While I was on a plane from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur, I met a guy at the lavatory and made my first fifty ringgit.
The weather was clear that day, and, even though my assigned seat was on the aisle, I moved to an empty window seat at the back of the plane so I could have a good look at the view. A Malaysian flight attendant and his co-worker were also exciting to see the clear skies. They moved to see the view outside the window behind me and study the islands below.
I used my a little geographical knowledge to make a conversation with the cabin crews. “That is Koh Chang, the second largest island in Thailand.” This seemed to delight them. “That land over there is Cambodia and that’s Koh Rong the most popular tourist spot in the country.” They smiled and I felt the sense of relief that I’ve done a good job getting cabin crews to like me in case we have to make an emergency landing.
“We always got cloud flying this season.” The male flight attendant told me before he resumed to work. My eyes followed him as he’s making his way back behind the plane. That’s when I heard the cry from the nearby lavatory.
The door swung open and a tiny man came out. A Malaysian guy in his thirties, his eyes were watery-red and he smiled shyly at me.
“You Thai?” He asked.
“Yes.” I knew then that he might have heard my conversation with the flight attendants. So it’s pretty much clear to him anyway —the way I can identified the islands from the plane’s window— that I have to be a citizen of this country. “Then can you read Thai?” Before I had time to find this offensive, he pulled out his old-fashioned black and white Nokia phone and asked if he can take a seat near me.
It wouldn’t hurt me if the person who sitting next to me was assigned from the ticket kiosk. But when a stranger asks if he could move and sit near me I was a little paranoid. The man introduced himself as Arden and he has a problem with his Thai girlfriend who he recently caught cheating on him on a surprise visit to Bangkok.
He wanted me to help him translate a text message she sent to him on his phone. The message was in Thai and I have no problem translating it, really, because it’s only one sentence long, the real problem was it’s going to get to personal. It seemed that the other guy—Thai guy—wanted her to leave Arden who, as he told me, has been taking care of the Thai woman for over six years.
“Six years,” Arden said, “And I never once—sorry for my language—fuck other woman. You hear me?”
“Sometimes, humans are lonely you know.” Too late to pretend that I can’t speak English and escape this awkwardness. I found myself giving a thirty-something Malaysian man a love advice.
“You two are sort of in a long distance thing. Woman, alone, is difficult to understand, but in your case—your woman—there is a language barrier involved. Just so you know… take it easy.”
“Have you ever been in any relationship before?” He asked, “Do you have a girlfriend?”
Seeing as he’d better not wasting his time he could spend on scoring Candy Crush on his other phone or getting quality nap before we reach the destination. He then thanked me and returned to his assigned seat. I thought about how many Thai women married to foreigners? I’m pretty sure that you can’t only rely on what happened between the sheet and hope it would solve all the problems two humans would have trying to understand one another. Relationship is also difficult even when you’re both speaking the same language.
Arden came back shortly like he had a second thought, “I would pay you fifty ringgit right now but you have to help me one thing.”
I wanted to have some alone time to enjoy the view from the plane window but the money was tempting. It would be the express train ticket from the airport to the city central, so I said yes almost without hesitation even though I thought the encounter was quite odd—the money offers—as if he was going to ask if I would like to join the mile high club
Instead he wanted me to find a Thai song that would suit to his situation and then translate it to English so he can understand and he forward it to her. I couldn’t think of any songs at that moment and thought that a blowjob would have been easier, but I accepted the money anyway. He thanked me again and back to his seat. That’s how I earned my first fifty ringgit.
I told Siri to remind me of the meeting with Eddy—a Thai-Vietnamese friend whose dad gave him a handsomely funds to start a business of his own. He wanted me to help design the packages for his tea products. If we didn’t know each other since high school I would have called him my client. My first client, in fact, who was wearing tie and slacks only to meet up with his friend in a coffee shop.
I was, as usual, wearing a black hoodie, skinny jeans and a red Converse shoes. They gave me the unknowable powers that tricked me into thinking I’m a decent freelancer as I rushed in—fifteen minutes late—to the coffee shop.
Looking at his outfits, I was at a loss—unable to make the excuse that I would have been here on time if I hadn’t spent most of the time picking clothes. Eddy studied Computer Engineering but failed to grasp the enthusiasm for programming and decided to spend a whole year in a remote monastery. When asked what he’s learned from the year being a monk, he simply answered, “Nothing.” I guess that’s the whole premise of being a monk. To gain nothing, physically, but earn more on the account of spirituality.
There’s one thing I’ve overlooked, though. Spending time in the monastery is not a total waste of time only if your parents still send the money to cover your expenses. As being a monk, Eddy didn’t spend a single dime his parents sent him. By the time his hair grew, he quit the monastery and walked away with a lot of money in his savings.
He wanted to start a business, but lacked the artistry to design his own packaging. It led us to the meeting today. Because I seemed like a decent artist to his standard. Moreover, I told him I would do it for free. I’ve brought up the whole concept for branding and designs—the inevitable topic about positioning your brand before you can come up with the design. Naming the product is frustrating, especially, when you don’t know who exactly your target customer so I gave him this homework to choose his target customer first so he can get back to me. Then we talked about how I earned my first fifty ringgit on the plane. Then I was asking about the good places in Kuala Lumpur to eat, the recommendation on bars and nightlife.
