South East Asia :: March - June 1995

Subject: Coming up for air.
Date: March 12, 1995 11:47

9:20 O&H Kampung Huts, Sibu Island-Malaysia :: 11 MAR 95

The Malaysian population consists primarily of the indigenous Malays, immigrant Chinese, Muslims and Indians. The Chinese and Indians arrived after British colonizers realized the Malays weren't interested in working for them. I'll have to refer to my Lonely Planet but I seem to recall the Muslims being refugees from persecution elsewhere.

The laid-back Malays form the predominant population along the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia and the Islands of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is a fine, warm, calm stretch of water dotted with tropical volcanic Islands and coral reef. Here on Sibu we are about as far removed from KL as one might possibly get. The 'madding crowd' here today consists of 9 travelers, and the staff- anywhere from 3 to 8 people depending on who counts as 'staff' at any particular moment. So the day unfolds here in a quiet, peaceful manner that is just not possible in KL's hive of industrious activity.

13:20 O&H Kampung Huts, Sibu Island-Malaysia :: 11 MAR 95

I find myself at a loss for words. Something of an unusual condition for a guy with an opinion or observation concerning everything. I think it's probably a result of 'overloaded sensors', just too much information to effectively analyse or even comprehend. Perhaps a little stream-of-consciousness will break the dam?

Although you can buy coke, pepsi, sprite, etc., the locals seem to prefer soya drinks and fruit/vegetable juices. These you can buy for 50¢ RM from any of a number of street stands all over the city. It's served either in a glass, which you return when finished, or as 'bungkus' which is like a plastic baggie with one corner tied together with a loop of string and a straw stuck in the other corner. The most popular of these drinks appears to be a dark coke-coloured soya concoction with little bits of jellied soya floating in it. Me, I like either the coconut juice (with a long scoop of coconut meat floating inside-yum) or the 'fresh-squeezed' sugar-cane juice.

Katrin has a favourite corner where four of these juice stands are lined up together. She always goes to the second one from the left.

Every morning just off the sidewalk in an alley next to the Backpacker's Travellodge, a pair of barbers untie chairs, mirrors, tables, stands, aprons and tools-of-the-trade from a bundle hung up against the wall. All morning right through to lunch a steady stream of Chinese men have trims, cuts and shaves while the business of Chinatown scrambles on all around. Then the barbers pack up, leaving the entire shop contents tied to the alley wall with no more security than a couple square knots in some nylon rope.

Late in the afternoon the same alley will become table-space for a side-walk restaurant. It is literally a sidewalk restaurant as all the food, cooking utilities and tables begin on the sidewalk and spill over into the alley and street.

All over Chinatown this scene is repeated. Some shops and restaurants operate all-day every day. Others just a few hours in the morning, afternoon or evening. For some, morning begins at 5am and for others evening business closes just before midnight when the street-stall is dismantled and stored I'm not sure where. They appear as if from nowhere and that is where they disappear to again. I'm not sure who, if anyone, is responsible for organising all the details of this business.

Katrin and I have commented to each other several times that all of Chinatown makes its living from barter in the guise of monetary transactions. That is, the occupant of the neighbouring stall buys something from you and you use that money to buy something of theirs; you sell your chicken to a restaurateur and later that evening buy part of it back along with some noodles and black bean sauce.

There are no ties, or pinstripe suits in Chinatown; the women wear no navy blue suits and I've seen no pumps in all of Kuala Lumpur.

Restaurants provide the only places to sit down which means that taking a break from walking always requires the purchase of food or drink. There are no green-spaces or park benches except for the cricket oval, which sports both, and a couple other anomalies. So people spend long hours of free time during the day at indoor or outdoor restaurants, or the men at their stalls often lie down on some unused flat surface for an afternoon siesta. During the hottest hours of the day you will see inert bodies spread about the smooth, cool tiled surfaces at the Mosques. It is one of the few peaceful places in the city, broken only by the chatter and cameras of American, German and British tourists who enter by the busload and as if the Mosque was a zoo rather than a place of worship.

I don't know how many times a Malay, Indian or Muslim has come up to me with a camera asking 'Take picture?' The first time I assumed they wanted me to take a group photo for them but actually it was the white fella they wanted in the group. I assumed then that the main attraction was the Akubra and the 'Marlboro Man' image it must denote, but later, without the hat, I was asked again-and Katrin has been asked too.

I believe these white-fella-happy people are also tourists visiting KL, why else would they be walking about with a camera? Their English is limited and I speak none of their language so I may never know. Nonetheless, everyone has a great laugh as every possible permutation and combination of white-fella and group members is formed often resulting in 10 different photographs.

Katrin thought I was making all this up until a group of 10 Muslims stopped us on the Malacca Steps and for 15 minutes giggled, and re-arranged and giggled some more through photo after photo.

I'd like to be at the family gathering where these photo-albums are all handed around and see the response when two groups realize they've each a 'special picture' of the same white-guy in the cowboy hat.

The Chinese don't seem so interested in having their photo taken with a white-fella.

