Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Leaving for Malaysia Summer 1970

In the summer of 1970, together with my Peace Corps Volunteer group, I left the United States and headed to Malaysia. I didn’t really know what I was getting into but was enthusiastic to begin the adventure.

Even though we traveled by jet, flights in those days took a bit longer than they do today. The first leg of our journey was aboard a brand new PanAm 747. While jumbo jets are common today, this was one of the first Boeing 747s put into service. None of us had ever seen a plane this size; it dwarfed all other aircraft around the terminal. It was a thrill just walking on board and marveling at the space in the passenger cabin.

PanAm took us from San Francisco to Tokyo by way of Alaska. I remember getting off the plane in Anchorage and being surprised that even in July Alaska was cold and grey. The mountains that ringed the city were still covered in snow. In the days before tight airport security, while the plane was being serviced we were free to get off and walk around the terminal and even onto the tarmac. Our brief refueling stop in Alaska was to be our last view of a familiar world.

From Alaska we traveled to Tokyo. As we got off the plane at the Haneda airport that evening, I remember how warm and moist the air seemed. While not in the tropics, Tokyo in summer had a very tropical feel. Our group stayed overnight at the Haneda airport hotel. A few of the volunteers decided to take a cab into downtown Tokyo. Most of our group, however, quietly went to our rooms and got some rest before continuing our flight early the next morning to Malaysia.

Our night at the Haneda airport hotel gave me my first sense of being in a foreign land. Unable to understand Japanese, it was the first time I felt isolated from everyone around me other than the group I came with. Even much of the food offered the next morning at the breakfast buffet seemed strange. I stuck with eggs and toast.

From Tokyo we boarded a Boeing 707 for Hong Kong, landing just ahead of a tropical storm. As we approached the British colony, the flying was anything but smooth. Our plane was clearly struggling against strong winds, shaking violently and bouncing the passengers around like we were on a thrill ride. As the plane's flaps lowered and I heard the landing gear doors open, I could look out the windows and see Hong Kong harbor and the city that climbed the surrounding hills. Our plane dropped lower and lower until the Chinese junks in the harbor were seemingly at eye level. It appeared as if our plane was about to ditch into the ocean. When I suddenly felt the plane touchdown on solid ground I realized with relief that the runway extended far out into the water.

The final leg of our flight took us to Penang. By the time we landed, gathered all our luggage, cleared immigration and customs, and then boarded the bus waiting for us, the sun was setting. If Tokyo and Hong Kong had given me a hint of the Asian tropics, in Penang I finally experienced the heat and high humidity of the true tropics. Without the ubiquitous airconditioning available today, my clothes were soon soaked with sweat. I felt enervated and somewhat disoriented. It wasn’t just the tropical heat, however, that I found disconcerting. There were also unaccustomed pungent smells in the air. As we were driven from the airport to our temporary housing for the weekend, I could see concrete drains on either side of the road. From the rank odor, I imagined these must be open sewers. I began to wonder what type of country I had committed myself to. In the growing darkness, as we headed towards town, Malaysia remained very much a place unknown.

We soon arrived at the quarters rented for us near the university. There was a welcoming party ready and plenty of cold beer to beat the heat. After two days of travel I was finally in a country that was to become my home for the next three years. As I wondered in those first hours whether I would be able to cope with the climate and the culture, I could never imagine how my Peace Corps experience in Malaysia would profoundly change my life. Although in the years since completing my Peace Corps service I've lived in a number of countries and have traveled to many more, Malaysia is a place I’ve never really left.

1 comment:

Beth said...

Hi Frank, I found your blog through your Linked In profile. I don't see a current e-mail address for you, but I'd love to keep in touch. Drop me a line through Linked In if you don't have my Brandeis e-mail address in your files. I'm still in Senegal; returning to the U.S. in May. Cheers -- Beth