The Grand Tour

In Palembang, a hidden bar—just one of a row of garages or storage spaces, corrugated metal doors folded down to protect whatever’s stashed inside, but this one? Wide open, stringlights hung, an actual plank “bar” with a guy moving behind it, crabwise, there’s so little room.

He pours drinks, makes introductions to the girls who will dance for a Nickel—and you get to call the tune! They ping the sound system from their phones, which they wear like knuckledusters, an infinite playlist some johns pore through like it’s a menu of sex acts they’re pricing à la carte.

Intently holding milady’s hand, a jewelthief kissing rings, they come away all sparkly smiles as some rusted Tin Machine-era Bowie, or late period K-pop peels the paint off the cinderblock walls and they finally dance—like string puppets—or wallow, like bears.

Def the seedier side of the suburb, here, and scooters go zinging by, silent as bats on their battery charges; Look both ways, lads! Every which way. This narrow alley might well be the snapping of that clavicle, shattering of the zygomatic. I left my malar in Malaysia: similar side street in Taiping. A plastic scaffold supports its continued regrowth. Watch your step!

It’s a trip worth making, tho, so don’t be chicken to cross the road. On the other side a vendor cart has set up and is cranking out pempek—grinderfish mashed into tapioca balls—served with cucumber chunks in cuko, which is just straight-up vinegar. Ask for extra noodles: Say “mi! mi!” and she’ll get the picture. Eat it standing there. The dishes have to go back.

And so do you, back to the bar, because the tender there is pouring out a cloudy, homemade tuak, a palm wine. Don’t be fooled: it’s distilled, unregulated and can knock you out of your flipflops, you’re not careful. I miss my free shot and want to call the bartender back, but I’m not sure of the etiquette. Turning to my nearest neighbor—guy still wearing a tie, soaking through his shortsleeve dress-whites. In my halting Malay, I open with Mister.

Encik… Uh, hey; Encik!”

He turns to me. His nearer eye is a blank, off-white ball, transparent as a peeled “cat eye” fruit (mata kuching, something like a longanberry.)

It’s offputting what some guys will do for their jobs, you know? Is he getting datadumps right now, here? in the middle of the sweltering night? Can’t swap out eyeballs, enda the workday. Stuck with it 24/7.

I start to ask him, piecing together my jigsaw of the language, before he interrupts me with the predictable and slightly petulant: “I speak English.”

Oh. Right, then:

“Tell me, I missed my free shot of tuak. Is it permitted to ask…”

“Better pay,” he suggests, as the bartender sidesteps back along the bar. I’m about to order two, one for my new friend here, who has turned away for a moment to speak to—turns out it's his brother, because before I can order a round, on me, he turns back, showing me that eyeball again.

“My brother wants to know why you don’t speak Malay.”

I’m just slightly agog. “Man… I… I just tried to do that, and you said—”

“Fair enough,” he shrugs, turning again, to explain this to his brother. They laugh. And so I order just the one, for myself.

And then another.

The music is too loud, distorted by the tiny speakers. The night has not cooled off as I stagger out (looking both ways, boys—every which way!) and down the alley into the street.

A breeze picks me up there. Guy on a wheelie missing—by inches—putting me in the gutter. I step out and carefully cross the road.

One of the girls from the bar chases me out and hands me the coiled strip of my phone. I try to give her something for her trouble but she laughs at me and skips back across the street, slipping along into the alley.

From here, you’d never know that joint existed, beyond the dogleg there, at the juncture—coordinates posted at the link but don’t look for it to stick around. Pop up place, most likely. I don’t even think it has a name; keep an ear to the ground is all I can tell you.

I make my way back to my hostel, scratching a familiar spot on my side. In the hall, I fire up my phone and send the signal—a courier will arrive in front of the hostel in 20 minutes.

I kick off my sandals outside my private cubbyhole. Within, I strip off my sodden t-shirt and shrug into a jinbei, leaving it open. With my toe, I click the start on the electric kettle sitting on the floor next to the mat.

I sit then, cross legged and, using my phone as a mirror, examine the C-tube port. It’s a little pink around there, where it emerges from my side. Must be my recent scratching—but it’s not at all inflamed. It’s psychological, the itch. Probably. It comes on when I know I’m going to use the port. When I’m thinking about it.

I pop the sampling wand through the one-way port and swipe, in a practiced manner. Remove the wand. It comes out already filmed, a protective sheen.

In it goes, fitting a holder in the little plastic shipping tube—about the size of a fat fountain pen, if you’ve ever seen such a thing. The water boils and I pour it over a teaball, suspended in a cracked cup. Cap the tube, and I still have a free moment before I need to paddle to the front entrance and drop it off with the courier.

The sample will be cultured, like every night’s sample, so fatcat tourists, businessmen, making their way through the archipelago can arrive prepared, gastroready as the slogan has it, to eat on the street, etcetera, without undue intestinal distress. I picture them following my drunkwalk among the islands, which has taken me more than two years, down from Bhutan—but of course they’ll have their own agendas and trajectories, popping across from Wien or New-New-New York.

Don Mark Baldridge has wandered the world professionally, and though he lived for some years in Asia—and visited parts of the world adjacent to the setting of this story—there is no sense in which either the events, locations or persons appearing in it are anything other than fictional. He currently teaches digital art in one of those ancient, shade strewn private colleges that dot Pennsylvania. When he's certain of staying put for a bit, he'd like to adopt a cat.