There is one vehicle on Interstate 10 just west of New Orleans that is
different from all the rest, its exterior cloaked by a patina of dust that looks
permanent like leathery, sunburned skin. Its scarred body panels are a storybook of experiences, which it wears with a well-earned smugness; a shrapnel-torn tank returning triumphantly from the battlefield. A long gouge on one side terminates in a dramatic dent at the rear fender, evidence of having sideswiped a bus in the dense, sweltering hornet’s nest of vehicular chaos in Varanasi, India.
An ammunition can bolted to the front bumper bears the indentation of a concrete road marker from somewhere in the Cambodian countryside. The wind causes the passenger side mirror to rock loosely on its mount, the result of an overzealous Kathmandu bus driver with poor depth perception.
The hurried drivers zipping past in the left hand lane of this American interstate pay no mind to the dented window frame on the old van’s driver’s side door, left there by the metal rod of an Argentinean thief.
I sit in the driver’s seat, my left elbow propped on the windowsill, my
hand resting loosely on the steering wheel much as I had over the course of the past two-and-a-half years since Nacho had last plied the roadways of North America.
We are often asked why we chose to name our 1984 Volkswagen van
Nacho, but there isn’t a good story to tell. We had picked it up from a girl in Hollywood where it bore the name Whoopi. But every long distance traveling steed needs a strong and dependable name, and Whoopi would not do.
We settled on Ignacio— “Nacho” for short—a tip of the hat to Mexico, which would be the first country we would cross on our around-the-world drive.
Sheena stares ahead from the passenger seat in a familiar way, watching
the scene unfold through the wiper-streaked windshield that somehow, after
having circumnavigated the entire globe, managed to emerge without a single
chip or crack.
The highways in North America are too straight. It is no wonder that
drivers fall asleep at the wheel. We have just crossed a long straight bridge over
a nameless body of water, and now we are driving a straight line carved out
through the low trees of the Louisiana swampland. In places the roadway is
supported by stilts so as to rise above the marsh. I keep a hopeful eye out for
alligators, but the only wildlife I see here are the long-legged white birds that
stand in the shallows and pick tadpoles with their skinny beaks. American roads
are too straight because to make unnecessary curves would add cost, and it
would ultimately take longer to get from one place to another. The American
landscape is a pattern of straight roads in constant flux toward a state of pure
efficiency. There are no unplanned features on these paved surfaces, and there
are few curves to mind, so it is easy to mentally drift away.
Ahead the white lines denoting the road shoulders shoot forward like
perfectly straight arrows, culminating at a single point on the horizon, laser
beams shooting a distant enemy. My mind runs with the image, and then
wanders off like a lost soul.
I am the commander of a futuristic army and only my van’s twin laser
beams can save the planet’s needy children. I am three, and I have gone to work
with my father without my pants, and for the first time I realize that I am too old
to be naked in public and I feel ashamed. I am driving a miniature car in a parade
to celebrate the birthday of Chairman Mao, but I run out of gas, thus
embarrassing myself and bringing shame upon the car’s owner. I deliver strict
instructions to a group of my Chinese border guard subordinates and they salute
me by stomping one foot and slapping their rifles with their gloved hands.
It is no wonder people fall asleep at the wheel on American highways.
From the ramshackle border towns of Mexico to the sticky jungles of
Panama, and onward to the windswept, featureless landscapes of Patagonia there
was always something to keep a driver’s mind occupied. Driving the routes that
made up the Pan-American Highway, from Tijuana to the Straits of Magellan,
had been more akin to mountain biking than driving, zigzagging across
roadways to miss boulders and potholes and the places where the road had
flaked off into the abyss. To drive to Tierra del Fuego was to drive a quarter of
the way around the globe on a forlorn power line road. Boredom is a featureless
interstate, white lines converging on the horizon, but it was nearly impossible to
fall asleep at the wheel on the Pan-American.
