Rolling over and groaning unhappily after about an hour of fitful sleep, I blearily opened my eyes to be confronted by dirty pillows and cracked yellow walls, jolting me back to reality. The constant hammering from the hallway outside my room battered my brain and the smell of gradual decay assaulted my senses. Desperate to escape the confines of the room, I threw on the nearest clothes and strapped on my backpack before heading out, glaring at the smiling builders on my way.
Gemas was sleepy and stale in the morning light, the buildings shuttered and shedding peeling paint in faded colours, the air full of the thick smell of rotting fish from a restaurant on the corner. Heading to the next street along, Rikki and I checked into a more promising looking hotel advertising air con and free wifi and dumped our stuff in the small windowless room. With no guarantee of onwards train tickets before Thursday, it could be another three days until we could leave Gemas. The situation obviously called for a substantial diet coke and double-stuff Oreo stash, so we ventured out in search of a 7-11.
Used to the open smiles of Bali, the expressionless stares of the local people here un-nerved me. There was a tension to the place that I couldn’t quite put my finger on; these people, who existed with permanence in a town built around transit, seemed to wait for something, sitting with stillness and watching us pass through their streets with flat unblinking eyes. I was glad to return to the darkness of the room, where the rest of the day was spent alternately napping, watching movies and catching up with some writing.
That evening we headed back to the train station, fingers and toes crossed for a cancellation that would allow us to get the hell out of Gemas. I could have hugged the lady at the ticket office when she managed to find us two seats for the following morning. Bags in tow, we arrived back at the station the next day and boarded the wooden panelled second class carriage – our home for the next 13 hours. The train from Gemas to Kota Bharu, near the Thai border, travels up the Eastern coast of Malaysia through dense, steamy jungle, past distant mountain ranges and through tiny local villages and rice fields. I hung out of a side door in between the compartments as the train thundered along the tracks, the wind whipping my hair into my eyes and the sun fading to dusk over the horizon, and wondered at the beauty of the landscape and the sequence of events that had led to me being right there in that moment.
Many, many hours later, the train pulled into the station at Kota Bharu. Tired and disorientated, we fell onto the platform in a jumble of bags and piled into a taxi. Too exhausted to be imaginative in any way, we headed straight for Lonely Planet recommended KB Backpackers hostel to find a bed and were quickly checked into a small, shabby little room on the second floor. Heading reluctantly down the dark, narrow corridor to the filthy bathroom, I showered under a stubby length of hosepipe sticking out of the cracked wall tiles and attempted to scrub the train dust from my face. Pulling open the door of the shower room, I gasped in shock and immediately slammed it shut again as a huge, brown spider the size of my hand scuttled up the inside of the door frame. After hyperventilating for several minutes unable to move, I yanked the door open and sprinted back to the relative safety of the room.
‘What’s wrong?’ Rikki asked, presumably in response to my grey, stricken face.
‘Massive spider. Massive’ I gasped. He laughed at me.
‘Come and see. Honestly, this thing’s not even normal’.
We tiptoed back to the bathroom, where the spider sat halfway up the wall staring us out.
‘Oh shit’ Rikki whispered.
‘See! I TOLD you!’
Obviously feeling brave, Rikki edged closer as I hovered in the doorway. Peering closer, he leaned in – just as the spider charged, legs flashing as it ran across the wall straight at him. Screaming, I bolted from the room, Rikki hot on my heels as we dashed down the corridor and slammed the door behind us. Another sleepless night ensued, as I lay with all the lights on staring at the edges of the door waiting for eight long, hairy legs to creep through the cracks. I fucking hate spiders.