Kretek at dusk

Kretek smoke filled the air, as my husband and the guesthouse owner in Nusa Lembongan shared a couple of cigarettes. I tried not to make a face. I don’t smoke (or drink), and while that’s good for the health, it’s admittedly not so good for getting people to chill with you.

We were chilling in the tiny lobby of the guesthouse on this island, about 45 minutes by boat from Bali, as we waited for our food delivery. We had ordered take-out food after our plans to dine at a seaside café was thwarted by a fall from a motorbike earlier. Nusa Lembongan’s narrow streets are awfully sandy, and it’s easy to skid – and so, we did. A sprained foot made walking difficult, and we were about to resort to Pop Mie in a cup for dinner when the owner offered to call out for food delivery.

Food ordered, we settle down for a chat (and more cigarettes).

He told us that he had never left Indonesia. Bali, a 45-minute boat ride away from tiny Nusa Lembongan, was the furthest he had ever travelled.

“Bali-Lembongan-Bali-Lembongan,” he said.

Wow. But then again, I don’t think that that’s unusual. It just feels like it because we are constantly besieged by travel images on social media.

Maybe I was surprised because he seems such a worldly guy, and open to people. That’s what travel is supposed to do, right? At least, that’s what we are told. He told us that he grew up in a seaweed farming family when seaweed farming was the main livelihood for the people of this island.

But gradually, as more money was to be made from tourism and as seaweed farming faded, he moved into this business. He worked for foreign-owned restaurants and bars while his wife ran a small homestay on this piece of land owned by his family. His wife’s business grew, and he left his job to set up this guesthouse with her. Now, they run it as a family, and it’s rarely ever empty.

It has a good reputation among foreigners.

If we are to compare it with the swish AirBNBs where we stayed in Canggu and Sanur, it wasn’t half as sleek. The facilities are more worn, less sleek and the design didn’t have that professional ID feel. None of that mattered to us, and in fact, that was what we liked. Not because it was less polished or more worn, but because we could see that it was made by a local with the best knowledge and ability that he had, run by locals, and benefited the locals.

That made us happy because tourism wasn’t by-passing the locals. It honestly felt like that to us when we were out and about in Bali the week before. Probably it was our fault because we stayed in AirBNBs owned by foreigners, and ate mostly in restaurants that also appeared to be owned by foreigners. These were the most convenient ones, and honestly, we chose convenience over authenticity because we were on holiday. Farm work and writing work throughout the year had left me so exhausted that I didn’t want to make any extra effort when on holiday. I felt a little dismayed (and ashamed), and maybe that’s because it also came close to home for us.

Ba’ Kelalan is a little bit touristy as well although nowhere near as touristy as Bali, of course. But tourists do come, and they stay in homestays, hire locals as guides and drivers, and do some tourist stuff. Tourism has brought some economic benefits, for sure, but it isn’t perfect, by any means. The tourist income distribution is very unequal, with only a few getting a lion’s share of it. Sometimes, that creates resentment especially among people who feel that they had contributed towards maintaining the beauty of the place that draws tourists – but the income flows in another direction to those who perhaps may not have contributed as much to activities that enhance its beauty. This is something to think about. We aren’t in this business, and don’t have many strong feelings about it. But what if Ba’ Kelalan’s tourist facilities are owned by outsiders or foreigners, and locals are merely hired as service staff or to put it crudely, servants? That would be devastating. It’s something that hasn’t happened, and I hope it never will.

Anyhow, that was why I sometimes feel that tourism isn’t the best economic model for a community which is lucky enough to live in a beauty spot.

But this guesthouse owner, with all his work paying off with a nearly full guesthouse almost every night, it showed me that it can be done.

I suddenly felt happier as we chatted with him that evening, as the sun set and lights yet to come on. He told us his story, simply, without feeling sorry for himself or boasting. It was a story that made me feel a little hopeful, it made me cherish the lobby’s clumsy bamboo lampshades that looked handmade but far from master craftsman standard. The breakfast of overcooked sausages and eggs made me happy too, not because it was delicious. It actually wasn’t but it reminded me of the many Malaysian ‘Western’ breakfasts that I’ve had; it told me the story of a cook who have had some exposure to Western meals but not access to gourmet ingredients or knowledge of culinary techniques. It told me the story of someone who is trying, and may someday get there. And that’s why I never sneer at such breakfasts; it tells me of grit and a willingness to try.

