Life-changing experiences

*This story is totally not what I intended to write about today. I had something completely different and more uplifting in mind. A story about a crazy (but funny) place I lived together with Heike for a couple of years. However, I felt that it needed a bit of a preface of how I ended up there, and well, this is that story.*

During my MSc, me and my wife Heike had some pretty ridiculous plans that were not exactly aimed at anything other than leaving the country. To this end, we kept our mandatory external internships to the very last bit of our master curriculum. Our fantastic idea was to then do an internship in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Why, you ask? Well, to be frank, I think it was only because we had traveled through the country for a month – two years prior – and really liked most areas we had stayed (oh, and the food! God, the food was so good). We never spent a whole lot of time in KL though. So the plan was simple; I would travel to KL and start my five-month internship, and my wife would join me in KL one month later to start her four-month internship. Afterwards, our plan was not to have a plan, we planned to stay in Southeast Asia for as long as we had fun. I found a pretty cool project in the zoological museum of KL. A project where I would be assisting someone on a project in Taman Negara NP, mistnetting bats, extracting their stomach contents, which we would then use to do DNA barcoding to assess which kinds of insects would make up their diets. Field work in Taman Negara NP sounds good, right? Well I thought it did anyway. I prepared it all, got my mandatory triple rabies shots, canceled my student room, and booked my flight. Heike did the same, albeit planned for one month later.

I took my 13-hour direct Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to KL – about six months after Russian missiles took down MH17, its ‘predecessor’. Admittedly, I had sweaty hands during that flight. I spent 13 hours next to a terribly nervous old Dutch lady that was on her way to New Zealand. It was her first flight, and she was noticably nervous too. In fact, she wouldn’t shut up about it.

I left The Netherlands on a cold February afternoon, and arrived on a brutally hot Malaysian February morning in 2015. I had only a bag and an internship, starting in a week or so. I booked a room in an unconspicuous but tidy-looking guesthouse called the Andaman Guesthouse, located at the edge of the Chinatown quarter. The streets were bustling with activity. I, however, didn’t notice any of this, as the room I had paid for in advance had no windows. (Note to self: always check in advance what you pay for.) Another room was not possible, and neither was a refund, because it had already been wired to the bank (or whatever). Foolishly, I stayed because of sunk costs. (Note to self: don’t stay in some hell hole because you invested in it already) I locked myself up in the room, and decided to sleep off my jetlag. I don’t really know how long I slept. It was impossible to tell whether it was day or night in the room. The first day I still felt quite alright, albeit a bit wonky from the jet lag.

On the second day, I had arranged to meet with the supervisor at the Zoological Museum. I found my way across KL to the university campus, where the museum was located, seemingly engulfed by a small patch of tropical forest. The three- or four-story building was bright yellow. It didn’t look like a museum. It was hard even to find an entrance to it. I arrived early, as I usually do on such occasions. It bought me some time to find a living soul in the surrounding buildings. After ten minutes or so, I found a member of the cleaning staff that recognized the name I mentioned from a door sign around the corner. There was no one there, but I saw the name too. The person should at least exist. I decided to make my way back to the museum. I found only locked doors in the first floor, and then decided to make my way up the first of two stairwells positioned on either side of the building. The left me unsuccessful. The right one gave me access to the upper floor via the last door I tried. This building knew how to build suspense.

When I entered the door I was welcomed by a friendly Chinese Malaysian PhD student that told me I had found the right place. I could come in and wait with her, while her supervisor was on his way. She brought me into this small room. Open shelve racks were placed against two walls. A third was lined with some small desks. The fourth and final wall served as a lab bench, next to a fridge-freezer combination. I still remember the smell of the place. Naphtalin. Most entomologists will know this. It is what museums treat their specimens with to keep them safe from insects. This place was a Zoological museum, so this made sense of course. It was also a zoological museum in the tropics. It must have been 40 degrees centigrade when I was there. The heat made the smell even stronger. I didn’t feel very comfortable. I was also panicking. I used to have a very strong fear of meetings, and new places. Let’s just say that this was not the best situation for having a panick attack.

