I say goodbye to Australia and board the flight for my first leg back to Kuala Lumpur. I’m flying a Boeing 777 on Malaysia Airlines, the same plane which, just three years later, would disappear over the Indian Ocean en route to Beijing with 227 passengers and 12 staff onboard.
This flight arrives safely, but just barely.
Lights are flashing on and off. People are screaming. Air masks come down several times. I am fairly convinced we are going to die at numerous points during the voyage.
Fearful, immature faith recommitments and quickly forgotten promises to God ensue.
We arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 9:00am, and my next flight doesn’t leave until 6:00am the following day. I’m totally exhausted, having already been awake 21 hours. I am still, however, actively seeking my next travel-induced metaphysical high.
This morning, my regular jonesing is compounded by an intense, immediate desire to squeeze every inch out of life. Such compulsions tend to be the more powerful “spiritual” ramifications to emerge from perceived near-death experiences like the one on my inbound flight.
With increased motivation in hand, I decide to venture into Kuala Lumpur.
KLIA is about 40 miles from downtown. There’s a bus that takes you into the city for about $6. I buy a return.
Not wanting to carry my luggage with me – and, clearly, having learned exactly nothing about the importance of spare cash from my recent Australian misadventure – I check everything except my ticket, passport, and $20 in local currency onto my next flight.
I board the bus around noon. When I de-board an hour later, I’m given a schedule for the return trips: every hour on the hour until 10:00pm. Should be plenty of time to explore, return, and take a nap in the terminal.
Wandering around, I’m struck by KL. The Petronas Towers, the world’s largest twin buildings, are a magnificent wall of glass before me, true temples of opulence. I’m drawn to the spectacle and walk up to them, now less than 300 feet in front of me and over 1,500 feet high.
Turning 180 degrees, I see a slum. Malaysia is the most unequal country on the planet and the visceral reality of the difference is on full display here at its economic epicenter.
I grab a late lunch nearby for a few dollars. I sit there, pondering what to do with my privileged sadness at such staggering inequality. Turning around again, I see a luxury fitness center which looks directly out at the towers, this makeshift slum in its shadow.
I realize I haven’t worked out in a few days. Perhaps a jog while taking in this scene a bit more deeply will help.
I go upstairs and pretend to be an expat moving to the area in order to get a free “trial” day pass. This has become a regular schtick when I need a workout in a new city. I like to think of it as a heroic moment of sorts; taking a little something from the wealthy and hanging out where I don’t belong make me feel like I’m beating the system somehow.
Today, I see such rebellions as misguided, but in the moment, I thought my cause noble and my motives pure.
I hop on the treadmill and look out over the city. The sunset behind the towers is stunning, almost inspiring. I notice the slum again and instinctively turn away, the hypocrisy of my selfish little rebellion still failing to sink in.
It is 9:30pm before I’m sauna-ed, showered, and out the door. I walk the 15 minutes back to the station and see a bus taking off.
Still a bit early, I’m unconcerned. I wander up to the station, sit down and wait.
At around 10:20, I ask someone.
“The last bus always leaves from here 15 minutes before 10.”
This makes no sense. My schedule says 10!!
I ask two other people and get the same answer. The last light rail (which goes 80% of the way to the airport) has also departed.
Panic sets in.
I have $9.30 cents left, a US passport, and half a bottle of Gatorade. My flight takes off in 7.5 hours 40 miles from here and I’ve now been awake for over 33 hours – exercising the last 2 hours plus.
I hail a cab. $30 he says. No way.
I hail another. $28. I haggle a bit and get to $25 but then have to tell him to leave as well.
Now, I walk over to the group of taxi drivers, and ask them how far someone is willing to take me for $9.30.
Even in my desperation and with a group of competitors, the best answer I get is “the E6/AH2 intersection.” AH2 is the road which runs into the airport. The intersection is 15 miles from the terminal. I have no other options and hop in.