It also reminded of a story of an acquaintance who had first learnt about fish and chips from an English guest in his backpacker’s hostel in Terengganu. He had no idea how to make it but gamely attempted to. He offered up fried kembung (a whole fish!) and fries. Today, he owns a fine boutique guesthouse, and yes, he has learnt how to make proper fish and chips.

 

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An Ode to Padi Harvesting

Harvesting padi is not fun. But it is soul satisfying.

In January, I joined my husband in the padi fields. A worker shortage meant that every able-bodied person had to roll up their sleeves to get the harvest into the barns – actually, it was a case of pulling down the sleeves to cover the arms and donning a large hat. It’s hot out in the fields.

The padi was already golden and heavy, and ready to be taken into shelter.

My husband had made a temporary shelter with a large sheet of canvas tied like a huge tent on the bund. That was where we stored the harvested rice before the sacks are hauled away to the barn. That was also where we rested, had our meals, threshed and winnowed the padi, and filled the sacks. And had our naps!

Harvesting looks like dry work but the fields are actually very muddy. Your feet are still ankle deep in mud. With a sickle, the stalks are slashed and yanked away from their muddy homes, and slapped against a deep basin to get the grains off. Repeat, repeat, repeat a million times.

Needless to say, I was awfully slow. It didn’t feel slow when I was cutting the stalks but when I looked up, in dismay, I could see how little progress I had made. My husband is not the type to express sappy emotions but I think he felt sorry for me. We worked out a system. He would cut the stalks and leave them on the bund for me to thresh. That suited me fine, I could stay in the shade!

He works so fast that in 10 minutes, he had cut enough stalks that would take me an hour to thresh.

Whack, whack, whack, it was meditative work as I hit the stalks against a bamboo stick, turning the stalks around to get all the grains off. When the padi pile was high, I winnowed the grains and poured them into a sack. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Honestly, it isn’t fun.

But it is soul satisfying – and not just for the number of sacks piling up although that was quite satisfying as well.

Where the soul found joy was in the work with the hands, work so immersive and meditative that time flew by. There was true joy in working with family to bring in the harvest that would feed us for the year. In taking a break with the food that we had packed, and sharing it with anyone who might pass by at that time. In taking a post-lunch nap on the bund.

It is deeply soul satisfying to work in the fields which link us to the past and the future. These fields were carved out of the mountains by my husband’s forefathers, and tended to by generations of his family. And now, they are tended to, by us. The fields which have fed his family for generations, now feed us.

The sense of being linked to the past and future, of working together as a family unit, of providing food for us, that is true satisfaction.

Padi harvesting is not fun. But I’m tremendously lucky to have it as part of my life, to be rooted in this soil and place.

Darkness

I have lived in Sarawak for four years now. I use the word ‘live’ loosely, seeing that I spend as much time in KL as in Ba’ Kelalan. Which of these is my home is a question that I have yet to answer, and may never do so. That’s okay. I don’t need an answer. Truly. I once did but now feel that as all of us have many layers within ourselves, we can have a different home for each of those layers.

Darkness has long fallen. We were on our way home from the neighbouring village of Long Langai where there is a small store. We had gone there to buy some chicken, biscuits and a few other items. We started out late, and it was dark by the time we set out for home.

It wasn’t as late as it felt, though. It was just past 7pm.

Darkness comes early to Borneo, and light as well. Or perhaps, as the Borneans might say, darkness comes at the right time to Borneo but late in West Malaysia. At any rate, it is dark by 7pm, and light by 6am, in Borneo. After four years here, I still have yet to adjust to this. It feels impossibly early to start breakfast before 7am, and it seems ridiculously early to start dinner at 6pm.

As we left the last houses of Long Lemutut behind, their dim lights vanishing into the black, we were on the dark road on our own. It is a darkness greater than any darkness of the city. The darkness is intense. The forests, dim even by day, now blend into the dark skies, extending the darkness further.

On this dark road heading home, still many minutes away, I felt very tiny.

I had become accustomed to this darkness, as I had to the brilliance of the moon and the stars seen in this darkness. I had forgotten my first visit to Ba’ Kelalan in 2011, and the darkness I saw when I looked outside at night. I had forgotten that I was a little fearful. I had forgotten this so totally that I was surprised when a visitor from KL told me recently that she was frightened because it was so dark at night.

