I’ve learned a few things during the last five months on the road.
A lot about myself and my priorities and goals, and quite a bit about other people and theirs. That far from being big and scary, travelling solo is fun, challenging and totally awesome, and that throwing myself headfirst at life is the best way that I know to enjoy it.
Most of all, I’ve realised that I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to go back to short vacations, deadlines and itineraries, rushing from place to place at breakneck speed for a couple of weeks before going back to work more exhausted than when I started. Freedom and flexibility are the only way for me to travel now. Casting an eye back over the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met, many of the best times I’ve had on this trip came about only due to having no set agenda and the ability to do things entirely on a whim. When I’ve met some great people or found a particularly lovely part of the world, being able to change my minimal plans has allowed me to make the most of those wonderful experiences.
I had another one of those encounters in Malacca last week.
The fact that I was in town at all was a bit of a last minute decision. I’d given myself a bit over two weeks in Malaysia, flying in and out of Kuala Lumpur, and other than some time in Penang I didn’t really know where I was going to go before I arrived. Figuring that I may as well stay on the west coast due to the weather patterns this time of year, my guidebook fell open at the section for Malacca. UNESCO world heritage site? Check. Dozens of listed buildings, museums and unique food options? Sure, why not. Best of all it was only a couple of hours on the bus from KL, so if it wasn’t my scene then it was easy to get away to somewhere else. There was also some good diving to be had on Tioman Island a few hours drive away, which I figured would be my next stop after a day or two.
The long-distance bus arrived at Malacca Sentral mid-afternoon (of course, despite the name, it’s nowhere near the centre of town), and after being propositioned in the toilets and figuring out where the door-less local bus left from, I arrived downtown and started the usual hunt for somewhere to stay. The way I usually work this is to find some options listed in the guidebook that are close to each other and then look for something else nearby. Wow, that approach sure paid dividends this time.
Things boded well when I walked up the stairs to the House of Kititto guesthouse. With a cheerful clutter of magazines, mugs and random paraphernalia spread across the coffee table in the middle of the room, it felt like I had walked into somebody’s living room. As it transpired, that’s because I had walked into somebody’s living room. One of the two guys sitting working on his laptop got up and welcomed me in. He was Kent, one of the owners, and after showing me to my room (it wasn’t hard to find, there’s only four of them), we settled in for a cup of coffee and a chat about life. Apparently I’d interrupted a long running conversation about quantum physics with Johnny, a fellow Kiwi and the only other guest that night. Given that’s not exactly my area of expertise, I sat quietly in my chair sipping my coffee and letting the waffle flow around me until dinner time.
Expecting to head out and find somewhere to eat nearby, I was pleasantly surprised when Monica (Kent’s wife and the other owner) asked if I’d like to join everyone for dinner. Sounded like a great plan to me, and apparently it was nothing out of the ordinary – that’s just how things work around there. Of course one of the great things about going out for food with locals is that you know the restaurant will usually be (a) cheap, (b) great and (c) miles off the tourist trail. That was certainly the case that night, and every other night bar one. That night we cooked at the guesthouse, mind you, so I guess the same things applied equally well there too.
And so the scene was set for the next several days. Any plans that I may have had of heading elsewhere seemed to quietly disappear in a warm fuzz of eating and drinking, talking and wandering, friendliness and hospitality that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced on my travels before. We felt like a small, close-knit little family – something that you really come to miss when travelling solo for months on end, and a feeling that I was in no hurry to lose.
Nothing was ever too much trouble – when I mentioned to Kent that my ailing earphones had finally given up the ghost, he spent ages trying to help fix them and then offered to take me on the back of his scooter to the biggest electronics shop in town to find some new ones. Of course, since we were going that way, he also insisted that we should go back to Sentral to book my onwards bus ticket for a few days later, walking around the dozen or more ticket booths and translating the various options and prices backwards and forwards for me. After saying that I was thinking about heading out to a beach an hour or more away from Malacca that was poorly served by public transport, a plan was hatched for us all to drive out there on a day-long sightseeing expedition involving jungles, lighthouses, hospitals and beaches, culminating in the delight of seeing one of the most beautiful sunsets of my life.
Kent and Monica have travelled extensively by themselves – somewhat of a rarity in people from this part of the world who apparently tend to prefer large tour groups – and their passion for travel is obvious and infectious. Anyone that will jump into a 1000cc car and drive from Malacca to Pai (in Northern Thailand) and back in a road trip of over 7000km certainly has my respect. Beyond the travel connection, though, they were both simply just lovely, warm, friendly people who welcomed this wanderer – and undoubtedly many others – into their lives for several days. As Monica dropped me off at the bus station on her way to work, she mentioned that she was sad to see me leave. There’s no doubt about it, the feeling was entirely mutual.
Because they aren’t interested in attracting crowds of people, you won’t find the House of Kititto in any guidebooks – if you want to stay there, drop Kent a mail via the website or take a chance and walk in off the street like I did. My time there has been one of the highlights of my trip – if you make it to Malacca one day, it undoubtedly will be for you as well.
Has someone at a guesthouse, hotel or hostel similarly transformed your time somewhere? I’d love to hear your stories!