By Anish Khandelwal
When you run into jeopardy on your first independent international trip…
“Singapore is a very, very safe country”, is something that you hear every Singaporean say to a foreigner. But little did I know that this sense of security would lull me into adopting the same notion for countries other than Singapore as well.
8th January 2014. My friends – Rachit and Rohit – and I landed in Singapore, a country perfect and faultless in the eyes of a newcomer. Awed by its transcendence, the warm and humid weather added to the warm welcoming nature of the locals here. Over the days, the three of us settled at the National University of Singapore (NUS), where we were to spend the next four months as exchange students representing our home university in India.
Chinese New Year (CNY) was around the corner and everybody got busy making plans for the long weekend. University Town was to undergo a complete shutdown for the CNY weekend. In a moment of spontaenity, Rachit and I decided to go to Kuala Lumpur for the weekend. Rohit decided to stay back as he had already been to KL and the other cities of Malaysia.
Rachit and I planned to stay at Kelang, about forty kilometres from KL, where Parth, Rachit’s childhood friend, lived. To make full use of this opportunity, we decided to spend the whole of Friday and the weekend in Malaysia. But because I had a lecture at NUS till 4pm on Thursday evening, I would have to take the midnight bus to reach KL. Rachit had no class that day, and decided to take the afternoon bus directly to Kelang so that he could spend some time with his friend there. He advised me not to take the risk of traveling to Malaysia alone, particularly at night. Reasonable as it was, I was adamant to maximise that Friday and brushed off his warnings casually. After all, I had settled in Singapore easily; traveling to a new foreign country alone should not be a problem at all. I booked my bus tickets, which was to depart from the Larkin Terminal in Johor Bahru at mid-night on the first day of CNY. I would then meet Rachit at Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) in the morning.
I was definitely very excited as this was to be my first independent international trip. At the same time, however, I was cautious and took note of important details like Parth’s address and contact number. I even learnt a few Malay words that might come in handy.
Come Thursday evening, I left for Johor Baru immediately. Despite the CNY rush at the Causeway, I reached Larkin Terminal at 6.30pm. I was shocked at the condition of the terminal, even though bus terminals in India are equally disorganised, crowded and filthy. I blame my shock on the way Singapore had pampered me over the three weeks. Another thing that surprised me was that most of the people there were not fluent in English, and communicated with me in common English words and gestures. I bought a Malaysian SIM card there, as Rachit had advised me to do, before hurrying back to check the bus operator I was supposed to report to – I had been told to go to the stand half an hour before the official departure of the bus.
All this and I still had four more hours to kill. As the sun set, the place seemed only to get darker and shadier. It was then that I saw a café at the terminal and decided to wait there.
When it was time for me to board my bus, I reported to the bus operators and they escorted me to the bus I was to take to KL. The bus stood there for over forty-five minutes, waiting for all the passengers to report and board the bus. It was around fifteen minutes past midnight when I dozed off, on account of the day’s hectic travel. At the time, the bus was only half full.
“Wow! I would be in KL by sunrise!” I thought. But God had a different plan for my trip all together.
About one and a half hours later I got up to find myself alone in the big bus. Having not seen the time, I thought we had already arrived at KL, or had stopped for some kind of a break in between. In the next moment, I realised that I was locked inside the bus, which was parked in a very dark and shady lane with no one around. The immediate thought that crossed my mind was that I had been kidnapped! I started banging on the door of the bus wildly, before noticing two scary-looking people sitting outside a motel. They started looking around to see where the noise was coming from. I then realised that the windows of the bus were tinted, which is why they could not see me, so I started banging on the windshield instead. When they did notice me, one of them got up and walked up to the bus with keys in his hand. Yes, one of the scary fellows was the bus driver! He opened the door and the first thing he asked was why on earth I was on the bus. Perplexed, I asked him whether we had reached KL, although it was obvious we had not.