“Are you frightened?” my husband asked me as he stopped the car, not far from Long Lemutut.

“No, I’m not,” I answered. That was only partly true.

I am used to this darkness, and he was with me. But in a way, I was frightened because it was a darkness so complete out there, far from the village, a vast sky overhead. Notwithstanding my husband, the darkness felt like complete solitude. Intensely alone, permanently, very small among elements far larger than me.

My husband is not given to such flights of fancy. He only asked me that because he had switched off the lights of the car. He wanted to try to spot the owl which regularly turns up on a tree by the side of the road. We waited for a bit in silence, then he played an owl call. But it didn’t show. It was probably too early.

A narrow beam of light lit the road again as my husband turned on the car lights, and we got going again.

Darkness is a key defining difference between a city and a village. There are no superfluous lights in a village. Lights powered by a mini-hydro, solar or generator can never compete in brightness with those that draw their power from mega turbines.

Our dim lights leave the corners of our rooms in shadows, unable and unwilling to battle the intense darkness pouring in through the windows.

It is this darkness that brings us into sync with the sun. When night arrives, the darkness lulls us into quietness and rest.

Finally, the dim sparse lights of Long Rusu glittered below as we crested the last hill before coasting into our tiny village of 10 houses. Our car rattled along to the very last house down the hill, a house with its welcoming neon lights switched on. Home.

An ode to padi planting

My feet sunk slowly and almost sensuously into the soft mud that yielded gently beneath me. It felt as though I was sinking right into the enveloping embrace of the warm earth but my descent halted when the mud reached my knees. I wasn’t going to sink to the centre of the earth, not yet anyhow.

My husband watched from the bunds of the padi fields where he stood in the shade of a tree.

“Just walk, you won’t disappear into the earth,” he laughed, at my hesitation.

It sure felt like I was going to.

I was in the middle of the padi field to plant it. It was that time of the year again when all hands are needed in the fields to get the seedlings into the ground as soon as possible. There’s no luxury of time. It wasn’t my first time in the fields but I haven’t planted in several years because it had always been easy to find workers. This year, however, it was impossible to get helpers for a combination of reasons that are too boring to go into here.

And so, here I was, not really wanting to but unwilling to see my ageing mother-in-law alone in the field.

Not to say I was a great help, of course! I had neither the skill to plant quickly, nor the stamina to last a full day. This meant I was slow, and tired by half a day. But well, I can take pride in the neat rows of pale green which I did plant.

I can’t say I enjoyed it. But there is something magical about being in the fields, feet deep in warm mud and hands in warm water. At the risk of sounding kooky, it felt as if I had become connected to the earth in some way, linked to nature and to the past and future. It was almost like becoming a part of the landscape itself.

Kooky, yes?

Maybe it’s because the warm earth and water reminds us of our life before birth, enveloped in warm water and connected to another being in a strange way, separate yet one.

Before I waded to the middle of the field, I placed a few bunches of seedlings in a yellow basin tied with a yellow string to my shirt. That way, as I walked, the basin floated along behind me, and can’t float too far away either.

Holding a dripping bunch of green seedlings in my left hand, I pulled out one with my right hand, gently disentangling the conjoined roots. With my index finger and thumb, I pushed the seedling deep into the soil, with a hope that its roots will make a new home there.

The soft mud yielded easily, and I wondered what lay below.

Who had lived in these mountains before I arrived, before my husband’s forefathers arrived? Which huge animals had roamed this land, even further back in time? Was it once ocean? Or glacier? Or desert? What was it like before?

We will never know, of course. But every time I plunged my hand into the earth, I thought about all these bits of history buried there. Bits of plant, sand, animal and maybe humans are all in there, swirled together.

It was a strange feeling but in a way, comforting as well. It reminds us that the cycle of life is a natural one, and that one day, we too will vanish into the mud.

I wondered if this is how the other villagers feel, as well. They don’t indulge in such flights of fancy so I can’t really ask them. Yet, I think they do feel the same, in a way, as they made it clear that there is now a new bond between us, one that wasn’t there before. As I took part in life as they experience it, I became a part of their community in a way that I was not before.

