The sound of jungle insects reverberated through the dense, humid night air. A slow loris crept along an overhead electrical wire strung between a tall wooden pole and a cinderblock structure where a woman cooked rice and noodles for the few people who lived around these parts. The loris stopped midway across the wire to give us a wide-eyed stare, and then continued on his way, grabbed a low hanging branch, and disappeared into the jungle.
“Anda selalu makan yang sama!” I had seen Hairi’s face turn serious just before he yelled the string of incomprehensible gibberish. He raised his hand and brought it down toward his son.
“Setiap kali, hamburger, hamburger, hamburger!” Hairi’s hand landed softly on his son’s head, and then gently ruffled his hair. His serious face turned soft and he let out a laugh. Hairi’s wife, Nora, grinned widely from beneath her headscarf.
“My son,” he said, “he always order the same thing. Hamburger, hamburger, hamburger!” He laughed, and his son smiled at us from beneath his mop of messed up hair. A dab of ketchup stuck to the corner of his mouth.
A couple of days prior, while heading up Malaysia’s East coast, I had studied a Google Map of the area to find a place to camp. In the low quality image I could make out a peninsula with what appeared to be a white beach. We decided to aim in the general direction of the peninsula and see if we could somehow drive there.
When we neared the supposed beach spot, we turned off of the main highway and started driving on small roads toward the ocean. Several times we came to dead ends, and several times I hopped out to ask for directions from non-English speaking shop keepers.
“Beach?” I would ask, to which they would confusedly say, “Beats? Beats! Beats?” and bobble their heads around. I took this as a positive sign, and continued driving. Eventually we found our way onto the peninsula and onto a rough dirt road that wound into the jungle. When we finally emerged from the dark undergrowth, we were on a white sandy beach in a hidden bay.
In the shade of a palm tree, a man sanded the side of a rundown fiberglass boat.
“I am Hairi,” he said, “this is my home.” He pointed to a behemoth of a canvas tent in a meadow at the edge of the jungle. Behind the tent, the meadow curved up into steep embankments covered in tightly packed vines and trunks and leaves. In front of his tent the dense foliage opened up to reveal a white sand beach with an unimpeded view of several small islands.
We positioned Nacho parallel to the beach so that out of our sliding door we would have a commanding view of the beach and the islands. The setting was beautiful, and as we settled in for the evening we saw a flashlight approaching our door.
“You eat dinner?” It was Hairi. “My family go to town, you come with us?” We jumped into his dilapidated car, squeezing into the backseat with his boys. From their CD player, Alvin and the Chipmunks’ rendition of “You Had a Bad Day” filled the car. Nora habitually smiled while their kids stared at us in silence. A rare cool breeze brushed my face through the open window as we wound through the jungle.
At the cinderblock restaurant we chose a table outside, and then a teenage girl came out and set a smoldering egg carton in the grass beside our table. “The smoke keep the mosquitoes away,” Hairi explained with a smile. He mimicked killing a mosquito on his arm by slapping it, and then he laughed. The smoke swirled around, Nora smiled, and the boys stared at us. Sheena asked Hairi how they were able to sleep when it was so hot and humid. “We open all windows in tent. ” he said.
That night while we slept in Nacho I drifted in and out of sleep. Suddenly my eyes snapped open and I gasped for air. It felt as though I were being waterboarded in some secret CIA prison camp. I rolled over and pressed my face against the window screen, gasping for a breath of fresh air. It never came, and I dizzily rolled onto my back, breathing belabored, hot breaths of thick water vapor. The mattress and my pillow were soaked with sweat. I laid on my back for what seemed like an eternity, our small oscillating fan pushing the watery air over our bodies. I hoped I would adapt quickly to the heat and humidity.
The next evening, over another meal of ramen noodles and rice at the cinder block restaurant, Hairi talked about life in the jungle and about Muslim traditions. I told him that I was jealous of the way Muslims got to wear comfortable silk pajamas to the mosque on Fridays.
“If I wear my pajamas in public, people just think I’m lost or homeless,” I said.
He told us about Mecca, and how every Muslim dreams of making a pilgrimage there. “Have you ever been to Mecca?” I asked.
“I haven’t been. Not yet,” he said, emphasizing the word yet, and then smiled broadly. “This my dream, so I will go one day. My dreams are coming true.”
“One day,” he said, “I was working on the beach. I see big yacht out near island, so I say, ‘okay, I go see.’ So I borrow small boat and I row. I row a long time, and I get to yacht. The man on yacht come out, and he from Scotland. He sail boat here, all way from Scotland!” His eyes glistened in the dim light from the restaurant’s bare light bulb.
“The man tell me to come onto boat, so I do,” he continued. “We talk, and I ask him how he able to come here on boat when it so far away. And he tell me, ‘Hairi, if you want to be like me, you can be like me.’ He tell me, ‘make a list of 100 dreams. Everybody have dreams, and if you write them down on a list, your dreams come true. And after your 100 dreams come true, you write a new list of 100 more dreams.'”