On a nondescript section of highway bordered by a concrete barrier–
protection against dozing off into the swamp, surely–one front tire becomes
misshapen and begins to grumble and shake as if flailing a whipping chain
against the ground with each revolution. The grumbling shakes me from my
Chinese border post and at once I pull over. While crossing Patagonia our tires
had taken so much abuse as to give up the ghost, and they had begun popping
nearly every day. I had gone to extreme measures to get us to Buenos Aires. One
evening on the beach near Puerto San Julian, after slashing two tires in a day, I
had used a fish hook and a length of 120 pound fishing line to stitch up a ripped
sidewall. It held air until we reached a tire repair shop twenty miles away the
following day. After leaving South America by ship, and after much searching, I
had finally procured a new set of tires from a man in a dirty tee shirt who spoke
no English, and who conveyed the virtues of my new tires through wild hand
gestures and unintelligible sounds like a verbal machine gun. This tire had been
through hell and back, diving in and out of bomb craters across the subcontinent
of India, traversing the Himalayas, and crossing the Sahara. Now, on a boring
stretch of Interstate 10 outside of New Orleans where the pavement is featureless
and pancake flat and the white lines shoot the horizon like laser beams, the
sidewall bulges out, the tread delaminates, and the tire finally pops.
There are millions of miles of roads on this planet, and our path had
comprised a great number of them linked together to make a meandering line
around the world, broken up by several stretches of ocean. Our tire popped at
precisely this location as a result of a string of hastily-made and ill-advised
Our original hare-brained plan, hatched spontaneously over dinner one
night, was to drive from our home in Arizona to the southern tip of Tierra del
Fuego, the farthest south that it is possible to drive in the world. That was
supposed to be the easy part, the warm up. After that we would ship Nacho to
Asia—the hard part—and then slowly work our way around to Europe. But we
had gotten a rough start to the Americas, and after six solid months of
mechanical problems we found ourselves stranded in the remote mountains of
Colombia for two months with a failed transmission, our motivation in
shambles. Then and there we decided that if we ever made it to Tierra del Fuego
—and we were pretty sure we’d never make it—then we’d treat ourselves to a
rest by shipping Nacho to Europe instead of Asia. But several months later when
we reached the end of the continent, and failing to heed the lessons of history,
we shipped Nacho to Asia anyway.
We had hit our groove and found comfort in uncertainty. We had finally
recognized that the most worthwhile experiences were borne of struggle and
vulnerability. The real adventure begins at wit’s end, as it were. Europe would be
too easy. The roads there were straight, there were rules and regulations and
speed limits and health codes. The place would be too cosmopolitan, the people
prim and coiffed. But of Asia we were ignorant, having neither experience nor
preconceived notion. The land beyond the Pacific, an unfathomably faraway
place, was filled with slack-jawed cannibals clicking their tongues, and the
possibility of adventure was endless.
The heat was stifling and my shirt clung to my skin like a wet blanket as
I shuffled sideways in the dark. Drops of sweat stung my eyes as I located the
lock and fumbled the key into it. Stale heat oozed slowly out of the van as I
cracked the door open, and it touched the side of the shipping container, creating
only a twelve inch opening. I contorted and squeezed myself through the crack
and into the driver’s seat. After thirty six days at sea the battery was nearly dead,
but the starter was able to coax just enough electrons from the battery to spin to
life and weakly turn over the reluctant engine. The alternator belt squealed like a
bloodthirsty banshee and I eased the transmission into reverse and slowly
emerged from the shipping container into the thick air. The smell of palm trees
and warm saltwater created a perfume that hung like smoke.
Sheena smiled and pinched her fists against her sides to contain her
excitement. A dark-skinned man directed me to a parking spot next to a
dilapidated building, and as I came to rest Nacho’s odometer turned over 300,000
miles. I signed my name to a piece of paper, and then Jan and Kevin signed
theirs. Their motorcycles had made the journey from Buenos Aires inside of the
container with Nacho. They stood in stark contrast to us, we in our shorts and tee
shirts, they in their full motorcycle gear. They inspected their bikes, which were
still covered in Patagonian dust, and they pointed at new oil leaks and tested
their grips in the blistering heat like ants under a magnifying glass.
