There are times lately — more than I thought there would be, actually — when I miss traveling on my own. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great feeling actually having someone to navigate new cities with, laugh over language barriers with, walk home with after dark, and talk to about what you’ve seen over beers at the end of the day. It’s comforting knowing that if you get lost in the middle of nowhere, at least you’re not alone. And it’s especially nice when you’re lucky enough to be traveling with a friend who will offer to watch your purse and take your picture from the beach when, say, you suddenly decide to go surfing.
But every once in a while I get a little itchy, a little restless, maybe even a little masochistic in my desire to make things a bit more difficult for myself. I start to miss that feeling of accomplishment that comes with figuring out the public bus system all on my own. I begin to wonder if the people at the next table at the bar or across the room at the hostel aren’t talking to me simply because I’ve already got a friend. I get nostalgic for the times I’ve had to ask a stranger to take my photo only to end up chatting with them for hours. Or, as was the case on Wednesday, I decide I simply must see a set of caves whose significance my buddy doesn’t grasp and, truthfully, doesn’t care to on a 100%-humidity day. (Fair enough).
So when Hayley made it clear on Wednesday that she’d rather hang out in the airconditioning in Kuala Lumpur (oh, yeah: I’m in Malaysia) than visit the Batu Caves 12 km outside the city with me, I was actually a little excited to be flying solo.
The caves, which comprise a set of literally cavernous Hindu temples, are dedicated to Lord Murugan. Apparently they’re one of the most popular tourist attractions for visitors to KL thanks to their imposing scale, stunning beauty, and religious significance. But, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll tell you the real reason I wanted to visit the Batu Caves: immediately adjacent to the caves, I’d read, was a smaller cave painted with scenes from The Ramayana. Thanks to repeated viewings of a musical stage version of The Ramayana as a child, I’ve maintained an unexpected soft spot for the Hindu monkey deity Hanuman and detailed recollections of the saga of Lord Rama. I was sure the Batu Caves would be spectacular, but I was largely, nerdily, almost inexplicably making the journey for this:
In order to get to the Ramayana Cave – ahem, I mean the Batu Caves – you have a couple of options. You can go there on a tour bus, which usually includes a few other nearby attractions and costs upwards of 80 RM (Malaysian Ringgit). Or you can take the public bus, which costs 2.50 RM each way. Unable to comprehend why I’d pay 80 RM to visit a place that is free and open to the public, I decided to try my luck on KL’s city bus system. (See, I’m not just thrifty — I’m thrifty and adventurous.)
This being me, my first hiccup came as soon as I realized I’d need to find the correct bus stop from my hostel in KL’s Chinatown. Rather than ask at reception, obviously, I just started wandering the streets, hoping to catch sight of (and then successfully flag down) the #11 bus my Lonely Planet had made vague reference to. It quickly became evident, however, that I had no idea what street I was on, let alone whether or not the #11 bus route included this unnamed street.
Mercifully, fate picked exactly this moment to teach me that Malaysians are incredibly friendly.
“What you looking for?” a toothless bus driver leaned out the door and asked me as I twisted my neck to check out the route number posted on the front of the vehicle.
“Um… Batu Caves?”
“What’s your name? Where you from?”
“I’m Jess. From the States.”
“Jess. Batu Caves. Number 8 bus. Down that way.”
No less than three bus drivers stopped to initiate this same conversation with me over the course of the next block or so, as I continued to look lost despite the first guy’s directions. On about the fourth try, the driver told me to just hop on. I settled into a seat up at the front of the empty bus and felt the aircon begin to cool the sweat already soaking through my shirt. I was almost out of water. I didn’t know if I had enough ringgit on me to get back to KL after the caves. But I was incredibly happy, relieved, content with whatever dumb luck disguised as a game plan had gotten me on the right bus at the right time.
The driver, a Malaysian guy about my age, seemed just as happy to see me as I was to see him. He started chatting my ear off in broken English about everything from his family, to Malaysian desserts, to my bakery gig in New Zealand. Still, the further we went out of the city, the smaller the villages we began to pass, the more the more nervous I became about a possible gap in communication.
