As I write this my parents are back in England, jetlagged and finding things pretty chilly.
It’s not quite six months into our new posting in Malaysia and so we are allowed, I think, to make a few mistakes…
They left Monday morning and so I had planned a specially acclimatising trip for their last weekend – to a popular hotel in Fraser’s Hill, where, they say, it is much cooler than down here in the city. It was only two hours away, so I booked The Old Smokehouse on Booking.com as usual and off we headed on Saturday.
“Got the postcode for the SatNav?” Ian asked.
“Well, I’m not sure.” I hesitated. “The booking says 3900 and the website, where I just double-checked the address says 4900. Sorry.”
We ignored this error. Things are not always crystal clear in Malaysia as we have learned, and so this kind of mistake might of meant nothing. So we put Fraser’s Hill into the device and hit the E1 motorway for about an hour and then a long and winding though rather beautiful road up the one-way (thank God) mountain pass. The tiny town at the top could have been in England, honestly, except that I cannot name the trees. Old colonial and buzzing with bikers and cyclists, elated from making the ascent.
After a leisurely lunch in a kind of pub called Scott’s that served typical English fare (average fish and chips and bottles of real ale with footie on the flatscreen) we made our way to the hotel. Tudor-fronted, almost chilly inside and with the air of a welcoming, if faded, chintzy British guesthouse, I went up to the reception desk brandishing my booking form.
The charming guy behind the desk looked us up in his reservations book, double-checked my confirmation letter, looked back at his book and then spoke slowly: “This is the wrong hotel, madam.”
“How? I booked The Old Smokehouse. This is The Old Smokehouse.” I stayed calm.
“It is the wrong Old Smokehouse,” he replied. “You booked the one in the Cameron Highlands. It’s four hours away. You can make it before dark. You are the second person today to do this.”
I gulped. Wasn’t Fraser’s Hill part of The Cameron Highlands? Apparently not. You see, first of all I had not realised there were two Old Smokehouses and secondly, I truly thought that the vast mountain range that dissects Malaysia like a bony backbone, was all part of the same range. I thought Fraser’s Hill was IN The Cameron Highlands.
“What on earth made you think that?” Ian asked, surprisingly without raising his voice, though he looked incredulous.
“Because I did. Because I am new to this country and I have not worked it out yet.” I stood my ground. I was going to get away with this one.
“Now we know whey the postcodes were wrong!” He smirked.
The manageress came into the room, smart and brisk and very smiley in her dark grey suit.
“Oh dear,” she said, tilting her head sideways. “Shall we call round to see if we can find somewhere else?”
I like to think she took pity on us because of the crestfallen looks my parents were trying to hide on their faces. It might have been because of their age, but I better not write that in case they read this (which they will!).
Su, as we later discovered the manageress to be named, turned her back and picked up the phone. “Sit down,” she suggested, as if it might take a while.
Fifteen minutes later and we were given the keys to a bungalow called Ken House, only available for private rental and with the best view you could wish for – over the pristine lawn and circular beds of amaryllis and cycad palms, past magenta and orange lantana camara and spindly palms, down the valley and up the other side to where our eyes could no longer distinguish colours. Yes, dear reader, it was paradise.
Su told us that she had recently taken pity on a young couple with a baby who had made the same mistake and had given them her own room. Such kindness of strangers can be overwhelming. She did what she did out of compassion, not for cash, as the money for our booking at the ‘wrong hotel’ had gone to the ‘wrong hotel’. Of course.
That evening, we sat outside on that fabulous lawn under a clear and starry sky and ate a mix of goodies from the local hawker centre – chapattis and dhal, Chinese stir-fried veg, chicken satay and Tiger beer. My father wore his coat and shivered. It was true what they said about it being cooler there.
At around 10.30 pm my phone rang.
“This is The Old Smokehouse Hotel in the Cameron Highlands. Where are you?” they asked.
“Er, Fraser’s Hill,” I replied, wondering why they sounded a bit cross. They had still been paid.
“Well, you need to cancel the booking.”
I’d have thought it was obvious we weren’t going, wouldn’t you?
We may have lost the money but I think this particular mistake turned out rather beautifully, thanks to Su.
On the last full morning my parents spent in Malaysia, I was inspired to write the following:
The clipped lawn
is silvered on our final day
when cool mist lifts,
revealing fists of palm
on skinny necks
and white barked trees
sway, as in a choir.
Sunlight stamps long shadows
on a day that’s swelling slowly
perfumed with jasmine,
where shallow roots
rise up to join all those
who come to marvel at this view.
23 February 2014