Backpacking South East Asia: the Say What?! incident turned blessing in disguise

(I strongly suggest that you first read the “Borneo Quick Summary” before continuing with this post.)

As promised in the previous post, I will be posting  more  about my arrival at Senai Airport in Johor Bahru just to get it off my chest already. Hahaha. No, it wasn’t anything serious or dreadful, I just want to relive the moment before I forget the details of that night. This is the SAY WHAT?! situation I got in when I decided to go with and spend the night at the home of a half-Malaysian and half-Filipino guy and his family living in Masai, Johor Bahru, Malaysia. This one will be quite detailed so, bear with me, ok?!

Meet Jhulson
Meet Jhulsona and his newly-bought scarf at a Muslim fashion store (around him are not pants but the Todong donned by Muslim women

Day 5, about 11pm: We touched down at Senai Airport 30 minutes too late for the final bus to the city center. As I was warned by couch surfers not to take the taxi which will just rip me off and I have no prior hostel reservation, I chose to accept the offer of Jhulson to sleep at her Aunt’s place. He was the guy seated on the row behind me, who I thought was complaining about my reclined seat. It was only until he spoke Filipino in a bit louder voice that I realized he just wanted to talk, as he wants to brush up on his Tagaloog (he is of Zamboanga descent and understandably, knows very little Tagalog). I wanted to talk to him but I was too tired and  groggy from waking up early, crossing from Brunei to Miri, and walking continuously for five hours within the city. And so, I told him I would like to rest a little and that I would talk to him later. This never happened as I woke up upon landing.

So, his act of kindness of offering me a place to stay was totally unexpected. In his words, “Huwag ka na hiya. Ano ka ba naman. Siyempre, Pilipino, tayo na lang tulungan.” Since he was picked up by his uncle (wearing the usual Muslim hat/headdress) and a little boy in tow plus an Indian driver friend, I assumed that they do not belong to any syndicates who are into human trafficking. So, I went with him.

I texted my Johor Bahru couchsurfing contacts and asked them where Masai is coz that’s where I’m headed. Of course, there was still doubt in my mind! One of them replied and said it’s about 30minutes or so from the airport. I also sent a message to Rajie, my Malaysian co-volunteer and told her what happened. I was under stress at the time and I didn’t know if I called her, she called me or we just texted each other. But then, perhaps Jhulson had more trouble about my presence since his phones were beeping with messages and ringing off the hook.

I did not understand what was happening but with the very little Malay I learned in the past five days and with him mentioning Miri, Tagalog and Singapore in a succession of words for almost each call I figured I had something to do with it. So I asked if the conversation was about me and he said yes.

Apparently, his brother, sister and sister-in-law are panicking coz HE IS BRINGING A GIRL HOME. I told him to clear with them that I am just some helpless stranger to whom he had shown kindness. I already did, he said. By the time we reached their place, which is about 30minutes of being in the car, his Aunt has welcomed him in open arms and though she genuinely welcomed me into their house, she looked at me warily.

In fact, everyone in the household did. And so, before I melted in embarrassment (not that they made me feel like it), I cleared my throat, opened my big mouth and said: “Bago po ang lahat, hindi po niya ako girlfriend. Wala lang po akong masakyan at matuluyan kaya napasama ako sa kanya. Salamat po sa pagpapatuloy sa akin!”

Roast Chicken in Barbeque Sauce (with potato, carrots and beans on the side)
Uncle's Meal: Roast Chicken in Barbeque Sauce (with potato, carrots and beans on the side)

After which, the tension seemed to dissipate from the air. Everyone was already jovial and friendly, showing me more hospitality than I ever thought would be given to a total stranger barging in to their household. A banana-walnut (?) bread was offered on the floor, along with flavored sodas. I was already full from the Roast Chicken with BBQ Sauce meal Uncle, the old guy I sat beside on the plane, begged me to eat because he can’t and he didn’t want it to go to waste. I have a meal of my own, a pepperoni pizza combo which was left untouched in favor of the chicken. I’ll save it for breakfast then, I told myself.

