28 Mar 2010

Tahir Shah

The book I'm reading now - Tahir Shah's Trail of Feathers - In search of the Birdmen  of Peru is about the author's quest for a tribe in Peru who had flown even before the invention of airplanes. It is a hilarious book, full of appalling and sometimes horrible adventures yet his story telling is such that the moment he started the journey, you are hooked. He takes us from a cahnce meeting in the British Museum through France and from France to Peru where his quest actually began. His entertaining style of narration makes us forget that this is a serious book and his quest well researched. Like his other books - In Search of  King Solomon's Mines , The Caliph's HOuse - Birdmen is thoroughly enjoyable. He has a taste for the weird and bizarre but it is this very weirdness which gives the book a rich and fantastic journey.

This is the fourth of Tahir's books that I've read and like the others its a delightful and enjoyable read. Reading it I often break into spontaneous laughter at some of the adventures he went through. The one I most enjoyed though is still The Caliph's House, which is about him buying and renovating a house in Morrocco. Like the others it is full of humour, often very dry British style humour. From jinns and lazy contractors who take their time to renovate his house, Tahir Shah tells us of a Morrocco which is not known to outsiders.

Shasha's apartment

We've been slowly renovating Shasha's apartment in Klang Lama. Now the kitchen cabinets are complete - its an ivory sort of colour or off white, with soft closing drawers (they close themselves) and quite simple really, which was what she wanted. The light fixtures too have all been installed. Yesterday we put in the oven and bought her washing machine. Next on the list are the bathrooms. I will be going to the Home and Living Exhibition next week to check out the bathroom fittings - she wanted white cabinets too for the bathroom. I don't understand why our housing developers always build really tiny bathrooms - I sure wouldn't mind losing a little bit of space from the rooms just so we could have a bigger bathroom. And the places they put the toilets - actually according to Steven the contractor who is renovating our apartment, if they build the toilets seats properly they could have more space in the bathroom. As it is now it's so difficult to put in the shower stall.

I like the view of this apartment - it faces the river so there's a lot of green opposite. Ours at Melati has the Petronas Twin Tower view which is good too, especially on Merdeka Day (Malaysia's Independence day) when we can see the fireworks displays on all sides. Sometimes at night if the air quality is good we can see the Twin towers very clearly - all bright and sparkly like a pair of diamonds, shining in the dark. The lights from the other buildings beside it complement the Twin Towers' - most of them use coloured lights - bluish green, red, yellow and so on so it makes a beautiful panaroma - the city from a distance. Since our apartment is on the 12th floor we can get a fairly good view of the surrounding areas.

But the best view of all is from our old Desa View apartment - the hills of Melawati in the distance, with the craggy limestone hills that ring the eastern side of Kuala Lumpur. Every time I see it, I feel this tug in my heart - its that beautiful. Lush green vegetation spreads all over the lower part of the hills and then the whitish grey limestone escarpment rises over the vast jungles below them.  The limestone cliffs sometimes reminds me of that place we went to in King's Canyon, California  - Half Dome. Like that mountain, these cliffs look like they've been halved too. Its a pity that developers are so greedy and uncaring - if they left the hills alone, none of the natural disasters that occur here during the rainy season would happen (landslides for one) and nature enthusiasts like me could have a wonderful time admiring God's green earth.

Talking of God's green Earth, last night was Earth Hour - from 8.30 pm to 9.30pm local time. Did you switch off your lights?

20 Mar 2010

My grand daughter, Sophia Meiyin

I miss that girl , I really do even if she sometimes think of me more as the stranger whose house they visit sometimes. Just reading about her going to independent play group in Poh Lin's blog bring home the feeling that our grand daughter is so far way and growing up. Now she's going to play school, soon she'll be in kindergarten... and one day we'll be surprised that she has grown up. I worry that she may not know us - and not love us perhaps.
Reading about her antics I wish we can just go over to Singapore and visit them. How she must have grown now. I love how she plays with her toys and talk to them as if they are real people. I suppose to an imaginative child like her, Totoro the grey soft toy, is real. She talks to Totoro and plays with him, feeds him, scolds him and nags him. Her speech if you really listen is very adult, with all the nuances of adult speech. The things she says surprises me - she is so clever and knowledgeable. At 2 years and 7 months she can tell the difference between a plant and a flower, a plane and a helicopter ( just from the sounds each makes). Sigh... we really need to make time from our busy schedule and pay them a visit - reading about her antics on my daughter in law's blog is not the same as watching her antics and being part of them.

the quiet that is Malacca

As I sit at the computer I listen to the music of the wind chimes on my verandah, feel the soft breeze on my cheeks and hair and hear the singing of the birds in my garden. Yes, you know it - I'm back where my heart is - Malacca. The exhaust fumes of Kuala Lumpur, the screeching tyres and horns of cars is a distant memory (though not so distant since I have to go back tomorrow). Here the only sounds are the sweet chirping of the birds, the soft sigh of the wind as it blows through the bamboo in the yard and the musical chimes of the angklung wind chime. (An angklung is a wind chime made of bamboo pipes and they create music as the wind brushes through the pipes). My house in Batu Berendam may not be out in the hills but the peace and tranquillity that we get there is the same. There are so are many species of birds as there are lots of fruit trees - mangoes, sweet guava and also papaya and these fruits welcome birds as they are soft skinned and sweet. Just listen to the quiet and in it one can hear the many sounds of the different bird species - jays, magpies, doves, mynahs and sparrows.  Once sitting quietly at the verandah I saw a kingfisher drinking in my fish pond. And Norlee my neighbour said it even caught one of the fishes in its beak and flew off, dinner or lunch in hand (or beak maybe).
In fact the garden at Batu Berendam (it means submerged stone) is a veritable bird watcher's paradise! I'm no bird watcher, hence dont know the names of many of these birds, but there are yellow feathered birds flitting through the bamboo, fat brown sparrows, elegant looking doves walking in pairs and the blue jays. Sometimes one can even see far in the skies a lonely raptor or hawk winging it.

I look down at the garden and smile at the hibiscus, 'fluttering and dancing in the breeze' to borrow a quote from Wordsworth. From the back garden I can hear the soft muted sound of rushing water as the water from my small waterfall flows over the mossy rocks. Two spirited sparrows squabble over a piece of bread, chirping madly at each other. Far away, over in the neighbour's yard I can hear the soft laughter of some children as they play in their family pool. It's all so lyrical it makes me want to break into song! How lovely to be home and get refreshed - how lovely to come back once in a while and forget all that noise and heat, away from the hustle and bustle and away from the madding crowd.

15 Mar 2010

I was talking with some students today and the subject somehow or rather turned to kampongs. I can't remember now what brought us to talk about kampongs, or villages. They asked me where was my 'kampong and I said proudly, "Malacca,of course." There were a few enthusiastic answers from them - "I'm from Malacca too!" "Me too," and so on. That brought us to the subject of being from a kampong - in my days one of the first question we'd ask a newcomer would be, "Where is your kampong?" Which is equivalent to asking a person where he is from.
Today I think if you were to ask that question, the person would turn at us and stare almost insulted, "I'm not from a kampong!" I think that somehow that feeling of being from a kampong has been chiselled away by modernity and the urban life. More and more people today are born and bred in cities whereas in the past, in the 60s and 70s, it would have been a perfectly safe question to ask. My students nevertheless understand me when I say my kampong is Malacca. Not that you come from a village - Malacca is as modern and as urban as any city, though micro in size, and calmer in attitude.
Whatever we may say though about living in cities, many Malaysians still enjoy  to "balik kampong". Literally it means going back to the village and come holiday time, there'll be thousands of cars on the road - all bound for that 'kampong'. The strange thing is that at one time the ones who actually do have a kampong are the Malays. Today everyone it seems have to 'balik kampong', notwithstanding he or she has a kampong or not. The idea of going home is the most important one - going home to one's parents, to the heart and soul of the person. When we lose our kampong, we lose our heart and soul - that very thing that moves us and makes us who we are.
My kampong, Banda Kaba, in the heart of Malacca Town, is not really a kampong. When I was growing up it probably was - but we still had piped water and electricity. There were fruit trees (mainly mangoes because nothing else would grow in that acidic soil) and lots of trees around our houses. Our parents even grew our own vegetables, though not very successfully.

So where is your kampong? Or do you belong to one of those people who no longer have a kampong?

13 Mar 2010

spring cleaning the store room

Me at 15 years, with my mum and aunt
 After months of saying "I'll clean the store room," today Yatie and I finally decided to do just that! We've got boxes of papers from my teaching days, Repin's lecturing days (from the 90s!!) and piles of old cds, tapes and even floppy discs. Hmm... what do I do with the floppy discs that are no longer used now? In the 90s I remember I threw out a box of old records - LPs from the age of the turntable. And when my daughter found out that I just threw out all the old records of Elvis, the Beatles, Johnny Tillotson and so on she was aghast! "You threw them away?"she shouted, shocked. "They'd fetch thousands on ebay now!" Oh well who knew there would be ebay 10 years on? And we needed the space then.
                Among the papers and old books I found some old photographs - those of me from my school days and looking at the photos made me so nostalgic for "those days of cola and pop corn". There was one which was really old - I must have been about 15 then, sitting on the steps of my house with my mum and two younger siblings. Life semed so simple then - and yet I remember grumbling often whenever mum asked me to  help her.
 After a back breaking two hours, we finally cleaned up the store room to enable us to store some more things! And I think the recycle man will have a gala time collecting things for recycling tomorrow.

12 Mar 2010


Back to Malacca for a short weekend. Since I'm not teaching on Friday, I decided to beat the jam and left early on Friday morning, after sending Shasha to work. By 11.30am I'm already back in Batu Berendam and after parking the car, its straight away to my garden. A quick survey tells me the roses are still alive as are the orchids, but the ferns are not doing too well. A few pots have actually dried, and even my impatiens are wilting. Its been a really hot month for us humans, so it must really be extremely hot for the greenies. I quickly watered everyone - even the big, nuisance of a clump of bamboo, though they dont really need the moisture. Bamboos are quite hardy plants and can live a long time during a dry spell, unlike my precious ferns who need to be watered at least twice a day!

And wonder of wonders - my guava has budded! Lots of tiny round greenish white buds sprouting in between the leaves. We've had the guava only about a year - shorter than the longan and yet its already budding! I feel all my efforts are not in vain.

7 Mar 2010

trip to Cameron Highlands

Late on Friday evening we drove up to the Cameron Highlands, which wasn't really a good idea because traffic was bad, it being a Friday. From KL right up to Tanjung Malim it was practically a crawl and only eased slightly after Tanjung Malim, by which time it was already dark. A lot of KL people travel out of the city every weekend so that means crowded highways usually, especially if its the end of the month too. I'm just so happy that this wasn't a long weekend. Anyway by the time we arrived at the exit for Cameron Highlands it was already 10.00pm. The Simpang Pulai exit is bigger  than the Tapah road exit so at first it was ok but we missed the turning and only realised it after a bit. We arrived at the hotel late at night - around 11.45pm to be exact. I had forgotten that the Simpang Pulai way meant we were coming to Cameron HIghlands from the top, that is Kampung Raja first and then Brinchang. Luckily our hotel was in Brinchang so that was all right. The weather was lovely and cool, especially after the heat of Kuala Lumpur. It must have been around  20 degrees celsus, as compared to the scorching 39 degrees back home.

Strawberry farm in Cameron HIghlands
The next morning was a beautifully cool day, with the sun shining brightly in a blue sky. The temperature was a bit up as compared to last night but still definitely cooler than KL. After a simple breakfast, we decided to drive up to Kea Farm, the Farmer's Market and look at the vegetables and flowers. I love doing that here - the flowers especially are brilliant. The roses, lillies, hydrangeas, camellias and impatiens are just too beautiful to resist. But resist them I did - after years of failure I know for sure they just wont grow as well down in the lowlands. The farmers of course refuse to tell you the truth  - they'll say anything to make you buy their wares. We bought some vegetables - cauliflower, broccoli and peas are so cheap you wouldn't believe it. At RM5 and RM2  per pound bag we'd just buy anything, even chillies. After an hour of admiring this and that flower, taking pictures, and ending up buying 3 types of orchids, we decided to leave the Farmer's Market and go down towards Tanah Rata. Here too we looked around the shops but nothing much had changed. There are more hotels and inns as well as other government buildings but everything else remained the same.

Brinchang though had really grown since I last saw it. From being just a row of shops with one or two hotels, it is now a bustling little town with a lot more shops - mostly restaurants catered to the tourist trade and definitely a lot more hotels coming up. In fact one large hotel was being built directly opposite the hotel we're staying at - Star City Hotel.

                                                      One of the typically English cottages in the highlands
There was one unique place though - The Time Tunnel. It's a museum set up privately by a local man, a Mr See. For history buffs like us, it was a really fascinating place. He had collected pictures, maps, furniture, even cars and bikes of the 1950s and other old memorabilia and has now presented them in a museum to show the Cameron Highlands from the time it was first started as a hill station for the British plantation owners until today. He even managed to get pictures of the original founder of the Highlands - a Mr William Cameron from Scotland, a British surveyor with the then British administration. Mr Cameron, a surveyor with the Land Office in 1885 was asked to survey the mountainous central region  and came across this "beautiful plateau" about 5900 feet above sea level. He sent his report to Hugh Low, the resident of Perak at that time, and praised it highly for its cool climate and suitability as a hill station, that the government   decided to take a look at it too. They made a small though winding path up the mountain and eventually found the plateau discovered by William Cameron. This however only happened much later, in the early 20th century.  But the first official station wasonly built by the British government in late 1925. A government resthouse was built to accomodate British officers who wanted to escape the heat of the lowlands. It had about 8 rooms, a cook , a gardener and a caretaker to look after it. Soon the place became a favourite retreat for the many British officers working in Malaya and a number of them decided to build their holiday bungalows here - away from the humid tropical heat. What was more exciting for them was that they could grow their favourite English vegetables - carrots, potatoes, cauliflower and broccoli and peas and even strawberries and raspberries. Soon the government of the time decided to apportion land - for residential areas, farmland and  also for administrative purposes. By the early 40s and 50s, there was a small township there  and a proper macadamised road. The army had also set up a camp in Tanah Rata, which literally means "flat land" amidst the mountainous terrain. The British enjoyed going there for their holidays - they even set up a riding range. The weather reminded them so much of "home" and today, the bungalows that they used to live in remains as a reminder of the colonial era. Many of them retains the unique English flavour of the English country cottage and even some "Tudor" homes, the most famous of which is "Ye Olde Smokehouse", an inn built by a Mr Foster. Many of the British officers even decided to set up home permanently and still remain in Malaysia as citizens of Malaysia.

A trip to Cameron Highlands would not be considered complete without visiting one of its many tea plantations. I love the tea plantations not just because of the wonderful scenery - vistas of green rolling hills, covered by the tea bushes - but also because of the peace and tranquillity. One can sit in the one of the tea shops, drink a cup of tea and partake of English scones, with strawberries and cream, and imagine that you are back in the colonial era doing just that! The first tea plantation was started by an Englishman and till today its one of the largest tea plantations in Malaysia, ie Boh Plantations.

5 Mar 2010

Vegetarian curry

Thank goodness it rained today. At least it's taking some of the heat away. On other matters Yatie and I are experimenting with a new recipe - I found it in Woman and Home Journal and its a vegetarian curry.

The ingredients are:       Cauliflower (cut into small florets)
                                    small potatoes (2 or 3 cut into small pieces)
                                    2 medium sized  tomatoes  cut
                                     a bunch of  fresh curry leaves
                                     a teaspoonful cumin powder
                                     one teaspoonful curry powder
                                    a teaspoonful of safron powder
                                     one teaspoonful of mustard seeds
                                     half cup water
                                   4-5 shallots sliced
                                    i large onion sliced
                                   pinch of salt to taste

First fry the sliced shallots in a wok. As it is browning stir in the large onions, as well as the mustard seeds. Stir quickly to prevent burning. Add the cumin and safron powder and  water. Stir quickly. Put in the cauliflower and potatoes. Let cook for 5 minutes. Add pinch of salt and if needed a bit of sugar. Finally put in the tomatoes and stir until cooked. Serve hot with steamed rice.

4 Mar 2010


I went through a few blogs today - some that I am following and others too, and I find that people are really wonderful. Wherever we are, whether in New Zealand, Australia or the US, there are generous and kind people who help others and always willing to share, whether it is advice or skills. I have always marvelled at this quirk of human nature - it's what makes us humans - humane. Last night I watched the earthquake survivors in Chile and thought about the looting and shooting that's going on in some of the areas, and thought that maybe we humans deserve to be tested in that way. But then again I see wonderful acts of mercy and charity, not just for the people in Chile, but also in Haiti and thought again - no, no one deserves to be tested in that way. But I can't help thinking about the many natural diasasters that keep coming - every year there is one or two that takes a heavy toll on human lives and I wonder. What have we done to nature to make it so mad? Or rather what have we NOT done?

And this brought me to what have been said by many of our poets - even as far back as the 19th century when Wordsworth said -
"The world is too much with us; late and soon,
  Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
   Little we see in nature that is ours;
   We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This scene that bares our bosom to the moon;
The wind that is howling at all hours,
and are up gathered like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune,
It moves us not."

Man is out of tune with nature - all that polluting, destruction of trees and animals, wanton killings of wild creatures - "it moves us not" and because of this I feel Nature is now rising against us with terrible hurricanes, earthquakes, global warming and so on.
Yesterday one of my students gave a beautiful presentation that almost moved me to tears - it was only the thought of crying in front of a crowd of girls that prevented me from giving in to my emotions. She was teaching Cecil Rajendra's poem - Death of a rainforest  and used Michael Jackson's Earth song  as an introduction and it was really efective. Cecil Rajendra, one of Malaysia's poets says it all in his poem "Death of a Rainforest" and the feelings of pain, helplessness and frustration echo in many other works by other poets.