Extended Downtime

28 Oct, Tanah Rata

With the loss of my notebook to yesterday's downpour, and nothing to do in my present state except read and write, I'm forced to revisit some earlier material.

Johor Bahru Nothing works in this country. Fresh from Singapore's humourless efficiency, we arrive at the border with thirty dollars and no ringgit. Surely an ATM won't be hard to find.

It's not. We dodge legions of insistent touts and beggars, and find one tucked into a grimy corner at the exit of the border station. It's Out Of Order.

No worries. Could happen anywhere. We switch our singapore dollars for riggit at one of the dozens of moneychangers, dodge another round of touts, and head into town.

We quickly locate an ATM outside Bumiputra bank. It has an English-language mode and a relievingly familiar interface. But it won't give us any money. No problem - we switch to the backup visa cards. No cash. Okay, don't panic - we know the cards are good because they worked in Singapore. Backup card, secondary account. Backup card, primary account. My personal card. Nada.

Okay, this ATM is stuffed. Two from two. Not great, but recoverable. We walk around a few blocks and don't see another one. Then I ask at a Seven Eleven[2], and they direct me to the one we've already tried. Back at the border station we ask one of the increasingly threatening touts, and he directs me to the first one.

Right. Plan C. We catch a local bus to Larkin bus station, where we should've been anyway (see Do Not Skip Step 8). There's an ATM there, but it dispenses nothing but little pieces of paper that read "Transaction Cancelled". These are not legal tender, even when you're desperate.

Okay. Plan D. I have a triband phone with an Australian vodafone SIM with international roaming enabled. It costs a fortune but Always Works, even here. The nice woman at Savings & Loans says "the card is active and the account has funds. It should work". Obviously, she hasn't been to Malaysia.

Anyway, at least it means that the account hasn't been cleaned out or frozen, and if we can get back to Singapore, we'll be out of trouble. The US dollars we're carrying will get us out, if it comes to that.

Plan E. We explore the station and find another ATM. I'd explained to the bank official that this was our third, but she still told me - several times - to try another. I do, and am very surprised when it hands over a thick wad of notes. We hit it up again for another RM600 while it's feeling generous. Perhaps she has been to Malaysia after all.

Okay. We have cash. We're staying. We buy tickets to Mersing from a nearby counter. We'll be getting there in the evening, so I want to make sure we have somewhere to stay. The guidebook gives the phone number of a suitable hostel. I call it from my known-good mobile, and get nothing but a series of beeps. I try a few other combinations of international dialing code, country code, leading zero, state code, and local number. Nothing.

Okay, I can call Australia, but I can't call next door. No worries; there's a bank of payphones. I have only RM50 notes, not coins, so I'll need to buy a phonecard.

At that point I understood no Malay at all, but I speak Machine to a very high level, so I'd rather deal with them. I've already spotted a phonecard vending machine.

I press the button for a 10-ringgit card and feed it my note. It spits the note out so violently that I'm forced to chase it across the room. Recovering my cash, I try again. This time, I'm ready, and catch the rejected note before it lands.

The locals at a nearby table call out for me to press the button for the appropriate denomination before inserting my money. It's what I'm already doing, but I try it again anyway, with no success. One of the locals comes over, makes a great show of pressing the button, smoothing out the note, and inserting it, only to be summarily rejected. He asks me for a different note ("maybe that one is damp"), but it makes no difference.

He shrugs and goes back to his meal; he can't make it work either.

I give up and acquire a TM phone card from a nearby snack store, after nearly being sold a SIM card instead from nearby phone store.

Back at the payphones, I discover that half of them are coin-only, half of the remainder aren't TM-branded, and half of what's left don't work. This leaves one from eight.

I insert the card. The LCD screen says something mysterious in Malay. There's no dialtone, and a tiny pin has slid down in front of the card and then only partially retracted, preventing me from removing it. Eventually I pull it clear, after using much more force than I'm accustomed to applying to "delicate" "electronics".

I return with a pocket dictionary. The phone flashes its messages for only a couple of seconds at a time, so I have to scribble them down, then step back from the phone and translate them.

It begins simply enough, with "kad?", which I'd taken to mean "Please insert your phone card".

More confusing is "sila ambit kad". After some paging through the dictionary I conclude that the phone is ordering me to "Be seated. Remove card." Stalemate; there's nothing to sit on.

I study the card again, looking for clues. There's no english text, but there is a tiny triangle at one end. I'd been inserting the card backwards and upside down.

With this revelation, I'm able to wrestle a quiet, crackly interstate call from the payphone, and book us in to a hostel in Mersing. It isn't really necessary, but when things start to go wrong, my top priority is to prevent anything else from going wrong.

An hour later we board the bus to Mersing. Mercifully, it works.

fn2. English store name, English-speaking staff, goes my logic. It's true but not the whole truth; everyone here speaks English.

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