Landing in Kuala Lumpur, I am immediately assailed by vistas of glass and plastic and concrete. The airport is all bright lighting, smooth surfaces, fast food chains. Everything is in English. I am clearly lost, and nobody stops to help me.

I am in culture shock.

After so many months of easy bustle and open curiosity in Indonesia, I have a familiar feeling of isolation. The people are well dressed, I recognise all the clothing brands. Am I in Sydney? Has my old life reached out and pulled me back?

I make my way into the city, I meet a friend of a friend. He picks me up from the bus station in his old-school Saab that he’d like to, perhaps one day, drive overland to Europe. He’s a chef, and he feeds me at his small restaurant, and then again at other local restaurants, and laughs at how I demolish everything edible in sight. I’m hungry, and I’ve become unaccustomed to this kind of availability and richness of food. He affectionately calls me DBKL, it’s the local authority in Kuala Lumpur which is responsible for collecting the rubbish; he’s noticed that I can be trusted to take care of any food left on anyone else’s plate.

Waste not, want not, I think as I stuff my face with deliciousness and think of the all the riding ahead of me.

An old friend flies into KL to meet up with me. It’s the first time I’ve seen a familiar face – someone I know from ‘back home’ – for so so long. An old friend from my first days as a paralegal, and as a lawyer; I wonder if the person he got to know back then is anything like the person I am today.

Talking together, I feel a little surreal: like I’m floating just outside my body, watching a conversation between two people from a different time and place.

We go to Melakka together, but without my motorcycle I feel hobbled by distance and physics and gravity. On foot, everything is so difficult: you have to make a plan, look up the bus schedule, be in a place at a particular time, and then you just get stuck in another place, until you do it all again. The really good roti channai place is four kilometres away, which is suddenly too far away to be practical for a snack. There are no random conversations with strangers about my motorcycle. I can’t saddle up and just ride until the tension falls out of my body.

I feel like I’m missing a part of myself.

I have also forgotten what it’s like to travel in company. I wake one night screaming, in the grip of one of my nightmares. The same one that I’ve been having for seven years; it’s always the same, and I always absolutely believe that I am dying, until I scream loud enough to wake myself up.

I had forgotten to warn my friend about this. Usually, I’m alone, and it doesn’t matter.

But now my friend is pasty, staring at me at me in horror.

– I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m so sorry, I say.

I’m mortified, really. I should have warned him; I just totally forgot.

He looks at me for a long time.

– There’s just something about waking up in the night to the sound of a screaming woman, it puts you on edge… he says eventually.

He asks me why I have these nightmares and I tell him, and then he tells me that he kind of wishes I hadn’t told him.

Life is like this. He is a good friend.


* * *

The next day he takes a bus to Singapore, and I go back to Kuala Lumpur. It’s just a short flight back to Indonesia, and then I can be with my motorbike again. Back to freedom, back to myself.

My nerves are shot. I sit on the aeroplane in my narrow economy seat and tears stream down my face, and I’m not entirely sure why. My heart feels broken, but it’s been like that for quite some time. I am not sure what is new.

When I get back to Surabaya, to my motorbike at Yudi’s house, he is not there. He is riding around Borneo instead. It’s late afternoon and I start trying to repack my things onto the bike. Water has somehow penetrated one of my waterproof bags and soaked my first aid kit. I throw away ruined dressings, salvage my trauma sheers and antiseptic, and my pressure bandage for snakebite.

Tears are running down my face again. I feel terribly sad. I don’t know why. The housemaids look awkward, ignore me.

Yudi’s son comes home from school. He’s perhaps eighteen years old; tall and composed and smoothed-skinned. One of the enduro bikes is his.

He looks at me, and he sees my distress, and he tells me that I should stay. I should stay and rest and take a hot shower, and continue on my journey tomorrow. In his father’s absence, he becomes a gracious host; he invites me in and makes me feel welcome.

He’s very young, but he is kind, and gentle in manner. I think to myself, Yudi must be very proud to have a son like this.

* * *

The next day, I pack Beastie and leave to look for the docks, for a boat to Sulawesi. Things are always easier in the morning light.

0 thoughts on “Sleep with the lights on

  1. Aw, I just want to reach in there and give you a hug. This was a lovely, vulnerable piece of writing, thank you for sharing ????

  2. Midnight and Gypsy says:

    Bloody Hell Grace! Stop doing these international heart wrenching roller coaster posts. I truly ache for you and sympathise with your friend. You are not yet ready to be giving of yourself, but to be able to love who and what you are, is an important piece to have in your armoury.
    Enjoy the solace and security a set of bars, willing motor and well organised set ups can offer. As you once offered to others within interested hearing range, so I respond once more; Be the best you can be . . .
    Your grieving has set its own timetable – you are merely the vehicle to transport that grief. It will eventually allow itself to be consumed by your inner self and love for Life.

  3. Brad says:

    I remember the feeling of hearing your screams when you stayed with us in Darwin.
    I opened the door and asked you were ok.
    I heard a small and embarrassed voice say yes. I closed the door and never mentioned it again.
    I’ve learned a lot about myself in the last few months. Especially the difference between saying you are ok and being ok.
    I’m sorry that we have not stayed in better touch.
    Please feel free to reach out if you need. But I’ll warn you there’s alot of catching up to do.

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