This summer, I left New York and I spent a lot of time in a silver Proton
. I went to P.R. China
, United Arab Emirates
, and Malaysia
, because my parents said that 'Confucious says that'
one learns universal human truths
On Wall Street you learn what they don't teach you at business school (What they do teach you in b-school is Q: What do you do if a bird shits on you? A: Don't take her out again) or in Complex Analysis or a soybean farm or wherever traders come from; namely, the fact that everything you have to know is in the Kenny Rogers song 'The Gambler.' Two months ago I wanted to be in the warm summer's evening on a train bound for nowhere.
One of my Economics professors told me once that the Proton was a colossal waste of money and a really stupid idea. Malaysia spent billions of dollars of taxpayer money to support that national car
modernization scheme to the benefit of the 1% of Malaysians who own cars and the Japanese component part industry. They built the Proton in order to encourage Malaysian heavy manufacturing and to create a middle class in the Henry Ford school of thought. Due to Crisis the price of a Proton has risen is still out of reach to most people.
I picked up my 100-horsepower Proton WAJA at the Avis near the airstrip in Kuantan and set off to drive up and
down the east
coast from Kuantan to Terengganu, then back to Johor Bahru and Singapore on the new north-south highway. The mellifluous curved
highways wend through jungles, beaches, rubber plantations, and 'industrial parks'.
Gebeng Industrial Park contains a petroleum refinery and is about 10 kilometers on each side.
It is very beautiful, if only for the friction; massive aluminum pipes and apparatus and missle-silo
buildings are lighted like a stadium in the night along a forest road. The red soil looks like the surface
of Mars where people have peeled away the skin of Malaysia's green to extract and process
the blood of the earth, oil. The crude oil from Malaysia is called Tapis crude and has recently become
the marker crude for the region. Tapis is generally light and sweet (and therefore valuable), which refers to its specific gravity and
The Tapis crude and the Brent and the WTI are part of the reason that I get to work as the most junior
trader on an energy derivatives desk on 57th street at a large American investment bank. I write
options pricing models and yell at brokers who work for me and at the middle office and realize that PDE actually
is useful in 'real life' (but not as useful as they would have you believe). I work on important deals, I take positions on Henry Hub natgas swaps and make Starbucks runs to get coffee
for everybody else.
This is also how Morgan gets to do something similar (but without the coffee-fetching) at his desk in
Singapore. Morgan is a bookish boy of 28 and is the head trader and risen star at his energy derivatives
desk at another large American investment bank. He sometimes tells me that he doesn't
always feel mature enough to be the 'head of the desk.' Morgan is in love with me.
He comes from Limerick and dropped out of boarding school to join a rock band in London; then shaped
up and graduated from Columbia at 20. He has a bad habit during conversation of interrupting himself
with 'um' but out of him, it sounds like 'ahm', and thus becomes charming and incredibly sincere.
He and his brother owned two thoroughbreds sired from Storm Cat but they had to shoot one after it broke its leg.
We both watched last May on satellite the surviving horse's first race in Ireland, from opposite time zones.
Driving in Malaysia's back roads is like dancing in a game of chicken. At 80 kilometers per hour two opposite lines of cars,
trucks, and mopeds rush past each other like shells between enemy trenches. Some tiny mopeds have entire
families riding at once: baby in front, husband second, wife third, and the toddler hanging on the back.
Usually nobody is wearing a helmet. The oil trucks and mopeds lag at around 50 km, so passing by darting
into oncoming traffic is necessary but risky. Sometimes I grow bold enough to pass a column of 6 or 7
cars on straighter sections of the winding road by speeding up, the pulling into the lane and hitting the
brakes, avoiding a head-on collision with the Proton on my right and a fender-bender with the Proton in front
Before I came to Malaysia I had stopped off in Singapore, and asked Morgan to see his bike. He has a red
Ducati 998, and when he tries to start it for me the engine turns but doesn't catch. We call an engineer
to come out and take a look at it.
In Malaysia if there are cows or goats on the road in front of you, one must drive very close to them, almost touching,
and then lean on the horn. Otherwise they will not move.
Sometimes when I am talking on the phone with him while he is on his mobile heading home, I can tell
the exact moment he walks in the door because of the echo of his voice on his walls even from the other side of the world. Many people, when you see their apartments where they live alone, feel it necessary to add the disclaimer,
"but I'm hardly ever home" to give the impression of a full life. In Morgan's case, in Singapore, he does not even have to mention it. I search for a wastebasket for a tissue through one hallway, two bedrooms and two bathrooms and can't find one.
Apparently he doesn't have wastebaskets yet, after a year, and tells me to leave it on the marble counter and
"somebody will take care of it." He fills his time with work and getting certifications; accruing flight time
and doing rescue diver training ("The bends be damned!") and figuring out 'the plan'.
"Jennifer." He says,
"What are we going to do?"
It is my birthday that day and I am turning 19 years old, like the Muddy Waters song. Since this coincides
with the 25th anniversary of the death of Elvis and is all over the front page of the New Straits Times that
day, he jokingly suggests running off to Vegas to get married by Elvis impersonators.
Whenever I am in Asia I always stop when I see those rickety stands by the empty highway with a lone woman in a headscarf selling red and green iced tea, because they seem too much alone, like a mirage. Sometimes on these roads over the jungles, refineries, beaches, and goats I feel like I am intruding on somebody else's Marquez novel; Somebody elses' stone palace standing in ruins, monkeys in jungles in the soporific four o'clock heat.
A few days later, when I turned onto the leg of the coastal highway near Cherating, traffic slowed to a halt.
At that moment I am attempting to find my way to Kuantan town in the dark, so when cars stop around a bend
I think it is a traffic light and rejoice in civilization. When I finally round the turn, instead of town
lights I see a dead man lying on the road. There is an old red non-Proton car with a man-sized hole in the windshield.
There are pieces of a moped lying all over the road. There is finally the man, alone, with bystanders peering
from a respectful 20 feet away, afraid to touch him. His helmet lies 30 feet in the other direction while his blood seeps back into
the red earth.
I drive by in the grassy shoulder in the shiny silver Proton and twenty minutes later when I pass the borders
of Kuantan town I see an ambulance all flashing lights and siren pass me on the other lane, probably 40 minutes
too late. A few days later I drove past the spot again. Blood and car and man are all gone while only pieces
of the shattered moped are still glinting across the highway.
On my way back south to Johor Bahru, I ride the tailwind of a 40 km/hr oil tanker for an hour and I do not
try to pass. In JB I returned the Proton to Avis and hop on the ferry to Changi Point in Singapore. Morgan
met me there, and we got into a cab.
The Ducati engineer told him that he must always remember to start it at least once a week. He has just gotten back from diving, and for dinner we have digestives and Volvic.
His Jacuzzi on the roof is always on, though he never uses that either; I lecture him on wasting
energy and he replies to me, with an odd smile, that he is just keeping us in a job.