the nothing whatever...

Gambling your Faith

When you are traveling, or even in life in general, there is a certain amount of faith you need to place in the decency of humanity. Every time you rely on a complete stranger, whether it be for directions, for a lift, or even for the correct change, you gamble that faith. You pray that the dice rolls in your favor and reinforces your view that the world is not a big bad scary place filled to the brim with wolves and sharks feeding on the blood of the innocent, and that the common man is a friend, someone you can display vulnerability to who will not take advantage. And, more often than not, you win. But it is these wins that need to be remembered more than ever when the dice rolls against you, as if you forget the wins, the losses are likely to do more damage than just that of the hip pocket. Your faith in humanity begins to slip, you become jaded, and before you know it, the wolves and the sharks have turned you into one of them by making you feel like you cannot trust anyone.

It is possible that we may have been scammed when purchasing the tickets to get to Penang. It was a small amount of money (so small, in fact, it is embarrassing to say) but it is less about the money as it is the faith invested in all the people we were sure were helping us out. I will recount the story as objectively as I can in order to give you a clear view of what exactly happened:

The day before we were due to leave for Penang, Nic and I decided we were going to be ultra-organized and prematurely purchase the bus tickets. From what I hear, tickets are usually a same-day purchase, so by going in and booking our seats early we were essentially declaring ourselves to be completely foreign to the nature of the Kuala Lumpur bus system, but we figured that it is still better to be safe than sorry.

Standing out the front of the building amidst ten dodgy-looking plain-clothed scalpers and unsure as to whether they were a legitimate and reliable means of retail, it was not very obvious to us where exactly we were meant to be purchasing them from. Then, just as we were about to decide who looked the best of this bad bunch, a Malay man smoking a cigarette in his business attire who must have been on his lunch break seemed to notice our dilemma, and I saw him approaching out of the corner of my eye.

“Where are you headed?” he asked, speaking perfect English without so much as an accent.

At first I thought he might be just another scalper, but when I saw he wasn’t in possession of a handful of paper and a bum-bag, I realized his intentions might be more wholesome and that I should be safe to let him in on our plans.

“Umm…Penang. But we want to go tomorrow. Do we purchase the tickets off these guys or…”

“No, no way.” he said with a warm smile, and then gestured that we follow him. “These guys will rip you off. I’ll take you to the ticket desk.”

We thanked him, and followed along. It was extremely lucky he had noticed us and decided to help, as finding the ticket outlets required us to navigate a crowded multi-floored labyrinth with no discernible signage and people intermittently trying to hail our attention. We must have been on about the third floor when we got to a large room that looked similar to a carpeted food-court without tables, with every vendor being a different bus company and all selling their own tickets to mostly the same destinations. Our Malaysian guide shooed away a few of the other roaming vendors as they attempted to grab our focus, and then pointed towards the direction of the counter in the far back with a large sign saying “KKKL” (the name of the company), and, at the top of their list of destinations, the word “Penang”. We thanked him profusely, and he said it was no problem at all, and he left Nic and I to discuss how selfless, friendly and helpful the Malaysian people are.

Behind the counter was a rather rotund and surly looking man of Indian appearance who asked us where we were headed, and we explained that we were headed to Penang, but we wanted to be leaving tomorrow. He told us we could purchase the tickets that day, but we had to come back there to collect them tomorrow anyway. But he still pressingly insisted we purchase them that day as it would assure us a seat on the bus, explaining that as the following day was a Saturday, the buses would be extremely crowded, so it was a wise move to purchase the tickets there and then. We nodded in agreement, and I asked him “berapa? (how much?)”. It at least bought a smile out of him (I think because our entire conversation had been in English up until that point, and this was obviously just me trying to show off) and he went along with it for the sake of good rapport, the rest of our transaction being spoken in Bahasa. He gave us two slips of paper that declared that we had paid and were owed tickets (receipts, if you will) and then we left, memorizing the way as we negotiated the congestion of the masses.

