The day had turned hotter. Without my hat, my head felt as warm as the inside of a bird’s nest on a summer afternoon. And the relentless sun seared my skin right through my clothes as if a hot iron was running over me. I shifted my arms and turned my neck every once in a while for relief. In a strange way I relished the discomfort. The blistering heat was a sure sign that we were approaching the equator, where Malaysia lay. At this point, getting off our boat and putting the sea behind me was all I could think of, especially given that the boat engine was showing signs of trouble.
For some time now, it had stopped churning out its puh-puh-puh sound, which had unnerved me at the start, but had soon become comforting, like the pounding of the monsoon rain on my bedroom windows back home. The engine now wailed at a high pitch one moment, then emitted a low moan the next. Sometimes it went silent and nearly made my heart stop. Could it be on its last legs? It was a secondhand engine after all.
Thankfully, easing my worry was a new sight: debris floating in the water. Cola cans, grocery bags, fragments of newspapers, and other trash had begun to drift merrily past us—so much so that one would think we were heading for a landfill site. But I rejoiced. The spectacle of man-made waste was to me a joyful testament that civilization was nearby.
A pair of seabirds dived down to the water. They bobbed about and cast me curious looks.
“We’re near land!” I shouted, recalling the scruffy, bearded men on rafts in storybooks who cried out joyously at the sight of birds, which indicated land ahead. I felt teary too. Like them, we had lumbered across the sea for five days in a boat that barely floated, not knowing where land was—three hours or three days away.
Then the seagulls came, hovering over us and shrieking. A welcome party. My body quivered with excitement.
Quan charged out from the cabin. “People, look over there! I see land!” he shouted. “It’s Malaysia—three hours, as the pirates said.”
I saw it too. And what a sight it was. Huge mountains projected majestically into the sky, expansive golden beaches lying at their feet. The mountains stood expectantly, like parents waiting for their lost children to come home.
“Welcome to Malaysia!” I burst out to Hu and Vui, grinning.
“Thank God!” Vui said with a smile, her first since our encounter with the pirates.
“Don’t get too excited,” Hu said tersely. “We’re not there yet.”
He appeared skeptical and there were no big cheers from other passengers. I knew why; the engine was now acting like a child throwing a tantrum, dishing out an assortment of booming sounds. The beach was still far away. If the engine quit now, it would take a marathon swimmer to reach land—a realization that quickly tempered my enthusiasm.
The crowd of spectators on land was getting larger. From behind the bushes, numerous tiny figures were pouring toward the shore like candies tumbling out of a jar. Excitement was bubbling at our destination.
“Don’t forget to pack your stuff,” Vui said.
“I forgot!” I said, grabbing my bag. “Except for my notebook, it’s no great loss if I don’t have anything else. The Malaysians are going to give us brand new stuff anyway. Remember what we heard on the radio?”
“There’s something odd about the people on the beach,” Vui said. “Why don’t they wave? Why do they keep pointing their fingers at us?”
I laughed. “I wouldn’t worry about it. Not everyone shares our rituals, you know. Perhaps pointing their fingers is what they do in Malaysia. We’re overseas after all.”
“Maybe,” she replied, frowning.
The boat continued to cough and shake, but most importantly, stutter forward, bringing the land and the beach crowd closer with each gasp of its engine. Soon the crowd on the beach came into closer view. Among them were men in white uniforms with gloomy faces. The absence of smiles—the universal expression of welcoming—on the Malaysians was perplexing. Something wasn’t right. Then I realized what it was: the men in white uniforms were carrying rifles, and their rifles were pointing at us.
It sounded like the firecrackers thrown during the recent Chinese New Year. For a moment I felt flattered. The Malaysians were celebrating our arrival. I turned to Vui, grinning.
“Oh shit, they’re shooting at us!” Quan yelled.