By: Adrianne Aron
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant
I made it back from a hectic and fascinating
week of travel carrying a pressed bouquet of dried flowers, a souvenir
of the road to Kuala Lumpur. Outside Gemas, the last stop
of the jungle train that cuts through the thicket of Peninsular
Malaysia, I'd found my way to this principal road, moving slowly
so as not to drop from the heat of the sun. I'd boarded the
jungle train about six hours earlier at Kuala Lipis, in the central
part of the country, and now I was on the highway, hitchhiking to
the ancient port of Malacca, Malaysia's oldest city. Having
come through dense, riotous rain forest, I was about to cross miles
and miles of rubber and palm oil plantations.
Half an hour with my thumb out, in the blistering heat, I was beginning
to wonder if I'd ever get a ride in this land where traveling alone
is considered very odd, and solo travelers tend to arouse suspicion.
I was of course aware that a female solo hitchhiker really pushed
the limits, and I held out some hope that the sweat pouring down
my cheeks might be perceived as tears, and some charitable soul
would take pity and stop for me. When an air conditioned Mercedes
pulled over and waited on the shoulder, my melting sneakers ran
to the car on the double, and I was very happy to jump into the
front seat next to Norvin C., my lifesaver.
The really good news was that Norvin was going to Kuala Lumpur-a
long ways-and spoke perfect English, having studied two years in
London. Forty-two and talkative, he seemed pleased to have
company. His short sleeved plaid shirt was tucked into clean
jeans, circled by a Western style leather belt. But this was
no cowboy. If his stringy Chinese beard hadn't given him away,
the back window's decals advertising golf courses would have laughed
him off the rodeo.
I'd have much preferred a cowboy over a golfer, but who was I to
be choosy? When he offered that he'd just come from a golf
tournament at the country club, I did my part and asked how he'd
Languidly, Norvin told me he'd won more electronic equipment-another
TV set. "I think it's my third," he said.
I wondered what he would have liked as a prize, but asked instead
about whether he plays often, and found out that his work keeps
him very busy, and he doesn't have much time for golf.
It's like a little dance. After "Where you're Going"
and "What you're Called" comes "How you make a Living"
and once the opening steps are performed you're free to talk about
almost anything, but you never take the lead, lest you step on your
"What keeps you so busy?" I ask tactfully, thinking it
must pay pretty well to support this luxury limo. I, myself,
worked for a peace organization in the United States, an occupation
that usually brought bright smiles to the faces of people I met
in my travels. It didn't pay well, but a single woman in her
twenties doesn't really need a lot of money, and the feeling of
making a contribution to a better world was worth a great deal,
at least to me. If you were careful, you could even live pretty
well. I'd come to Malaysia on a courier flight, and was staying
at hostels-budget travel, as they called it here.
Norvin's face brightened. He seemed to enjoy his work much
more than those tiresome televisions.
"I'm an arms dealer," he said with an air of satisfaction.
"I buy guns for MINDEF, the Ministry of Defense."
I gulped. Chapter headings in human rights reports flashed
through my mind. "Oh," I said. "This
is a very nice car. Do you prefer German cars?"
Was I actually changing the subject, or only changing the venue?
This was Norvin's third Mercedes, I learned. He also had a
I needed a way out. It's bad manners to lead, but I asked
if he was married.
"Yes, I am," he said, but he offered nothing more, so
I asked if he had children.
He brightened up again when he told me he had three children, which
he kindly clarified for me: "Three boys, and a girl."
I stared down at my fingers, slightly grimy from clutching the soiled
strap of my knapsack. What he'd just said was not like saying
Four fingers and a thumb; it was more like Three fingers and a stupid
appendage that doesn't count for anything. I tried again to
get into safe territory. "Where do you live?" I
asked in a perky voice, as if I were just dying to know-which in
a way I was.
He had been so chatty about the golf tournaments but was so taciturn
now. I wondered if I'd offended him by not asking more about
his three sons. "But you're going to Kuala Lumpur?"
I asked tentatively. Let it not be for missiles and bombs,
I was thinking.
Norvin said a little more this time: "I live there, too,"
he explained. "I have two houses, one with each wife."
"You have two wives?" I thought of myself as a fairly
sophisticated woman, but this was a little bit shocking, maybe because
of the plaid shirt and cowboy belt. I could talk about this,
though; at least it wasn't about weapons.
"Yes," Norvin told me, "the first wife is in Johor,
and Wife Two in K.L. Wife Two is away a lot. She's young.
She's a stewardess with Malaysian Airlines."
Was he really calling them Wife One and Wife Two, like Car One and
Car Two or TV One and TV Two-oh, those tiresome TVs?
I minded my etiquette. The heat outside was insufferable,
I recalled; it could kill. A humble, deferential, polite inquiry
as to whether Wife One worked too would only hurt for a while.
