This morning when we left the comfort and familiarity of Tahina to start our backpacking adventure in earnest, we had no idea what was in store for us. After sorting our final details on board Tahina, Frank and Karen dropped us off ashore in the dinghy, we said quick goodbyes, and we were off.

A ten-minute bus ride to the public ferry dock, followed by an uneventful hour-and-a-half-ish ferry ride landed us in Kuala Terengganu with six hours to kill before our flight to Kuala Lumpur. We couldn’t have ever predicted how we ended up spending it. Here’s the story of our day in KT:

At about 3pm, we disembark the ferry, strap on our packs, and then look at each other and say “now what?” A quick shrug of the shoulders and an “I dunno” heads us off toward what looks like town, or shopping, or “there’s people that way.” We need to find an ATM and a local cell phone SIM card with internet, so we wander, but things are looking suspiciously deserted.

This being the first time we have actually worn our new travel packs, I find mine not really adjusted properly, and after only a short walk from the ferry dock I stop to make some adjustments for what we think will be a long day carrying our packs. Adjusting the shoulder straps, while simple, requires access to the inside of the pack so I have to deconstruct things a bit to make it happen.

Just as I find a setting I am happy with and begin to put things back together, a young local Malay guy, who we soon come to know as Aye, pulls into the parking lot, drives up next to us, rolls down his window, and asks if we are lost. Lara and I giggle a bit because we are actually lost, but more on purpose than anything else, so we both answer, “no not really.” Aye then asks where we are from and without thinking I answer, “Florida, in the United States”—our typical answer for the past few years while living in New Zealand.

As the words come out of my mouth I realise something more vague, or even “New Zealand,” may have been a safer response given that Malaysia is primarily Islamic, and having only been on the ground for literally 30 minutes or less, we have no idea how Americans are perceived here. I wait for the reaction from the Aye, and it isn’t the least bit alarming. Next thing we know he’s offered us a ride to get a SIM card and to find an ATM. With mild trepidation, we accept. It turned out to be the best thing we would do all day.

I finished reassembling my pack, we loaded our gear in the car, and away we went. Aye spoke English, but not all that confidently, and we struggled to know if we were actually communicating. He mentioned something about his sister and asked if we minded if he picked her up. We said no we didn’t mind, and he began dialing his phone and talking in Malaysian to someone on the other end.

I must say Lara and I were both on high alert, wondering if we were going to regret accepting this ride as we drove back into what looked like an alleyway in a residential area, presumably to pick up his sister. Keep in mind that the local landscape didn’t reflect American or New Zealand expectations of suburbia, and here we were in a car with a guy (who though seemingly very nice) we could scarcely communicate with, driving into narrow alleys in an unfamiliar town that seemed strangely deserted. I just couldn’t help but wonder how this was going to end up.

We turned one final corner where there were some boys in the street, and just when I was going to get really concerned, they moved away and out from behind a few cars walked his sister Sarah, smiling and dressed in baju kurung (the traditional dress for celebrating Aidilfitri). She hopped into the car next to Lara, and after introductions we were off to find an ATM and a SIM card. Sarah speaks excellent English and, it quickly became very clear why her brother wanted to pick her up.

Sarah and her brother chatter away in Malay trying to work out the best place to get a SIM card and which bank to stop at for an ATM. Lara and I were totally unaware that nearly everything was closed due to Aidilfitri and shopping of any kind was going to be a serious challenge. We found the bank, then Sarah asked if we wanted to come and eat at their grandmother’s house. Lara and I said we didn’t want to impose, but Sarah insisted we were welcome so we accepted.

At grandma’s house we were greeted by Sarah and Aye’s extended family, including uncles, aunties, cousins, too many to remember. We were taken over to the dining table where traditional Terengganu celebration food was waiting, and Sarah fixed us each a plate of nasi gadang, a mouth-watering sticky rice dish topped with fish and ladles-full of a savoury/spicy sauce. It’s unique to Terengganu, so is a special treat for outsiders to experience.

Lara gets her plate first and sits at a chair that’s along the wall by the table, then I get mine and join her. We sit for a minute chatting with our hosts holding our food, because we don’t have utensils yet.

All of a sudden it dawns on one of Sarah’s aunts that we aren’t eating, and she realizes, “oh right, Americans don’t eat with their hands!” At about the same time, we figure out the reason we haven’t been given utensils is because we’re supposed to eat with our hands! Sarah’s aunt sends her off to fetch silverware, but we insist it isn’t necessary as we apologise for our ignorance. Sarah’s aunt explains a bit more and points out the water that’s available for hand washing. Lara jumps up to wash, then backtracks, understanding it’s for cleaning up after, everyone laughs and Lara and I dig in fingers first! Only after doing some reading later do we realize we should have washed before and after the meal. Silly Americans!

The food is OMG amazing, and we chat away while we eat. We also try lemang, a specially cooked kind of glutinous rice with coconut milk and topped with beef rendang, a spicy curry, or dried curry beef, and delicious peanut cookies.

We learn that it’s customary during Aidilfitri to have an open house and prepared food to share with family, friends, neighbours, and yes, even strangers, Muslim or not. Aidilfitri is a time to reach out, put aside differences, and celebrate (wiki link for details). After food, drink, and lots of questions back and forth, we sense it’s time to go, but our hosts insist that Aye and Sara take us to the airport some 40 minutes away. There is no refusing it seems, and we are very grateful for the ride. We ask for a quick photo on the way out and make for the airport. To top it all off, they even find us an open place to get a SIM card on the way. What a day!