I type away at a workdesk in a bike shop in Alor Star, Kedah, Malaysia. Thin metal shutters separate this world from the world outside of puttering motorcycles, roaring trucks, and skinned shins and elbows. It’s been only three days, but this ragtag crew of iternerant cyclicsts has expereinced enough to know that this is not our place, nor is feeling welcome a privilege that we deserve, much less expect. We merely pass by. The trucks that rush by continue their taunts, the flies that get into our food do so as carelessly they have been, the good makciks and enciks still find no reason to speak your language, and the directions that they give can confuse, mislead and frustrate you, and none the worse for them. That world is the world that we have come to expect, but that is not the one that we have found. The world that we find ourselves snuggled up in for past two nights – be it separated by metal shutters or residential fences – has been one of warmth, generosity, and of home. Today, we are in Zul’s home/bike shop/both at once.
My fellow chakrayan chums lay sprawled around me on the mattresses that have been inflated and laid out for them on floors freshly mopped. Marcus is still nursing a perpetual food baby only made bigger from the bird’s nest susu (apparently only found in Alor Star) that Zul specially got for us. Meal times for Anshuman are a matter of getting money out of his fanny pack as quick as possible to intercept Zul paying for them. Kei’s bike wheels are clicking behind me as Zul works in the dark (so as to not wake the others) to fix her uneven spokes. “What is sleep? I don’t sleep. Tomorrow your bikes will be ready” says Zul.
All our bikes have been serviced and maintained by Zul and his father for free, despite the obvious service charges chart hanging on the cheery orange walls – prices that we would have never considered with the budget that we have. Without any airs, they took it on their own to make sure they were road worthy – always refusing to be paid, and without expectation of return.
“When was the first time you decided to help people?”
Zul goes into a long rambling annecdote of the first time he saw a German cyclicst get scammed for replacing a dented rim. I’m not sure I got all of it.
“Why are you so helpful?”
“Sometimes I see tourers get tricked. In Malaysia got a lot. So I go with them and follow them, up to Perlis, sometimes even to Langkawi, so they don’t get tricked. “
“Have you always been like this?”
Zul smiles politely. He doesn’t seem to quite understand the question. Eventually he nods and says yes. He explains that he grew up watching his father (another fantastic man that helped us with our bikes) help other people as well, by welcoming other travellers to stay with them.
Zul is quite the character. Zul used to compete for road and mountain biking for the state, and his bike shop has been in business for 7 years. Zul vigorously recommends us to get pepper spray to ward off wild dogs, drunk men (and drunk ladies, in his case) in Thailand. Back at his shop, Zul shows us the dynamo he straps on to his touring bike. This dynamo charges up a batterey which lights up a bulb, charges his phone, and even powers a portable fan. He says he has never seen anyone else do it before, but just thought it would be a good idea. In the next immediate moment he pulls out a electric stunner and turns it on with a loud crack. He explains the only time he has used it before was on a man he shocked because he tried to kiss him. He laughs bashfully when I ask him to pull the evilest face he can manage, and then chases Anshuman around in mock purusit.
Don’t mess with Zul and his favourite electric stunner
Zul brought us to the Alor Star cutural mueseum
The story that I am telling is of Zul. But Zul is not the only speaker for the soul and humanity that we have seen in our short time, and will continue to see in the next 10 weeks. Zul is escorting us halfway up to Kangan, Perlis on his motorbike tomorrow (his father says he would have brought us the whole way if it was a public holiday). As I join my chums and rest for the night, Zul’s light behind me continues to shine brightly on.
Zul and his human powered lightbulb
*Posted with permission from Zul, who will be checking out this blog soon*