The dark-skinned man looked up from our paperwork and gave us the
thumbs up. We gestured to the main gate of the port and looked back at him and
he nodded his approval. We were finished and free to go. We started our engines
and drove slowly in single file out of the port, where drivers zoomed by on the
wrong side of the road. Scooters were piled high with bundles of baskets,
overloaded trucks trundled by, and we timidly joined the flow.
The next day it felt as if a weight had been lifted. In the early afternoon
we went for a walk when the sun was high overhead, heating the humid air into a
sauna that speckled our shirts with perspiration. Vines climbed from the ground
into the canopy of a tree, out across the limbs, and then dangled in the air above
our heads. We sat on a bench and watched people go by. A Chinese couple
passed, followed by several young Muslim women. Their silk head scarves
shaded their faces from the hot sun while their smooth gait and petite sandals
tapped out a rhythm on the sidewalk. They floated smoothly along in their
elegant silk gowns in such a way as to seem impervious to gravity.
The French say that by presenting ourselves artfully, our presence may
add beauty to the world. I can only imagine that they came to this conclusion
after watching Muslim women walk.
The loudspeakers atop the mosque’s minarets crackled to life, and then a
voice like a singing cello began its steady, melodic rendition of the call to
prayer. The voice carried out over the city, a cappella , in an enchanting echo
reminding Muslims that it was time to find a peaceful place to face Mecca and
pray. We sat back and let the sound pour over us and it dawned on us just how
far from home we were. We were in the Islamic world now, in Kuala Lumpur,
We sauntered along the sidewalk, shriveling in the heat, gulping the
saturated air as though it was liquid water. Between two buildings a Hindu
temple appeared, adorned with hundreds of ornate statues of mystic blue gods.
From within the temple the squealing notes of a shehnai filled the street and the
ground reverberated with the thud of a hand drum. We kicked off our sandals
and walked inside to see where the music was coming from, and were met by a
scene of pure jubilation. Under the central pavilion men and women were
dressed to the nines. Musicians sitting on the floor belted out wild instrumentals
while little girls in saris threw flower petals and ran through the canopy of
cheerful adults. It felt like a Bollywood dance scene might break out at any
We had walked into a traditional Indian wedding.
The bride and groom were dressed in elaborate outfits with headdresses,
necklaces, jewels, and bright makeup. In between trips around the shrine people
showered them with flower petals and wafted candle smoke onto them, and all
the while they were surrounded by smiling family and friends. We struck up a
conversation with an older woman who gave her name as Raji, and she gave us
the inside scoop about the bride and groom. They were from Tamil Nadu in
southeastern India, but they met in Kuala Lumpur. Raji was the cheeriest person
I had met since arriving in Malaysia. Everyone at the wedding was like this. The
little girls ran around in their saris handing out party favors to the guests.
Outside of the pavilion more guests ate curry and rice with their fingers, smiling
in the sun.
Aristotle said that happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the
whole aim and end of human existence. I can only imagine that he came to this
conclusion after attending an Indian wedding.
In the late afternoon, Sheena and I hopped on the metro. As soon as Teng
Tsen heard that we were in town, he called his Volkswagen club together for a
proper welcome party.
I had told him that we would meet him at Sri Petaling station at 6:15, that
we’d be the goofy-looking white people.
“I’m the good-looking Malaysian guy. Look out for the VW kombi!”
We emerged from the station to find Teng Tsen waiting for us in his
pristine 1974 air-cooled Volkswagen bus. We loaded up and rolled out with the
windows down, a cool breeze filling the bus. We took a quick detour into a
residential neighborhood where Séb and Soizic tagged along in their 1966 split
window VW bus. Somehow, through the tangle of Asian chaos and coincidence,
we met up with the other members of the club in traffic on a busy freeway, and
then slithered as one big VW snake to a roadside food stand.
