I first took a flight in 1978 and since then, 38 years there on, have logged travels to faraway places in the globe that effectively meant I had circled the earth three times. I have been to famous places like New York, Beijing, Tokyo, Johannesburg, London and Paris, but I have also been to off-the-beaten-track places like Batangas (Philippines), Pontianak (Indonesia), Cape St. Vincent (Portugal) and Exmouth (Australia). Needless to say I have had interesting adventures…and silly misadventures along the way, some of them, I am not afraid to say now, were borderline or plainly illegal (like crossing a country border once surreptitiously) or risky, and some, so gross that they will never see fit for their day of print. Hmm, maybe I will will my estate to release a posthumous memoir.
Here’s a fit-for-print tale:
18th October, 1988. San Francisco was still enjoying Indian summers but when I touched down, it was a cold midnight. Welcome first time to the good old USA, the famed place I have long seen on TV. I was on the way to the University of Rhode Island (URI) to do a postgraduate degree. Long haul, this: KK, KL, Hong Kong, San Francisco in a stretch, and I was late for my connecting domestic flight to Chicago.
As tired and bleary-eyed as I was, as I approached the immigration counter I could not help but fantasised about what will happen if I blurted out to the first ever U.S. enforcement officer I encountered thus, “Sir, I know where Jimmy Hoffa’s body is buried :-)”
The immigration officer addressed me with even more bleary eyes and looked bored-stiff. You must remember this was 13 years before 9/11—nothing interesting ever happened in U.S. airports.
“What is the purpose of your visit to the States?”
“I am here to tell the FBI that I know where Jimmy Hoffa is buried.”
Got you! I am only joking.
I cleared immigration, got met by a Cathy Pacific representative, and was told that I have to overnight in San Francisco to wait for a replacement flight to Chicago. And so I ended spending the first ever day in the good old USA in a 5-star hotel with free room and free food.
Good omen for things to come?
Weeks later I was nicely ensconced at URI as a postgraduate student. Christmas had come and gone. New year beaconed. New England winter (my first winter; I had found by then that my sinus did not take too kindly to being frozen) had arrived, the snow had fallen. Since then I had befriended a tall black Mauritanian guy who attended one of my classes. He reminded me of the famous French player, Yannick Noah, albeit shorn of the dreadlocks. If you had studied your world history well you would have known that Mauritania was once a French colony. So the guy spoke English with a delectable French accent:
“Rae, man (and that became, to him, my name; it sounded like, “Reyyymaaan”), vhy dontz you stay in Amerika after your studiez?”
One day after class, Mauritania guy pulled me to one side and said, “Reyman, letz go to a partee zunight.”
Party? Ok. My middle name is Party. But I haven’t been to a party in the States…yet. Now I have seen parties in Hollywood films. Nubile and blonde sorority sisters, wet t-shirts, flowing beers, and the works—nothing I can’t handle. Heck, I might even be able to help make those t-shirts wetter with the beers.
We attended the party, and by the first 10 minutes we got antsy. This party was not it: no hot-looking babes, just old college professors and straight-laced postgrads standing around, nursing their wines and beers, and discussing about the U.S. contributions to the International Law of the Sea, and relative merits of current research on continental plate tectonics. No Bon Jovi too, just some unidentifiable concerto written by a long-dead European wafting over the pathetic speakers.
Nope. Mon ami, c’est une fête ennuyeuse. I looked at my friend. He shrugged, “Let’s go to another party. In Providence.”
Wait, did he say Providence? That’s 30 miles away up north, and this was midnight. And that was how I found myself, driving my little Hyundai hatchback at 1 am on a cold winter night on the 7-lane (that’s just one direction) Interstate Route 95 (New York-Boston), buffeted by the slipstreams of overtaking 18-wheelers, and without a U.S. driver’s licence and a beer buzz in my head at that. Definitely would have been an honoured guest at the sheriff’s jail, if caught.
The Mauritanian, all 6 feet 2 inches of him, was splayed like a lazy lounge lizard in the back seat. He sounded like he had a bigger beer buzz than me. From the dark, I heard him slurred, “Reyman, can’t you go any faster? I am hornee!”
Right. No licence, DWI and now, speeding. The sheriff is going to take out the gallows from storage for sure.
Providence, the state capital of Rhode Island: We arrived to an inner city housing project—a black neighbourhood. Must be a bad neighbourhood too—garbage were strewn all over the place. My friend went into one of the houses while I parked at the curb, and waited inside the car. Wispy fog was descending to the deserted streets; the few street lights did nothing to dispel the eerie gloom. It looked like Jack the Ripper’s country. It was now 2 am.
My friend came out alone. In a huff. “My girlfriend do not want to leave her child alone the house,” he said. Fair enough, can’t leave a baby alone, that’s for sure. That’s it then. I spied the girlfriend standing at the door way. She was black too.
“How about you and me double date?” he suggested, “You date the daughter.” That threw me for a loop.
“Huh? How old is the kid?”
“She looked older than 18.”
Now, this was getting interesting.
“Ok,” I said. You know me—I am game for anything. We are here in the States to learn after all. Might even be a pretty daughter. The prominent cheek bones of Robin Givens momentarily flashed before my eyes.
Off he went in again. After a while, I spied two young blacks coming up the street. The shorter guy had something in his hands. It didn’t look like a gun. I looked the other way; I didn’t want to catch their attention. No dice—they approached purposely, walking that jive-walk swagger, as only Hollywood can depict. The shorter guy approached my window while the taller one stood back. He signaled for me to wind down the window. I wound it down; I did not want to show fear by hiding behind a thin barrier of glass. He had a car stereo in his hands—a ripped-off stereo, by the look of it.
“Hey man, you wanna buy a stereo?”
“No.” I waved him off.
“A stereo, man.”
The man was bobbing up and down—fidgety. I hoped he was just cold or jiving to some rap music playing inside his head, and not drugs. I held his gaze. Somewhere I have learned from National Geographic that top predators are wary if their intended prey shows strength. This was going to be a test of wills. I have faced enraged bull buffaloes in my youth but this time I was half way around world, away from home ground.
The short black ratcheted up his offer by thrusting the thing inside the cabin. The taller companion edged closer.
“It’s a good stereo, man. Look.”
In other circumstances I would have laughed. Obviously they had just stolen the shit. Multi-coloured wires were still jutting out from the stereo and these were flaring at me like so many mini hydras, bare inches from my nose. My next response had to crucial: take the fellow predator road, or be a meek prey and hopefully be let off. Remember, this was 3 am at night—probably only Jack the Ripper dared cruising the streets—in a bad neighbourhood. There was no one else on the street.
Then tall and strong-looking Mr. Libidious came out of the house and saved me! He exited the gate with a glum face. The two blacks must have picked on the bad vibes off him so they slowly slunk away.
“What did the two guys want?”
“Aaaah, they were just being social. So, what is the arrangement now?”
“The daughter don’t want to go out.”
It was a long drive back to URI in the cold. From the dark recess of the back seat, the unfulfilled lounge lizard was muttering repeatedly, “Reyman, I am hornee. Hornee…” Ah, sudahlah kau. Don’t look at me; the daughter did not even see me.
I never did get the chance to date a black girl again. Pity.
October, 2007. One day my Assistant Director, the late Rooney Biusing (God bless him), sauntered into my office with a knowing smile.
“Have you ever eaten a Llama?” he asked.
“We are going to Chile at end of the month”
But, that’s another story to tell, this time about Puerto Varas, Chile :-).