after Thailand. Was I ready for river navigation? Would I get harsh social treatment? Would I get beat up because my country was invading Iraq in the face of world opposition. Wasn’t I the epitome of western decadence and lack of values, sailing around on a luxury item?
The swell brought me out of my nervous mental circling. I definitely DO NOT want to spend another night with that bloody swell turning the boat into a hyperactive rocking horse. I had had enough of that the night before. I was also almost out of supplies. I had beer and Ramen and that was about it. Admittedly some people subsist on such a diet, but I was in dire need of fruit. It had been about a week since my last banana.
So with these reasons putting a light under my ass I conclude that I would face the Muslim population of North East Malaysia for better or for worse. I was armed with a big smile, a bit of halting Malaysian and an open heart. These things had carried me farther than I ever could have imagined in Thailand. Some kind souls even gave me the shirts off their backs.
I was quite close to the river mouth at this point and there was absolutely no traffic. Usually that would be a good thing but in this case I needed someone to follow. I was planning on tailing a boat into the river. That way I would be able to tap into local knowledge on the necessary navigation techniques.
I did a few donuts. I put the engine in neutral and drifted. The current carried me south and I had a clear vision past the dunes into the river. It looked quiet and peaceful.
Finally three fishing boats approached the mouth. I waited for the second boat to pass and then got in line. They were moving quite fast and the first two boats quickly left me behind. My throttle was all the way over and my little MD2 was running fast and hot. The third boat was edging around me. All of a sudden a huge tour-boat roared out of the channel about 20 feet from me and sent me rocking in its wake. The third fishing boat passed me on my starboard side and the guy waved.
“Why did he wave?” I thought to myself. “He had a worried expression on his face as well,” I noticed. I looked down at my depth gauge and watched it shoot from 32 feet to 12 to 7 feet. I put the wheel hard to starboard and watched the depth increase again.
“This is definitely a very tight channel.”
I looked over at the third fishing boat and waved a thank you. He had slowed down and was waiting for me. Fantastic! I tailed him into the river and couldn’t believe my luck. We slowly motored against the current into a large interior mouth. The port side was lined with old wooden Chinese buildings. They protruded out past the riverbank on stilts. They looked like clustered warehouses made of old rotting wood, standing on crooked, patched stilts. They were dark and abandoned and I wondered if this really was the right river. This is supposed to be one of the largest cities on the east coast of Malaysia. Shouldn’t it have a large port district?
The fisherman turned right and headed towards the dunes and many more small buildings on stilts. These buildings were old but looked lived in. They were colored with laundry, pots and pans and children bathing. It looked poor but happy. I quickly decided that was a place I would like to go to. The fisherman slowed down and then came to a stop. He looked at me as I motored up to him. He had a concerned look again and pointed to the left. The river wrapped around a bend and continued on in that direction. He looked at my boat and then shouted something in Malaysian. I knew about 4 words in Malaysian and what he said was definitely not one of them. I shook my head and he paused for a minute and thought. Then he pointed to the bottom of my boat and to the water around us and put his hands close together, one above the other.
“Ahhh, the water is too shallow?” I said to him. He looked confused for a second and then I used some hand language and confirmed my suspicion. This area of the river was too shallow for a boat like mine and I had to proceed up the river to find a good place to anchor or a dock to tie up to.
I smiled a big thank you to the guy and got ready to motor on up the river.
I noticed he was trying to say something. I turned back and listened.
“What?” I responded.
“What are you trying to say?” I returned.
“Oh, country?” I asked.
He nodded excitedly.
“What country am I from?” I summed up for him.
Again the excited nod and big smile.
“America, I am from America,” I said clearly but nervously.
He looked at me for a second then a huge grin stretched across is face. He gave me a thumbs-up and an “Oh Yeah!” expression.
I smiled and returned the thumbs up. He turned to go and left me drifting back towards the mouth of the river.
“How was it that he was happy to meet an American? Didn’t I represent all that was corrupted and evil about the western world?”