I don’t think I’d ever really enjoy planting padi – it is very hard work and exhausting – but in those few days when I was out in the field, covered in mud, just me and the earth, I felt a real sense of joy in living. An indescribable intense joy of being alive, being able to be alive.

 

An old well, an old church, and more

The last time I was in Kuching (four years ago), I had a lot of time and nothing much to do. I walked about a lot, mulling over things, and just listening to the stories of anyone who would talk to me. Come to think of it, that was also the last time that I felt such freedom to spend my days, just as I wished.

I had walked on Upper China Street, of course, and remembered it as a homely-looking street lined with old shophouses, mostly lived in by old people.

I remember meeting an elderly man who lived in one of those houses. He told me about his shophouse in which he has lived in all his life, about the earth floor and rickety stairs, and about plywood partitions that were used as room dividers. I remember too that he told me a story about an old well which may, according to myth, have given Kuching its name. I don’t know if that is true at all as Kuching’s name appears to have many origins.

He mentioned that the old well was in one of the houses further up the street, then uninhabited and boarded up. At least, that’s what he heard as a kid but had never seen it.

A few weeks ago, I walked up that street again and peeped into his house but the elderly man wasn’t there. I kept walking, and saw that one of the houses further up the street had been spruced up into a café in the vintage-modern, DIY style. Lima Tujoh is its name.

I could do with a coffee, and so I got one and settled into a chair. I picked up a back issue of Kino, a magazine about Sarawak which turned out to be pretty good. I could have lingered, reading, for another hour or two but I wanted to see what else was new in Kuching. I did have a quick chat with one of its owners, and she mentioned the well!

She said they found a depression in the ground when they did renovations to this old house … could it be the well? Maybe, maybe not. But it did make for a nice diversion to my morning.

I continued walking, and came across Indah House, an artsy café which supports local artists by displaying and selling their artwork. It, too, had a DIY feel. It was lovely to see its community feel, and to know that cafés aren’t just about food and drink, but also about supporting the local community.

The locals might find this an annoying comparison but these little changes in Kuching’s old town landscape really does feel like George Town a decade ago when I began going to Penang regularly. The occasional charming café amidst old tradesmen, a community spirit or a desire for one, the passion for old stories and old knowledge … it was these that had made George Town so lovely for me, then. And Kuching sort-of reminds me of that time, and how I felt about George Town.

What else is new (to me)? I came across the Granary, an almost posh café with brunches, whose friendliness made it lovely. I forgot to ask about the building but it had a warehouse feel with a cathedral-like soaring roof, and a huge space that made me feel very tiny.

It’s part of the Marian Hotel establishment which has its old stories as well. The hotel was once a church lodging house, and before that, a tycoon’s mansion. As you can imagine, it’s certainly atmospheric with a monkish feel in its simple appearance. Having gone from a tycoon’s abode to the subject of a property tussle to church lodgings, and now a hotel, I certainly felt the weight of its history.

I love that Kuching still has this sense of wanting to know itself, and I really loved that people actually wanted to talk about the old well! There’s a sense that they want to know how they fit into the long history of this place. I don’t know why that’s important but knowing these things or even just wanting to know, is important. It keeps us grounded, and helps us to tread lightly on this earth.

The search for the past hones a desire to be a part of the community, and warms the soul. This is the something that makes Kuching lovely to me, even if its café and hotel offerings are a little less sleek and polished.

On the fringes of the Fringe

And so, on one Saturday evening in July, I found myself seated in the third row of the Theatre of Clothes fashion extravaganza in Kuching. It’s not a spot that I’m accustomed to, and surrounded by fashionistas who all seem to have the enviable talent for keeping their hair strictly in place.

I enjoyed having a bril view of the impossibly tall models strutting by in long strides, severely unsmiling as they showed off the Sarawak-inspired clothing adorning on their lanky frames. It was all stunning.

Suddenly, a burst of spontaneous applause broke out. Who might have strutted on stage? I looked up. Ooh, it was three elderly Bidayuh women dressed in their traditional finery complete with brass rings wrapped around their forearms and calves. Also severely unsmiling, the women paid no heed to the applause and cameras as they dipped and swayed in a bird-like dance before gliding into the wings.

I recognised one of them – although she would not remember me, of course – as I had met her once before in her home village of Semban in the Penrissen mountain range.