I brought out the same pepperoni pizza but to my dismay, it was already cold and borderline rock hard. Despite that and being full as well, I tried to eat it instead of the soft bread in front of me, exclaiming that I did not want it to go to waste. It was also a polite way of, let’s say, rejecting the food I was offered–not because I fear it to be laced with any potion or drug but only because I really didn’t want to impose more than I had and really, I was full. In Filipino customs, which I realized applied even for those who lived outside the Philippines, you must not turn down the food that was being offered as it is considered rude. So, when my tactic did not work and Jhulson prodded me to take a slice and aware of Tita’s hopeful stare through the corner of my eyes, I took a slice into my mouth and tasted goodness I never expected from a banana cake. No, to disappoint those who know how gluttonous I can be, I contended myself with just one slice and a glass of soda.

At first, I did not speak much and if you knew me, that would’ve been a rare moment to remember. One of the girls whose relations to Jhulson I did not about said, “Pwede ka namang mag-Tagalog. Maiintindihan ka pa rin naman namin.” And so, while savoring that banana cake, I told them the whole story of how him and I met and what I would be doing the next day which is to go around Johor Bahru and cross to Singapore in the afternoon. They all said it’s going to be an easy crossing and I hoped they were right. Afterwards, Tita and Hheda, his sister-in-law, asked if I’d like to have a shower. No, I did not stink even if I walked for five hours under the scorching sun at Miri. I already changed at the airport before departing but yes, I wanted to have a shower. Filipinos, if water is in fact available, generally like to take a bath in the morning and in the evening, whenever possible.

Tita kept apologizing for the way the bath area is, not because it was dirty but because it was simple. Same reason why she always said “Pasensya ka na sa bahay namin, maliit lang at walang gamit.” every time I moved around or walked towards something. For the record though, the house may be simple but it is not small: two-storey house with three rooms IS NOT small. Anyway, I always sincerely replied, “Naku, Tita. Wag po kayong mag-alala. Chika lang po yan. Ako nga po ang dapat humingi ng pasensya para sa abala.” And as expected, she would always say back, “Naku. Wala yun. Tayo-tayong mga Pilipino, dapat nagtutulungan tayo.” And then, we’ll just smile at each other in agreement in a way that no words can explain.

Hheda's Nilagang Manok
Presenting: Hheda's Nilagang Manok

After I took a shower, I was once again called by Hheda but this time, to have dinner. It was already past midnight by that time and I thought what she was cooking was for the lunchbox aka baon of the other residents who I believe would go for their graveyard shift in the factory soon. I was mistaken. It was meant for Jhulson and I. I told them I’m already super full so while he hungrily ate the food her hipag, I was repacking my bags and trying to fight off a big yawn. Hheda called for me once again and after she went to the bathroom, Jhulson said, “Halika na. Kumain ka na kahit konti lang. Niluto pa naman niya para sa’yo.

And of course, I knew that saying no for the nth time is not the way to repay Hheda’s efforts and Jhulson and his family’s kindness. And so, I obliged aka gave in. On the table was a good serving of what seemed like nilagang manok. I asked if it is indeed what I thought. “Yes,” she said. “Pwedeng nilaga, tinola, adobo (which is the other dish) atbp.” After which, I decided to have my plate half-full with rice and topped it with the nilagang manok, a serving enough to discreetly convey the message that I appreciate her efforts. Hheda smiled to herself and then watched the Malay soap opera playing on the TV screen. Jhulson looked at me and smiled as well.

After eating, Hheda said to leave everything on the table. Of course, I insisted on washing the dishes but she won in the end, saying I am the guest and I need not do the chores.  After she was done, she told me to follow her in the bedroom she shared with Jhulson’s sister Dhas, who returned to the room after embracing and chatting a bit with his brother as she was nursing a headache. She motioned me to the empty single mattress on the floor, the same way their double bed has been, and smiled. Dhas didn’t talk to me much and in the morning, I knew why.

