“Hopelessly lost” didn’t quite describe my predicament of finding my hostel in Kuala Lumpur.
The innocent-seeming prelude unfolded shortly after I parted ways with two German travellers and a Buddhist monk; where exactly I may identify in hindsight, yet at the time I could only describe my arrival from Penang as being dropped off in the middle of nowhere – except the knowledge that I was near Chinatown’s Petaling Street, and that the Starbucks on the opposite side of the street could offer some answers.
Then I acquired the address: Jalan Tun HS Lee. Everything should be pretty straightforward henceforth.
For the duration of the next half hour I wandered far and disorientated, unaided by lack of mobile data, deprived of Google Maps, before long the prolonged search did yield the correct street sign – then, anchored to linear progression of the path, scrutinising the decreasing street numbers, I expected to see BackHome Hostel show up anytime soon.
Except the furthest the Jalan would stretch – where it ended – was 100. 30 HS Lee was what I was after.
No matter, the self-reassurance sparked; I must have gone too far.
The forlorn pacing repeatedly up and down the street must have numbered ten laps, or perhaps quantified as a good deal of an hour going around in circles, asking a dozen of near-oblivious locals.
One false lead in my investigation provided the final straw; I shall enquire one last time, then relinquish the responsibility of path-finding to a cab driver.
At first I mistook him as the shopkeeper of a closed camera shop, sweeping his store front as the final bearing of daily chores. I homed in, hitchhiking-learnt best behaviour and courteous tone to mask my fatigue and frustration.
He uttered a lot of right’s and left’s. I could handle no more.
“Can you please help me find a taxi and make sure the driver charges me by the meter?”
The man shifted; under the remaining light bulbs his complexions, skin tanned amidst his Australoid features of a young Malay, suggested he was troubled. He shook his head. He didn’t want me to be ripped off, he claimed.
Just as swiftly as he had dropped the broom, he scurried to an adjacent back alley and retrieved his bag, exchanged a few words with whom I could only assume were his friends, then returned before me.
“I take you there, walking.”
I had my reservations – I may have judged a little when he told me that, as opposed to being the shopkeeper I thought he was upon first impression, he was in fact homeless.
For the past seven years.
In between stints of arrests from drunken unruliness – a free bed at least, he admitted – he had drifted in the neighbourhood, lacking job and little means of sustaining himself. Everything he possessed lied within the backpack he carried, that he recovered earlier.
“Many nights I sleep outside Reggae Bar.” I know the place rather well – I went past 158 Jalan Tun HS Lee quite a few times previously.
Amongst the cluster of traffic noises he mumbled his name, which I repeated under my breath before telling him mine. To my shame, I didn’t commit it to memory.
As it turned out, he wasn’t entirely sure where BackHome was either. In between us, mustering three languages – his Malay and my Cantonese in addition to English – we received numerous directions, of varying versions, until I found myself retracing his steps back to where the odyssey began, the very street where my guide hailed a man driving by on a motorbike.
“This guy own many hotel here – he know every hotel here.”
Revelation. The string of dialogues in Malay had spurred him into remembering precisely where my coveted bed was.
Just as I was becoming more and more curious about his affairs.
He was from a village outside Penang; just as I had travelled south, he arrived at the capital seeking work, yet downtrodden works of destiny had him embroiled in alcoholism, which resulted in life on the rough.
“Have you gone home?”
No, was the answer. He hadn’t spoken to his parents for the past four years, only relying on acquaintances to inform him whether or not they were alive and well.
I didn’t push him to explain why he hadn’t gotten in touch – I merely had to observe the shame in his eyes.
“You’re a good person – try not to forget that.” I uttered as we pulled up outside of 30 HS Lee, said our goodbyes – and he didn’t ask for anything in return.
I waited until the hour struck quarter past.
The previous night, before we parted ways, I promised I’d buy him dinner and get to know each other more if he’d meet me outside the hostel at seven in the evening the next day.
He, in turn, hesitated.
“I try,” he hollowly pledged. Already he explained how he didn’t want to be seen with me, for the prejudice and preconceptions of onlookers may have him deemed exploiting tourists.
Given just how many individuals we sought directions from sprang conclusions of my being led astray by a homeless person taking advantage of me, his gift of kindness may have cost him his streetwise credibility – his chances of survival.
I could only lament: that would be the last I’ll ever see of him.
For he wasn’t going to show up.