Norvin seemed pleased to tell me that she was a tax accountant,
which I found hard to imagine. "Do they wear head coverings
and long dresses?" I asked.
"Only Wife One," he said. "She covers her head,
because she wants to."
We had become so chummy that I was bold enough to ask how Number
One feels about Wife Two. I was working on the premise that
when one is driven by genuine curiosity and brings no ill-will to
a question, almost anything is permissible to ask. My imagination
had already prepared me for eye scratching in the seraglio, pandemonium
in the harem, subjugation in the kitchen. Instead I
learned that Wife Number One did not know there was a Wife Number
Norvin told me with the same even voice he'd used when mentioning
his preference for German automobiles: "She doesn't know
about her. It would make trouble for me if she knew.
You know, jealousy. That's why I keep them apart. Wife
Two knows about my first wife, but that's not a problem."
Not a problem! Who was this guy kidding? "If Wife
Two got mad at you," I pointed out, "she could tell your
secret to Wife One. Doesn't that worry you?" In
every love triangle I'd ever heard about, that was the Achilles
heel of the heel. Daytime television was full of stories like
that. But Norvin was confident that Wife Two would never do
I had to try another angle: "Where does Wife One think you
are, when you're in Kuala Lumpur with Wife Two?"
"On business," he said ingenuously. "She knows
I have a house in K.L.; she's been there. She has even spent
the night, but I make sure there's no trace of Wife Two, not so
much as a hair. I put everything away when I bring Wife One
"It must get complicated," I offered. The near-sympathy
in my voice embarrassed me. Language has a way of taking its
own course through the emotions, especially in triple-digit heat.
Norvin gave me a lesson in how it works: "You can have
up to five wives. But you have to be fair--give to all of
them the same: for housing, for gifts, for sex, for everything.
At some point later on I may take a third wife, if I can afford
it. Are you married?"
The scraggly goatee suddenly looked to me like an old dishtowel.
Why was he asking me that? What should I tell him? I
told him the truth: I'd been married, I was divorced.
"Did he marry again?" Norvin wanted to know.
"Yes." I was puzzled by this question, too.
"A younger woman?"
"No," I said truthfully, "he married a woman his
"Oh, then he probably doesn't care for sex!" Norvin
was smiling, as if he'd discovered the essence of my ex. "A
man takes a younger woman to get fresh excitement for sex,"
"Oh." At least we weren't talking about arms deals,
I reminded myself.
"You're traveling alone?"
"Yes." There was no point in denying the obvious.
Norvin pushed back into the rich upholstery of the Mercedes and
said, "Malacca's nothing. Nothing there. Why don't
you come with me to K.L.? I'll show you around."
Like a schoolgirl I retreated into an academic excuse, saying that
Malacca's history goes all the way back to 1400, and I thought I'd
find it very interesting.
"Maybe." He was smiling at me.
"You said you visited the U.S. Where did you go?"
I asked, a little too abruptly.
"All over," he said, "to Las Vegas, Disneyland, Miami.
I went to the Hard Rock in Las Vegas."
He' d be some guide to Kuala Lumpur, I thought. I asked if
he did a lot of traveling.
"Next month I'll go to South Africa, to take a General so he
can see the weapons factory.
Sorry I'd asked, I inquired whom he'd taken when he went to the
"My wife," he said.
"Wife Number One, with the children--we all went."
"So now you owe Wife Two a trip abroad?" (Was I
stating a fact, or asking a question? I wasn't sure).
"Oh, she already travels, she's a stewardess" he said,
as if that made everything come out even. I found myself taking
sides with Wife Two, though her lifestyle was utterly unimaginable.
Norvin was so smug about Wife Two, I just had to ask, though I knew
it was bait and this was against all the rules of hitchhiking:
"Do you worry that she might be cheating on you while she's
away on these overnight airplane trips?"
But my challenge had no effect on Norvin. No, he said, that
has never worried him.
"Why not?" I pressed, trying to break down that annoying
Norvin gave me a look of "You foolish girl, you just don't
understand the fundamentals."
"Trust," he explained. "It's all about trust."
He pulled over to a roadside stand and bought some papaya and mangosteen,
and a spray of flowers, then opened the passenger door for me to
exit. I thought he might be throwing me out, but he explained:
"The road splits here. To get to Malacca you have to
go that way. If you stand over there, by that tree, you'll
have some shade while you wait for a ride." He closed
the door behind me and reached out with a hand to give me the flowers.
"What's this?" I asked, a little confused.
"For you," he said. "I want you to have them.
They're freesias. You know what that means?"
What was he telling me? I stood there on the hot road, embarrassed.
A polygamous arms dealer was giving me flowers. I took the
bouquet. I said nothing.
"They're freesias," he repeated. "Freesia means