“You are my number 20,” he said, drunkenly. He claimed he had to meet 50 of us, in order to ascend to a higher plane. We quickly left the tourist strip.
I wanted wind chimes and to get away.
It was our last night in Penang, and I wanted wind chimes like those hanging above our table in the bar with the computer you could put ringgits into, where we saw the Indian man in the billowing pirate shirt, billowing though there was only a slight breeze from the fan.
The wind chimes in the bar were the same ones I saw for sale on the street, an hour before, by a vendor whose name I couldn’t pronounce and can no longer remember. At first I thought they might be a bit too touristy, and too big to pack. But sitting in a bustling beach town tourist bar boasting a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. happy hour, the bamboo wind chimes, and the hollow thunking noise they made, seemed like the most authentic Malaysian thing I could find in Penang that night.
“I’ll back in fifteen minutes, I told my two traveling mates, who were about to order dollar rum and colas. “I want to go back for those wind chimes.”
“So, that’s what, thirty minutes to an hour Anna time?”
“Fifteen minutes at most,” I said as I picked up my bag that held my camera and wallet, and headed for the door.
As I walked past the stands selling pirated CDs, and the Internet and photo developing spots for Western and other wealthy travelers, a guy in front of me stopped suddenly and turned around. Had I not been walking so slowly, I would have run right into him. My head had been swinging from side to side taking in the sights, and I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going. When he saw me, he acted less startled than stunned.
“I cannot believe you are behind me, I need to talk to you,” he said in British-accented English.
“Ahh,” I said in response. I was a little overwhelmed, since I saw it was the man in the billowy pirate shirt from the bar. I hadn’t noticed him leave. I took my lack of observation as a sign to proceed with caution.
“I’m sorry because I’m a little drunk, and I do not drink that much, so I’m more than a little drunk. But I saw you in the bar. You were with your two friends.”
“Ahh,” I said. He seemed only tipsy. I, on the other hand was perfectly sober. My only bar indulgence had been the use of the vending machine-like computer, which I used to email my friends back home.
“Your skirt is from Delhi. It was made in India. I noticed it as soon as you walked into the bar.”
“Ahh,” I said again, and we began to walk together.
I didn’t mention that from my point of view my skirt was not from India but from a notorious American big-box store, and that I hated the long, maroon skirt with the little mirrors sewn into the hem, since it drew attention to my exposed ankles and sandaled feet, the only parts of my body below my waist that could tan. I had looked everywhere in America for one of these skirts, specifically to wear in Malaysia. Had I known I did not need to wear one here in Penang, I would have been wearing pants.
“It’s beautiful. I used to embroider those skirts.”
“Ahh,” I could not help but repeat. I felt as though I could not say more. But then I managed: “I like your shirt, it’s kind of like a pirate shirt.”
“Then I’ll have to give you one. I embroidered this in Delhi, too. Do you know who you are? What is your name?”
“I’m Anna,” I said, with a harsh American south emphasis on the An.
“You mean, Ahhna. “I’m Jagdish, he said, shaking my hand in agreement that we were friends. “But do you know who you are and where we are going?”
Where We Went
The street was murky with humidity and the vendors were beginning to pack up. The darkness of 11 p.m. was setting in, and the halogen lamps used to illuminate tourist goods clicked off as we walked. A few last-minute shoppers were mid-route between the bars and their hotel beds, and were quickly buying what they could still see. But otherwise the place was free of tourists– and potential witnesses.
Jagdish, acting as my guide, told me of another place that sold wind chimes. He knew the wind chime guy on the tourist strip, and said he was always the first to close in the evenings. If only I were willing to walk with him some more we could find the same wind chimes for a cheaper price. I decided to go along, despite suspecting that most sellers of wind chimes were home asleep.
We quickly turned off the tourist strip and walked a few disorienting blocks that left me unsure how to get back to the bar if I needed to make an escape. But for whatever reason I felt completely safe.
“My heart has been beating very fast, ever since I saw you. But you are too young.”
When he said this, I didn’t panic. In fact, the only thought that went through my head was: how old is he, if I look so young? His face was as smooth as the edge of the moon.
“Ahh,” I said, as aloofly as possible.
“You are my number twenty,” he continued. He explained how he was a spiritual guru of sorts, and how every now and then he meets someone he is meant to enlighten. He doesn’t know who they are until he sees them, but when he saw me he knew I was one. He had met 19 other tourists and locals before me, and needed to meet 50 in all before he could ascend to higher level of spiritual gurudom.
All of his talk and the diagrams he drew for me in the little notebook I pulled from my bag was dizzying. I didn’t know if I understood.
“Most of the others are older. You are really young. On the way over here, you couldn’t even stop saying Ahhh. I knew I wasn’t wrong when you kept saying Ahh.” Ahh, he told me, is the universal sound of spirituality.
Allahh, Gahhd Budahh. The list went ahhn and ahhn.
What Does it Mean to Arrive?
When we got to what looked like an abandoned storefront he said we had arrived. I couldn’t tell if he meant physically, emotionally or spiritually.
He pressed a buzzer and waited. When no one answered, he looked at me apologetically.
“I guess you are not getting it tonight,” Jagdish said.
I just shrugged. “I need to get back to the bar. I am late to meet my friends. I told them I’d be back an hour ago.”
I was confused and amused, and excited by the spiritual diagrams. I didn’t kow what it meant. I didn’t know if I was number 20 and whether I was Ahhna or still just Anna. Maybe I was just too young.
“Ahh, yes, let’s move you back in that direction. I will have to give you the shirt another time.”
Four blocks further on I see the bar, and Jagdish tells me to go on ahead without him. I hadn’t gone as far as I’d thought. In fact, as easy as it was to feel lost and mixed up with this drunken stranger, he had somehow pointed me in just the right direction.
“Anna, perfect Anna timing,” said my friend, happy to see me back. She’d had a few rum and colas. “You know you cannot go anywhere for just 15 minutes. “That was totally an hour. Come on, it’s time to go.”
All I could think about were those wind chimes and how maybe they really were a bit too touristy and how I was happy to have gotten away.
New York writer Anna Thysell specializes in travel and environmental issues.
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