While waiting, I sat there and observed the room. From a box on the bottom shelf, a dismembered lar gibbon stared at me through glass eyes. The arms were stuck in the box with it. Several other decapitated and otherwise horribly mutilated museum specimens gazed at me from cardboard boxes on the other shelves. Some bats, wings all torn up, filled up the nooks and crannies in between the boxes. God, that smell of naphtalin was terrible. Gave me a headache, as well as hot and cold flashes. My heart was pounding in my throat. I had to find a way to get out. I was overwhelmed by anxiety, and the heat and stench made me feel like I could not breathe. I felt dizzy and I couldn’t think straight. And where was this guy anyway? It was probably at peak panick intensity that the guy arrived. A friendly young Brit that ran the lab here. I remember that he seemed happy to see me. He gave me a quick tour of the boxes full of body parts, the desks and the lab bench. He introduced me to the Chinese young lady, as well as to another master student working in an adjacent room. It passed by in a dark blur. He sat me down next to the young lady for a chat among the three of us. I was mostly looking for a way to make this quick, to escape the room, to find back my breath, and to end the panick. I cannot remember many details of the conversation that followed. He told me that the Chinese Malaysian researcher that I was supposed to assist had vanished into thin air. And with him, all the sampling equipment. I can’t remember all the details, but what it meant was that I had no internship project. This message was exactly what I needed. It was already not very clear to me why the young lady sat in on this conversation. But it appeared that there was an alternative option – I would be analyzing samples that were already stored in the fridge in the corner behind me. These were hundreds of horse fly samples, that would be analyzed by the same barcoding method to see what mammals they had been biting. They had once found one that bit some kind of flying squirrel – I think. The idea of five months of PCR work did not appeal to me very much. I was there to do tropical field work. PCRs I could (and had) run at home in much better lab conditions. I cannot remember the rest of the conversation, or how I got out of the building. The first bit after that visit that I actually remember is me sitting at the campus bus stop. I don’t know how I got back to my guesthouse, but I did.

I was completely drained. I tried to have a fried rice at the market close to my accomodation, but couldn’t get a spoonful into my stomach. I gave up after fifteen minutes, and as an alternative bought a water bottle and two bananas from the vendor across my guesthouse. I slept a very long but uncomfortable night. I was in such a state of panic that my body felt like it was getting electric shocks all the time. I was predominantly in that phase of consciousness between sleep and awake, where you get the most demonic of thoughts. All I could think of was how many days it would take for Heike to arrive. Thirty days still? At least it was something close to that.

When I woke up the next day (or was it the same day?), I told myself that anxiety was always temporary and that it would wear off soon. The jet lag would also disappear, so then all would be great, or at least better. Maybe I could do some sight-seeing? Distraction is a very good cure for anxiety. (This is true by the way.) I went to see the Petronas towers, one of the world’s most disappointing must-sees, I can tell from experience. Honestly, other than those towers and street life, KL doesn’t have much to offer. I must have walked up and down Jalan Petaling – which was around the corner of my guesthouse – a hundred times in the days that followed. A narrow pedestrian street – more like an alley – filled with vendors of mostly fridge magnets and other tourist rubbish. Even though we have quite a collection of fridge magnets at home, I never felt the particular desire to buy one in KL. Hours and hours I walked, but the anxiety never really calmed.

I took very few pictures in KL – this one was near Petaling Street. I was still hopeful that I would feel better soon.

On every walk through KL, I passed dozens of food vendors and small Chinese restaurants, but I could not eat. My stomach felt as if there was concrete inside it, and as if it would never again be empty. I could not get anything in, so the two tiny bananas I bought earlier I consumed over the course of four days. They were all I ate, aside from a spoonful of fried rice on the second day. I love Asian cuisine. I was in food heaven, but I could not indulge. It still frustrates me to this day, because Nasi lemak, Roti canai and various other typical dishes I simply cannot replicate at home.

