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The Time I Nearly Croaked in Malaysia

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Smoke begins to encase the apartment building.

If you had asked me three years ago if I would ever travel again with my friend Fireball, the answer would have been a swift “No.” Of course we had had fun, hobnobbing with posh types in London speakeasies and galloping horses in Spain. But after getting mugged together in an icky, dark alley in Barcelona, things hadn’t been the same between us. The whole ordeal had simply exhausted our friendship.

This spring Fireball announced to me that her mother was working on a TV series in Malaysia and asked if I would join her. Barcelona faded away with the prospect of a shiny new trip.

Fast forward to one balmy Friday afternoon in Bukit Indah (Malay for “pretty hills”), a development in the state of Johor in southern Malaysia. Fireball and I are flouncing around the living room of her mom’s 19th-floor apartment dressing for dinner when what sounds like a prolonged fog horn starts to rumble through the building. It keeps rumbling for thirty seconds or so before pausing briefly and blaring again. Between sirens we hear nothing – no panic-stricken residents fleeing to the stairwells, no fire trucks blaring in the street. We chalk up the ruckus to a fire alarm test. Then our eyes start to well up.

“Hey I think I smell smoke,” says Fireball, walking around with one eyelid  in the snare of a eye-lash curler and the other eye watering from the smoke. I walk over to the window and look down at the floors below us. Huge plumes of white smoke are  billowing from floors below and steadily rising in our direction. “There’s smoke everywhere,” I say. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” with a tone that is meant to convey more nonchalance than encouragement. We have come to expect certain oddities in this neighborhood – gardeners who sweep the grass with a broom while the rake lies curiously in repose, motorcyclists who careen down the highway with their flip flops dragging on the asphalt. A fire alarm test at 5 pm on a Friday seems plausible enough to us.

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Commence white out.

We continue to putz around the apartment, our conversations clipped by the intermittent alarms. Soon the view from the windows is blotted out with smoke. Gone are the “pretty hills” and the yet-to-be occupied suburban developments. A haze is all that remains.

Fireball’s mother makes the call. “Girls, get your passports. We’re getting out of here.”

With that, our nonchalance skitters out of us as we bolt to our rooms. I find myself lingering a little too long over my suitcase. Should I grab my diary? The few pieces of jewelry I have with me? Maybe I could hawk them in the street if the apartment burns down and we have no money for food…

“SOPHIE!!” Fireball’s voice cuts through my daydream. I have heard that scream before, in the icky alley in Barcelona, when two men were dragging me to the ground to steal my passport and camera. My camera! I suddenly remember. I snatch it up and scramble toward the door.

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“Fogged” in

Under normal circumstances, the hallway, which was open on either end to the outside air, would be littered with giant moths that come to roost at night. During the day the dead and the nearly expired among them would remain splayed out on the ground creating an obstacle course for passerby unwilling to crush their pretty wings.

As smoke pours over the railing into the hallway, the moths are no where to be seen. I’m the first to reach the stairwell and, without thinking, I grab the door handle. The door opens and exhales a great puff of smoke in my face. I slam it shut. “We can’t go down there!” I shout over the sirens. It never strikes me how cool the door handle feels.

“This way!” says Fireball, running toward the opposite end of the hall in search of a second stairwell. Her mother and I are trailing behind. Fireball turns back to us, “There’s no other stairway! There’s no way out! What are we going to do!?”

We all fall silent, contemplating our ensuing asphyxiation. Just our luck, I think to myself. Fireball and I came all the way to Malaysia just to burn to death.

Just then we see a man in uniform emerge from the far end of the hallway. I let out a sigh. Thank god! A fireman has come to save us! Before we can say anything he waves his arms back and forth across his body and says, “Go back to apartment! Mosquitos!”

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Mosquito bombing the apartment complex for dengue

Huh? Mosquitos? We do as he says and rush to the apartment.

Once inside, Fireball’s mom explains. “They must be bombing the place for mosquitos,” she says between gulps of cleaner air. Apparently dengue has been on the rise in the area. So that explains the cool door handle in the hallway, I think to myself. No fire, just smoke.

“So we’ve been out there just inhaling poison?” I say.

“Yeah basically,” says Fireball, her hands on her hips in utter exasperation.

The building staff (including the building attendant I took to be a fireman) had entirely neglected to inform the residents of the mosquito-bombing before it took place. There was no sign posted on the door or in the elevator, no friendly message on the answering machine. Nothing.

We all slump on the couch and let the adrenaline ease out of us. No we didn’t die, but between the stress and the poison, we certainly knocked a few years off our lives.

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