Seeing her on stage brought me back to that time when I first met her – in 2013, the year when I felt lost as to where life was taking me, and spent six months wandering around Sarawak before I found my way again.

To go back a bit in time to that year, I had been in Kuching for several weeks when a local friend suggested I visit Semban village. He didn’t tell me that it entailed a four-hour trek up a mountain to get to there but he gave me a number to call.

And so, I went. I walked for four hours to reach the village, and stayed there three days. One evening, in the guide’s home, he invited two of the ring women, as they are dubbed, to his house. They have worn these heavy brass rings on their arms and legs from childhood, and it didn’t seem to hamper them. The next morning, I saw them going to the farm with the rings that they never remove, and later in the evening, one of them took ill and was carried downhill.

I was inordinately happy to see them, so unglamorous yet with a quiet dignity, on stage. It was a reminder of my trip to their home, and a reminder of all the other ‘invisible’ people whom I had met in my six-month sojourn, people who had shared with me a worldview that is so different from ours, a life lived with different values, filled with richness, and who helped me find my path again.

They are not literally invisible, of course, but they are often invisible to the world even while their crafts, arts and culture are celebrated, and often used in ways that do not pay heed to them or their world. Yet, they are so much more than just the beautiful things that they make. The way they live and view the world have so much more value than those objects. But those remain invisible, unless you seek them.

And so, I was really happy to see the women on that opening weekend of the Rainforest Fringe Festival to which I had kindly been invited by festival director Joe Sidek. This was the first such fringe festival, held as a prelude to the more famous and infamous Rainforest World Music Festival.

From what I gathered, the fringe festival was to be a thoughtful celebration of Sarawak’s immensely rich culture before the rambunctious music festival. That’s certainly a tall order. It is no easy job to capture the soul and spirit of Sarawak, and its deep and unfathomable culture that is still being lived and evolving, and not fossilised or ‘exotic’. Something that’s alive is ephemeral and keeps changing, and how does one tell that story?

I liked two exhibitions which I thought had tried to explore this evolving culture: Kendy Mitot’s installation and Alena Murang’s paintings. Their exhibition was, unfortunately, tucked away in an obscure annexe, with hardly any text by way of explanation.

Fortunately, on both counts, I bumped into Alena’s parents one morning. They pointed the way, and then on the spur of the moment, decided to walk me through the exhibition of Alena’s paintings.

That made all the difference.

Suddenly, Alena’s evocative paintings of elderly women came to life as her mum told me who they were, and what they had meant to Alena and her heritage. These elderly Kelabit women were the ones who had taught her their songs, passing on their knowledge to the younger generation in the way that it has always been done. They sang their songs to her, she learnt by imitating them. And thanks to an audio recording running on a loop, we can hear them as well. This knowledge is never simply received and stored away as it would be in an archive, fossilised. As the young learn from their elders, they live their own culture in their way and adapt it for their times, as Alena has.

Alena’s mum, an anthropologist herself, also walked me through Kendy Mitot’s exhibition before Kendy arrived to tell me his story. His installation, a dramatisation of his Bidayuh’s community’s funeral rites, was rich with stories which Kendy explained to me. It was his way of capturing the stories that are vanishing as Christianity replaces the old belief systems, and perhaps to also mark their inexorable passage into the past. As he pointed out the details that record the influences that changed his culture, I tried to get a glimpse into how the people of the past made sense of it.

Then, I also liked Ranong Peru’s market stall of pretty necklaces, not just because she’s an aunt of a friend! I liked seeing her interpretation of the cherished Lun Bawang bead tradition. The Lun Bawang women love their beads, and are always trying out new designs, yet there’s still a sense of Lun Bawang in their works. And of course, I have a soft spot for the Lun Bawang because my husband is Lun Bawang. She also showed me the works of younger Lun Bawang beaders where cloth has replaced ceramic beads. Very pretty.

So, I think what I really liked most about this fringe festival was its fringes, ie the bits that hover at the periphery. Perhaps this is because my introduction to Sarawak had come through anthropologists who had taken me on their research trips into the interior, and continue to spend much time mulling over issues with me. Over the years, I have come to cherish its people who adapt to changes on their own terms, and only as much as they want.

The beauty of Sarawak is bewitching and dazzling, for sure, and years later, I’m still dazzled and bewitched. And it’s lovely to see its beauty celebrated in a festival.

