Exit 158 of North-South Expressway Northern Route in Malaysia –Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.
My first driving experience in Malaysia was a master class in shambolics.
In my company’s head offices in downtown Kuala Lumpur, after a flash orientation with my project manager, he hands me the keys to the car and says, “Ok, you ready to drive it back to Ipoh?”
I’ve been in country exactly one hour, and now I’m about to drive to Ipoh, 250 kilometres to the north of Kuala Lumpur, where I’ll be stationed for the next year. It’s beginning to feel like 250,000 kilometres as I look out in horror at the churning sea of cars speeding by and wonder exactly how this is going to work.
Here I am in downtown KL with no map, no GPS (my mobile device isn’t set up yet), nothing but the stars to guide me in broad daylight and I have absolutely no idea where to start. So my manager hastily scribbles a cartoonish map with some scrambled directions on it and says, “It’s pretty easy really – if you get lost, just ask someone for directions.”
Not only is this city a box of pretzels to me, I’ve also got to adapt myself immediately to driving with the steering wheel on the right side of the car and traffic moving on the opposite side of the road from what I’m used to. Somehow, I’ve got to find my way out of the city and onto the motorway that will take me north to Ipoh.
I’m game. I get in the company issued Proton Saga (a “made in Malaysia” vehicle), drive around the block and come back right to where I started, hyperventilating wildly. I breathe deeply.
There’s a snarl of roads snaking off into canyons of throughways, overpasses and rivers of fast-moving cars headed into unfathomable places with names like the Persekutuan Highway, Lebuhraya, and Pantal Bahru. I can’t match any of that to the scrawled directions I hold in one hand while trying to balance the right-sided wheel in the other. I don’t even know for sure if I am heading north or south, or even really where Ipoh is located on the map. In short, I am totally lost.
Into the Valley
Let’s try again. This time I ask a street cleaner before take-off. He helps me clear the first hurdle, which is basically going around the block but in the right direction. I manage to carry on, haltingly. I stop and pull over on a busy street and a Kuala Lumpur cop pulls up behind me, looking a bit confused by this wild-eyed foreigner. I ask him for directions out of the center towards the southwest end of the city where the north exit is meant to be. It seems very far away.
I get swept up onto a ramp that takes me into one of those impossibly named freeways, and I am carried away in traffic, a tiny bit of flotsam on the tide of a million frothing automobiles. I think I am going in the right direction. At least I see some signs, some indications that I am heading towards my destination. Then suddenly I’m not, I’m off on a tangent, yanked off course into an eddy somewhere. So I pull over into a gas station and ask a Chinese man who is filling up his tank if he can direct me to this point on the little scrap of paper I am jabbing my finger at.
He says something I half understand about having to turn around and double back and the whole thing sounds like I’m headed into a quagmire. It hits me that I will probably be turning around this big sparkling city for eons, like those lost souls in the limbo of Dante’s Inferno that trudge around in endless circles as part of their eternal damnation.
The Chinese man no doubt sees the despair in my eyes and takes pity on me. He kindly offers to lead me in his car out to the freeway that will shepherd me on my way. I accept a little too gleefully and proceed to follow behind him as he swerves through a thousand little back streets and, after a good fifteen minutes, pulls his car off the road and motions for me to carry forward onto the freeway.
Some Lateral Thinking
Except I misread his hand signal, and instead of going straight on along the freeway, I mistake his indication for what, I soon find out, is not a freeway at all.
In fact, it turns out that parallel to the freeways in and around Kuala Lumpur, there are narrower roads set aside for motorcycle traffic. What I’ve done, most likely to the poor Chinese man’s horror (I can’t see his face but I imagine a look of shock and terror, along with violent hand signals) is gotten myself onto this razor-thin roadway meant to be used exclusively for motorcycles.
I think I hear the Chinese man pounding his horn behind me. Or maybe it’s just the mosquitoes. But it’s not mosquitoes; it’s the sound of a swarm of motorcycles collecting in a furious buzzing mass behind me. I now fully understand that I have taken myself and the car into a twilight zone of Kuala Lumpur driving, a place where no car should ever go.
The motorcycles are beeping their horns, trying to get past me, and I am trying to move over on this ever-narrowing strip of concrete to let them pass. They screech by me, beeping and waving and shouting things that probably sound much like those impossible-to-pronounce road names.
This is completely insane, and the worst part is, the only way to get back out to the real freeway, where cars are supposed to go, is by driving my car onto the motorcycle off-ramps that skip by me every 100 meters or so. They are just right for a motorcycle, not so good for a four-wheeler. I notice as I drive by them that they are more like little bridges, and on either side, there’s nothing but air and a drop into a 3 foot ditch.
So my choice , I’m thinking as I slowly hug the road while passing through a tunnel that echoes with the hot buzzing sound of the motorcycles screeching by, is either to drive indefinitely on this road to Hell, or attempt the impossible and drive over one of these tiny bridge off-ramps. I start slowing down to size one up that just might be wide enough to let me pass, and then close my eyes and turn the wheel.
Deliverance of a Sort
There is a moment when I think – I know – that on this very first day of driving the car away from the head office, I will move it onto this little piece of last hope I have of saving face, and the car will list to one side, the wheels will slip over the edge, and there will be a newish white Proton dangling on a motorcycle off-ramp for all of Kuala Lumpur to marvel at. Worse, it may end up in the ditch, sticking up like a made-in-Malaysia metallic turnip.
There will be stories in the press, and speculation as to how a white Proton managed to end up in this very unlikely place. They will probably guess that some foreigner, some very drunk foreigner, thought it would be a good joke to leave a car there, stuck on the edge of the freeway. There will be photos with captions like, “ White man runs amok – leaves hundreds of motorcyclists maimed”, or, “Foreign devil pulls prank – leaves car stranded on motorcycle off-ramp”. This will be my introduction into Malaysian life, a life most likely involving prison time now.
I square the car up as the buzzing motorcycles whizz by, steel myself, and gingerly step on the gas. I am inching it across this tiny ticket home, squeezing the wheel for all my life, and hoping not to hear the deadening clang of an axle hitting the edge of the concrete. There are some vertical plastic tubes sticking up on the left side of this sliver of a bridge, and I try not to hit them as I slip the car out onto the main road.
Somehow, the car makes it to the other side without a scratch. I pound the steering wheel and let out a victory whoop.
Shaken, I maneuver the car back onto the freeway, and find, to my sweaty relief, a road sign pointing towards Ipoh. The headlines will have to wait for another day, but this first foray into Malaysia’s driving wilderness has convinced me to avoid off-trail motoring in a Proton Saga.
Kurt Stewart is a freelance writer now stationed in Portugal, having survived his Malaysian driving saga. He lived and worked in Malaysia for 5 years where he contributed to Hawaii Reporter and other publications.