She is already more Malaysian than Filipino, if the basis would be the ability to understand and speak the official languages. To begin with, Tagalog is not really spoken much in Zamboanga and she has been living in Malaysia for many years now. Though she understands me whenever I spoke in Filipino, she would smile to me after a failed attempt to convey her message in complete Filipino sentences. Either that or she’ll turn to Hheda to translate what she wanted to say.

I found out that they have been best friends for six years and it was only recently, after Dhas “selling” Hheda to her older brother (Dhas playfully slapped Hheda’s back at the term “binenta”), that they became sisters-in-law. Hheda has stopped working as she is now five months pregnant. Her husband is working somewhere far and she mentioned in passing that he had a “headache” last night after he found out that Jhulson took me home with him. I became curious again.

Meet HHeda and Dhas!
Meet HHeda and Dhas! We played Time Crisis II at an arcade in Kip Mart, Masai. It was the only thing I paid for and I had to rush to the booth and get tokens before they beat me to it!

I asked them to please explain to me why there’s so much panic with the thought of Jhulson bringing a girl home. I somehow felt that it was something like watching one of those soap operas wherein a teenage guy elopes with a girl and brings her home to their house and the mom starts nagging him to return the girl. And I was somehow right, but with some twists of course. As per Muslim customs, if a man is to wed a woman, he must first endow her  family a sizeable amount of fortune, as deemed by her parents. Such is the case for richer families but can also be for middle-class families. Anything between P50,000 to P100,000 will be a good average estimate, Hheda said. The guy and his family can actually try to negotiate, depending on the willingness of the girl’s family. In some cases though, IF THEY ARE WITHOUT MONEY AND TRULY LOVE EACH OTHER, even just a case of beer (even if supposedly Muslims shy away from alcohol) and a roasted chicken would suffice.

And so, upon knowing that Jhulson is bringing home a girl (how many times have I repeated this phrase?!), everyone panicked. Their house was not in a very good and presentable condition as is supposed/expected to be, they did not have enough money, and their parents were away (either in Zamboanga or in Sandakan, Malaysia). They were only able to relax after Jhulson and I have explained everything! So at that point, we were all already laughing and Dhas, feeling like ditching a day’s work, looked at me and said, “Jalan jalan kita?!” I know it is not a proper Malay phrase but it made sense to me. She wanted to go with me to explore Masai and JB. Jhulson, also a first-timer in Masai, of course came with us and Hheda as well.

I was wondering what we were waiting for and I already wanted to go. Dhas lifted her hand, smiled and motioned me to wait. After a while, a Toyota Avanza parked in front of  the house and she said, “Let’s go. Jalan jalan!” Sosyal, de-sundo! Hahaha. I realized, later that it was a taxi they have called since there are no other forms of public transportation in sight. I didn’t know where we were headed and just went along with it while observing the surrounding streets. Again, something like Manila. A bit cleaner and greener though. We went through a highway and then the downtown street until we reached our destination. Kip Mart!

This place sort of reminded me of the once-glorious-but-now-almost-forgotten Uniwide aka Super 8 Mall in Tarlac City. It was not as huge but everything was in it: from the eateries and fastfood stores to electronics and gadget shops, from grocery and school supplies to wet and dry markets; and from boutiques and clothing shops to cars and other stuff you want to find in one spot. I never expected to go to such a place for this trip but it was a welcomed idea anyway.

it's time for fashion!
No offense but I didn't think Muslim women are quite the fashionistas--something I have been proven wrong by the number of shops like this in one place.

Our first stop was a fashion house for all things Muslim. In special mention is the todong, the traditional head scarf worn by women, came in too many colors, designs and sizes. I actually tried on one, an almost plain pink todong to match my pink Sabah souvenir t-shirt. Dhas said, “Bagay!” She added that just a little adjustment with a brooch/pin and it would look perfect. No, I don’t think I’ll post it here. Perhaps in my Facebook account would be a better idea. :p

After settling for a scarf, which I totally love, we saw the arcade and decided to play. I told them we should and head off to the booth to get tokens. They didn’t seem to go in here much and it was really fun seeing them get to relax, play and just be like children. It was a beautiful sight, I tell you. 🙂