On the Kumano Kodo

The first thing we met on the Kumano Kodo trail was another Malaysian! Yes, it was a thing. It was a Malaysian arowana fish swimming in a fish tank in a small shop at Takijiri-oji where the trail began.

The shop owner was delighted to hear that we are Malaysian because his beloved fish is also a Malaysian. He beamed non-stop as he labelled our bags that we dropped off for his luggage shuttle, and as I paid for the drinks, snacks and a bamboo stick that I bought for our walk.

He continued beaming as he took our photo at the start of the trail, and as he presented us with laminated red maple leaves that he had collected last autumn.

It put us in a cheerful mood as we passed through the shrine gate that marks the start of the trail. My cheerfulness paled a little when I saw the path. It was steep, very steep, and totally relentless. All thoughts of Malaysian arowana fish and maple leaves faded as I hauled myself up the hill.

A dramatic start to the Kumano Kodo.

Google has reams of info on the Kumano Kodo so I’m not going to tell you about it being a 1,000 year old pilgrimage route to the three great shrines in these mountains, Unesco world heritage site and all. I’ll just tell you about arowana fish and such.

 

Chop, chop

As we walked along, we came across small boxes containing rubber stamps to collect on a commemorative book to mark the progress of one’s walk. We didn’t have a stamp book which might have been a good thing as the stamping process seems complicated. A woman at one of the boxes looked helplessly at me, as she tried to stamp her book. The stamp appeared to be a roller of sorts, and it wasn’t going on correctly. I had no idea how to, as well.

It struck me: what if you missed a stamp box due to exhaustion or negligence? Would you go back to find it, or leave a gap between stamps number 5 and 7?

 

NHK Tower

And so, we kept walking. The path became flat, then downhill, and evilly trudged uphill again. It really felt unfair to be forced to walk uphill after having been lulled by a long flat stretch. My husband reached the ridge top first. Hurrah! What marvels await us there?

An NHK TV tower! I don’t know about you but it sure felt strange to see a TV tower after being steeped in pilgrim folklore and ambience for a couple of hours. It was like entering a restaurant through its kitchen, and immediately, the spell is dispelled.

 

Grumpy farmer

Not long after the NHK tower, the forest trees gave way to the outskirts of Takahara, the village in the mist. A short while later, we saw a vegetable patch! We were inordinately excited to see it because it reminded us of our own vegetable garden at home. We wanted to see what he was planting, it looked like onions and leeks, and some green leafy vegetables.

The man tending the patch didn’t look up when we stopped though he wasn’t particularly grumpy. Thousands of walkers must have taken photos of his garden patch, and it must be super boring to keep having to answer the same question: what are you planting? I understand that; I’ve had tourists stick their cameras into my house window to take photos of me making a basket. Huh?

So, we took photos of his vegetable patch but not of him.

 

Silent houses, silent school

From Takahara onwards, we became accustomed to vegetable patches of leeks and onions, and stopped taking photos of them except for one which had a scarecrow couple sitting inside. It scared us too!

The trail goes through many mountain villages, and although Japanese villages are much more pristine and neat, their small sizes felt similar to our village back home. We liked the honesty stalls, similar to what we have at home, and their homely produce, similar to what we have at home too!

What intrigued us were the seemingly abandoned houses, and one abandoned school. They felt spooky. None were run down as such, but there were giveaway signs like dusty seats or a broken netting. Unwanted homes, a burden. We hurried by them. We are Malaysians, we don’t want spirits of any nationality or vintage taking a liking to us.

This was the one side of Japan that we hadn’t seen before, with the caveat that we only arrived a week ago and it was our first visit. Still, everything that we saw up to then had been postcard perfect, I had never been to any country where perfection is around every corner. This came as a breath of fresh air!

 

Energetic runner

At some point as we walked, a fit and wiry man overtook us, looking all cheerful. He waved, we waved, and he ran off into the distance. We caught up with him again at the viewpoint with a view of the giant tori shrine gate of the Kumano Hongu Taisha. He was taking a lunch break, with some rice balls.

He was more than happy to chat. He says he’s training for a trail run, and this path was readily reachable from his home in a nearby town. Hungry, he said, as he kept munching. After a bit, we said goodbye, and continued walking. He soon overtook us again, calling out “very near”!