“Guess not.”
The impression I got from the guy was “Cool.”
“Cool like blue suede shoes.”
I motored up the river and studied my depth gauge as I went. It got awful shallow again. I looked to starboard and watched another boat motor past 50 feet from me. I motored out to where they had pasted and the depth dropped to 22 again.
“This river navigation is tricky.”
I found the diesel pier and a beautiful catamaran anchored mid-river. There was a small marsh island to starboard and a huge hotel to port. Then there was the customs house with a few large white PT boats. I went aground just past the customs pier and got completely stuck.
“How utterly embarrassing,” I thought to myself.
With a little skillful dingy work, I managed to kedge off the sandbar. Just as I got off and floated out into the middle of the river a large fishing boat came cruising down with the current. The guy piloting shouted something in Malaysian. I got the impression from his hand gestures that he was saying,
“Don’t frickin’ anchor in the middle of the river!”
“Uh, yeah, ok . . . sure.” I waved back and smiled. I pulled up the anchor and drifted back to the catamaran. I dropped anchor about 100 yards past them. I was right next to the old Chinese waterfront. I had a bit of a row to get to the ferry pier but it was definitely quiet.
I spent the afternoon cleaning and doing essential repairs and maintenance on my Wind Spirit. I also wanted to watch the boat’s movements for a few hours before leaving her alone on the river. As I worked, many fishing boats would motor by. They came by surprisingly close. I would often look up and see big smiles and many waving hands. I stood up a few times and shouted, “Salamat Pertang,” (good afternoon) and got a resounding cheer every time. I often got back a chorus of “Hello”s and “how are you?”s and “where you from?”s.
It was nice. The afternoon breeze was cool. I felt welcome in the river. There was no swell and the boat rested peacefully in the flowing river.
“This is epic,” I thought as the evening sun dropped towards the horizon. I pulled out a warm bottle of beer and grabbed the last of my dried pork.
I think I will have Ramen for dinner tonight,” I said to myself.
“Sounds perfect,” I responded.

The next morning I went into the city. I found a beautiful Chinese Temple, then an elegant church and finally a Mosque. Then I found another Mosque. And then I found a third mosque. By the time I came upon the fourth mosque I had to ask how many there were in this city. I was told there were five large mosques and a few smaller ones scattered here and there. The guy I asked then inquired where I was from. I told him I was from America.
His eyebrows raised and he said, “Aren’t you afraid?”
I looked at him for a second and then said, “No, Should I be?”
He looked at me more closely and said, “Well . . . of course not.,” even though it was clear he had to think about it.
I laughed and then so did he.
We talked for a few minutes about politics and the War in a very easygoing way. I told him I did not support Bush and the international policies of the White House. He looked at me and said, “You don’t what the what?” I laughed again and asked him where I could buy fruit and vegetables and such. He pointed me in the direction I came from and said “there is a large “Super” just around that corner.”
I looked at him and said “A Super?”
He said, “Yes, a SUPER”
“As in Super-Market?” I asked.
He tilted his head and said “What?”
“A Super-Market?” I reiterated.
“A Super-Maket?” he asked.
No, . . . MaRket . . . forget about it,” I finally said.
I turned to go and the guy gave me the thumbs up and said “American!”
What a strange city this is. It is funny that even though people often speak English surprising well there are certain simple words that are just not part of their vocabulary. Their language has appropriated another English word and they use that word thinking it is what everyone uses. For example; in Thailand never ask for toilet paper because they won’t have a clue what you want. But if you say “tissue,” with a strong “u,” they will rush off and get exactly what you need.
I found the Super. It was huge. I wandered around a quarter of it thinking I had seen the whole thing. Then I found the second department and then the third. I had trouble finding my way back to where I entered the place.
It was at the “Super” that I met Nazrul. He was an unassuming character who had his 12-year-old daughter by his side. He stopped and said hello. He told his daughter to say hello and she gave me a special Muslim greeting for elders. It was cool. We struck up a conversation and I found his English quite polished.