After-game photo op!
After-game photo op! I printed out this picture, gave everyone each and asked them to sign my copy. Put it in my wallet to remind me about the goodness of people. 🙂

After playing, we went to Marrybrown for lunch, against Dhas’ will. She wanted to go to KFC, her favorite. By now, you would have noticed that almost everything I had in this leg is something made of chicken. Muslims do not eat pork and I’m guessing beef is quite expensive as well. So, I was really craving for pork when I got to Singapore and was praying I wouldn’t grow any wings. :p Back at Marrybrown, it’s a fastfood chain that has this cute double swing chairs instead of the usual hard ones.

Hello chicken!
Hello chicken! With the amount I've had for 27 days, I dare say my chicken allergies are not true!

Hheda asked for my order after Dhas and Jhulson. I chose the double-chicken combo with bread, macaroni salad, and mashed potato, like the one Dhas ordered. It was about RM10 (=P150). I only did so because I have planned on paying for everything, as a sign of my gratitude for their hospitality. Unfortunately (or fortunately), Hheda insisted to pay and would not give in. Had i know how stubborn she will be about it, I would have ordered porridge, the cheapest on the menu.

After lunch and some more photo op, we headed for the grocery to get their week’s supplies. Imagine, me on an epic solo backpacking tour, doing grocery with a family of strangers. It was such a weird but awesome experience for me.Honestly! It was the same thing I told them while we were doing it, until we hit the wet market section and tasted and brought some oh-so-familiar tropical fruits.

Once we were done, we made our way back to the house. They were asking me to rest for a while and even stay a night longer but I explained that I have to cross Singapore as I’ll be meeting Tetet and Lalai upon their arrival in the morning. Plus, I didn’t want to overstay their hospitality. So, they called me a reliable cab (one that will not rob you, they say), gave me instructions on how to cross to Singapore by bus, and Dhas even gave me her used-only-once Singaporean SIM so I wouldn’t need to buy one.

Before the taxi arrived, I gave Tita a box of coconut biscuits I got from Miri. She told me to keep it for my family back home but I insisted that she take it, as a sign of my gratitude for their hospitality. She thanked me, hugged me and told me pray every day especially since I have more travels to come. When the taxi arrived, I asked everyone for a group photo op and they obliged, with a wacky pose!

Wacky pose!
Wacky pose! Hheda, Me, Tita, Dhas (without Todong!) and the girl who said I can speak Tagalog

When the taxi honked, I knew it was time to bid everyone goodbye. We hugged and they saw me off the door. Before I went out the gate, I turned back and said, Terima kasih. Maraming salamat po! They smiled, waved at me for the last time. As I was closing the door, I whispered a silent prayer to God and to Allah to protect and bless their family for all the years to come.

Writer’s Note: Though my experience has been great and truly enriching, it may not hold true for every stranger you’d meet on the road. Always travel with caution, no matter how daring you may be. Happy wandering!

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2 thoughts on “Backpacking South East Asia: the Say What?! incident turned blessing in disguise”

  1. what a wonderful experience! i envy you… haha.. sana ma experience ko rin ang ganito.. its just that i’m really not a ‘sociable’ person (like talking to a seatmate in the plane, talking to strangers in a waiting area..) tsk.tsk. hopefully, one of these days, in one of my solo travels, i’ll get to experience something like this.. thanks.. very amazing story..

    1. thanks! :p in truth, I think my travel was more about people than the places. yes, i loved seeing new things and I was amazed with the places I’ve been but nothing beats the experience I’ve had with the people I met. tsaka sa totoo lang, no matter how we proclaim na it’s a solo travel, hindi pa rin talaga kasi we’ll meet people along the way. kahit na gaano ka-unsociable mo pa i-proclaim ang sarili mo. plus, if you’ll think about it, how bad can it get?! wag ka nang mahiya. malay mo, your seatmate is more than willing to talk to you kaso nahiya lang din siya. there’s always joy in meeting someone new, kahit na hindi pa kayo nagkakaintindihan!

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