Our topics drifted further and further from selling tea to seeing the dolphins in Lovina Beach in Bali. At this point, Eddy excused himself to go to the toilet, but he came back shortly and asked if he could borrow my book. “I like to read something while I’m at it.” He said.
All of the sudden, I recalled using his bathroom once, back in Thailand, where books piled up and newspapers tucked behind his toilet. I know quite a few people who loves to read when they’re in the toilet. But Eddy is the exception. Apart from textbooks, he reads only in the toilet. Unaware that this is the sort of habits that totally the waste of time since the stuffs he read seemed to vanish down the drain when he flushing the toilet.
“Man’s Search for Meaning. Great book. Don’t drop it on the toilet floor.” I told him.
“By Viktor, who?” He asked, not familiar with the Jewish name, but before I have a chance lectured him, he’s gone.
He left me at the table alone. I’m asking myself, “Who am I talking to?” With him out of sight, all I can safely say was, “I’m talking to a guy who learned about marketing from those softback self-improving books while taking a dump.”
Toilet is the perfect place to hide. It provides a quick, safe asylum from the uncontrollable public which sometimes served as the incubator where ideas seemed to gather. You couldn’t help but to reach out for a magic marker to express your mind, your feelings, your business plans, onto the wall.
I had a blast and read them with gratitude and suddenly understood why some people love to read in the toilet. These exhibited on the toilet walls and I found it extremely enjoyable even it is the most banal and disgusting words imaginable. It’s gently reassuring that at the core humans are looking for a way to expressing their thoughts no matter where you are in the world.
At night I went to a bar with a fellow Dutch backpacker who shared a room with me in a hostel. From our table, I can see one of the Petronas Towers standing tall among all the constructions that were going on around the city. While we were waiting for our food, my new friend has a sudden diarrhea. He rushed out of the bar and caught a taxi back to the hostel just in time when our dinner arrived. “I shouldn’t drink tap, should I?” He said, apologetically.
When he’s gone, I felt like crying. As if I went on an unsuccessful blind date, but the reason was actually about the money he put on the table didn’t cover the price for his dinner. Or maybe I just felt like I wanted to cry. The genuinely feeling when I caught myself all alone at the strange bar in the strange city and it’s raining. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do once I was graduated.
I finished two dishes and two drinks by myself, caught a taxi back to the hostel, sat in the lobby and cheated on the trivial game “Guess the Movies” by asking Siri to googled for the answers. It’s the game I preferred to play while I’m on the toilet but within an hour I’ve completed every single levels, amused by how technologies can make life a lot easier but taken away all the fun.
I went back to the dorm room and found the Dutch guy lying in his bed reading “Looking for Alaska.” It fascinated me to see a Dutch backpacker reading young adult novel at midnight rather than seeing him going out to get drunk and stoned. But considering he’s having stomach problem, Looking for Alaska seemed like a pretty good alternative. He put away the book when I entered the room.
Siri reminded me to pack my stuffs because I have to fly off to Singapore the next morning. We chat while I was packing. I gave him a bottle of water I thought I didn’t need it anymore.
“Are you sure you don’t need water?” He asked.
“Yes, I’m sure don’t need this, because I have the other one, half-full right here I think it would be enough for the night. Beside I have to leave very early to the airport tomorrow.”
This was me, the giving kind of person. I saved him from the contaminate tap water. While other people tend to take great pleasure in bumming invasion—sticking thump out in the air expecting free rides, or writing a CouchSurfing request and copy-paste it to the hosts.
An email came in. It was Arden; the crying Malaysian man who hired me for fifty ringgit to translate a song. Turned out he didn’t like the song I picked for him and ask if I could find another song that would suit his situation more. I replied that I would think about it and then told the story about Arden to the Dutch guy.
“He gave you the money and now he’s fucking with you.”
“I don’t think that would be the case. I met him in person and the guy is really desperate.”
Just when I said ‘desperate’, the new email arrived to my inbox. It’s Arden, of course, and he offered me another fifty ringgit if I could help him find another song.
“Well, I thought I would do it for free. My God, this guy is so pity.”
“And, you’re too nice.”
Then there’s a moment when I realized I can also be a taker. It never occurred to me before that I could be naturally at taking the compliments. Other people would shrugged or waved it away but I simply stand still like the Petronas Twin Towers, but with an unfolded underwear in one of my hand.
“How’s your stomach?” I asked.
“Better, after I spent some times in the toilet, but, you know, the toilet in this hostel is very nice. I didn’t expect that.”
‘How could I forget?’ I thought. I have to agree with him. This hostel has a little surprise and it’s the toilet. When I first saw it I felt like I entered a bathroom in a nice hotel. It’s still a shared bathroom but with style and door made of teaks and the rain-forest shower. The best place to think, the sanctuary, the temporary asylum for the lost souls.
“Yes, they are very pretty.” I replied.
Sam Nathapong is a copywriter and journalist living in Bangkok. Twitter @