Over bowls of Yong Tau Foo we told lies about our travel-related
triumphs and conquests. All the while, Sheena and I had to keep pinching
ourselves. Were we really in Asia? Had we really just been in South America? It
already seemed a lifetime ago. This was about as different from the wild
expanses of Patagonia as one could get on this planet.
We loaded up again, this time in Séb’s bus, and headed out for cold
drinks. In a parking lot near the freeway filled with groups of smiling young
Malaysians, we crowded around tables in folding chairs. We were soon joined
by more smiling faces of the Malaysia VW Club, and we threw back several
glasses of ice cold tropical juice. The parking lot was packed with Beetles and
buses, and our table was equally packed with fun-loving car enthusiasts. Try as
we might, nobody would let us pay for anything. “When you’re in our country,
you are our guest!” they said.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said that happiness is not a goal; it is a
byproduct. I can only imagine that she came to this conclusion after driving in a
For the days before Nacho arrived at the port we took a hotel in the
center of Kuala Lumpur. We rose with the sun and set out for breakfast at a
bustling street market near the river. At this early hour the market catered to the
service industry workers who slurped bowls of spicy noodle soup before taking
up brooms and hand trolleys and cooking implements. The night suppressed the
humidity, and as the rays of the rising sun bounced between the buildings and
onto the tin roofs of the market stalls, the wetness slowly returned, and brought
with it a thickness to the air and the fragrance of chilies and bananas and tin.
The market was itself something of an urban cavern sunken deep
between tall buildings. Its stalls spilled from the sidewalk into the street, turning
what would have been a thoroughfare into an urban obstacle course of street
food and tapestry sellers. Malaysia has three primary cultural groups—the
Malay, the Chinese, and the Indians—and this market was quintessentially
Chinese. This was made obvious by the Mandarin characters on the overhead
flags, and by the spitting. Some Chinese spit as a means of cleansing, believing
that eliminating the slimy deposits of built-up phlegm from their throats will
make them healthier. Thus, especially in the early morning, Chinese gathering
places become an orchestra of hacking and lurching. We spent our market
mornings in flimsy plastic chairs under makeshift rusty shelters slurping the
most delectable of rich and salty noodle soups, the handmade noodles smacking
our lips and leaving drops of fiery chili, all underscored by a soundtrack of
roaring wet lurches, like sticky flesh being dragged through rubber tubes, and
Jan and Kevin had taken a hotel on this street, and to enter their lobby
one had to duck between the snarl of outdoor kitchens and trinket stalls and enter
through what seemed to be a hidden door.
We had first met them in Patagonia near the base of Mount Fitzroy, and
their decision to come along with us to Asia was made on the spur of the
moment. They had ridden to South America on a couple of old BMW
motorcycles, and their traveling style had been rather different from ours. They
traveled faster, only staying a few days in each place, and stayed in hotels every
night. They traveled light, and we came to know them not only by their
personalities but also by what they wore every day. Kevin, the Canadian, could
always be found wearing brown khaki shorts and a black fast-drying tee shirt,
while Jan, the Dutchman, sported blue jeans and a sleeveless white shirt. “You’re
always wearing that old wifebeater shirt,” we teased. We had taken an apartment
together in Buenos Aires, and day after day Kevin would leave early and return
late with his camera slung over his shoulder, while Jan hung around the
apartment in his wifebeater shirt. We fell asleep to the murmur of Jan Skyping
with his Colombian girlfriend, seven months’ drive away to the north. We had
become roomies, but after leaving Kuala Lumpur we would go our separate
When Nacho arrived by ship we checked out of our central hotel and
moved to the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur where we had been offered a place to
stay in someone’s house—a friend of Teng Tsen. His name was Terence, a
Malaysian of Indian descent from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and a
part of the Tamil Volkswagen club. Terence was a Malaysian bachelor, and so
each night when the brutal sun slid below the horizon and the wet blanket was
lifted off of our faces, we drove out to the row of buildings bordering the
highway to eat dinner. There were several places to choose from, and each night
other Tamils met us for dinner of roti and thali with a Malaysian twist. I often
chose the ultimate health-nut option of roti pisang , an Indian flat bread made by
slapping sticky dough against a surface until it was as thin as paper, and then
covering it in butter and throwing it onto a griddle. After adding bananas and
more butter, the layers of dough were folded over and over, finally firming up
into a chewy banana-filled pastry. To finish it off, it was covered in sweetened-
condensed milk and served with spicy curry sauces for dipping. It is the Tamil
Big Mac – what doesn’t kill you makes you fatter!