It seemed a little superstitious to me, but I listened on skeptically.
“So I go home and I think about what the Scottish man say. I say okay, I find a pencil and a paper, and I write down my dreams. One, two, three, four – I write down 100 dreams. I hang up my dreams by my bed, and I start to look at it every day.” Hairi paused, placed his hand on his knee, and lowered his head. He stared at us and continued, slowly.
“You know what happen?” he said. “I see that list every day and I start thinking about my dreams. This list make me think, to remember. My first dream is I want to have own boat. But we don’t have much money, so I go and I find old boat with hole in it. Owner don’t know how to fix boat, so I learn how to make fiberglass repair, and I fix boat! Now I have boat!”
He was visibly excited by this, and I suppose there was something exciting in this key he’d discovered. By thinking often about his goals he could more readily realize them with fewer resources when opportunities presented themselves. But it seemed like a small victory. Hairi continued.
“Next, I have dream of being a diver. But to become diver, it cost 3,000 Ringgit! I don’t have 3,000 Ringgit, so I look for other way. I find resort that have diving school, so I decide I try to get job there. I think, if I can work at resort, maybe I can learn to dive. I work hard, and they hire me to wash dishes. So I work, and I ask how I can learn to dive. They say for workers at resort they have dive class for 25 Ringgit. So I take class. I become diver, and resort hire me to bring clients diving!”
By now Hairi was beaming, and Nora smiled proudly at her husband for being so resourceful.
“Next, I have dream to swim with whale shark,” he said. He hummed the tune to Jaws, smiled, and continued. “So one day after we dive with our clients, we taking the boat back to resort and we see big whale sharks! So big! We all jump in water and we swim with them. I touch them, I touch the big sharks with my hand!” He mimicked the touch as though he were stroking a beautiful woman’s hair.
“My big dream,” Hairi continued, “was to touch Japanese battleship. Since I was a boy in school I like this battleship. But the ship is in Hawaii! How do I do it?” By now, Hairi’s eyebrows were raised, as though there was no possible way.
“So,” Hairi said, “I ask at resort, and I find out Star Cruise Lines hiring workers for the cruise ships. I ask for job, and they hire me to clean up on ship. My ship go from Kuala Lumpur to Manila in the Phillipines and back. One day in Manila, there a Star Lines ship that go to Hawaii, so I find someone who work on that ship, and I ask if he want to trade with me. He say yes! So I take ship that goes to Hawaii! When the ship get to Maui, they tell us, ‘Okay, you have two days before ship leave. You can go explore.’ So I get off ship, and I go to harbor where Japanese battleship is.” Hairi slowed down as if savoring every word. “I walk to battleship, and I go to the side. I place my hand on it, like this.” He placed his left hand on his right elbow, and pretended to touch the ship with his right hand. He touched the imaginary ship for a long time, as if reliving the moment.
“See? My dreams are coming true. I touch Japanese battleship.” He ended his story and sat there with a big grin on his face next to his son, who had long since finished his hamburger. Nora looked at him admiringly, as if he had just saved his entire family from a burning bus. And Sheena and I looked at him admiringly too.
Here was a man with very little resources, who lived in a tent in the jungle, yet he had obtained his own boat, he became a scuba diver, he swam with whale sharks, and he traveled across the ocean to another country to see an icon that he’d only read about in books.
Hairi is the man.
That night, Sheena and I decided that we needed to at least make an honest effort to drive through China, even though it was financially out of our reach, and thus had not been included in our original trip plans.
The next morning, Nora invited us over to the tent for a breakfast of traditional Malaysian pancakes with sprinkled sugar, and a plastic pitcher of black coffee. We all gathered around the outdoor wooden table and dug into the delicious food as the sounds of birds and insects echoed around the meadow. A dog bolted out of the jungle, followed closely by an angry monkey. Hairi yelled at the monkey and Sheena and I laughed.
“Wait here,” Hairi said, and then disappeared into his tent. He emerged carrying a comfortable-looking Malaysian shirt, or baju melayu, and a traditional plaid wraparound sarong. He smiled and handed them to me. “These are for you. So you can dress comfortably on Fridays like Muslims!” He asked me to stand, and then showed me how to wrap it.
He turned and went back into his tent. He emerged a minute later with a rose-print dress and blouse, and handed them to Sheena.
“Nora made these by hand. We want you to have them,” he said, and then handed them to Sheena. We had been humbled. We made a quick assessment of things we could offer them, and decided on a fresh jar of dulce de leche from Argentina.
For a moment I wondered what would happen if we changed our plan and drove Hairi to Mecca. It would be the ultimate gift, the realization of his wildest dreams, and an amazing experience. It would have really been something. But I have no doubt he’ll make it there one way or another.