story was written well after the fact and so was never sent.
Subject: 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
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?”
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!”
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
“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.
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
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
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
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.