The Tamils taught us how to eat curry with our fingers, and how to send
messages to the waiter by folding our banana leaves. There is a system in Indian
restaurants and by following it we started to feel more at home, comfortable in
our surroundings because we were in the know. Upon our arrival at the
restaurant we would head to the back and wash our hands in the sink. This was
important because Indian food is eaten with the hands. If we ordered thali , the
waiter would first lay down a banana leaf, and then place a large scoop of rice in
the middle. He would then ladle scoops of various curries and lentils around the
perimeter. To eat it, the right hand—always the right hand, never the left!—was
used to mix some rice with curry and mold it into a pellet. It was then lifted to
the mouth with the elbow out and thumb toward the face, and then the thumb
was used to slide the pellet off of the fingers into the mouth. If done well it was a
pretty clean way to eat, and much more satisfying that eating with silverware.
This dish, costing only a dollar or two, was all-you-can-eat. To tell the waiter
that we were finished and didn’t want any more refills, we folded the banana leaf
along its spine with the opening away from the table edge. To tell the waiter that
we were dissatisfied, which we never were, we were to fold the leaf down so that
the opening was toward the table edge. Last, we would walk back to the sink,
wash our hands, put some water in our mouth and slosh it around, then spit it
into the sink. The meal ended with several rounds of sweet milk tea.
One night at a curry joint beside the highway, at tables spilling into the
parking lot, we asked Terence and Adrian and Lavern why the Tamils and the
Chinese each formed their own VW clubs in Kuala Lumpur instead of
consolidating. They were all friends, and we had been introduced to Terence (a
Tamil) by Teng Tsen (Chinese), although we rarely saw them together.
“We’re all friends, but we travel different, la !” He looked like a young
Michael Jackson from the Thriller days, and his face seemed more at ease when
smiling than not. About seven in ten Malaysians speak English, and the Tamils
had their own pidgin language combining Malay and English terms. One of the
more charming quirks of the language was the tacking on of the word “la” to the
ends of sentences, and peppered throughout. It was a do-all suffix and space
filler which imparted a Rastafarian innocence on the speakers.
“When da weather is good, da Volkswagen clubs go road trippin’, la , like
when we went to Vietnam. But da problem with da Chinese is dey travel too
fast, la ! We take our time. An’ den there’s the issue of eatin’, la . Da Chinese
always want hot pot. And we don’ like road trippin’ with the Muslims, la ,
because dey always need to find halal food. Sometimes we just wanna sanwich,
but they gotta keep searchin’, la ! Too much plannin’!” He looked across the table
at Vijay, who had recently converted from Hinduism to Islam after falling in
love with a Muslim girl. “E’cept Vijay over dere, he may be Muslim but he’ll eat
anythin’, la !” He flashed his teeth and laughed, then scooped some rice and curry
with his fingers and popped it into his mouth.
One afternoon, Sheena and I found ourselves standing in the wet parking
lot of Studio 16 in Kuala Lumpur. A video camera was trained on us as we stood
in front of Lavern’s hippie bus, painted like something out of a psychedelic acid
“I think team Apec was totally corny. The way that the girl flung her
“Cut! Can we roll that again? Listen, the team’s name is ‘Apex,’ not
‘Apec,’” the director said.