The following morning we awoke pretty dusty having had several beers the night before, and we were glad we had paved the path the previous day as we figured that the process of gathering the tickets and getting on the bus would not present much of a hassle. We arrived at the bus station and, again, navigated our way through the hoards of rushing people to the third level and over to the desk labeled “KKKL”. But it was not the same surly looking Indian man behind the counter, rather it was a sour-faced woman wearing a Hijab who didn’t so much as say a word when we arrived, snatching the receipt for our tickets. I expected it to be a very simple process, a quick exchange of two squares of paper, but she sat and stared at them for what seemed like five minutes as if they were suspicious forms of identification, before pulling out her cell phone and dialing. She spoke to an unknown person on the other end for about ten minutes without divulging any information as to what the call was about, and then when she hung up, she called out to a slick-haired seedy looking kid of about twenty that was also on his phone behind us. By then, Nic and I were feeling a little anxious, and after their brief conversation, our suspicions that something might be awry were confirmed when she said her first words to us.

“Bus break down.”

With no further elaboration, Nic and I were forced to prompt her to provide us with some possible other options. She pointed to her slicked-haired associate and said “he can transfer, but cost extra”.

I made sure that the transfer would mean we were still leaving at the same time, and she confirmed it would. The extra money that we were forced to pay for the transfer pushed the price of our tickets over what it would have cost to fly, which really pissed us off. But, after taking our money, it was when she told us the time we requested was booked out and that we were now to be leaving in the afternoon that it started to become a bit ludicrous, literally only seconds after telling us that there were spaces available on the morning bus. We became visibly irate, accusing her of repeatedly lying to us, and we told her we wanted our money back. Then, magically, as if she realized that we had been pushed to a point where we might be likely to complain to someone, two spots opened up at the initial time we had requested. We suddenly had two tickets to the destination we had always wanted at the time we had always wanted, but that we dubiously had to fork out an extra chunk of money for. The smell of scam was all over the place.

So, I say it is “possible” that we were scammed as it is fairly unclear whether the lady behind the counter was lying to us about the bus breaking down.

But, if we were indeed scammed, how far back do we have to recount in order to work out the beginnings of this shady operation? Was it all perpetrated by the sour-faced lady and the slick-haired kid who were working in cahoots on the Saturday, some sort of opportunistic way of weaseling a few extra ducats out of a couple who already had their money invested? Or did the rotund Indian have a role to play in it all? If we had indeed been booked, like he said we had, then what is the reason we couldn’t have our tickets that day? Was he just making sure that those who “book in advance” have to return to the counter in order to cough up for the alleged transfer? And if we go yet another step back, it becomes so obvious why the smoking suited man outside was hovering around us, willing to take ten minutes out of his day in order to help a lost foreign couple, why he was so diligently shooing the efforts of the surrounding vendors, and why he nominated KKKL specifically as the one we should go to, despite it being far from the closest.

It is these trains of thought that lead you to hate the world, to fear it and loathe the people in it so much that you become just another wolf or shark, only ever looking out for number one. So, what I am going to do is I am going to choose to believe that the day we left Kuala Lumpur, five mechanics were struggling to fix the engine of a KKKL bus, all working overtime on a Saturday, and were utterly distraught that they were unable to revive the machine for the sake of the poor people who had already booked the trip in advance. And, the way I am able to believe this is because of the glancing playful smiles of understanding from the Malay people while we were all wandering aimlessly in the middle of a monsoon, because of numerous free beers shouted to us by relative strangers all over the world, because every single time we have counted our change after a meal in some dilapidated restaurant adjoining the home of a family whose children sleep on the floor, it has been correct, because of the grinning Indonesian boy weaving his way through the crowd after tracking down Nic’s bag in the taxi. Yep, it is important to remember the wins, because then when you lose, you won’t actually lose anything at all.