I shook hands with my opponent across the chess board. Beams of early-afternoon sunlight broke through the roof of the Pokhara cafe where we were sitting.
My opponent grinned a toothy grin. He was dark-skinned, freckled, missing one of his front teeth, and had a big, bushy white beard. He wore a light scarf wrapped around his head. This was the Malaysian.
Fifty-one years old, professional itinerant, and damned good chess player.
He’d just taken four out of five games from me, smoking hash almost the entire time.
[this is a serial feature. Find the other installments here]
This was my second consecutive day coming here to play chess against the Malaysian. He had flagged me down off the street yesterday, seemingly at random, and invited me to play chess with him. I’d enjoyed the experience so much, that here I was, back for the second day in a row to learn a few lessons. He was a skilled player, and an even greater character.
In between turns, he didn’t peruse the board. Instead, he crocheted thoughtlessly in his lap. He appeared to have made most of a hat during the course of our matches. “I only play chess when I am high,” he told me in lightly accented English. “And when I am high, I need something to do with my hands.”
His crocheting reminded me of the hat Holly had made for me, the night before we parted ways in the Hong Kong airport. She, too, had needed something to do with her hands. She would be jealous of my experience here; smoking hash in a foreign cafe. She liked to smoke, and we hadn’t done it once on our travels. Now, without her, opportunities and adventures kept presenting themselves to me.
I yielded my seat at the chess board to the next challenger.
It was early afternoon, and by now a small crowd of disciples had gathered at the cafe. All of us, it became apparent, were there for one reason: to play chess with the Malaysian.
The cafe was filled with people here to see the Malaysian. It wasn’t his cafe—the owner puttered about and occasionally joined in the group for a laugh or a conversation—but in my mind, this was already the Malaysian’s kingdom. From his little table against the wall, he was holding court. The Spaniard, the Welshman, and I were all here because of the Malaysian. In our own, erratic ways, we orbited his star.
I stepped back from the board to let someone else play. Moving to an adjacent table, I opened my bag and pulled my computer out, hoping to write.
“That’s a really nice case,” the Spaniard said, his gaze resting on the Yanti’s raw leather messenger bag.
“Oh, thank you,” I said. “I bought it in Bali, Indonesia.” I handed it over to him. “Take a look. Handmade. I really like it. I bought it from the funniest woman,” I said with a chuckle.
He turned the bag over in his hands, examining the stitching, running his fingers over the soft inside bits.
“The leather is very high quality,” the Malaysian said absentmindedly, still focused on his crocheting.
“Oh you have seen it already?” the Spaniard asked. “Yes yes, I saw it yesterday,” the Malaysian said, finally sparing a glance up from his work. “Quite nice.”
“Have you seen his bag?” the Spaniard asked me.
I shook my head. “What bag?’
“Ahhhh!” the Malaysian’s eyes lit up. “I am a leather worker myself,” he said, setting aside the hat. “I live in India for four months of the year, so good leather is very easy to come by,” he said. “Cheap. Good quality. And I need something to do with my hands when I smoke.” He mimed taking a toke with one hand, while feeling around under the table for something with his other one.
“Aha!” he exclaimed, grabbing a hold of something.
He pulled out one of the most unique backpacks I’ve ever seen. It was huge: bigger than a student’s pack but smaller than a backpacker’s bag. The main compartment was made out of shiny, supple blue leather, one big panel. Several large pockets adorned the front and the back—hand sewn in different colors: a mead-colored tan, a bronzed yellow. All the stitching had been done with thin strips of dark brown leather, treated on one side and soft on the other, which created a pleasing visual effect as the thread wandered its way around the seams of the pack. Each strap was a different color, and a large insignia had been placed in the middle. It wasn’t beautiful in the classical sense, but I don’t think that’s what he was going for, anyways.
The pack was a perfect distillation of the Malaysian himself.
Functional, self-made, and unapologetic. The craftsmanship was exquisite. I wondered how long he must have been working with leather to be able to make something like that. “How long did this take you?” I asked.
“Maybe, three, four hundred hours?” he guessed. “It is very slow work, you know? I had to find the right leathers, wait until the right seasons, negotiate the prices. And as I said, when I work, I am almost always high!” He laughed. “It makes it go slower, sometimes.”
“But it is good to relax,” he added with a wink.