“How did you learn to speak English so well?” I asked.
“ I love to watch movies,” he responded
“You learned all your English from movies?”
“Yes, he replied. “When I went to school, English was not part of the curriculum. But I love movies. There used to be a wonderful theatre downtown that I went to as a kid. I must have gone there a thousand times.”
“I love the musicals and spaghetti westerns”
We talked about movies for a while and then bounced on to all kinds of other topics. We had to move out of the way of other shoppers several times. I soon put down my basket. Nazrul told me about his family and his home and then we talked about Terengganu for a while and I grilled him with many questions about North Eastern Malaysia. Not once did we talk about politics. How totally refreshing. Eventually he invited me for dinner at his place on Tuesday. I told him I would definitely make it. We parted ways and his daughter once again gave me the elders greeting.

On Tuesday I caught the bus and wandered around his neighborhood for a half an hour before I gave up.
“It is the small yellow house around the first corner from the park by the sea.” He had explained. I found the park by the sea but that was as far as I got. I eventually called him on my cell. He had given me his cell phone number. After a bit of explaining he figured out where I was and came out to pick me up. I had started quite close to his house and had ended up quite far away.
We went to a small local market and picked up some “classic Eastern Malaysian food,” as Nazrul put it. We returned to his house and I met his wife and three children. They lived in a simple four room house with a pleasant living room. There was a couch and the standard TV set and Karaoke Machine synonymous with all of Asia.
Nazrul’s wife spoke no English but none was needed to convey her hospitality. She whipped up a few special dishes and we sat down to a meal of many bowls of meats and curries. My favorite was a rich beef dish, fried in a sweet, salty and spicy curry paste. It was a deep red with huge chunks of beef and fat. I could not get enough even though my mouth was on fire and my ears were blowing steam. Nazrul’s wife brought out some “tissues” actually a role of toilet paper and I proceeded to stuff one up each nostril. This made his youngest daughter burst out in wild giggles. She then ran off squealing when I looked at her and growled. Nazrul’s older daughter came up to me and tried to ask me in English why I had stuffed tissue up my nose.
I pointed to the tasty beef curry past and said “HOT!” and waved my hand over my mouth. She laughed and went off to get me a glass of fruit juice. I gulped down the juice and asked for more. I then took the tissue out of my nose to have a regular conversation with Nazrul. We talked about a lot of things. More than I can remember now. But we eventually worked our way around to politics and then on to Islam. Nazrul told me how things were in Terengganu when he was very young. It was entertaining and after many questions he said he had some old clothe his grandfather handed down to him. He went off into the back room and came out attired in local dress from about 100 years back. He had the headdress and the traditional knife. It was interesting so I pulled out my camera and took a few photos. When I came into the house earlier, I had noticed a beautiful tapestry of the Indonesian archipelago and the nation of Malaysia.
I asked Nazrul to pose in front of it and I got a great picture of him. I named the picture, “Muslim and his Empire.” I think the funniest aspect of this photo is the head of his younger daughter and the expression on her face. She would burst into giggles every few minutes and run away squealing. I realized I was nothing special and it was one of her favorite behavioral patterns.
We got to talking about pirates and he did his pirate imitation, which I named “Infidel.” After that impression his older daughter appropriated the hat and the dagger and wore them for the rest of the evening.
I hung around and played with the kids for a while and talked some more with Nazrul and his wife. I asked them questions about their children and said I was envious. They had beautiful children who seemed very happy. Finally I took two family photos. The first one is my favorite. I named it “Typical Family,” and I think it is obvious why. It made me realize how similar people are all over the world. Despite religion, despite skin color and race, despite ethnicity, despite nationality, in the most fundamental ways we are all human and there is nothing more valuable then a happy family.
I look at the picture now and realize that I was “Uncle Andy”. “Uncle Andy” was over for a visit and George Bush and his War in Iraq could not change that fact.