I’m on the first bus I’ve been on since Nanning, which was about three months ago, now. And while it’s nice to be driven around, to not have to worry about where you are going, how you are going to get there and the number of times you’ll break-down along the way… There is obviously something Awfully removed about it. You don’t need to know where to find north, what route you’ll take and what might be most interesting to see along the way or where you need to be at the very end. Between the points you step on and off, you are just lost. Hopelessly lost and relying on the man in front of you– the one holding the wheel. Which is fine, but, well, I will miss it. The independence. The freedom to leave when you want and go where you want. To stop for a pee. To take a wrong turn and have to ask someone for directions as a result. Not much can compare.
Yesterday was my last day riding. I arrived on Pennang, an island just off the west coast of Malaysia, as the sun set the day before– after twelve hours and two hundred kilometers of frustration. The piston seal went with a Gurgle, and the engine started burning oil at a pretty alarming rate. I had to take out and clean the spark plug four or five times between the Malay border and Pennang. At one point the spark plug blew out entirely, half-way stripping the threads and ensuring it would pop out with a BANG every time I accelerated. So, for forty kilometers I held the spark plug in with my booted foot while trying to strike a balance between keeping my bike moving forward, and braking to navigate the traffic. Interesting, but it got old quickly. Eventually I tied it in with a piece of cord I’d been carrying around since the start of my trip. Bound and gagged, we limped into Pennang.
I managed to get it back into pretty reasonable working condition with a bit of tape and by playing with the air intake to compensate for the oil leaking into the chamber– these older bikes are Unbelievably easy to fix as long as you are patient and willing to work at it. My friend Tumi, a woman I’ve met up with four times since Cambodia, and I went off for one last ride around the island. A beautiful place with roads that hug the shoreline almost all the way around. We found and wandered around a spice farm, then stopped at a little roadside stall for some food. The bike was a star. I asked an older Malay man sitting in a house next to the stall if the food was any good– he said that the fish and coconut sauce was worth my time, then invited us in to sit with him while we ate.
His name is Rabbi. He was born on Pennang as the son of a fisherman, but now works at the national park, his wife runs a clothing consignment store and they donate most of their proceeds to the salvation army. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been able to work for the last couple of months because of an infection on his foot and the eventual amputation of three of his toes. He didn’t ever finish primary school, but learned English by talking with foreigners who passed by– and he spoke beautifully. As long as you are willing to learn, if it is in your heart, you can do anything– he said. We started talking and he said that the biggest difference between Malaysia and other countries in south east Asia is that Malaysians tend not to care about skin colour. That they fundamentally believe that people are all the same, all equal, no matter where they come from. That honesty was the way that we are brought together, and that treating people differently would only ever divide us. And, it shows. All the Malaysians I’ve met so far have been wonderful. Smiling and willing to help without asking for anything in return. After we had finished eating I asked Rabbi a question:
Do you want a motorcycle?
He looked at me, understandably confused. I told him that it wasn’t perfect, and that it certainly needed a bit of work– but if he wanted it, it was his. He asked me what I wanted in return. I told him that inviting us in for lunch was already good enough. He turned to his wife and started speaking to her in Malaysian, she doesn’t speak English, she came over and looked at Tumi and I with raised eyebrows, I shrugged my shoulders and smiled in response. I told them that we were going to go out again to see a bit more of the island, but on our way back I’d stop and drop everything off for him. Motorcylce, registration and the key. Then, it was his to own, for good.
We went out along one of the roads that snakes its way through the jungle, up and down mountains. Then just sat for a bit at the side of the road. It was the end. And everything felt right. All of it. All of it felt okay. For the last few days I’d spent on the road I’d been wondering how I was going to sell my little motorcycle. Maybe I could cover the cost of my flight to Indonesia, though I’d settle for fifty bucks… But, while riding, the more I thought about selling it, the more I turned the idea round in my head– the less it seemed to appeal. How could I accept money for this? For this tiny motorbike that I had nursed through four countries at sixty kilometers an hour. That I had sat with for days and days and days on end. Selling it seemed cheap. An unfitting end for me and my pygmy stallion.
We got back to Rabbi’s little bungalow and walked in. His children were all there and all shook my hand. He told Tumi and I to go choose and take any of the clothes we wanted– we tried to refuse, but he wouldn’t have any of it. I took two t-shirts, Tumi took a skirt. He urged us to take more, but we told him we were traveling, and just couldn’t. I handed him the registration card and the key and told him about some of her particularities. He then asked if we would take a picture with him. And that was it. As we shook hands he started crying. Trying to hold back tears he repeated, Thank you, thank you– telling me to come back whenever I wanted. Whenever I could. And. We walked off. Silent. Shaken. But overwhelmingly content.
After a minute or two.. I started laughing. And just couldn’t stop. That motorcycle meant Nothing. Nothing to me at all, and everything at the same time. But to them? It means so much more. Worth far more than any dollar sign I’d have plastered to it to sell. In this life I’ve been living over the past little bit, I barely own a thing. I have some silly bits that I carry around with me, a few articles of disintegrating clothing, but practically nothing to my name. And giving something away when you have nothing to begin with is just so easy. You start with nothing, you end with nothing. You gain small items as you go and others eventually move on. If anything I had was more expensive, more costly, my experience traveling would be completely different. I would covet my possessions more, horde them, keep them for myself. Refuse to settle and be disappointed at every endpoint. Frustrated. But it isn’t like that, and I couldn’t be more happy with the result.
So, I’m without my own transportation anymore. And that is okay. It was perfect. The whole trip was perfect, I learned soso much– and I’d do it over again if given the opportunity. For now all I have is a pair of boots and some feet that fit in them. And, for the time being, that is all I really need.
Here’s a list of some of the parts I had to replace along the way. I’ve more than likely forgotten things. Nearly every day on the road meant stopping in at a mechanic once or twice. I think my longest stretch problem free was three days. Anyway. Here: Battery, Alternator, Transformer, Cam shaft, Three spark plugs, Spark plug jacket, Shifter seal, Rack, Broken mirrors, Three clutch levers, Clutch cable, Clutch plates, Ignition, Engine gaskets, Transmission gaskets, Timing levers, Swing arm bearings, Piston seal, Bent rims, Carburator, Rear cog, Two gas leaks (Note: These cannot be fixed with bubble gum), Front suspension seals, Computer unit, One flat tire, Sheared muffler bolt, Air filter, Left indicator and Three spokes.
Oh, and countless lost nuts and a thousands stops along the roadside to tinker.