After four days on a diet of sips of water, I was mentally and physically drained. Time difference and working hours in Europe made it so that I had hardly anyone to talk to during the day, and the guesthouse receptionist, a brazilian Japanese, had very little to say to me. I really had no one to talk to and the lack of daylight in my room wasn’t helping. I received an invitation from the lab group to join them on their lab outing to Domino’s Pizza on Saturday. It triggered even further anxiety. The prospect of being with people that wanted me to do a project that wasn’t mine, in a place I wouldn’t want to be found dead, having food that I couldn’t get inside me. I replied that I didn’t feel so well and that I would think about it. I also decided that if I were to ever feel better, I needed to have people around me. I decided to abandon my sunk costs and seek a better place to stay. I found a more lively backpacking hostel. It wasn’t pretty, but there were people my age and the six-bed mixed dorm room was full after my check-in. I was met relatively soon by a Swedish hippie that was very happy to learn that I was Dutch. We had a long conversation that was more driven by his curiosity about Dutch marihuana than by me. I think he asked me four or five times if I knew where to get different kinds of drugs in KL. My brain already fucks me over half the time when I’m sober, so I really have no interest in getting to know what it behaves like on drugs. I politely declined his invitation to smoke hashies and ‘have fun on the balcony’ in the evening. Instead I read a book. It is not like I could sleep much anyway, my body still felt quite electric. The lively dorm was even more lively at night, and to be honest, I didn’t feel very safe there. The next morning I tried to find some internet at the reception and without informing anyone back home I booked the first available flight back to The Netherlands. It would leave sixteen hours later from KLIA. I packed my bags and hastily made my way to the airport, where I arrived fifteen hours before departure. I couldn’t risk missing this flight. All my savings went into it. KLIA is not a nice airport. It was tough to find a comfortable place to sit or relax. I could not find any soft benches, so I tried to kill time by sleeping on a short steel bench. I must have looked like a train wreck, as several people asked me whether I was alright. I bought a Ritter Sport, which I managed to finish before the flight. Finally a step in the right direction. On the Etihad flight to Abu Dhabi I was hungry for the first time in five days. I also fell asleep like a baby, and because of this, the airline hostess did not wake me for food. I arrived in the middle of the night in Abu Dhabi, a huge airport, with no food courts open at night time. I killed a couple of hours with a Coke.

My flight from Abu Dhabi to Amsterdam on our very own Royal Dutch KLM made me feel very happy. The cabin crew at KLM is so ridiculously Dutch that it is hard not to feel at home for a Dutch person. I even got a ‘stroopwafel’ on this flight. It doesn’t get any more Dutch.

I had still had no contact with the people at home, aside from a text message informing Heike (while she was asleep) that I would take a flight back and that I was not good. When I walked out the airport, Heike and her mother were waiting for me at the airport. I don’t think I have ever been happier to see her than on that day. It was one of the worst weeks of my life, but at least I was back home… No house, no internship, no job, no income. We were pressed for time on all these aspects, and because of this, Heike and I had to completely turn our lives around. Without the above experience, we would not have ended up where we are now. But that is a story for another time (soon!).

Lovely sightseeing at these two ugly Petronas towers.

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

4 thoughts on “Life-changing experiences

    1. Hi Stuart. Thanks! I’m sorry that it wasn’t a more positive story, though. I have had great times in Malaysia when I visited in 2013. I especially loved the highland cloud forests in the Cameron highlands, Georgetown, Melaka, and I had my first scuba diving experience in Pulau Perhentian Kecil. (Speaking of life-changing experiences) I still have quite some ringgit left from my last visit, so I should one day return. Taman Negara is still on my list of things to see :).


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