“Still going to the Batu Caves, right?” I’d pester cheerfully every ten minutes or so.
“Yes, Batu Caves,” he’d repeat patiently.
After about an hour, he dropped me off on the side of a highway and pointed at the enormous gilded statue on the other side. “You go towards that,” he instructed, “and you come back here to get bus back.” And with a wave and a step back into the wet heat, I was off.
I don’t quite remember how I got across the highway, only that I spotted another pale-faced girl looking around the frenzied traffic like a tourist in Times Square and said to her, “A crosswalk would be nice, huh?”
We played a little human Frogger, and by the times we’d gotten ourselves across the highway and into the caves’ parking lot, I had a new German friend named Annicka. See? The joys of solo travel.
Incidentally, something tells me Hayley would not have enjoyed herself had she actually come with me:
Actually, she may well have curled up in a ball at the bottom of the 272 steps up to the main cave temple when she saw they were lined with literally hundreds of monkeys, watching over the stairway the way stone gargoyles watch over Notre Dame.
At the top of the stairway – after probably looking a bit too nonplussed when a monkey stole my new friend’s bottle of juice (this was not the first time that week I’d witnessed a monkey mugging) – I made my way down another massive set of steps, this time descending into the “cathedral” of the main cave. I’d expected the cave, naively, to be quite small — perhaps even to resemble Fred Flintsone’s home had he had a penchant for decorating with statues of Ganesha. Instead, the cave felt like a hollowed-out mountain, like the inside of some petrified volcano with the lava drained out. The temperature instantly dropped as I stepped inside, and the sound of water trickling off the stalactites and monkeys screeching as they scurried up the walls echoed everywhere. It was like being in some secret subterranean world where the sun broke through only through occasional natural skylights framed in foliage and vines.
The Batu Caves were so spectacular, in the end, that I’d actually almost forgotten about the Ramayana Cave by the time we’d made it back into the daylight. Which I suppose was fortunate, since the Ramayana Cave ended up being closed. And so Annicka and I headed for the bus stop — by which, of course, I mean an unmarked spot on the side of the road — and crossed our fingers that we’d make it back home, watching private tour coaches whiz by us and hearing the constant “Are you lost?” honking of local cars as they cruised past. We finally hopped on the first bus we saw, 20 humid, sunburnt minutes later, and analyzed a map of KL as we rode along, hoping to eventually recognize a street name, a landmark, or some other indication that we were actually heading back towards the city. By the time I saw Chinatown’s central market, I was so surprised and proud that I’d managed to not get lost that I handed Annicka my creased KL map, wished her luck getting back to her hostel on the other side of town, and hit the streets again assuming I could figure out the five-minute route back to my hostel on my own. Exactly 45 minutes later, I finally did.
I spent the rest of the evening on my own at the Petronas Twin Towers, 50-ringgit ticket for the 8:15 pm tour in hand, staring down at the glimmering city below. I talked to the ticket-taker, I eavesdropped on the conversations of others, and I piped in with unsolicited advice on visiting Bali and New Zealand to the vacationing Hawaiians behind me in line.
Fifteen minutes later, we were making New Jersey jokes and scanning the horizon for the Sky Tower, where they invited me to join them for dinner later. Not in the backpacker budget, alas, but it was nice to remember just how open and friendly other travelers can be when they see someone on their own.
So maybe, in the end, that’s the real beauty of flying solo: the knowledge that there are strangers out there open and friendly enough to make sure you don’t actually have to be on your own.
Still, it’s always nice knowing there’s a true friend waiting for you at the other end: someone who’ll take your cheesy posed picture for the thousandth time without complaining, who will guide you when you’re too knackered to find the subway station on your own, and who will unflinchingly keep you stocked in plastic bags and anti-nausea pills on a particularly choppy ferry ride. But we’ll get to that part later.