By the time I left Thailand and returned to Malaysia after three months in Asia, one month in Australia, three months in New Zealand, two months in Fiji, and six weeks travelling west across the States from Ontario to Hawaii, travel had begun to wear me down. The Road’s soft green moss and feathery fractured light had receded. Now the Road clawed up at me with jagged edges. I’d been gone a long time, gone from where, I couldn’t say anymore. I wanted to go to a place where I could stay, to a solid place that would wrap itself around me like a well-worn jacket. I knew Fiji was that place. I had to find a way back to Taveuni, reverse my journey, retrace my sodden steps, do what wanderers rarely do: return.I would need another teaching job. A flight to Fiji would be expensive, even from South-East Asia, cheap flight center of the world. I decided to go to Georgetown on the island of Penang, Malaysia’s chief port city and old colonial center for artists, dissidents, intellectuals and dreamers. From the ferry I squinted at the glare of Penang’s tall buildings of gilded glass. Cities are selfish, greedy, reckless, hard-boiled, dirty, and they don’t give a damn. But I needed a city. Penang would help me return to Fiji. With Fiji’s silky sunsets and easy smiles idling in the back of my mind, enduring another city would be a cinch.
The first person I met in Penang was the Devil. The Devil just happens to be a taxi driver, among other things. He also wears polyester hip huggers, red flip flops, and a half-unbuttoned shirt exposing two gold chains dangling low on his chest.
Nonetheless, I never would have imagined the Devil could display such concern for anyone other than himself. Actually, I would never have imagined the Devil existed at all, but there he stood, waiting for me at the ferry dock, happy to make my acquaintance. He had taken English lessons. I could tell.
“Where did you learn such excellent English?” I asked, not yet knowing whom I was addressing.
“International English School, in big ta-wa building.”
“Tower building? Do you think they need teachers? I’m an English teacher.”
“Yes, need teachers. Need you.”
I tossed my backpack into his cab and off we sped in the direction of the big ta-wa building to find me a job. Arriving in Malaysia was much easier the second time. It just takes practice.
Except we weren’t going to a big tower building.
As we drove through the city, the Devil asked me all kinds of questions about my travels and about me. He seemed to know the right questions to ask. Not everyone does. After twenty minutes we reached a building on the outskirts of town, but it wasn’t tall. It was long and snaky, flat, with slits for windows.
“What is this place?” I asked him.
“Just to look he-ah first. Maybe you want work he-a instead teach English. Pay betta this place.”
I noticed his English had deteriorated.
“But what is it?”
On most days of our lives, even while travelling, we follow fairly predictable paths, not in a ho-hum way, but thoughtfully, with intent. We’re happy, or as happy as the next person claims to be, but then without warning, we fall off the path. We find ourselves in another world, an underworld existing alongside our happy-go-lucky world of relative normalcy. We don’t know our way around down there because it’s dark and frightening and new, although it’s always been there…waiting.
It was difficult to see anything once the doors closed behind us even though daylight still polished and graced the world outside. Dark ruby lights revealed figures casting shadows onto a plush red rug. Women, or possibly just girls, were harnessed into leather mini skirts, low-cut lycra tops and pink pumps as they lounged on bar stools and couches and sipped bright red drinks from tall glasses with straws, like Barbie dolls, Barbie dolls gone wrong. They glared at me. Heavy rouge and gummy neon lipstick concealed their ages, and their souls. Men with facial scars and sleeveless black T-shirts stood on guard, crossed-armed. They glared also. This was the first room in what appeared to be a long line of rooms. A waiting room. Twice, from a room beyond, screams broke out into this vile deposit of lethargy and seemed to charge the room with perverse expectations. Then the feeling would die.
I considered the fact that I’d entered a brothel. Either that or the movie set of a cheap porno flick. Or possibly Hell itself.
“What are we doing here?” I asked as I stood gawking, although I knew the answer.
“You can work he-ah. Good job. Good pay. Own-ah good friend to me.”
This was a ghastly thought. I wanted out, although secretly the place fascinated me. Who were all these women? Where did they come from? Why were they here? The creepy blackness of the place began to seep into my skin. He stood blocking the doorway.
“I’m leaving,” I told him.
He aimed his dreadful face at me and released his horrific smile and that’s when I understood his true identity for the first time. “No, you no leaving.”
“Yes, actually I am.” And I did, once I barged past him and out the door. But that was only the beginning of the Devil in Penang. And my dark underworld.