His answer was a rude shock. He said that the bus never went to KL and that I was on the outskirts of Johor Bahru, over twenty kilometres from Larkin Terminal and close to ten kilometres from the Johor Immigration Centre. He said that he had had a heated argument with the bus operators and that they transferred all the passengers to another bus, and no one had alerted me!
I was stuck on the outskirts of a completely unfamiliar state which was notoriously crime-ridden, in a dark shady lane with motels on both the sides, and with two grisly looking people who spoke only Malay and some common English words. They knew I was stranded, and while they started talking amongst themselves in Malay, I stood on the road, clueless and on the verge of a meltdown.
It was the scariest moment of my life, standing in that dark alley, with no one around but those two people talking about me in a language I did not understand. The first thing I did was to slip a Swiss knife from my backpack into my pocket. I held the Swiss knife firmly, and steeled myself to strike at them or run.
It turned out that the driver was calling the bus operator to inform him that one of his passengers had been left behind. To my frustration, he told me that there was no bus till half past seven in the morning, and that I would have to return to Larkin Terminal by myself, buy another ticket, and take the morning bus. It was only after I gave him a piece of my mind for causing this entire mess that he agreed to have me board the 7.30am bus without further charge.
The two Malaysians I was with informed that there was no conveyance available till morning, and that e only way I could reach the terminal was via cab service that starts at six in the morning. After much difficulty, I found out that I was in some place called Skudai, on the outskirts of Johor Bahru. I also found out then that the other man with the driver was the doorkeeper of the motel. One of my friends had once informed me that Singaporeans were well protected in Malaysia, so when the two Malaysians asked me where I was from, I said nothing but Singapore.
Fortunately, I had the Malaysian SIM card to contact Rachit and his friend Parth, and described the situation to them; that was the one good thing that happened that day. While I was on the phone, the bus driver asked repeatedly, “You speak to bus operator? Give phone to me. I explain him better in Malay”. I did not want him to know that I was speaking to a friend and was trying to work things out, so I persistently told him that I would settle it myself. That angered him, and his tone became increasingly frustrated, which scared and worried me.
Both men insisted I take a room for the night, but I was reluctant to do so as I feared that they had something up their sleeve. I was also afraid of dozing off again and not being able to get up in time to catch the bus; I wanted to move out of that area as soon as possible.
I asked Rachit and Parth to search for the closest police station where I could spend the night safely. There was one about two kilometres away. I thought I would walk it down, but Parth told me that it was not safe at all to walk down a deserted road at 3am in the morning, especially since I had a bag with me. I tried calling the police station, but received no response from the other side.
I was disappointed when it really dawned on me how different Singapore and Malaysia was, despite being so close to each other.
As such, I stood in front of the motel for the next three hours! Fortunately, the motel had a wifi network and the door keeper gave me its password. Relieved, I first sent my location to Parth, Rachit and a friend back in India, and asked them to take note of it so that they knew where to look for me in case anything happened. I then spent the rest of my time chatting with my friend in India, trying to divert my mind from the situation at hand.
Standing in front of the motel for a total of five hours, I saw a terrifying drunk lady roam the road, a rash motorcyclist driving in the most alarming way, and a few men walking into the motel accompanied by prostitutes. It was the first time I had ever been to such a shady area and witnessed all of this right before my eyes.
As it neared six in the morning, I was utterly exhausted. I asked the door keeper to call for a cab. Because it was the first day of CNY, most of the cab companies refused to provide service at such short notice. Luckily, one cab driver agreed to take me to the Larkin Terminal. I finally reached Larkin at 6.45 and contacted the bus operator, who told me I had to board the 8.30am bus even though he had previously agreed to allow me on the 7.30am bus. I was furious, but although I called him repeatedly and insisted he let me board the 7.30am bus, he did not budge and I eventually boarded the 8.30am bus.
That was not the end of it, however. The bus dropped me off at Kuala Lampur International Airport (KLIA), instead of KLCC, and I had to find my way to KLCC with the help of people who did not even speak English.
When I finally, finally reached KLCC where Rachit and Parth were waiting, I was immensely relieved at the end of this exhausting adventure of a night.