The highways, with their four lanes and their yellow-tone streetlamps, are flanked by palm oil plantations, or a wild rush of jungle, or divorced hills that once knew a different slope than their current bisected form.
Whenever I drive past I wonder what they were like before, what this milieu must have looked just a couple of decades ago.
My country has an exuberant youth where it is easy to forget that all this was untamed and undomesticated no more than twenty or thirty years ago.
(As such, some highways still bear signs of freshness: from paint, to undented barriers, but most of all the lack of traffic that makes driving still a joy.)
On this very night I’m thinking of, though, the night of November 28th, I am driving south instead of north. In the sudden flash rain of the monsoon season I have somehow ended up missing the right exit (E20 on the Maju Expressway, which winds from the quiet college town of Nilai then to the airport and then towards the great city, past the artificial administrative capital of Putrajaya — glory and success to the princes, its name heralds) and I am mostly laughing to myself that I have absolutely no idea where I am headed.
It’s not even that late, around 10pm really, but the only other passengers are the instruments of heavy industry: all pickup trucks and logging lorries. Lucie is in the passenger’s seat. This is, in fact, the first hour in which she’s been in Malaysia.
Despite us sharing a the Commonwealth bond of instant familiarity thanks to the British Empire, where roads are all on the left and power points come with switches, I notice a little linguistic quirk that doesn’t seem to mesh. She says “truck” where I say “lorry”.
I’ve always thought “truck” was an Americanism, so it was always pretty curious to hear a New Zealander say it that way. I have a strange distrust for single-syllabled words in the language of automobiles. Maybe that’s just me. Car, gear, brake, road, truck, truck, truck.
Unwilling to appear so blatantly ignorant of my paved landscapes, I don’t admit to my mistake until much, much later, when I sigh out, perplexed, seeing exit signs with town names I don’t know.
Sepang and Seremban I know, but villages like Geching and Jenderam and Bahar-Lanjut all suggest a coarse ancientness to these locations. Nothing like my steel-and-glass city of Kuala Lumpur, with two hundred years of demolishing history and building on top of it with glee.
"We’re driving in the wrong direction," I admit to Lucie, adjusting my internal estimate for when we’d get to our hotel. I was hoping for a quick and easy forty-five minute drive, but this ends up taking twice as long. She holds my gaze while we drive the long, straight stretches past palm oil plantations and wild jungles and divorced hills, and although I have to drive a distance, I only ever reluctantly look away.