Meeting a friend of the way in Melaka.
MELAKA, Malaysia- “My name is Will Travel and that’s what I do: I travel. I’ve got been going for more than fifty years, never staying in any country for more than a year.”
This was the way that William Travel introduced himself.
While I like to pride myself on my ability to pick out life-long travelers on sight, the gentleman in front of me was a given: on his right forearm was a traditional tattoo of a ship leaving port; on his left arm was a hook. He was the very image of what a children’s book illustrator would portray an adventurer as looking like — and Will Travel was the rare breed of adventuring sailor, having spent decades in the British navy and merchant marine.
But it wasn’t just the prosthetic hook that drew me in, but the fact that he had Santa Claus and “Merry Christmas” colorfully painted on it, providing symmetry with the naval tattoo on the other arm, well-timed for the holiday that would be happening in two days.
When you travel for a while you become good at picking up on signals that people put out to attract other other people towards them. Meeting people — that’s what the art of travel is ultimately all about — and this is something that’s vastly easier to do when you don’t look like white rice.
When two strangers meet they need conversational hand holds — something to talk about — and attention grabbing or symbolic physical elements is one way to spark the initial round of small talk needed to climb to greater intellectual heights. An unusual hairdo, a big pin, a flamboyant hat, a brightly colored pin stripe suit, creatively cultivated facial hair, some slogan or something that says what you’re into, a hook arm with Santa Clause painted on it … anything which could draw a stranger up to you to ask what? Why? How? Where? When? So when I enter a room I look for the people trying to attract people to them — conversation is more easily won this way.
“I was never one for sticking with my people,” he said with a wry smile.
When I saw Will Travel sitting on the riverbank at the 90s Cafe bar it was clear that he had a story, and, more importantly for my purpose, wanted to share it. I stopped in my tracks and pointed to his Santa Claus, said something about it, laughed, and we began talking. He was previously sitting alone, but had a bucket of beer sitting in the middle of a table for four. I sat down in one of those seats and he passed over a beer, opening it with his teeth.
“I have been traveling since I was 13 years old,” he began. “As a kid I would watch ships on Thames going out to sea and planes leaving Heathrow overhead. I would watch them and be like, ‘They are going on an adventure.'”
As soon as he was able he set off on one of these adventures of his own. He went out to sea with some kind of middle school group. He told me that was normal back then and cheap. The culture of going abroad is still strong in post-empire Britain, and there were these companies back then tasked with giving young people their first taste of life at sea.
“When you travel with a group you end up by yourself,” he said.
13 year old Will hopped on that boat and kept going. Not long after he enlisted in the British Navy, where he would spend the next 22 years. For the seven years after that he was a merchant marine. After 30 years at sea he just keep going, as a pension-packer bouncing around Southeast Asia, living off of the thousand pounds per month or so his government sends him.
“I was never one for sticking with my people,” he said with a wry smile.”When we’d pull into shore nobody would really want to leave the ship. So I would take off by myself and meet the people.”
Will continuously talked about how beautiful the world is and the people in it. He told stories of hanging out with monkeys — who he called his friends — in the forests of Thailand, tales of having dinner with consulars, attending the weddings of a mafia boss, and, of course, the requisite tales about the ladies one meets when traveling down more hedonistic roads.
“I arranged my marriage contract so that I’m only married when I’m within a 50 mile radius of Portsmith!”
The one time he went ashore with his fellow sailors was in Malta. They started a brawl.
“I will never go ashore with my own company again,” he said with a laugh.
A riverboat full of tourists broke his silence. He suddenly broke into a big smile, stood up, and began manically waving his hook at them.
Some travelers are sailors but very few sailors are travelers. We often get this confused in our narratives of travel. The Herman Melvilles — the people who used the profession of sailor as a device to see the world — have always been rare. Sailors seldom ever see more than shorelines, and the profession is, and seemingly has always been, rather boring. But every once in a while someone like the beat up, battered old traveler sitting next to me would use those giant ships and monthly chits to proper use — just like they do in the storybooks.
Will looked out over the river, took a slug of beer.
“When you travel with a group you end up by yourself,” he said.
A riverboat full of tourists broke his silence. He suddenly broke into a big smile, stood up, and began manically waving his hook at them. The eyes of 20 Chinese tourists widened. In slack-jawed shock they slowly floated by silently, not a single one had the gumption to even snap a photo of the mad man on shore. Will loved it. He laughed loudly and plunged back down in his seat and took another slug of beer. Every time another tourist boat came he repeated the act to similar results: a wave of the hook –> mortified faces = one happy pirate.
There are people who say that they strive to use their bodies up before they croak. They often boast, “When I’m done with this body there isn’t going to be anything left to it.” But few actually display the proper follow-through — they die with parts in-tact after living long, dull, ordinary lives. Not Will. This guy ran his body through the proverbial shredder of life — experiencing, learning, and losing limbs along the way to prove it.
“I have 96 stitches on my face from going through windshield.”
“I had my nose broken 12 times.”
“I’m missing these two teeth from opening bottles of beer.”
“How did you lose your arm?” I asked the question.
Will wasn’t ashamed of his missing limb. In fact, he seem to revel in it.
He then told me the story of getting into a fight in Thailand with some guy who was banging his girl. He said he beat him up, ran away, jumped over a fence by some railroad tracks to hide from the cops who were chasing him, and then he woke up in the hospital tied to a bed with a gaping hole in his left forearm.
After jumping over the fence he passed out by the railroad tracks and a cobra spit flesh melting venom down his body which ate holes in his forearm, torso, and thigh. The subsequent infection was resistant to antibiotics and his arm had to be amputated.
It seemed unlikely. However, when he rolled up his shorts and showed me a thigh that had a chunk of flesh eaten out of it and rapped his knuckles against the side of his chest and it sounded like plastic, I began thinking … maybe …
But later on he told me another story about how he may have got the infection that led to the amputation of his arm from tick bites when hanging out with his monkey friends and it became unclear if he really didn’t know how he lost his arm or if he still hadn’t come up with the best story to tell people.
Whatever the case, Will wasn’t ashamed of his missing limb. In fact, he seem to revel in it. He told a story about punching a Korean guy in the face with his nub. He continued waving the hook in the direction of tourists riding by in boats.
I asked him why he went for a hook instead of a more hand-like prosthetic. He said the hook did everything he needed it to and that he tried some other types but they were too complicated. But I think he also liked the reaction the hook got. He admitted that he painted the Santa Claus on it solely to lure people over to start a conversation. You honestly couldn’t look at this guy with his hook and not be astonished. It was something out of a book, which probably could be said of Will Travel in general.
“It’s a good conversation starter,” he said with a laugh.
“Is Will Travel your real name?” I asked.
He said it was but then laughed like he did after he told the story of how he lost his arm.
“It’s like when people say, ‘Have car, will travel!'”
Will said that he would be around Melaka for the next week, and I assumed that I would see him down at the bars on a nightly basis until he departed. But nobody ever saw him again.