Of Gods, Taxis and Caves

KUL Kuala Lumpur - Batu Caves inner cave_bI remember the cab drivers. Or rather, the failure of cab drivers to pick us up.

It was February of 2002, and the 28-year-old version of myself was stuck in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Ten days in a country whose official religion is Islam, four months after the US invasion of Afghanistan.

It was hard to get a ride anywhere.

At first, the drivers would slow to a stop, then speed off. Later on, the slowed courtesy ceased. Until finally, we stumbled onto a cab driver unafraid to pick us up. We entered his cab.

“Thanks, it’s been difficult to get a cab,” I said. “I think it’s cause we’re Americans,” I blurted out, thinking to myself, “Did I really just say that?”

The driver turned to me, surprised at my naivete. “My friend, you are in a Muslim country, and you are clearly not Muslim, but your country is attacking a Muslim country,” he said. “It is definitely because you are American.”

Malaysia would become the first time I was ever knowingly discriminated against because of my nationality. Of course, part of me didn’t like it, but another part of me silently knew that this wouldn’t be the last time. I engaged our driver. “So what religion are you?”

“Myself, I am a Hindu. We have many Gods, not just one. And that has prevented us from entering into any Holy Wars for a long time,” he said.

I briefly thought about God, and Vishnu, and Indiana Jones, as we traveled out of the city, a brief distance to the Batu Caves, a Hindu Shrine on the outskirts of KL. For a fee, the driver agreed to wait for us as we visited the caves, and since we were nowhere near public transportation, with no knowledge of the local language, we readily agreed to the price and ascended the long, steep stairs into the Batu Caves.

Having only taken one class on Hinduism in college, and not actually remembering too much of it, I didn’t know what to expect from the Batu Caves. On its vast surface, it felt like an anomaly in a land that mainly practiced Islam. And for our group, Americans by nationality and mostly agnostic by religious standards, it smelled like garbage. We were visiting the caves one day after a festival in which hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had visited the shrine to worship. In the sacred halls of the caves, the pilgrims prayed to their many gods and littered food and waste products. We arrived before the cleaning crews, after the last pilgrims had left, and the smell was overbearing. In the shadows above, macaque monkeys hung from the cave, slinging empty water bottles and various articles of litter on the tourists below, including us. By my American standards, it did not feel holy, but I continued to respect the grounds.

Eventually, the smell became less and less potent. At the center of the cave, the top of the enclave opened into the Malaysian forest, allowing monkeys to tether their way down jungle vines and mingle with intricate carvings of Hindu deities. Having never encountered monkeys in the wild, I motioned towards one with my camera, but quickly jumped back when the monkey hissed with aggression. The monkey scampered off, grabbed an empty plastic water bottle off the ground, and disappeared into a crevice along the rock wall.

Because I didn’t want to get bit by a feral monkey in a Hindu cave somewhere in the mountains of Malaysia, we eventually made our way from the center, back through the engrossing stench, and descended the stairs down to the golden statue of Hindu god Murugan.

Once outside of the shrine, in the light of the Malaysian sun, I bought a Pepsi and a coconut, and wondered if we had been taken by the cab driver who said he would wait for us. As I turned around, he emerged from his parked car, smiling, asking me if I had been enlightened by the experience.

“A monkey tried to chase me,” I said, not realizing how ignorant my comment had come off.

The driver smiled. “No one likes Americans in Malaysia right now, except for the Hindu cab drivers,” he said. He returned us back to the hotel safely, and we tipped him generously.

For the next week, I called him whenever I needed a taxi ride, and we made jokes about Americans, Hindus, Muslims and this big convoluted world together.