Sometimes, when life seemed to want nothing better than to bite my head off, I would escape to a time when there wasn’t yet a North-South Expressway. In those days, if you wanted to travel from KL to Ipoh, there was only one viable route: through the sleepy old towns of Rawang, Serendah and Kuala Kubu; past the pau capital of the world, Tanjung Malim; through a fifty-sen toll plaza (no longer in existence) near Slim River; past the quaint, rustic towns of Bidor, Tapah and Gopeng, and then on to Ipoh. I call this route, one that does not require a PLUS highway transit ticket, the Old Route.
Although as a child I used to hate having to make the trip to visit my mother in Ipoh – which 5-year-old child didn’t balk at the prospect of being cooped-up in a car for over four-hours? – I eventually learnt to accept the inevitable. Pretty soon I even began enjoying these trips; especially the stopovers at Yik Mun in Tanjung Malim where we’d order mouth-watering Hainanese dishes by the dozen, and gobble down an equal number of sickly-sweet pau kayas. This was in the days when Yik Mun was still located on the main street of Tanjung Malim (adjacent to the railway station); and the food, as I remember it, had been much, much better than what it is now.
Then, in my late teens, I discovered that I preferred making the trip to Ipoh by train: usually using a service called the Express Rakyat. You could still smoke in trains then: something you weren’t allowed to do on express buses. Naturally, whenever I needed to take the trip up north, I would take the train. Nevertheless, I never forgot what a joy it was to travel by road through all those beautiful little towns along the way between KL and Ipoh. The Old Route was like a good friend: someone who would always be there for me no matter what I did, or how long I stayed away.
My love affair with the Old Route was rekindled when, in my late 20s, my business required me to make frequent business trips to Ipoh. My partner and I would make these trips in his immaculately maintained Ford Cortina Ghia. During these trips, we’d have Carole King and James Taylor (and the occasional Fauziah Latiff) playing in an almost endless loop on the car stereo. We played the same songs over and over again – singing along with wild abandon – until we became blissfully oblivious to the woes that life had unleashed upon us. During those few hours, secure in a cocoon of the most beautiful music we had ever known, the wrath of our creditors shrank into an insignificant distant memory – for awhile, at least.
After all the business trips ended – and irate creditors were dealt with in the appropriate manner – I still found myself plying the Old Route. But this time it was for pleasure – not business. Whenever the madness of KL got to us, a friend and I would drop everything we had on our plates and take to driving along the Old Route. Instead of Carole King and James Taylor, we’d play Barry Manilow until we literally wore out the cassette (remember those?). We’d stop at Rawang to check-out the quaint little shops selling Indian earthenware, at Tanjung Malim to enjoy the meehonn hailam, at Bidor to buy some guava, and even at Tapah to buy – of all things – bed-sheets! On the way back we’d sometimes even stop at the Bukit Kancing recreational park to just chill-out and maybe even take a few photographs. On occasion, we’d by-pass Bukit Kancing altogether and take the more scenic route: from Batang Kali to Batu Caves via Ulu Yam Bharu.
But all that happened over 19 years ago.
Today, on a lark, I decided to re-acquaint myself with my old friend, the Old Route. In my trusty but beat-up Iswara, I set-off on a slow drive though the familiar old roads and towns. I even put on a James Taylor CD to set the right mood for the trip. However, even early on into the trip, I knew that something was frightfully wrong. First of all, despite the now wider roads, I found that sleepy old Rawang was beset with traffic jams. When I got to Serendah, I was horrified by the sense of disconnection I felt with the town – despite it being the place where my dear grandmother had been born. The final blow came when the paus in Tanjung Malim turned out to be sad, soggy excuses for what they once used to be.
Of course there would be changes. What did I expect? It was not the physical changes that nagged at me: change, especially the physical kind, is to be expected – and inevitable, even. But what gnawed at me – what eventually broke my heart – was that my friend, the Old Route, had changed in spirit. There was no longer that familiar welcoming warmth, the loving embrace of a faithful old friend. Instead, it was like we were strangers; I was nothing more than a faceless and nameless traveler passing through, on his way to some place else.
What had happened to my old friend?
My answer eventually came as I passed the intersection to Rasa: it had nothing to do with my old friend. She hadn’t changed at all; she is still what she has always been. Instead, it is I who had changed.
I had stayed away for far too long: and during that time, a small but important part of me had somehow died.