A bowl of soup was placed in front of me.
My girlfriend had asked for "everything." And boy, did we get everything.
There was chicken, or pork, or some kind of meat. That was fine. Noodles, and broth, and some veggies.
And liver. And intestines. And what I later found out were probably brains, but they looked a lot like chicken so I think I accidentally swallowed them.
At times, I gagged a little. I ate around the organs. I discreetly (or so I hope) spit out one particularly gross bite and dropped it on the ground.
But what I really did was think, for the first time, "Welcome to Malaysia."
I had no real expectations before arriving. Until this trip became a reality, I never really planned to visit this area of the world; maybe in some later-in-life travels but definitely not at age 26. Which turned out to be a blessing in disguise; I ultimately threw myself into the unknown with vigor and embraced whatever I came across.
Doesn't mean I was in any rush to eat a bowl of animal colons, though.
Thankfully, that particularly jarring meal of mystery soup wasn't the first I had in Southeast Asia. Our three nights in Singapore were my actual introduction to the area, and it turned out to be the perfect beginning for a tried-and-true American who'd never been anywhere truly "crazy," just a bunch of islands and the cushier parts of Western Europe.
Of course, even in Singapore there were trials and tribulations. I was forcefully ejected from the airport for wandering around at 3 in the morning (my flight arrived at midnight and I was unable to book a hotel room for the "evening"). I slept on a couch in the baggage area for a few hours and then took to the streets, visiting the Botanic Gardens and holing up in a Starbucks until our room opened up.
When I finally arrived at my hostel, exhausted and drenched in sweat, I'm surprised they didn't turn me away. They've surely seen their fair share of big smelly white dudes before, but I had to be the grossest in recent history. My friends and I joke about how the lead singer of Springsteen cover band Bruce in the USA always mentions the air being "like soup" up on stage; I'd love to see him walk even a few blocks in Asia. He'd literally melt.
The rest of my journey's early moments are a blury haze; traversing through Little India with my girlfriend -- Fulbright scholar studying in Malaysia but a Singapore newbie -- attempting to lead the way. I think I bought lotion to combat a pesky bit of chafing. It's the closest I've ever been to "blacked out" without drinking; I didn't remember any of the scenery until days later, when we took another jaunt around the same area and my mind began to recall the images from wherever it'd stored them away.
And that was how my trip began. Exhausted, soaked in my body's own juices, unwilling to eat, unable to take in my surroundings with any sort of pleasure.
Luckily, it got a lot better from there.
Singapore had the potential to feel comfortable. It had maybe the best city subway system I've ever encountered. And malls. And a Mexican restaurant in the mega-touristy area, which I felt bad about visiting but desperately needed at the time. The idea of a hawker center, where street food is gleefully served by skilled but random locals, was still too much.
But I got used to everything. And on day three, despite my stomach's continued occasional protests, we housed a plate each of wanton noodles and shared a big pile of fried dumplings.
"It's the same shit I'm used to," I thought, "only better."
It wasn't all "better," of course. Even though my mindset was largely "put your head down and power through," the differences were jarring. This was not my beautiful house, this was not my beautiful country. I don't want to call it "culture shock" but there was a lot of "holy shit what is this place where do I go I have no idea whoa" going on. For a little while, at least.
Also, I genuinely love the Internet -- checking my sites, sending emails and tweets, evaluating my fantasy baseball team's performance -- and my complete lack of access shook me to the core. I made sure we took our fair share of pit stops in coffee shops and fast food joints, where I'd bust out my smartphone. To my girlfriend's occasional (OK, frequent) dismay.
We saw a bunch, though. The beaches of Sentosa, a tourist trap of sorts located next to Universal Studios that also proved to be an easily accessible, relaxing oasis for weary travelers. The aforementioned Botanic Gardens, which were lovely and particularly nonthreatening. Chinatown, where we got a pork bun and drank the trip's first beer.
And that was only in Singapore. By the time we got to Malaysia, I was beginning to feel like a regular human being.
But then came the Soup of Death, and a boatload of other unexpected "complications," for lack of a better word. The place was called Penang; we thought it would be touristy and welcoming. Turns out it was just a regular Malaysian town, which isn't bad but certainly isn't what you'd call a prime destination. The other travelers were all backpackers. I had my roommate's big gray suitcase. I stood out.
Even that was get-used-to-able, though. The food was excellent. Seriously excellent. Chicken rice, tandoori chicken, roti canai, toast and iced coffee. I'm sure you've had a few of those dishes before; so have I, but never done so right.
And when Penang got a little boring, we went to the mall. There were three: one was shitty, one was decent and one was nicer than most malls in America. We ate waffles and drank bubble tea and saw The Amazing Spider-Man, which was pretty awful. But it was easy and it passed the time on a day when we needed some serious time to pass, so I don't think either of us had any regrets.
One overnight train to Kuala Lumpur later, we were back in the big city. Sort of. It was big, sure, and it had a monorail. But seriously, a monorail? That's a thing people still use?
There was still street food everywhere, but it was a little more organized. And we stayed in a nice hotel that was right next to some of the fanciest shopping you'll ever see. The president of the Czech Republic was staying next door. His motorcade went in and out all day and caused a nice little fuss, until we found out he was just the president of the Czech Republic.
As the trip came to a close, we stopped by the Batu Caves. There was a giant gold statue and about 400 steps that led to some great scenery and a temple. There were also a bunch of monkeys who ate necklaces, stole candy and opened bottles of soda with their two little front paws. Lovable, besides the fact that they're most likely swimming with disease.
We never "roughed it" or anything like that. I won't pretend like I'm suddenly a world traveler or that I have any real newfound understanding of all the mystery around me.
But I was seriously taken out of my comfort zone, and I loved it. Sure, I was more than ready to come home after eight days (and a sudden 11-hour layover in Beijing after missing a connecting flight wasn't exactly welcomed) but I'd survived. And, occasionally, thrived.
In the end, my trip ended up being a lot like my bowl of chicken (or pig, or monkey) guts. Some of it was scary, but that stuff was easy to avoid. And the parts I did feast upon, well, they were delicious.
I want to thank my girlfriend for her amazingness throughout the whole experience, and I want to thank a few assorted Southeast Asian locales (and residents) for being very welcoming to a doofy, curly-haired American.
The fact that I made it through more than a week in Southeast Asia is further proof that human beings can do anything. Although it helps if there are attractive women and delicious food at the end of your particular rainbow.