My Travelling Pants | Chang Shih Yen

In Malaysia, I bought a pair of jeans. In a Levi’s store in the old wing of 1Utama shopping mall, I tried on a pair of bold curve, boot cut jeans. It fit me like a second skin, hugging my hips, loving my curves. Perfect fit, flattering cut, comfortable and durable – a perfect pair of pants for travelling. I paid over RM 200 for my travelling pants and I walked out of the shop with the jeans neatly folded inside a paper bag.

That night I took my new jeans out of the paper bag and unfolded them. A beautiful pair of jeans in boot cut dark blue denim. Its button shone under the electric light. I cut off all the tags and I wore my new pants without even washing them first. I wore my brand new jeans to the top of the Petronas Twin Towers and looked out over the lights of KL city, with all its buildings and roads and traffic.

In Thailand, I got a stain on the right thigh of my jeans. I was eating a sweet, sour and spicy fish dish called pla saam rod at one of the many roadside stalls in Bangkok when some sauce fell from my spoon onto my jeans. I didn’t notice it at first, so I didn’t try and get the stain out. The red, orange, and oily sauce dried out on my jeans.

Then, 24 hours after that dinner, stains weren’t my biggest problem anymore. Feeling a bit queasy, I ran to the bathroom and threw up a brown mess in the toilet bowl. Later, another brown mess came out the other end. The next two days were spent alternately kneeling by or sitting on the toilet, spewing vomit and watery brown diarrhoea into the white toilet bowl.

The next few days I was doped up on Metoclopramide and Loperamide, prescribed by a Thai doctor whose English I barely understood. On the fourth day, weak, pale and dehydrated, I finally left Thailand. Food poisoning in Bangkok is no fun, but the only bright side is it made me lose weight. My stomach was flat and my stained jeans felt loose on my waist.

In Brunei on Borneo Island, I ripped my jeans in the left knee. I went for a ride on a long boat along the Temburong River. I thought it was just going to be a boat ride, but the boat stopped and we all got out to go jungle trekking. I slipped on the mud and fell, ripping the left knee of my jeans on fallen tree branches and sharp rock on the ground.

It was worth it though. On that trip I saw the elusive proboscis monkey sitting in a tree. The locals call the monkey orang Belanda or Dutchman. The poor Dutch people – a monkey with a big nose and a pot belly bears their name. I also saw a rhinoceros hornbill in the jungles of Borneo. It’s a majestic bird with black and white tail feathers and a big yellow bill that curves upwards like a crown on its head.

From Brunei I travelled by road, crossing the border into East Malaysia. In Miri, Sarawak, I wore my stained, ripped jeans to an evening barbecue, thinking jeans would protect me from mosquitos. I was wrong. I made the mistake of wearing sandals with my jeans. The Asian tiger mosquito feasted on my feet. It felt as if a hundred needles were poking me like I was a pin cushion. Because the bottoms of my jeans were flared, the black-and-white striped mosquitos flew under my jeans and up, biting my lower leg and ankles, and also on my left knee where my jeans were ripped. I was bitten on my arms as well. After the barbecue, my feet, ankles and left knee were a mess of red, bumpy, itchy mosquito bites.

The mosquito bites were so itchy. I scratched and scratched at them. Two days later, the itchiness wasn’t my main problem anymore when a high fever raged through my body. While sucking on my blood, the Aedes albopictus mosquitos had infected me with Chikungunya fever. On my bed I lay, barely conscious, sometimes cold and shivering from the fever, then sometimes hot and sweating from my fever. My sweat stained the inside waistband of my jeans.

It took months to recover from Chikungunya. I lay in bed a lot of the time, hardly able to move as the virus ravaged my body, making all my joints ache. I felt like I had been hit by a bus, as if I was a young person living in the body of an 80-year-old woman with terrible arthritis. Many months later when my joints no longer felt like they were pieces of broken glass grinding together, I picked up my stained, ripped jeans, brushed off the thin layer of dust covering it and I was on my way again.

In Singapore, the right hem of my jeans frayed when the sliding doors of an MRT train shut on it. I was running in the underground station to catch a MRT to Chinatown. I just made it inside the crowded train, but the doors of the train slammed shut and caught the flared bottom of my jeans.

In Singapore’s Chinatown, I bought a pair of chopsticks that had my name on it in Chinese. I went to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple to pray, but it was so full of tourists that it was hard to get into the right peaceful and quiet frame of mind for prayer. I took off my shoes and knelt on the floor to try and pray, but it was so noisy and crowded, and people kept stepping on the frayed hem of my flared jeans.

In Melbourne, Australia, I tore the back pocket of my jeans. I also learnt that stiletto heels, alcohol and cobble stones do not make a good mix. After a night out, I found myself walking alone along one of Melbourne’s many narrow lanes. This one was a narrow cobblestoned lane and being slightly tipsy, the heel of my stiletto caught on a cobblestone and I fell on my bottom. My jeans cushioned my fall, but my left back pocket tore on the cobble stones.

In New Zealand, I noticed for the first time that the crotch area of my jeans was getting faded and frayed. Maybe it was from all the walking I had done or maybe it was from bungy jumping off the Kawarau Bridge near Queenstown. I had worn a safety harness that went under my crotch. Then I had leapt 43 metres off the bridge into the Kawarau Gorge, putting my faith in a safety harness and an elastic cord. The elastic cord around my legs unravelled behind me when I jumped.

In New Zealand I washed my stained, ripped, frayed, torn jeans in a laundromat and used a dryer for the first time. I think the dryer shrank my jeans because they feel a bit tighter now. But it could be that I’ve just put on weight from all the good food I’ve been eating in New Zealand. I’ve been eating good quality cuts of tender beef and lamb that just melt in your mouth, and rich, creamy dairy products.

In Samoa, I lost my heart (and my jeans) to a tall, dark, handsome Samoan stranger. I met him while walking along the waterfront of Mulinu’u Road. He wore a lava-lava and he had pe’a, intricate traditional Samoan tattoos on his thighs and on his arms. He had brown skin the colour of milk chocolate.

As I lay in bed with my Samoan warrior, I saw my faded, frayed, flared jeans a crumpled heap on the floor. My jeans were slightly shrunken, torn, ripped and stained, its cotton threads barely holding together after so much travel. I thought to myself that it might be time to buy a new pair of travelling pants.


Chang Shih Yen is a writer from East Malaysia. She has a first class honours degree in English and Linguistics, and a Masters degree in Linguistics from the University of Otago in New Zealand.

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