“Oh, okay, sorry about that. Apex? Got it.”
“I think team Apex was totally corny. The way that the girl, like, flung her
arms around and said that she was going on her honeymoon was really over the
top. I definitely preferred team Maverick.” Yeah! Nailed it!
Somehow, after a little more than a week in the city, we had landed on an
episode of the Malaysian version of The Apprentice . The day had started off
normally enough. I had parked Nacho in Terence’s driveway and put on my VW
surgeon’s gloves. During our last few weeks in Argentina our water purification
system had sprung a leak somewhere under the false floor. I had hinged the floor
so that almost the entire water system could be easily accessed, but there was
one section under the rear seat where it was inaccessible. The leak, of course,
had sprung under the rear seat.
I started by removing the seat, and then went to work enlarging a pass-
through in the false floor where the rear heater poked through so that I could get
my hands on the connection between two tubes where a hose clamp had become
loose. Around midday we got a call from Teng Tsen.
“You’re going on TV tonight. Start driving to the IKEA, and someone
will meet you on the freeway to show you where to go. There will be lots of
Volkswagen people there, so bring Nacho. Dress business smart.”
I looked at Nacho. The rear seat was missing, the heater was balanced on
its side, and the battery and inverter were delicately stacked on top of one
another to power the Dremel tool, which was sitting next to a half-cut hole in the
floor. Tools, wires, tubing, and tape were all stacked on the counters, and various
cabinets and storage boxes were all open and disheveled. Nacho wasn’t going
With Nacho down for the count, Sheena and I put on our only clean
“Hey Sheena, what does ‘business smart’ mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think these sandals are business smart?”
“Uh, probably not. Maybe you should wear your running shoes.”
Once we were business smart in our jeans and semi-clean, slightly
wrinkled shirts and tennis shoes, we hopped in Lavern’s hippie bus and lurched
and sputtered onto the freeway.
Sure enough, as we approached the IKEA, Stephen—of the Chinese VW
club—waited for us on the side of the freeway, and then pulled out in front of us
to lead the way to Studio 16. When we arrived the parking lot was full of old
Volkswagen Beetles. We parked and were led to some tents where the cast and
crew were eating Indian food. We settled in, filled our plates, and sat around
looking business smart near a group of portable tents in the parking lot. Just then
it began to rain, and soon the rain became torrential.
While we ate, sheltered by the tents, an Indian woman who seemed to be
a production assistant brought us up to speed. For this episode of The Apprentice ,
two teams had created marketing campaigns to promote the new Volkswagen
Beetle. We would be in the audience, and would watch the teams present their
commercials to some executives from Volkswagen. Among the VW
representatives was Simon, the lead designer of the new Beetle.
The production assistant poked her head out of the studio door and over
the sound of the torrential rain told us to get ready. We would walk into the
studio in single file with the cameras rolling, and then sit down. My television
debut! Should I strut, or maybe do more of a saunter? Should I smile? No,
smiling makes people seem submissive. I would look straight ahead, dead-eyed
like a catwalk fashion model. Yeah, that would look awesome. Oh man, this was
going to be great! I’m going on TV! I’m going on TV!
Just then the awning above me reached its water-holding capacity and
buckled, sending several gallons of rain water directly on top of me. Everyone
stopped what they were doing and looked at me. I felt like Carrie after the bucket
of pig’s blood had ruined her prom glory. My eyes looked left, twitched to the
right, and then left again. My face still held a relic of a grin on it from when I
was thinking about how awesome I would look when I walked in like a catwalk
fashion model, but the grin had turned into a strained grimace. My matted hair
stuck to my forehead and my business smart shirt clung to me like a bag of
“Umm, I think it’ll dry in time,” someone whispered sympathetically.
