The Night the Lights Went Out

It was 1996 and I was at the end of a two-week holiday in Malaysia from my teaching job in Korea. My employer had asked with no trace of humor that I return to Korea with “not too much suntan,” a request I ignored. On a small island in the Andaman Sea I had spent my final week dodging local would-be suitors and finally sought refuge among friends (fellow teachers from Seoul) in a remote hideaway run by a trio of philosophical, pot-smoking Malaysian gentlemen. These lovely lads spared no amount of homegrown hospitality when it came to ensuring that we were comfortably looked after. And so it was with great sadness that I left this toker’s paradise for Kuala Lumpur as part of my kicking and screaming return to smog-choked Seoul.

Since my flight to Seoul wasn’t until 9 pm, I set off from the Kuala Lumpur International Airport for a glance at the city and a final taste of Malaysian street food. I spent the afternoon lolling through market stalls, food stands and curry joints. As the sun went down I searched for some last-minute souvenirs and prepared to make my way back to the airport to catch my flight. Then quite suddenly the lights went out: it was a city-wide blackout. I decided I had better forego the souvenirs and look for a taxi.

As I stood at a well trafficked junction and held out my arm to signal a taxi, I watched with amazement at the suddenness with which the gold-and-pink-flecked sky transformed itself into total darkness. Cars and taxis were skiddering in all directions, and I noticed that people were walking much faster and with greater purpose. I walked on to find a better position for hailing a taxi, but not a single one stopped. I pleaded for help from groups of passersby and was met with mumbles and I-do-not-knows. By now, Kuala Lumpur was blacker than black and I was starting to feel a bit like a blind person, only more helpless.

I found another heavily trafficked thoroughfare and waited, thinking for sure that I would miss my plane and wondering where in the hell I would sleep. I remember musing over the irony of leaving my sunny island paradise for this blackened urban chaos and wondering why it is that such experiences always come in closely sequenced binary pairs. Whizz. Zoom. Rattle. Chug. Putta-putta-putta-putta-putt-putt-putt. So many headlights, the only lights for miles around, but not a single motored vehicle seemed made for stopping. And I, the feckless but fretful offspring of a feckless father and fretful mother, began to wave my arms frantically and scream at the traffic: Stop! Help! Please!

Finally the mounting congestion brought traffic to a crawl, forcing the drivers to confront the dirty, shouting female tourist on the side of the road. A taxi pulled up. I knew what I had to do and began to knock loudly on the passenger side window, begging the driver to let me in and offering him a large sum of money to deliver me to the airport. The driver turned to discuss the proposition with his passenger, a benign, squat fellow, who then opened the door and slid across to make room for me on the seat bench. It turned out my fellow passenger was heading in the same direction. I lay my head against the window and heaved a sigh of relief. I was no longer concerned about the possibility of missing my flight. I only wanted to place myself in the warm bosom of an international airport, and one that I happened to know first-hand sold nitrogen cascading cans of Guinness.

Within an hour we made it through unrelenting traffic to the departures drop-off, where I lavished the driver with thankyous and something along the order of 80 bucks. I made my way through the terminal to the Korean Air check-in desk. The airport’s emergency lighting system created a pleasant sort of jazz club atmosphere, which I inhaled as I handed my passport to the woman at the desk. She told me that my flight was delayed. Whatever. I shrugged off my sweat-soaked backpack, entered the concourse, and proceeded to a dimly lit airport bar where I sidled up next to a man with tousled blonde hair and an elegant suit. “Buy you a drink?” I asked, and we spent the next couple of hours in rapt conversation. The verdict: gay and heading home to his boyfriend in Perth, Australia. We exchanged addresses (the snail kind) and hugged goodbye.

Power was finally restored and I headed towards my gate. There I met a couple of other teacher friends who had just returned from two weeks in the jungle. They appeared unshaken by the blackout and spoke of eating barbecued rat.

But the experience stayed with me. To this day I never leave home without a flashlight.


Simone Ashby is a linguist dedicated to describing African varieties of Portuguese. She lives with her husband and two children in Lisbon, where she enjoys schlepping up narrow cobblestone streets in unseasonable heat and drinking tiny coffees.

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