There's quite a nice botanical park near the National Mosque. Lots of open, hilly green space surrounding a small lake. While the Butterfly, Orchid and Bird parks within it are popular, only the spare tourist finds their way to the open section of park during the day. Apparently, the locals prefer it in the cool of the evening. As a matter of fact, they can't understand what those silly tourists are doing out in the midday sun anyway.

I've talked about the drabness of the city, but it's important to understand that this is a first impression, only. It's a response to a completely new variety of urban landscape; it's a sense impression based upon the most striking feature-dirt and grime. However, the Muslim, Indian and Malay women, and some of the men, wear clothes made of exceptionally bright, colourful fabrics. Indeed, western style clothes made with the same fabrics would be considered gauche, overly flamboyant.

And as with most urban environments, bright lights overcome not only the gloom of night but also the grime of day. The well-worn red lanterns strung over the china-town streets cast a thoroughly red gleam while the Christmas tree lites, all-but invisible through the day, flicker in greens, yellows and reds. Under tungsten lights, the hues of fabrics and coloured jars call from inside shops and stalls to the eye in the street. Away from Chinatown the roots dangling from fig tree crowns often have lights strung through them.

A city at night is always different than during the day. Some come alive after sunset while with others there is change but it is a difference without qualitative measure; Vancouver is no less magical during the day than at night, just differently so, but I prefer the nighttime Toronto with its loosened tie. About Kuala Lumpur I'm not certain what to think. One person, responding to my first posting from KL, referred to it as 'Intergalactic Disneyland.' And I suppose that's as fair an assessment as any I can come up with, except you're not likely to get run down by a hand trolley lugging 100 litters of soy milk, or even the more mundane scooter, in Disneyland. So what's better? Disneyland at night, or during the day?

If you hear "Hello! Hello!" that's the local's way of saying "Get out of the way, you foolish tourist, before I spill 50 litters of hot soup all over you!" Upon hearing this 'greeting' you're best advised to check out what heavy object may be trundling up from behind.

7:45 Omar's Backpackers-Mersing, Malaysia :: 12 MAR 95

Mersing is the jumping-off point to the Malaysian Islands of the South Chinese Sea. The port here is a small river draining into the ocean. The channel through the mudflats is passable only at about mid-tide, a fact that defines departure times to the Islands; you've gotta get out and back between mid-tide/high-tide/mid-tide. Today, because of a late tide, few slow boats will leave Mersing for the more distant Islands like Tioman and Sibu. Their return would be in the dark and without modern navigation equipment or radar-or even a compass-in these well-worn boats . . . It was just such a boat that brought us out to Sibu and back.

I love the ocean. I love to snorkel and dive in it. I love to watch breakers on the rocks. I can rummage through tidal pools for hours. Body surfing, body boarding and even the couple of times I tried surfing: all these are great fun. But I don't like the feeling of dried salt water on my skin and, generally, traveling anywhere by boat on the ocean is an ordeal. While I've never turned green and purged lunch over the side, instead I get hideous, spell-binding headaches if I'm not careful. What I mean by 'careful' is, stay above decks, always watch the horizon, remain relaxed and refrain from squinting and scrunching up your face-the muscular tension only exacerbates the headache, which usually lasts into the next day after the trip.

Anyway, I've obviously managed to survive the passage and we're back in Mersing. Here, it's like a smaller version of KL's Chinatown without the thronging multitudes. You have the stalls, the two-stroke motorcycles (and all the racket that goes with them) and that smell. What you also have here is the Muslim prayer songs joining the chorus of roosters at 5:30AM in a rousing advance welcome to sunrise. That the Muslim singers are electrically amplified is completely unfair to the roosters which eventually give up in disgust. Judging from the different voices, there are at least two mosques in Mersing, perhaps three. In KL, where the nearest mosque was several blocks away, we never heard the morning prayers. They were just swallowed up in the din of the city.

Omar's Backpacker's, like most budget accommodation here, resides on the upper floors above a shop. The advantage of this is that the strongest odors from street level only occasionally waft up to you, though it offers no protection whatsoever from the constant whine of motorcycles.

This thought crossed my mind while intently gazing at the horizon during the passage back from Sibu: In the West, a port near a set of resort Islands would be a natural place to moor your sailboat. There are none here. Only ancient, low-slung woodies that have probably been making the crossing to the Islands and back 29 days a month since the 1940s. I figure there's a couple of reasons for this. First, the pastime of sailing just isn't popular here. Second, the port's too shallow for a keeled boat to access. Since I saw no sailboats over the last few days the first seems the more significant of the two.

Another 'passage thought': If sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon, or standing face into the blowing sea-mist as breakers pound the rocks below, if these moments make the whole of humanity seem transient, miniscule and insignificant, then the teeming, thronging millions of Kuala Lumpur finish off the job rightly by making you, as an individual, absolutely meaningless within the larger social context.

Henry Rockefeller, once one of the world's richest men, was fond of giving away dimes to children. Bill Gates, if he liquidated all his assets, could give about $2.50 US to every man woman and child on the planet. If he liquidated half his assets and set up a trust he could probably give each 50¢ every year throughout their life. His $50 million US house cost him less than one percent of his total worth.

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --

It is not that the beautiful totality of the individual is amputated, repressed, altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated within it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies.
  graphical element Michel Foucault
Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison