Memories of Kampong Bahru, Penang

Dinner time at Kampong Bahru, one of my dearest memories. All seven of us, gathered at our dining table with our parents. While we did full justice to the food my mother had prepared, my father, the English teacher, would talk to us about Shakespeare, a most remarkable story-teller, so he said. And he would regale us with Shakespeare’s tales of revenge and intrigue, jealousy, murderous kings and queens, and love and romance. And I would listen to him enthralled.

I remember going about reciting lines from his plays and sonnets. I’d approach my pretty cat Pekoe and ask her, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely….”

I’d startle the rabbits in the hutch with, “To be or not to be: that is the question.” Even the goats in the pen were not spared. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. And I thought they bleated in agreement!

I would dream about the gentlemen of Verona, the merchant who lived in Venice, and of the merry wives of Windsor, as I continued to be bewitched by this man who lived more than 400 years ago and told such remarkable tales. My love of Shakespeare increased with the years. That was one of my dear father’s greatest gifts to me.

On the day my father’s gleaming, black Morris 8, number plated P 3328 arrived, we were filled with a frenzy of excitement. As we rushed out of the house to examine it, I caught the smile on my mother’s face. She and my two sisters and I got in the car and we were soon off on a long, smooth ride to Penang Road. My father stopped at Kek Seng for our favourite ice-cream. It was decidedly our happiest day.

My mother loved our rides at night best, when her chores were done and she could relax and enjoy the bright lights of George Town. And cream puffs at the Tip-Top Cafe at Pulau Tikus.

On other nights we would dine at our preferred restaurants, Meera and Hameedia, on Campbell Road. They served great Indian bread, “roti canai”, and “murtabak”, bursting with beef and onion.

On bright, moonlit nights, well after dinner was over, my mother would spread a large “tikar” or mat on our front lawn. There we would all gather to chat and laugh and listen as my brother Mustapha strummed his guitar. And we would munch on rambutans, mangosteens and guavas, all grown in our backyard. But there was nothing to match the durian. When it was in season, my father would buy several of the fruit, cut them open, deftly avoiding their vicious thorns, and we would have a feast. We’d dig our fingers in and pull out sections of the fruit. What bliss to sink our teeth into its creamy flesh.

After I was done, I’d snuggle up to my mother and place my head on her lap. And when she gently rubbed my forehead and then moved her fingers to caress my head, I could feel her sweet love flowing into me and I would be filled with a wondrous contentment.

For many years after she’d passed on, I was stricken with grief whenever I heard, “Waktu Terang Bulan” (On a Moonlit Night), one of the most beautiful Malay songs of all time. It may be loosely translated thus:

When the full moon shines brightly
In a sky filled with a thousand stars
I will see my darling mother’s face
And remember how dearly she loved me
Then my eyes would brim over with tears
And my heart filled with a deep sadness……

A body in the well

Samad was seven when his mother decided he was ready to learn how to read the Quran. She enrolled him at the Surau, a place for prayer and worship, near their house in the village of Padang Sebang in Melaka.

Each day after school was over, Samad and his friends would amble along to the Surau, about a kilometer away from his house. To his little feet it felt very far away. Next to the Surau was a well. Before entering the Surau, they would lower a pail tied with a string into the well to scoop water to wash their hands and feet.

One day they saw a crowd of people at the well talking and gesturing excitedly. They peeped into it and recoiled in terror. Two feet with very white soles protruded out of the water.

Who was in the well? How did he get in there? Did he jump in? Did someone push him in? Was there a fight? These and other questions raced through their minds but remained unanswered. No ablutions were had that day. No Quran class either.

I was curious to find out if the Surau was still there. When I followed Samad on his “trip down memory lane”, the Surau was our first stop. I was sad to see its broken walls and roof. It had been long neglected and the area around it was overgrown with plants. The well with its gruesome past was nowhere to be seen.

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The original wooden house where Samad lived with his mother and step-father was also gone. In its place was a bright brick house belonging to his sister Sarah who lives in Jakarta. She uses it during her infrequent visits to Padang Sebang.

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As we drove to the village of Gadek, about seven kilometers away, Samad recalled the days he’d pedaled curry puffs made by his mother. They were delicious, he tells me. He would hit the road at six in the morning during weekends and school holidays and trudge seven kilometers all the way to Gadek. By mid-morning his basket of 50 curry puffs would be empty.

His reward was two curry puffs per day but most days he would go hungry and sell them too. Soon he’d saved enough money to buy sweets from the village grocer at “bulk” price. He would pack them in little cellophane packets and sell them to his classmates. His secret enterprise grew steadily. But in his enthusiasm to improve his profit margin, the young entrepreneur took an uncalculated risk.

He stumbled upon some money in a kitchen drawer, “borrowed” ten dollars and purchased a big bottle of sweets. Before he was able to sell them and return the money, his mother discovered her loss, turned on her prime suspect, and marched him to his grandfather’s house located along Padang Sebang’s main road.

His grandfather was a disciplinarian. He inflicted several strokes of the cane on the little “thief”, sat him on a bench beneath the guava tree in front of his house, tied him to it and left him there for several hours. It was not difficult for me to feel poor Samad’s pain and humiliation.

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We found no trace of his grandfather’s house nor of his prized guava tree. But the signboard of his first school, Sekolah Kebangsaan Padang Sebang was there, and some distance behind it, the school itself which had been rebuilt. (The secondary school he attended, the MHS or Melaka High School, the second oldest school in Malaysia, was just as he remembered it. Malaysia’s oldest school is the Penang Free School).

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As we continued our leisurely drive around the area, Samad recalled the night he’d slept on the road with his friend Ariffin after their night prayers at the Surau. They were rudely awakened by the honking and bright lights of an approaching car which, thankfully, stopped just before reaching them. Hearts thumping, they leapt to the side of the road.

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The new District Office in Padang Sebang. Samad’s step-father worked in the old building.

There was gentle, smiling Hassan, son of a wealthy Padang Sebang businessman, who took every opportunity he had to shower Samad and his friends with sweets, cakes and cookies. Hassan’s younger brother Ahmad was equally generous.

When Samad turned ten, his years in Padang Sebang came to an abrupt end with the passing of his beloved mother. He left for faraway Jasin to start a new life with his father and a new family.

Gaya Island

During my first visit to Gaya Island, which lies off Borneo in South East Asia, I had a brief, exhilarating encounter with the famed Borneo rain forest. The forest is said to be 130 million years old. Our guide rattled off other staggering numbers. Borneo, third largest island in the world, has 15,000 species of flowering plants, 3,000 species of trees, and many hundred species of birds and mammals. What we saw on Gaya was but a tiny slice of this stupendously rich forest.

To get to Gaya we flew to KK or Kota Kinabalu, capital of the Malaysian State of Sabah. (Is Borneo the only island in the world that belongs to three countries – Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei?)

Our destination was YTL’s 5-star Gaya Island Resort or GIR. We were met on arrival, had our bags loaded onto a van, and twenty minutes later, arrived at GIR’s Reception Lounge at Sutera Harbour.

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And that was when Molly discovered she had someone else’s bag in her possession. The black bag resembled hers exactly, she said, but the tag, when we examined it, showed a stranger’s name scribbled in small letters. Molly was crestfallen, but the girl in charge of Reception instantly offered to drive her and Azzat, her husband, back to the airport.

As we sat sipping our welcome drinks, Molly and her misplaced bag on our minds, the transfer speedboat arrived. We were advised to head for the Resort without her and Azzat.

We sped along clear blue waters, KK town further and further behind us, passing many rows of floating huts belonging to the local fishermen. Fifteen minutes later we landed at the jetty, walked up the long wooden ramp and entered the Resort’s reception building, shaped like a Kadazan longhouse. Resort Manager, Kirinjit and his staff warmly welcomed us. We were, after all, friends of Mrs J, organizer of our trip. She and her husband had been frequent guests at the Resort. Also Kirinjit remembered we’d stayed at YTL’s Pangkor Island Resort when he was Manager there.

When Molly arrived, bag retrieved, a smile on her face, we sat down to a big lunch before checking into our chalets.

GIR, like other YTL Resorts, is luxuriously appointed and includes all the expected amenities, and more. The reception, dining and lounge areas are spacious and well laid out. A spiral staircase leads to the Fisherman’s Cove. We dined there by candlelight on our last night while the resident artiste sang, “Fly Me To The Moon”, “You’re Just Too Good To Be True”, and our other favourites of the 60’s. “Baby” Elaine, Regina’s daughter, hummed along with the singer. I was surprised she knew the songs until she admitted to being an ardent fan of Tony Bennett, the 80-something singer. So we have that in common, but certainly not diving, the passion that had brought her to Gaya.

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GIR’s 100 or so luxury chalets are built on terraced hill slopes and nestle among lush green trees. Our balcony offered a clear view of the sparkling sea below. We opened our chalet door and faced a huge white bed strewn with fragrant rose petals. Two white swans fashioned out of bath towels rested against the pillows. A long corridor flanked by a table on one side and cupboards on the other, connected the bedroom with the Bali-style bathroom.

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I asked myself what had lured me to this island resort? I was essentially a land lubber, unlike Samad who swims laps in the Tropicana Olympic size pool. Molly and Azzat are great swimmers too. They have a pool in their home. I can’t swim, snorkel or dive. So how was I going to spend my time here? However, when we were taken to the lovely private beach at Tavajun Bay after lunch on our first day, while the others swam or snorkeled, I surprised myself by gingerly taking a little dip in the sea.

After getting out of the water, we lounged about and watched a wild boar and her four baby boars who had come for a visit. Obviously looking for food. But what considerably saddened me was to see a very sick turtle that had almost choked on the plastic bags it had consumed. It lay weakly in the water tank at the Bay’s Marine Rescue Centre, hardly able to move. It was being carefully nursed by the people at the Centre and had recently started to eat small amounts of food.

The high point of the trip for me was decidedly following Justin Juhun, resident naturalist, on the Nature Trail. What bliss to fill my lungs with the clean, fresh, fragrant air of the forest! And to be in close, personal contact with so many different kinds of vines, herbs and trees. (I saw my first young ebony tree, its thin, black trunk growing very straight and tall). And to marvel at the forest’s many treasures as they were revealed to us – a fabulous climbing vine, mushrooms of many shapes and shades, some so pale and delicate you immediately felt protective, a brilliant green lizard, a slithery black calamaria, stick insects, a docile green pit viper, and termite hills, big and little.

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Justin told me he’d spent many weeks slowly and carefully charting out the Nature Trail, taking enormous precaution not to tamper with, or destroy any precious plant, herb or tree, or animal or insect abode. He’d passed many nights alone in the forest, luxuriating, I have no doubt, in the slightest whisper, sound or movement he heard in the darkness.

He also told me about the injured owl he’d been caring for. Its wings were sadly broken.

We had a surprise lunch on our last day. Regina placed a special order of sea food and had the kitchen turn out aromatic fish soup, steaming siakap in soy sauce, succulent buttered prawns and delicately flavoured fried squid. That’s Regina for you, generous as always.

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All in all, I had to admit I’d had a great island holiday. I had thoroughly enjoyed the Nature Trail walk. It was fun watching the Kadazan dances at a beach party they put on for us. While my friends pampered themselves at the Resort’s Spa Village, I went for long walks on the beach. I did justice to all the good food we were served, particularly to the delicious molten lava desert which I couldn’t have enough of. I even enjoyed my brief dip in the sea.

As I left Gaya, however, my mind went back to the wild boar and her young foraging for food at Tavajun Bay. To the sick turtle with the plastic rubbish in its guts. And to the owl with the broken wings. But I took comfort in the thought that they were all safe and being cared for by tender, loving hands.

(Photographs by Samad Yahaya)

MINI SATAY PARTY

Begin forwarded message:

From: Samad Yahaya <samadyahaya>
Date: October 9, 2013, 6:13:28 PM GMT+08:00
To: marina_samad
Subject: MINI SATAY PARTY

Check out this video on YouTube:

Sent from my iPad

Clapham South, London, Revisited

REMEMBERING WESTBURY COURT

On September 27, 2013, three days after we touched down in London, Samad and I headed for Clapham South. From our hotel, the Berjaya Eden Park at Inverness Terrace, Bayswater, we took the Central Line underground at Queensway and changed at Tottenham Court Road for the Northern Line.

When the train pulled in at Clapham South, we exited the station and gazed upwards at the building that sat above it – Westbury Court, a large, five-storey apartment block with its familiar reddish-brown stripes. And my eyes welled up in tears. The memories came flooding back. I felt myself being pulled between past and present.

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I could clearly see apartment number 26, on the first floor, our home for four years in the late sixties. It was not spacious but met all our needs. The bedroom, next to the living-cum-dining room, had a TV parked at the foot of the bed. I slipped money into the kitchen coin box to operate the gas stove. On arctic winter nights it was a joy to soak in the long bath. We put our large balcony to good use only during the summer months.

Samad would huddle up close to the living room heater on cold winter nights, a blanket thrown over his legs, to pore over his books, the diligent Lincoln’s Inn Law student. He studied part-time while working at the BBC Far Eastern Services at Bush House on the Strand. India House, next to Bush House, had a great Indian restaurant, I remember!

I would be in the bedroom, reading, or, more likely, with my eyes glued to the TV. It was as if I couldn’t have enough of the remarkably entertaining BBC drama productions. I recall the series called “The Wednesday Play”. I remember thoroughly enjoying “Talking to a Stranger”, four plays in which four members of a family recounted the events of one weekend. The young Judi Dench excelled in the role of the daughter.

MALAYSIAN STUDENTS DEPARTMENT

Each morning I’d make my way to Marble Arch station and walk to the Malaysian Students Department (MSD) at 44 Bryanston Square. My job was to seek places at Colleges and Universities in the UK for the growing number of Malaysian students who wanted to study there. I was always filled with a deep sense of satisfaction when I managed to place them at the best universities.

My colleagues were Mustapha Ma, who kindly showed me the ropes, Wan Baharuddin, an elderly gentleman of imposing appearance and impeccable manners, who’d long made London his home, and young Ibrahim MZA Ariffin, who charmed his way to Angela’s heart. Angela worked in MSD’s Administration Department. They were married when Ibrahim relocated to Malaysia.

When I started working there, the Director was Samad Yim. Dato’ Wan Mansor replaced him after a couple of years. They were both very approachable and supportive of our efforts.

SATAY PARTY

I remember that Lina, Rahman and their kids, Mona and Raphil, occupied apartment 16, round the corner from us. Kaniz, Yunus and baby Ameen lived one floor above us. On other floors were our friends Elaine and Mow Lum, Farhad and Shahwar, and Gulshad and her husband, whose name escapes me.

How could I forget the satay party we had for Rahman and Yunus and their families, our place being too small to accommodate everyone we knew at Westbury Court.

Now satay required pressed rice cubes, easily come by today. But I had to improvise. I filled two clear, sealable plastic bags with very soft rice and kneaded the rice to smoothen it before laying the bags on a flat board and placing another board on it. I then plonked my heavy rice bin on top. After several hours I could produce very good looking rice cubes!

Samad hurried back from work and, before he could shed off his jacket and tie, helped me grind peanuts for the all-important satay sauce. No satay meal could be enjoyed without a good peanut sauce so I gave my all to producing the best sauce I could. My skewered and grilled beef and chicken turned out looking quite delectable, I thought. I sliced some cucumbers and onions and we were ready for our guests! I’d like to think our first satay party was a success. Everyone did justice to the food.

FLEET STREET

I vividly recall travelling all the way to distant Fleet Street late one night because Samad wanted to buy the first issue of the London Times as it rolled off the presses at about 4 o’clock in the morning. It would carry the final Bar-at-Law exam results, the results that would determine his future, Samad felt, rightly or not.

We got there well before 4am so decided to catch Stanley Kubrick’s newly released “2001: A Space Odyssey” at a nearby cinema at midnight. I was intrigued by the encounters between the humans and the black monoliths and asked Samad what he thought about them. And about HAL 9000, the computer that controlled the spaceship’s journey to Jupiter. While his future hung in the balance, mysterious black monoliths and journeys to Jupiter understandably held no interest for him.

We rushed to the Times printing office to find a slew of people already scrambling for the paper. Samad grabbed a copy, scanned it carefully, and gave me a huge smile, his face beaming with happiness. He’d made it! He was now a Barrister-at-Law. It had taken him close to four years.

All around us people whooped and cheered and hugged each other joyfully. The nearby pubs were soon filled with people celebrating their success in the exams. Apparently, the unlucky ones who didn’t make it also gravitated to the pubs, to drown their sorrows.

We were saddened to read in the Times, a day later, about the failed student who had leapt into the Thames to end it all.

MR AND MRS MUNDY

Amir was born at the South London Hospital for Women, located across the road from Westbury Court, two years after I arrived in London. Suddenly our lives changed. We were the proud parents of a very dear and precious little baby. (See Blog titled, “Baby Amir’s Diary” for more on Amir’s first two years).

When he was two months old I had to resume my work at MSD. Fortunately I found Mrs Mundy, a trained nurse, who was willing to look after him. She lived at Gaskarth Road, a short distance from us. She also looked after two-year-old David and Baby Anusha.

Every morning before going to work, I’d push Amir in his pram and leave him with Mrs Mundy. She loved the outdoors and never tired of taking Amir along with David and baby Anusha, to Clapham Common or to a playground near Poynders Road which had a little pond. Sometimes her ten-year-old son Adrian would go with them. Amir thrived during the years he was in Mrs Mundy’s care.

Just before Amir turned two, we left for home. But more than 40 years later, we had journeyed all the way back to Clapham South.

As we looked around us we saw that Westbury Court had weathered the years well, its reddish brown stripes still in place. But almost everything else had changed. Modern apartment blocks lined the main road. New shops and fancy restaurants had sprung up, among them a large Marks and Spencer Simply Food, Sainsbury, even an Internet cafe. We had delicious lamb briani for lunch at the Chatkara, an Indian restaurant that wasn’t there before.

The South London Hospital for Women was no more. In its place, a handsome new apartment block. But Clapham Common, opposite Westbury Court, where we had spent many happy times with baby Amir, was still there, as large, fresh and green as ever.

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We just had to see dear Mrs Mundy again. Would she remember us after all these years? When we rang the bell at 25 Gaskarth Road, a lady who certainly didn’t resemble Mrs Mundy, opened the door. It was Pushpa, their neighbour. They’d gone to the hospital but would be back momentarily, she assured us. We left the small gifts we’d brought, some wine, boxes of chocolates, biscuits and sandwiches, with Pusha, and left for lunch.

On our way back to Gaskarth Road we ran into the Mundys who were making their way home. They had just gotten off the bus.

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We were amazed! Although Mr Mundy had turned 85 and his wife 83, they looked just as we remembered them all those years ago. Mrs Mundy, wearing a pretty red dress and a pink cardigan, smiled radiantly and greeted us ever so warmly. Soft spoken Mr Mundy was a little shy as usual. A lot of hugging followed and then we walked back to their home together.

We installed ourselves comfortably in the living room and chatted about old times. Mrs Mundy’s hearing was slightly impaired and her memory was less than sharp. But she was as forceful, lively, chatty and warm as ever.

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Mr Mundy brought out a bunch of photographs of Mrs Mundy with the children she’d looked after for many years, to show us. Tucked among them was one he asked us to keep. It showed baby Amir sitting in his pram, nibbling on a slice of bread, probably, his hair blown by the wind, surrounded by Adrian and two other kids, one of whom could be David, with Mrs Mundy in charge, at Clapham Common.

It is a picture I will treasure along with my dearest memories of Westbury Court.

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Home Exchange

Making Preparations

Samad was surfing the Net one night when the words “HomeExchange” beckoned. Several days later he paid US99 for a one-year membership, shot pictures of our house and the surrounding golf course, and posted them on the site.

Within a month, people from England, Canada, Scotland, New Zealand and France offered to swap homes with us. We also had the choice of an apartment in New York.

We were drawn to a house in the village of Dambelin in France, near the Swiss border, and emailed Stephane Dumont, an Export Director, who lived there with his wife, Beatrix, and 8-year-old twin girls, Sydney and Kayleigh. We hit it off very quickly and on Samad’s birthday, July 23, 2009, we left for France.

For three months before that we frantically made preparations to receive our French family. Samad put together a very professional-looking manual containing a contact list of doctors, car mechanics, electricians and contractors, information on how to operate our household equipment, the location of hospitals, grocers, shopping malls and restaurants, and places of interest, near and far, complete with Google maps.

Elena, my live-in domestic helper, and I spent time decluttering. Our efforts yielded clothing and furniture which we sent to an orphanage. We built a store-room for things we wanted put away. Ann, of Frangipani Design, reupholstered our sofas and sewed black-out curtains for our bedroom, tablecloths for our new dining table and comforters to match new bedding for our room and the second bedroom.

Aris thought we’d gone slightly overboard!

Four days before we left I went to the bank to settle some bills. I parked the car, slung my handbag over my right shoulder, opened the door and was viciously attacked by a snatch thief on a motorcycle who sped off with my handbag. I was thrown out of my car and lay on the road in pain and shock, my left foot pinned beneath the tyre of an approaching car. I used all my strength to free it before its pock-marked driver emerged and helped me up. He claimed to be a member of the Selangor State Roving Police Unit, had seen the snatching and said he would track down the thief.

When Samad saw my bleeding knee and swollen foot, he took me to the nearest Emergency clinic where I was given an anti-tetanus shot, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medication. We made a police report before heading home.

That night I had dizzy spells and threw up my food. My doctor suggested a head scan. I spent a wretched night. Aggrieved, I wanted to cancel the trip. Aris suggested I go in a wheel-chair and recuperate in France. But, thankfully, my condition improved the following day and, slowly but surely, I began to mend.

Aris drove us to the airport and we got there just as a smiling Dumont and his lovely family arrived. So we were able to have a brief chat before Aris took them home.

I called Aris before we boarded and was delighted to learn our dear cat Pasha had taken to the twins and had purred most energetically.

Arrival in France

We spent a night in Zurich before boarding a train for the 2-hour journey to Dambelin, passing through peaceful countryside dotted with small villages. Laurent, Stephane’s friend and neighbour, met us at the station. Another smiling Frenchman, I thought. He drove us to Stephane’s house and before leaving, invited us to have dinner with him and his family.

We quickly made ourselves at home in Stephane’s comfortable house with its many flowering potted plants; we studied the pictures on the walls and looked with interest at his large collection of French music. Cows grazed in the nearby field. The peaceful and beautiful country setting made me want to quiet my mind, brew some hot tea, put my legs up, and just rest and relax.

But Samad suggested we took a walk.

Dambelin has one Town Hall, one restaurant, one car repair shop, an excellent bakery (the French love their bread I was told), and grocer. And many large, splendid green fields. We even discovered a place to deposit kitchen refuse for recycling.

The following day we jumped into the car and explored the nearby towns including Point de Roide and Montbeliard and sampled some delicious French cuisine.

Dinner with Laurent, his vivacious wife Pauline, and their three boys, Luc, Axel and Tom was a fun experience. While Laurent and his wife spoke English, the boys didn’t so we tried out our limited French on them, to their amusement! Each of them deserved a “well-behaved child” award, I thought, with their impeccable table manners. Before bidding them, “au revoir”, we exchanged email addresses so we could stay in touch.

Wind Turbines

Each morning I would rise, open the window and look out at the wind turbines on top of a hill some distance away. I was fascinated with the way they kept going round and round. We decided to drive to the area and we saw a whole long row of them. They stood tall and erect, like gigantic, white table fans, their slanted, pointy blades spinning and whirring continuously with the wind, generating electricity for the area. It was our first close encounter with wind turbines.

Peugeot Museum

We own a French car, a Peugeot 126CC, so we thought a visit to the Peugeot Museum at Souchaux near Montbeliard would prove interesting. We were amazed with what we saw.

The Museum, founded by the Peugeot family, opened in 1988 and is located across the road from the Company’s huge automobile plant. It is dedicated to the automotive history of one of the most fabulous stories of French industry. The exhibits begin with products over 100 years old – coffee-grinders, sewing machines, tools, radios, carriages, bicycles and motorcycles. The old cars, elegant and stylish, form the core of the collection. They are displayed in chronological order beginning with the first releases and going on to prototypes of the futuristic cars of tomorrow. We couldn’t help feeling a little proud to be a tiny part of this great history.

Colmar/Lion of Belfort

Some say that Colmar is the most beautiful city in the world. Indeed, we found the views there breathtaking. Probably that was what drove Malaysia’s company, Berjaya, to build a mini-Colmar at their Hill Resort in Pahang. It is a French-themed village with a hotel that boasts a distinctive design borrowed from the original Colmar.

Built at the confluence of two rivers, Colmar is an open-air museum. It attracts millions of tourists who come to see its House of Heads, an Italian renaissance guards’ house, the old Customs House and the Petite Venise quarter. Others are attracted by the house of sculptor Frederic Bartholdi, who created New York’s Statue of Liberty. Yet others come for the food and wine and the many delightful shops.

After spending a thoroughly enjoyable day at Colmar, we went to see Bartholdi’s famous sculpture, the Lion of Belfort. What a monumental piece of work it is! Made entirely of sandstone, the lion symbolizes the French resistance during the siege of Belfort by the Prussians.

I have no doubt that the citizens of Belfort feel they are favored by good fortune to have this strong and imposing beast watch over their city.

A Call

One morning I received an unexpected call from Malaysia. It was from the police station where I’d reported my loss. They had apparently arrested the snatch thief and recovered my handbag. Well done! I told them. I was filled with relief that my credit cards and other identification documents were safe although all my money had gone missing.

Return

English was not widely used in the parts of France we visited and we only spoke “un petit peu” French. But whenever we got lost, there were always people to show us the way. At supermarkets we had assistance with the items we needed. At restaurants people would help us translate the menu.

We were strangers in a foreign country, surrounded by strangers. But we felt at home. And safe.

Well disposed to attempt another exchange experience, we returned and soon, thereafter, agreed to swap homes with a family in Melbourne, Australia.

Voila!

(See Santha Oorjitham’s article, Exchange Getaway – Would you swap homes with total strangers? that appeared in the New Straits Times, November 18, 2009 in which she wrote about the experiences of Malaysians who had exchanged homes).

(Also see YouTube videos at “Samahyahaya – Dambelin”)

Letter to Amir (2)

Kuala Lumpur
November 18, 1991.

Dearest Amir,

We’ve finally shaken off our jet lag and have resumed our regular schedule. Very dull it is, I must admit, after our three splendid weeks in the US.

The highlight of our trip was spending time in Boston with you. Dad and I are glad to see you’ve applied yourself seriously to your studies, and you’ve looked after yourself well by eating healthy and by working out regularly at the gym. You’ve certainly inspired your kid brother who’s now set on improving his looks! As soon as we got home, he had Aida take him to the skin specialist. A week has gone by and his pimples have not shown any signs of receding.

Aris also intends to start using the gym equipment we’ve collected over the years, much of which is gathering dust, but in the meantime he’s taken to going jogging with us every morning at six.

But back to our trip. A couple of nights before leaving Boston, Dad and I got drenched as we walked back to the Westin after a shopping trip. Dad became quite ill during the plane trip to San Francisco and had to see a doctor as soon as we got there. He made a quick recovery, however, and was able to join the Exxon Public Affairs Managers who had gathered in SF for their annual meeting, and their spouses, on a delightful two-hour harbour cruise in a big ship. Aris joined us as well. Then Exxon hosted a sea-food dinner at the Neptune Restaurant at Pier 39. Aris’s filet mignon resembled a piece of charcoal because he insisted on having it well done. I had an enormous slice of Sockeye salmon and Dad, not partial to sea-food, had a juicy steak.

We stayed at the Pan Pacific which wasn’t as comfortable as the Westin. There was no gym and every morning we had an exercise bicycle brought up to our room. I also asked for a treadmill but it was too big and couldn’t get past the pillar outside our corner room. Too bad!

Aris was disappointed he couldn’t go skiing in Boston. But the ice-skating he did in San Francisco more than made up for it, I think. Dad has video footage showing him smiling broadly and having the time of his life. He also thoroughly enjoyed trying out Time Traveller at the arcades at Pier 49 because the features apparently were displayed using a sort of hologram projector so the graphics jumped out at you.

In San Francisco we met up with our friends, David Khoo, who started his career with Esso in Malaysia, and his wife. They have long settled in SF. Other than that we did the usual touristy things, the Coit Tower, the TransAmerica Building, Ghirardelli Square, and Fisherman’s Wharf. Aris found these places more meaningful to him when he started to play games like Mean Streets and Police Quest because, as he told me later, Sierra and Access software are based in California.

We took it easy on our last day. Would you believe it, we watched three movies – Mr and Mrs Bridges, a Merchant-Ivory film, the same pair that gave us the unforgettable, “Room With A View”, “Reversal of Fortune” with Jeremy Irons and Glen Close (about the American heiress and socialite Sunny Von Bulow), and the spine-chilling, “Silence of the Lambs” with Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster.

Aida seems happy with the gifts we got her from the US. She has, however, set her heart on a velvet dress (no less!) on display at the Metrojaya Mall here and we’ve promised to get it for her. Since she was unable to make the US trip with us, we intend to take her to Singapore during our next vacation.

Well, Amir, we really appreciate your looking after us in Boston, and we thoroughly enjoyed racing around the city in your BMW.

I clearly recall you’ve excelled in your studies and was placed twice on the Dean’s list at Boston U, for Semester 1 1986-87 and for Semester 11 1986-87. Dean Geoffrey Bannister said, this is an accomplishment in which you can take justifiable pride. And as Dean Dennis Berkey wrote in his letter to you, “The distinction you have achieved by joining only 10 percent of the over 5000 students enrolled in your College, who are Dean’s List students, is one well worth applauding”.

Amir, in a year’s time when you complete your PhD degree in Computer Science, you will emerge as one of your College’s academic leaders. Dad and I are looking forward most eagerly to that.

With love from all of us,
Mum

Letter to Amir

On board the M/S Berlin
December 15, 1985

Dearest Amir,

SUNDAY
Here we are, at the northern tip of the Straits of Melaka, on the fringe of the Indian Ocean, cruising along in a beautiful white ship. As I write this in cabin number 205 which I share with Aida, the radio is playing music from Edvard Grieg’s “Song of Norway”. Dad and Aris are next door in 203. Your Aunty Samsiah and little Aidi, who turned three this year, are in 410.

Aida took great delight in counting all the decks and naming them for us – Promenade, Main or Haupt, Sun, Sky, Sports, Asia, and Bali. The last two meant for the crew are Crew and Dolphin.

Aris is with me, his nose buried in the Sunday paper comic strips. Aida’s exploring the ship with her class-mate Tunku Karen who’s traveling with her mother and brother, and Dad’s wandering around, Minolta in hand, happily clicking away.

We left home this morning and arrived at Port Klang at 10am, checked in and boarded the ship with about 330 other passengers. The Berlin, operated by Peter Deilmann Cruises, a German company, is a fairly small ship compared to others which can take in 800 or more passengers. Probably because of that, although it offers the comforts of a five-star cruise ship, its onboard atmosphere, though refined, is casual and friendly. Its staff who look after us during our meals give us attentive personal service. There’s Berthold, an Economics student at a University in West Berlin, a tall, blond German with twinkly blue eyes, who speaks English and French (Dad’s been practicing his French with Berthold!) Sabine’s a pretty, soft-spoken German girl. Harold is not as tall as Berthold but just as blond.

I interrupted this letter to join the others for lunch at table number 2 in the dining room. Thankfully, Samsiah, who was very sea-sick when the ship left the calm Melaka Straits for the choppy open sea on our way to Phuket in Southern Thailand, and spent the morning lying limply in her cabin bed, had overcome her nausea and was able to enjoy the lunch fare – carrot soup, Szechuan chicken and rice, and lemon ice-cream. She did full justice to the desert!

After lunch, there was some excitement. We were herded to the lounge for an emergency drill, given bright yellow life jackets, broke up into groups of 30, and headed for our life-raft station. Tension mounted during the briefing as we expected to board the life-boats and be lowered into the sea. The kids looked forward excitedly to that but were disappointed as no such adventure was planned for us. I was filled with relief as I pulled off my life jacket. While waiting for tea to be served we checked out the ship’s shops which sell interesting souvenirs and French and Italian clothes and accessories.

After tea we joined in a game of Bingo. Dad bought a card for US$10 and ended up winning almost US$200! He gave a wide smile when Samsiah snapped a photo of him receiving his prize!

We then headed for the Sun Deck, installed ourselves in the deck chairs and took pleasure in watching the great expanse of sea before us change color, from a clear blue to a vibrant green to a dull slate grey when it started to rain. And then the sun re-appeared turning the sea a shimmering emerald green. We felt relaxed and contented and stayed on until the sun dipped below the horizon.

After dinner of chicken soup, mildly spiced fish with rice, and sherbet, we tried our luck again at Bingo. But regrettably, no winnings. Didn’t someone say, good things don’t happen twice in a row?

MONDAY
We turned our clocks back one hour last night so we gained an extra hour today. By noon we were in Phuket but the sea was too choppy and no one was allowed to disembark. Some people had booked the James Bond tour and they were clearly disappointed. Poor Samsiah was about to be sick again.

The sea was still slightly choppy at 2.30 pm when we boarded our life-boat. After chugging along for 15 minutes, during which time Samsiah and I, our stomachs churning wildly, slumped down in our seats, we landed at Phuket. Ah! What a relief!

We battled with a swarm of toot-toot bus drivers, boarded one of the brightly colored buses and sped along the narrow, winding streets to the Pearl Hotel, right in the middle of Phuket town. The toot-toot probably got its name from the particular hooting of its horn. As we race along in it, we forget it’s powered by only a small scooter engine.

We used up the seven hours we had in Phuket by wandering around the town. The narrow streets were crowded with tourists, and shops selling all manner of goods to attract them. We browsed in a couple of places and ended up purchasing lovely lacquered boxes, silk money purses and tee-shirts. Aida didn’t fancy anything. Hard to please, that kid sister of yours!

Then it was back to the Pearl Hotel. A racy ride to the jetty and into our life-boat we clambered. We were quite taken in by the sight of the gleaming white Berlin as we approached it. It loomed steadily larger and more graceful and majestic.

Once on board we felt our energy level rising, probably as a result of our Phuket jaunt. We had a good work-out in the Fitness Centre, showered and got ready for dinner.

I suspect we all over-extended ourselves at dinner. The delectable roast beef on a bed of vegetables for our entre, was followed by chicken soup, and a choice of roasted leg of lamb, or shrimp with rice. Samsiah predictably enjoyed the desert best of all, chocolate cream puff plus ice cream!

TUESDAY
On our last day Dad took us on a tour of the bridge where we were amazed to see how the ship cruises along by itself without a skipper, aided only by a computer. Then little Aidi was given the thrill of a lifetime. He was allowed to “steer” the ship. He held the wheel tightly with his tiny hands and didn’t want to let go!

The ship’s library had huge, well-stuffed chairs. We spent the rest of the morning there, and then it was time to say goodbye – to Berthold, Sabine, and Harold. To the few other passengers we’d befriended. And to the good ship Berlin.

Well, Amir, I hope you’re enjoying your IT studies at Boston University. It’s been six long months since you left home. Did I ever tell you that my friend, Dr Bernard Rubin, of the BU Communications Department, says Boston is the centre of the universe? Boston must be a great city.

We miss you very much and can’t wait to have you home next summer. Do stay in touch.

Love from all of us,
Mum

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Pasha

Quiz :

Samad has acquired a pet. What is it?

I sent this to several people and back came the answers :

o a turtle
o a parrot
o a rabbit
o a monkey
o a hamster
o a guinea pig

They were all wrong. Only my sister Faridah gave the correct answer : a CAT.

Samad hadn’t been known to be terribly fond of cats. He would shoo Aida’s beloved Mushi out of the house whenever he misbehaved, but the smart cat would finagle his way in. Then Lady appeared with a seriously sick kitten. Its eyes were glued together with pus but the vet saved it with medication. We named it Mew. The gentle and affectionate creature that he was, Mushi treated Mew like his own.

When Aida came down with chicken pox, Mushi was her constant companion, leaving her room briefly mornings and evenings only to feed and do his “business”.

Mew grew up strong, sturdy and smart. He would amuse Samad by retrieving little balls or pieces of string he threw into the far corners of the living room.

But Samad was irked by the habit the cats had of establishing territorial markers. They would furiously scratch our sofas and “spray” our curtains. Samad would shout angrily and chase them out of the house.

But these exquisitely sensitive creatures got their own back. Samad’s bed was constantly soiled. Then Mew wreaked the ultimate revenge on Samad. He drenched Samad’s prized amplifier with urine.

So why would Samad want a cat?

We visited my sister-in-law Chik one day and the most gorgeous, long haired, ginger cat named Pasha, came towards us and mewed ever so sweetly to us. It then headed straight for Samad and gently rubbed itself against Samad’s legs. Samad was immediately and totally won over.

As it turned out, Chik’s daughter-in-law had a new baby and didn’t fancy having long, orange cat hair flying all over the house and smothering her precious little one. So Pasha was to be given away. Samad joyously jumped at the idea of adopting him.

We spent the rest of the day excitedly making arrangements to receive Pasha. We bought a large blue litter box and Catsan Odor Control cat litter, and bowls for his food and water. These we placed in our bathroom. Next came his sleeping basket complete with a sheet and small pillow for which we found a comfortable niche in our bedroom. We stocked up on his favourite food, Royal Canin fish, beef and chicken.

Pasha was a big cat, a Maine Coon also known as American long hair, with fat, furry paws and a bushy tail. His long, flowing coat was soft and silky. He had the sweetest face with a nose that was a trifle flat, and riveting black eyes.

It was amazing how quickly Pasha settled in with us. Very early on we learned he was not a “lap cat” and was not clingy. But he loved to hang out with us. He would purr happily when gently stroked. He would rush to the door and greet us loudly and affectionately when we got home after a trip to the grocer’s or from an outside engagement. But try to hold him and he’d squirm and run. Try to carry him and he’d growl angrily, snort, hiss and bolt.

Affectionate though he was, Pasha preferred to maintain a relatively independent existence. Companionship was set on his own terms. Some might be inclined to describe him as arrogant and snooty. We guessed he was the way he was probably because he didn’t have a prolonged intimacy with his mother.

Samad bought his cat toys and took delight in playing with him. Pasha’s favourite was a colorful wand to which were attached little animals. Samad would wave the wand and he would leap up at the animals and chase them endlessly. Catnip would make him go crazy with excitement.

Scratching posts of various shapes and sizes, made of wood and covered with carpet, were selected and placed all over the house. However, Pasha looked askance at the automatic water fountain and automatic feeder that Samad carefully chose for him.

One day I heard a loud commotion in the dining room. I ran down to find Pasha yowling and wailing menacingly at the neighbour’s cat, from behind a glass window! He had minor disputes with Whitey, the stray who’d visit us daily to feed, but they would be quickly settled by a hiss and a swat with a paw.

In his ninth year, Pasha survived a serious kidney infection. Today he is a senior cat. He has given up his high perch next to the gutter from where he used to watch the world go by. He’s not able to run after uninvited guests and chase birds and squirrels. He has stopped kneading our legs at night while simultaneously sucking our blanket. He now moves more slowly and engages in deeper and more prolonged sleep.

Each night he would sedately make his way up the stairs to our bedroom, head for his favorite “Emperor’s Chair” right next to Samad’s bed, curl up in it and go to sleep, very much Samad’s adored pet. />

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Our cats of yesteryear

Soon after Amir left for his studies at Boston University, our menagerie of cats expanded quite considerably. Bundle gave birth to three kittens. Gucci and Gizmo were black with a thin streak of white running down their faces and two white paws each. They looked like twins. Both had long, silky black hair and bushy tails. Their sister was more like their mother, small and firm with short hair, but she was tri-coloured – black, white and orange.

I had left her at the vet to be neutered and when it was time to collect her, I decided to take all our other six cats for their annual vaccination. I packed them in the car and, with Aida and Aris in tow, drove to the vet’s.

What a commotion they made, screaming and shrieking in chorus all the way to the vet’s. Lady wet herself and made a mess on one of the rubber mats. She then leapt onto Aris’s lap and sneezed right into his face. Aris made a sound like he was going to pass out!

Cowardly Mushi disappeared under Aida’s seat. He had to be extricated and dragged out when we arrived at the vet’s.

Aida borrowed a large cage from the vet’s and we piled them all in. When they were comfortably installed inside, who should saunter in but a huge Alsatian. He barked at the cats which immediately bristled and scratched with rage and made as if to attack their enemy. The dog’s owner promptly removed it to the back portion of the room and after a bit, everything was quiet again.

The vaccinations, when they were administered, were almost an anticlimax. Each cat calmly subjected itself to the needle before retreating back into the cage.

On the way back to our house, we placed the neutered cat, which was in its own small cage, on Aida’s lap. She started to shriek and scream. She stretched her little paws out through the spaces of her cage and wildly scratched at everything within her reach, including my shirt sleeve and Aida’s bare knee. It was then Aida’s turn to make herself heard. She did, and loudly too!

One Sunday morning several months later, while we relaxed at the dining table reading papers, minus Aris who retired to his room immediately after consuming two pancakes with maple syrup, I saw fat Max shuffling in and heading straight for the TV room. Before he could “spray” the furniture in there, as he was in the habit of doing, to establish territoriality, I chased him out shouting, “you naughty little monkey!” Samad was disappointed I didn’t throw something at him, “to teach him some manners”. Do you think calling him a monkey would frighten the wretched creature? he scoffed.

And so the battle raged on, on several fronts. With the lordly Max, almost a permanent resident, and scaring the living daylights out of them, Lady and Mew spent most of their time indoors, skulking and cowering in the deepest, darkest corners of the house.

Where, one might well ask, did they conduct their “business”? One day, I returned from work to find a wet, smelly circle on Samad’s bed. Gina, our trusty helper, was kept busy removing offending “deposits” that appeared in the most unlikely of places. “Throw them in the cage!” was Samad’s way out of the messy state of affairs. “It’s cruelty to humans living like this!” he moaned.

Then Gucci attracted an aggressor, a wiry, orange cat. Aris heard him shrieking and went to investigate and found aggressor and victim in the drain locked in combat. Gucci looked close to being eaten alive. Aris sprang into action and minutes later, aggressor released victim and beat a hasty retreat. Aris had emptied a bucketful of water on him!

Several years after all our cats had sadly passed on, a new cat appeared which changed Samad’s life. But that is another story.