“All right everyone, enter on THREE…TWO…ONE…” The production
assistant poked her head out the door, and then disappeared. The first person
walked in, then the second and third, and then I was standing in front of the
door. I looked around to see who wanted to go next, but everyone looked back at
me expectantly. I clasped the door handle in my clammy, wet hand and pulled
the door open. My waterlogged business smart tennis shoes sloshed and burped
as I walked down the aisle, staring blankly ahead like an emotionless catwalk
fashion model. I went to the front row, swiveled, and splashed down into a chair.
“Pssst!” It was the production assistant. “You can’t sit there. That’s
where the client sits!” she whispered.
Oh damn. The proverbial catwalk model had twisted his proverbial ankle
and proverbially fallen off of the catwalk into the crowd. I slowly stood up,
looking as cool and business smart as possible, and sloshed and burped my way
back into the second row where Sheena sat patiently waiting for me to stop
making an ass of myself.
The two competing teams took turns standing in front of first a new
yellow Beetle, and then a new black Beetle, performing the commercials they
had created. After about an hour the teams had finished performing, we had
finished our requisite audience applause and laughter shots, and it was time to
leave. Everyone stood up and started filing out the doors when the production
assistant pulled Sheena and me aside.
“You two! Would you stay behind so we can shoot some additional
material with you?” she asked.
“Of course,” we said. Aha! I must have nailed the dead-eyed catwalk
fashion model impersonation after all! My television debut was going great! We
walked out of the screening room, trailing a cloud of evaporating storm runoff
and wet sock vapor.
Back in the parking lot, the director asked us to stand in front of Lavern’s
bus and tell him what we thought about each team’s performance. After
explaining how corny we thought Team Apex was, the director had one more
“Okay, listen. Now we want you to look into the camera and say ‘You
qualify, Beetle up!’ Can you do that?” We were supposed to point at the camera
with both fingers when we said “you qualify,” and then transition to two thumbs
up when we said “Beetle up.” And all this after I had just finished reprimanding
Team Apex for being corny.
“All right, action!”
“You qualify, Beetle up!” we echoed.
“Cut! You were pointing while she was doing the thumbs up. Can we roll
it again? Pointing first, then thumbs. Action!”
“You qualify, Beetle up!” we repeated.
“Wait, wait, I messed up again,” Sheena cried. “I pointed, but my thumbs
were up at the same time like little guns. Let’s do it again.”
“You qualify, Beetle up!”
The last time everything went perfectly. We were in synch like a well-
rehearsed boyband, our fingers pointed in harmony to the rolling camera, and
then deftly transitioned to the thumbs-up position before the backdrop of our
cheesy smiling faces. Our television debut. We could only hope that the footage
would be lost in a building fire, never to see the light of day.
There was one thing that initially dismayed me about Terence’s house,
and about Malaysia in general.
“Terence, there’s no toilet paper, la !” I had taken to throwing la in here
and there so as to fit in with the population, but despite my linguistic
adaptations, my towering 6’3” stature and white face gave away my foreignness.
As did my aversion to—if I may be so crass—wiping my ass with my hand.
I had always known that in Asia it was bad form to touch someone or eat
with your left hand, a sign of disrespect and bad sanitation, because the left hand
is used for wiping one’s ass. In my mind I had always just figured that Asians
were particularly sensitive about the mechanics of personal hygiene, or that
some archaic custom of dynastic sanitary chivalry had survived the ages and
manifested itself as this strange abandonment of one entire extremity.
But when I walked into Terence’s bathroom on that first day and stared
confusedly at the setup, it finally dawned on me. There was a toilet, and next to
it a rubber tube attached to a garden spigot coming out of the wall. Like a
housecat with limited cognitive ability I stared doe-eyed at the toilet, then at the
tube, then at the toilet. No toilet paper holder? I thought for a long time, and
finally all of the evidence fell into place like the climax in a Law and Order
By Jove, I’ve got it! It is unsanitary to eat with the left hand!
