“Bandar Sri Indah?” We poked our head into the doorway of a midsized bus, careful to avoid inhaling the sooty black emissions drifting toward us from the rear. We’d just flagged the bus… actually, we’d just flagged 5 buses… to ask whether it was going our way. And like the others before him, this driver smiled but shook his head no. When the next bus pulled over, we just got on, grumpy after steaming in the intense afternoon sun of an island where every day feels more humid than the last. After 30 seconds or so, the driver glanced at us in the rear-view mirror and held up 6 fingers with a questioning look. I didn’t know what it meant exactly, but it reminded me that our Airbnb host, Michael, had mentioned that Malaysian addresses are measured in the number of miles from the city center. I also recalled vaguely that the previous weekend, a taxi driver had grimaced when I told him the name of our suburb. “Mile 10?!” he had exclaimed, so in response to our bus driver’s inquiry, I held up 10 fingers. “No, no,” he shook his head, and I tried to pantomime that we would ride until he turned, then wait for another bus going farther. It seemed a logical plan, or at least better than standing on the hot asphalt with no shade. But the driver slowed down and I was afraid we were about to be ejected. “At least we’re a little closer to home,” I thought. “Maybe we’ll just keep this up.”
Instead, the driver watched his rear view mirror for some minutes, then stuck his hand out of his window. Eventually, a kombi (a public transport minivan for 10-12 passengers) passed us and our driver honked and waved him over, yelling “Indah!” “Indah!” The kombi pulled over at the next bus turnout and our driver pulled in behind him, then turned to us, pointed at the kombi and said, “Bandar Sri Indah!” Assured of our safe delivery to the proper address, he refused to accept any fare before speeding off, spouting black smoke cheerily behind him. How do you get around when you travel?
Most people would agree that the public transport system of East Sabah, Malaysia is rough at best. So a story of hitching a sweaty ride in a dilapidated lorry may seem out of place in a post about “VIP Travel.” Yet time and time again, we ARE treated as special guests – it’s truly touching to see how often strangers go out of their way to make us feel comfortable and welcome. It happened in Botswana: wandering around a government building while deciphering the maze of vehicle registration windows, an elderly gentleman wearing a full suit and bow tie limped down a long stairway to greet KC with a hearty handshake and to say “Welcome!”
It happened in Korea: we walked into a restaurant one afternoon and quickly discovered there were no photos nor English words attached to the menu. Another diner spoke up from his table in English and asked if we’d like help ordering.
It happened in Malaysia: In Sandakan (on Borneo), we were in one of those tiny airports where passengers go through security and wait in one big room. As the flights depart, one by one, everyone departs through the single doorway. As it turned out, we were the only passengers waiting for our 30-minute prop jet flight, and I suppose it wasn’t too hard to match the names on the passenger list with our faces. When the plane arrived for its brief stopover before carrying on to Tawau, the departure gate attendant merely sidled up to us and asked where we were going. When we confirmed “Tawau,” he pointed us out the door and onto the tarmac. I don’t think he even checked our tickets…
It happened in Bali: After we’d been there a week, I noticed that people all over town were calling me by name! Talk about feeling like a VIP… The gardener and cleaning ladies at our bungalow complex greeted me by name daily. When I biked by the corner warung (restaurant) where the proprietress couldn’t speak English, she nonetheless called out as I passed, “Haallllooooo, Bobbi!” Reaching the beach, Varez, the owner of the surfboard rental kiosk, looked up from waxing a board when I approached. “Hallo, Bobbi!” “Hi, Varez. Is KC in the water?” <Blank stare> “My husband?” “Oh, yes! Yes! He’s on the green board today.”
I found it flattering that people seemed to remember me; usually it’s KC whose name is easy to pronounce and he’s a likable guy – he even got the secret cool-guy handshake all over southern Africa while talking to men about cars or … well, pretty much cars. But Indonesians really seemed to pick up on my name and remember it. The interaction was predictable: when we exchanged names, they leaned forward a little and a quick smile flitted over their lips before repeating it: “Bobbi?!” And then, just like that, I was a micro-celebrity with people greeting me by name everywhere I went. Eventually something began to nag at me… something’s not right… Out of the corner of my sub-conscious eye I started to notice something: my name is on signboards all around the city. I began to have a sneaking suspicion that it’s not my scintillating personality that’s getting me this particular VIP treatment.
I soon had the chance to confirm my suspicion when we arrived in Malaysia, where the language is almost identical to Indonesian – like British English and American English. We had a personable guide at a jungle lodge who kept us laughing and pointed out a good variety of birds and wildlife. When a wild boar wandered into the camp – a huge animal the size of a sow in an American feedlot – I turned to him and voiced my fear. “Radzmil, does ‘Bobbi’ mean ‘pig’ in Malay?” Radzmil looked defeated. His head drooped slightly before he took a deep breath and put his hand on my shoulder. Then he looked me sorrowfully in the eye and gave me the news that must seem, to a Muslim, extremely unfortunate. “I’m sorry. Yes. Your name is Pig.”
It was fun while it lasted.