At 11:30, we pull up to the intersection and my driver slows to a stop.
“From here, just walk straight. Don’t turn.”
I have nothing left to offer the driver. I can’t give him my passport. I need the 16 ounces of Gatorade to face a long hike in the humid Malaysian heat, still well above 80 oF in the middle of the night. He doesn’t want my shoes or shirt. Believe me, I offer.
The sign on the side of the road says, “KLIA 25km” (15.5 miles). I start walking.
This is about the most physically exhausted I’ve ever felt, but the initial panic has long-since subsided. I somehow find myself elated at the adventurous hits which just keep coming.
“If discontent is your disease, travel is your medicine.” Jed Jenkins, To Shake the Sleeping Self
The “medicine” I was taking with mounting frequency via memorable, miserable, self-inflicted little jaunts like this one in Malaysia was curing me – and it wasn’t.
This string of spontaneous adventures was progressively healing me from a lifetime in the bubble of secure American affluence as it forced me to wrestle with the big unanswered questions and the contingent nature of reality. The wrestling was beginning to transform the direction of my life.
Yet the irony does not escape me. This self-medication was developing a frantic, desperate, selfish pattern of increasingly reckless experiences: a growing need to put myself in such situations in order to feel whole.
According to my watch, it’s 1:30am when I pass another sign which reads, “KLIA 15km” (9.3 miles).
I’m long past any lingering reservations about night-time hitch-hiking, but not a single other person or car is out on the road. I think I see things moving back and forth across the highway, but I’m not sure. I’m too tired to be scared.
It’s 4:00am when I see the 5km sign (3.1 miles). My Gatorade bottle is now empty.
Thirty-nine hours without sleep and my brain is complete mush. It takes me the better part of 10 minutes to calculate my pace and realize I’m cutting it way too close.
I start to run. Granted, it’s not much of a run, but I’m moving faster now and my blood and brain are responding to the shift. It’s still pitch-black outside and I still see the phantoms jumping across the road. Not people or animals or anything discernible, just amorphous shapes. I begin to question if I’m hallucinating.
Just then, I notice the lights of the airport. I hope I’m not hallucinating.
At 4:40am, I arrive at the airport, utterly exhausted, dehydrated, and delusional. I’m also now, strangely – pathologically even – totally in my element.
No time or money for a drink though. In the zone, I sprint for security.
Much of the night was a blur, but I’ll never forget that moment. I put my passport on the conveyer belt and begin to walk through the scanner. Just then, I hear Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band playing over the airport speakers. I look up as I walk through security and see, I kid you not, I see the music coming from the speakers. Not the words, the music itself. I can’t describe it in any other way, but it was beautiful and disorienting.
This “medicine,” the ragged edges of this thing which was meant to release and free and cure me is starting to reveal some unpleasant side effects.
I shake my head hard, grab my passport, walk up to a water fountain, and submerge for a socially inappropriate length of time.
It is now 5:20am, more than 41 miserable, sweating, hallucinating, striving, self-medicating hours since my eyes and body and soul last rested.
I crawl into the belly of the plane – this contraption which almost killed me a day earlier – and fall into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Wanderlost is available on Amazon.com if you click here.
About the author
J. Daniel Sims currently serves as Country Director of International Justice Mission (IJM) Cambodia where he leads a team of investigators, lawyers, social workers, programmatic and operational staff in the fight against violent labor exploitation. Concurrently with his role at IJM, he serves as a Non-Resident Fellow at Duke University’s Center for Reconciliation, a leading institute bridging the worlds of research and practice in the global peace-building and justice space. Sims is frequently drawn upon for expert commentary on various human rights and global development challenges. His analysis has featured recently in The Economist, The Guardian, Forbes, The LA Times, Al Jazeera, VICE World News, Sydney Morning Herald, ProPublica, The American Interest, Plough, The Hill, and World News Group amongst many others.