By thorough investigation and deductive reasoning I was able to
ascertain that these rubber tubes I’d observed everywhere were to be held and
aimed by the right hand while the bare left hand did the scrubbing. It made
perfect sense! Why had it taken me twenty-nine years to understand this simple
concept? Finkle is Einhorn! Einhorn is Finkle!
These rubber tubes were vile, and were to be avoided at any expense!
What’s worse was the fact that most Asian public toilets didn’t have any soap! I
shared my findings with Sheena and we began religiously carrying toilet paper
with us at all times, and we carefully watched where our food servers were
placing their left hands.
We had only been in Asia for a couple of weeks, and hadn’t yet given in
to doing things the Asian way. Each time I entered a bathroom I eyed the vile
rubber tube with an instinctive distrust. I calculated angles and imagined the
misuses and overspray, and I clenched the wad of toilet paper in my pocket like
a safety blanket.
On the day before we left Terence’s house to embark on our maiden
Asian voyage aboard Nacho down the coast toward Singapore, Sheena and I
walked toward the highway where there was a little mall. We had taken to using
the mall for internet access since Terence didn’t have access at his house. We
settled in at a small café and soon enough I felt a rumble in my belly, an effect of
last night’s roti pisang .
“Sheena, I’m off to the bathroom. Wish me luck.” She looked up from
her computer and gave me a stern nod, and I was on my way. I passed the
hardware store filled with Chinese tools and the fashion store selling Indian saris
and strappy sandals, and soon arrived at the bathroom in a back hallway.
Western toilets are a rare thing in Asia, and are usually only found in
modern homes. Public toilets invariably have squat toilets: simple porcelain
dishes inlayed in the floor with anti-slip foot platforms, and this one was no
different. The floor around the squat toilet was all wet, and a vile, discolored red
rubber tube was stretched across the wet floor and its end rested on the bottom of
the porcelain bowl. I suppressed a gag reflex and moved the tube out of the way
with my foot. There was a red bucket underneath a garden spigot to be used for
After doing my business I decided to introduce a bit of Western flare to
this backwater by creating my very own flush toilet. I would use the vile bum
sprayer to do the flushing instead of filling the red bucket with water and
pouring into the bowl. I positioned my right foot on a tiny patch of dry floor and
used my left foot to scoot the tip of the foul tube so that it pointed at an angle
into the side of the toilet bowl. This, I calculated, would provide just the right
degree of swirl so as to emulate the flushing mechanics of a proper Western
toilet. I checked my work, and once satisfied, I reached over and turned the
faucet handle to full blast.
I am an engineer, and I graduated with an emphasis in fluid dynamics,
but enough time away from academia had evidently turned my brain to mush,
because what happened next caught me completely by surprise. A split second
after turning the handle the red bum sprayer tube came to life like a whipping
sea serpent. The force of the water being pushed through the hose turned it into
an out-of-control rocket ship. I lurched backward to escape the whipping torrent
of water but there was no safe place in the tiny bathroom stall. I closed my eyes
and flailed my arms to try to stop the barrage of filthy water, but it was hopeless.
The serpent hissed and whipped and slashed the walls with its fecal water ray. I
lunged through the flood and turned off the faucet. My eyes were pinched shut
and I dared not open them for fear of exposing them to this flood of poison eye
drops. I wiped my soaking face with the back of my damp sleeve, horrified. I
tumbled out of the stall and fell onto the counter, and scrubbed my face and arms
until they were pink and raw.
Walking back through the mall there was no way anyone could have
guessed what had happened. It was too foolish. I had tried to beat the game by
circumventing the rules, and Asia had won. The whipping toilet snake had won.
I lowered my drenched body into the plastic chair next to Sheena and let
out a pathetic whimper. My hair poked out where the violent stream had caught
“What in the hell happened to you, boy?!”
I explained what had happened, my eyes downcast and ashamed, and told
her that I had learned my lesson and was ready to abandon my Western ways.