“Kuala Lumpur! Kuala Lumpur!” the co-driver thundered, as he banged the open door of the bus. I was jarred awake from my slumber and peered at him through half-shut eyelids. I closed my eyes and snuggled further into the comfortable seat of the couch, hoping he would stop, or go away. He banged even harder and shouted at the top of his voice, “Kuala Lumpur!!!”
It was 5am. We had just arrived in Kuala Lumpur after a six-hour bus-ride from Singapore. I got up, grabbed my two bags and groggily clambered down and off the bus, along with the other passengers. We waited patiently as our suitcases stashed in the under-belly of the bus were off-loaded. An elderly Indian with greyish-white hair and a rough goatee stood nearby, next to his taxi.
“Taxi, taxi?” he asked me in a hoarse whisper, and took my suitcase from me and placed it into the trunk when I accepted to go with him. “Where do you want to go?”
I opened my bag and got the transparent folder that contained all the paperwork plus passport. I pulled out the paper with the hotel’s address and gave it to him, all the while noticing that my blue passport was conspicously missing. It was probably in one of my bags, I thought. We rode around in circles, trying to locate the hotel, as I frantically searched each bag for the passport. We finally arrived at the hotel and I took in the surroundings. Under the bright street lights, the neighborhood of the hotel looked dingy. Shadows fell on the dirty-white walls of the houses, stacked against each other like giant matchboxes. Uncollected garbage sat strewn nearby, the electrical powerlines were overhanging and puddles of water had gathered in tiny potholes along the bumpy road.
As the taxi-driver got my suitcase, I quietly announced, “I think I’ve lost my passport.”
The taxi-driver looked at me, and his mouth opened wide in shock. “You have lost your passport?” he asked, like he didn’t hear me the first time.
“Yes, I think I dropped it in the bus,” I said, remembering that after it was stamped at the Malaysian border, I briefly glanced at it as we had set off.
“We go back to the bus station,” he said, with urgency.
We got there in a short while, and drove around looking for a red bus with plates that I remembered. We could not find it among the fleet of multi-colored coaches in the huge station.
I had lost my passport in a foreign land. The thought itself was bewildering. I knew not a soul in Malaysia, I had no idea where the police station was, to report the loss of my passport. I did not know where the Kenyan embassy was, in case I needed another one. I would have to do the return journey to Singapore in a few days, to get the flight to Amsterdam. I was in Malaysia to attend a women’s conference, but my trip was clouded by all this, and busied over the next few days with constant calls to the Singapore bus office, and to my travel insurance in the Netherlands for assistance. I finally located the bus driver on phone, but couldn’t understand him, so I asked the hotel personnel to talk to him in their language. He said he had found the passport in the bus, and would give it to me. Over a couple of days, it seemed we were going round in circles, him always coming to Malaysia, me always missing his calls to meet. Finally, I handed the issue over to this friendly taxi-driver who had been taking me to and from the KLCC conference halls. He had introduced himself as Vidhu.
“Don’t worry about your passport,” he said, “Just continue with the conference, I will follow-it up and get it back here for you.” Vidhu looked like he was in his early fifties, with medium height and a bulging tummy. He had the complexion of milky coffee and talked while cocking his head from side to side, like many Indians do while in conversation. A day later, he added that the man kept on driving to Malaysia, but was based somewhere else, in a faraway town. I would probably need to pay for him to get there and get the passport for me. The hotel had similar advise for me, “Maybe if you give him a little money, he will bring your passport…..that’s how things work over here.”
I had one free day with no conference planned, nor any meetings. I strolled around that neighbourhood and stumbled upon a barber’s shop. I walked in and asked them to trim my short hair. They did more than that, completely shaving the sides of my head, and cropping the top. They gave me a shoulder, neck and head massage in the process, which felt like light karate-chops on my skull and shoulders. I looked at my manish hair-cut, noted that I was bald, paid them and walked away. I called Vidhu up, and arranged for him to take me to the Batu caves in the afternoon. He took me there, but along the way we had an interesting conversation.
“You say you from Kenya?” he asked.
“Yes, I am from Kenya,” I replied.
“Are you married?”
“No, I am not married.”
“Why you not married?” he probed, like I had opted for the celibate life.
“I just haven’t met the right person, I guess,” I replied.
“Will you marry me?”
I quickly noted it was a common pastime of Malaysian taxi drivers in Kuala Lumpur. The five-minute conversations while slowly traveling from Point A to Point B, the broken down meters resulting in being overcharged, questions on my relationship status and a proposal, “Will you marry me?”
I stopped one taxi-driver and asked him to take me to the Western Union in Kuala Lumpur. The office said it was their policy not to give money if a person didn’t have a passport or a passport copy. My identity card was not sufficient enough. I told the taxi driver what had transpired, stating that I had lost my passport. His response was comical to say the least.
“You lost your passport…so you have to stay here! We can marry!” he declared with glee.
I shared my experience with some ladies at the conference. A single American woman living and working in Kuala Lumpur shrugged it off, “Oh, they do that all the time. When I first came, it bothered me,” she laughed, “Now, I just tell them that I have a husband here and six children with me, that way they get off bugging me.”
My Zambian friend didn’t say much over that issue, she just expressed her annoyance at my dress code. “I thought you were a Muslim when I first saw you?!! she cried.
“Just a fashion statement,” I said, in response to her lament over me wearing the hijab.
While I regarded it as a cool fashion statement, I actually scored some bonus points out of wearing this head gear. I think because Malaysia is predominantly Muslim, I was respected…sort-a. One guy at the hotel came to sit with me at my table at the breakfast buffet. It was shocking because no one had sat with me there before, most people in the hotel were visiting as groups or couples, and pretty much kept to themselves. I had come alone. He was curious about where I came from and what I was doing there. He shared that he was there with a group, and they were filming for a project in Bangladesh.
Along the streets, I got many people coming up to me with the greeting, “Assalamu alaikum!”
In addition, the taxi drivers didn’t bother me as much when I wore the hijab.
Vidhu managed to get my passport back to me. I had to part with a couple hundred ringitts, payment for his time and trouble getting to the other town where the bus driver was situated. The conference went well. The highlight of it all was that I bumped into Melinda Gates there, and took a picture with her. Well that,…and views of the Petronas towers. Beautiful.