but it was a curse in this suffocating humid heat. Without air-flow and without air conditioning, driving through the Malaysian jungle was nearly unbearable. I practiced suppressing the feelings of hot, claustrophobic panic by breathing rhythmically and focusing on my heart rate.
Eventually, I would get used to it—that was the reason we removed our air
conditioner in the first place. By altering the environment to seem more
comfortable, it’s hard to ever get used to it.
But air-flow was necessary, and every day in this hot jungle I cursed that anonymous window-breaking pendejo a half a world away.
We entered a nondescript seaside village just like many others we’d
passed throughout the day, regarding the stick huts and colorful banners siding the roads. Suddenly a car raced up beside us in the oncoming lane and the two dark-skinned men inside wildly motioned for me to roll down my window.
I held my hand’s palm up and shrugged my shoulders, unable to roll my window down. I thought to myself, “that Argentinean pendejo .” They motioned to the roadside.
We’ve always held that in general, people are good, so we obliged and pulled over to see what they wanted.
“Hey guys, nice van!” The men had jumped out of their car and were
walking quickly toward Sheena’s window. “My friends and I are doing some video production here. You should come to our house and hang out for a while.”
There were few rules to this game, but one of them was that you never
turn down an invitation. We did a u-turn and followed the men back in the
direction we’d come until we arrived at a wooden hut, where we parked in a dirt
Inside the hut there were a couple of other young Malaysian men looking
at a laptop. The driver of the car introduced us to the others and said that they
had noticed us on account of our van and figured we weren’t from around there.
They were, they explained, producing a surf video to be filmed entirely in
“Nobody thinks of Malaysia as a surf destination. Everyone goes to Indo
instead. The surf in Indo is more consistent, but we have great surfing here, too.
You just have to know where to find it and when.” They explained that they’d
been traveling all over Malaysia for six months, discovering new surf spots that
nobody knew about because no surfers had ever bothered going there. “We’ve
even found some offshore spots that get a pretty big swell,” they said. They were
compiling their footage, and were going to release their surf video in the hope of
attracting surfers to their peninsula. Outside the hut, tiny waves softly lapped the
“I guess this place isn’t one of the secret spots,” I said.
“Not now, but last week it was huge!”
The conversation came to a lull and Sheena and I stood up and prepared
to leave. As we walked out into the dirt lot the guys mentioned that they were
having a beach barbecue that night with some friends, and that we should come.
“It’s just beyond the point over there,” one of them said, gesturing with his chin
toward a sandy bar extending from the beach a half-mile away.
That evening when it got dark, after setting up camp in a small clearing
next to a clump of trees just up from the beach outside of town, we walked
barefoot onto the beach and headed toward the point. The sand was cool under
our feet and tide pools had formed in a few places. Little crabs scurried away
sideways as we passed, and the low glow of the moon and the bare bulbs of the
sleepy village behind us illuminated the way. Around the point we saw the lights
of a hut supported on stilts, and a few people wandered about or lounged on
When we arrived we introduced ourselves to the others: a few Malaysian
surfers and boat drivers. The hut was actually a bar that had been closed down
for the group’s private party. We drank coke and ate barbecued fish while we
chatted with our new friends. We met Shuhaimy, a Muslim man who lived down
the coast on a hidden cove, and he offered us a place to stay on his property.
“I built my house on the best surf beach in Malaysia. You see, most
Malaysians keep a row of trees between their houses and the beach for
protection from storms, but I cut down the trees in front of my house so I could
see the surf. From the beach it looks like I am the only house. Come there this
weekend. I will feed you and you can go snorkeling.” We told him we surely
We grabbed a couple of beers and walked out on the deck above the
sand. A cool sea breeze floated in from the water and made the temperature
perfect. Sheena and I sat there in the dark, the quiet rhythm of jungle drums
floating out from a pair of speakers, and we watched the reflection of the
moonlight in the hypnotic, lapping waves. Just then a white bodiless tank top
traversed our line of sight and approached the bar from the empty beach below.
We had forgotten that a world existed outside of our tranquil beach bar, and we
watched the figure approach. I sipped my beer and slowly turned to Sheena as
the figure reached the halo of light cast on the sand.
“Is that Jan?” I caught his attention by waving my arm. “Jan! I’d
recognize that old wifebeater shirt anywhere!” He paused and let it sink in, and
then walked quickly over to us.
“I can’t believe it!” he said. “You still recognize my wifebeater!” It had
been three weeks since we’d parted ways in Kuala Lumpur and had gone off in
different directions, but here we were, at a barbecue on a random beach on the
South China Sea.
“How did you manage to hear about this barbecue?” I asked. There were
only a handful of people there, and it was a private affair. “We just sort of
stumbled upon it ourselves.”
“Actually I have no idea where I am! I was just walking along the beach
thinking and I saw some lights, so I came to see what it was.”
It was comforting to see Jan again. In Asia we were out of our element
and he represented a link to our past life in South America. We wondered how
he was holding up, and he seemed a little bit torn about his decision to come to
Asia. He and Kevin had recognized that, after having ridden from Canada to
Argentina together, their traveling styles had become disparate. Kevin preferred
to stay in one place for a long time and take photos, or fall into a groove. Jan, on
the other hand liked meandering, seeing where the winds would take him. But
the winds had slowed down upon reaching Asia.
“My bike is having some troubles, and I’m starting to feel as if I’m just
wandering aimlessly.” He was working on getting Karina, who we all referred to
as his “Latin lover,” out to Thailand for a visit, but beyond that he wasn’t sure
what to do. He seemed disheartened. “I’ve been thinking about going home
sooner than I had planned. I can go back into my practice as a tax lawyer.”
We’d found that emotional highs and lows were a part of this kind of
travel, and I guessed that he was going through one of those inevitable troughs.
But he seemed content, not like he was sulking. It just seemed to me that it was
the wrong time to quit with so much left to do.
“Jan, by complete random chance you’re eating grilled fish at a beach
barbecue in Malaysia with your friends you met in Argentina, and tomorrow
you’ll ride away through the jungle on your motorcycle without a care in the
world. These things won’t happen when you’re a tax lawyer in Holland.”
Jan had a pensive face, and when he smiled his forehead and eyes didn’t
wrinkle. He could be smiling or frowning, but you would only know by looking
at his mouth. Now his mouth seemed to convey a sense of amusement. “Yes, but
at a point you just don’t care anymore, and that’s when you know it’s time to go
home. Some people get lost out here and they never go back, but that’s not me. I
enjoy being a tax lawyer. I also enjoy traveling. But when traveling loses its
appeal, I might as well be a tax lawyer.”
I saw his point, and he was only putting into words what we had always
known. We’d met a few people on the road who had left home half a decade or a
decade before, and seemed plagued by the same monotony that had likely
pushed them out the door in the first place. Eventually we humans can adapt to
any situation and it becomes normal. It had occurred to me that people always
wonder what it would be like to be someone else: Bill Gates, Brad Pitt, David
Beckham. But in the end those people enjoy the same average number of
endorphins rushing through their bloodstreams as the rest of us. The trick is to
make an endorphin-inducing change and ride it until it levels out, and then make
We bid Jan farewell and in the morning made our own geographical
change. We would go back the way we’d come to spend the weekend at
Shuhaimy’s beach, and then we’d resume our northward trajectory before parking
Nacho and trying on our sea legs for a taste of the island life—toes in the sand, a good book, and smooth sailing with soft waves lapping at the bow of our boat.