Penang, Malaysia was good for me. It was comfortable and familiar, as if I’d been there before, and the island welcomed me with open arms. Initial plans called for me to visit Kuala Lumpur and Malacca as well, but there was so much to see and do in Penang, I reverted to the slow travel mode that I prefer and stayed on Penang for two and a half weeks to explore this fascinating island in depth. It was a good decision, not only because I was able to rest and recover from my frustrating and exhausting travel experience in China, but also because I had a rare bout with sickness in Malaysia.
I rarely get sick when traveling; I’m one of those people who can drink the water and eat from street carts all over the world and never have the tiniest adverse reaction. But about midway through my stay in Penang, I woke up one morning with a splitting headache aching muscles that felt like I’d run a marathon the previous day. It was short term; by the following day I was back to normal and I didn’t think any more about it.
During week two I started looking for a flight to Kahtmandu, Nepal and was surprised to find that the cheap seats on both Nepal Airways and Thai Airlines were sold out through mid-October. Luckily, a local travel agent was able to find me a flight on GMG Airlines. The flight left from Kuala Lumpur at 6 a.m., which meant I’d have to take a night bus from Penang to KL, wait around in the KL airport for five hours, and then suffer through a long layover in Dhaka, Bangladesh, but I judged the savings to be worth the inconvenience.
Two days before the flight I again suffered a throbbing headache and muscle aches, this time accompanied by nausea, cold sweats, diarrhea, and itchy red bumps all over my body. It finally dawned on me that I’d eaten cockles both times I’d gotten sick. There was no doubt about it, I was having a severe allergic reaction to these tiny little mollusks.
I loaded up on Imodium, trying to stop the diarrhea, and hunkered down under the covers. Despite 90 degree temperatures, my teeth chattered and shivers wracked my body. By the end of day two I was still weak but decided to attempt travel, since my plane ticket was non-refundable and non-changeable. The night bus to Kuala Lumpur and a taxi got me to the airport at 3:30 a.m. but the ticket counter wasn’t yet open, so I hunted down an open McDonalds, sipped on tea, and popped another Imodium, just to be safe.
By 7 a.m. more than a hundred people were in line but the check in counter had not yet opened – not a good sign for an on-time 8 a.m. takeoff. Too weak to stand for any length of time, I plunked down on the floor among the waiting passengers, all young men who were rolling large metal carts containing stacks of comforters and bedspreads. Curiosity got the better of me; I began chatting with those who could speak English and learned they were all Nepalis, working on contract in Malaysia and headed home to celebrate the high Hindu holiday of Dashain. The bedspreads and comforters, apparently a rare and pricey commodity in Nepal, were being taken home as gifts.
The check-in counter finally opened at 8 a.m. with an announcement that the flight would be delayed until 10 a.m. One of the airline officials who was hovering in the background stepped up to the counter and told the agent to put me in the front of the plane, in the bulkhead seat. Gratefully, I checked my small piece of luggage and took the train to my gate, where I dumped my backpack on the security conveyor belt and waited. The belt didn’t budge. When I looked up questioningly at the guard he waved me away; no one was being allowed into the waiting area until boarding time. Again I sat on the floor, gazing longingly at the empty seats beyond the security doors, as the hall became choked with passengers.
Finally, it was time to board, but had I known the condition of the plane I might well have decided to stay behind. The MD-80 cabin was a mess. Many of the seat back pouches were torn and the bathroom doors would not close all the way. Between horrible feedback noise from the PA system and constantly dinging bells, not a word of the pre-flight instructions could be heard, not that it mattered much with hundreds of poor workers talking at the top volume. With the cabin doors shut and the air not yet on, I finally realized why I’d been put up front; the stench of body odor was overwhelming. I stifled a laugh when the flight attendant chastised a passenger for taking photos, insisting that it was not allowed to photograph the cabin configuration (more likely they don’t want anyone to see the poor condition of the planes), and said a silent prayer to the Imodium gods that I would not have to use the bathroom during the flight.
By the time we landed in Dhaka, I really needed a restroom. Buses carried us from the furthest reaches of the tarmac to the terminal, where we were met by an agent who would take us to the transit lounge. I begged permission to go to the bathroom while we waited for the rest of the passengers. “You will wait for me, yes?” He nodded assent. In the filthy squat toilet I held my breath, rolled up my pant legs, balanced my pack on my back, unzipped, gingerly squatted over the ceramic hole in the ground, and, careful not to touch anything, blissfully relieved myself. My relief was short lived, however, when I returned to the waiting point and found I had been abandoned. Oh well, I had at least six hours to find the transit lounge and if I was stopped and questioned I could just claim ignorance.
The small terminal building, for the most part, was modern and relatively clean, although it reeked of diesel fuel and paint fumes. It seemed that as long as I didn’t try to go through Immigration I was free to wander. I finally found the transit lounge and my fellow passengers, in a far corner that was the filthiest spot in the entire terminal building. Since it was also the only spot in the terminal where smoking was allowed, cigarette butts littered the floor and a dense cloud of smoke hung in the air. I retired to the more modern part of the terminal for the long wait, wandering in and out of the transit lounge on occasion to check on the status of the flight, and was not surprised when GMG announced our departure time would be delayed by two hours.
Hours later, two GMG agents arrived with fists full of boarding passes for the next leg of the flight, stood behind a decrepit counter and began bellowing out names. In a flash, passengers mobbed the counter, pushing and shoving and waving passports as proof of identity. In the din, I couldn’t hear the names being called out, so I joined the throng, a lone white head in a sea of black hair bobbing about like an empty soda bottle on a restless ocean.The video above was taken after more than half of the passes were handed out, so it doesn’t show the worst of it, but it gives some sense of the chaos.
With boarding passes clutched in our hot little hands we were herded to the departure gate for another half hour wait, during which a 23-year old moon-eyed Indian boy named Isaac latched on to me and proclaimed his undying. As we landed he pressed a scrap of paper with his phone number into my hand, begging me to call so we could meet in Kathmandu. Amused, I let him down gently and escaped to the immigration line for foreigners as he pleaded, “My heart is breaking.”
With all the delays, it was dark when I arrived in Kathmandu, but the driver from my hostel had dutifully waited and whisked me away to Kathmandu Madhuban Guest House, where I collapsed into bed in my private room with a private, western-style bathroom. I may be the queen of budget travel, but this is one instance where it would have paid not to be so darned cheap. Next time, I think I’ll pony up the extra $150 to fly direct with Nepal Airlines.