The Kumano Hongu Taisha was indeed quite close. We thought we had said goodbye to him but a couple of hours later at Yunomine Onsen village, a man bounded up to us to say “Hello! Do you remember me?” There he was, again! He had reached the village ahead of us, taken a bath at its public baths, and was waiting for a bus home.

I was inexplicably happy to see him, perhaps because he was using this trail in such a practical way, and without the fuss of chop-chop stamps, konnichiwa here and there, special gear and all. We didn’t see him again but I still do think of him, sometimes.

 

And so, we walked on.

 

By the light of vending machines

This was our first visit to Japan, and you must forgive me my fascination with vending machines. Not so much for their offerings but their ubiquity. I’ve heard of vending machines on mountaintops (never seen them) and certainly, they are everywhere in Kyoto.

I have never seen anyone buying anything from it, or replenishing it or collecting the money. Is there an army of vending machine workers who spend their days tending to these amiable dispenser of all manner of goods, hot and cold? I’d love to meet them.

Outside our AirBNB apartment on a quiet alley with hardly any foot or vehicle traffic stood two vending machines – one for drinks, one for batteries. Down nearby alleyways, there were even more machines.

We didn’t buy anything from them but these watchful boxes were comforting as we walked home along dimly-lit alleyways in the evenings. I’m Malaysian, so dimly-lit alleyways make me nervous. I turn whenever I hear footsteps behind me, often only to find a young woman in heels walking home with groceries.

The vending machines were comforting for their glowing white LED light, and the sense of normalcy this gives to neon-lit alleyways that seem to be taking us into a different world.

 

Closed doors and watchful windows

Walking aimlessly in Kyoto’s alleyways must be one of life’s greatest pleasures. Paulus and I did a lot of that. We chose a different direction each evening, walking without taking heed of where we were going, down alleys just because we felt like it.

We loved the randomness of the buildings. A residence can be sandwiched between an art studio and a temple, or a small store tacked onto a house, and a house tucked behind another house. It’s all so random and charming, and quiet.

We did see a couple of kids playing on the pavement, some art work left out to dry and occasionally, an elderly person sweeping the pavement. But mostly, we saw closed doors and neat plants. Once, a very old man called out to us, ‘Konnichiwa’, to which we replied tentatively as we saw that he’s really very old and perhaps not quite cognisant of who we were.

In some ways, the randomness of building use reminds me of George Town but George Town is a lot more chaotic, and life is often lived outdoors there. You can frequently find people sitting outside their shophouse homes, hawkers setting up stalls there, or fish drying on the pavement.

But we did once come across a box set outside an old Kyoto house. It was a box of cheap paper fans for sale, and nothing else. I picked up one, and went inside to find out how to pay. The owner was flustered to find someone actually wanting to buy a fan, and scurried about to find paper to wrap it!

 

Lunch with strangers

On one of our walks, we came across this diner selling okonomiyaki, so cramped that it only has three seats at the counter and one table inside. No more than five can be seated, and that, too, a very tight fit. We were hungry, it was 4pm, we hadn’t had lunch, we went inside.

It was a totally non-English speaking place but ah, we had Google Translate! Somehow, we managed to order our food, and as we waited to eat, the other customers, who were clearly regulars, decided to draw us into their conversation.

We spoke no Japanese, they spoke no English but we managed to mangle each other’s language with Google Translate. They understood that we came from Malaysia, and are familiar with Japanese food because there are many Japanese living in Malaysia. We also told them about the places we visited.

They told us they have heard of Malaysia, and wanted to know if English was our national language. I’m not sure how that came about! They explained what okonomiyaki is, and how to eat it.

That was all we managed with Google Translate, with more laughter than anything else.

 

Creampuffs and pancakes

No visit to Japan can be complete without a visit to a convenience store, and we sure visited Family Mart a lot. It was its creampuffs that rated it above other convenient stores, in our eyes. Forget beer or chocolate, its creampuffs are magically light and puffy. It’s no chore to down 10 at a go, and then, I discovered its syrup-filled pancakes.

The pancakes are a work of marvel. They look like a packet of two plain and boring pancakes but with some magic, the sides of pancakes have been ‘glued’ together to hold maple syrup inside. Not a drop of syrup creeps out and none got onto my fingers, as I held the pancakes. Imagine my delight when I first bit into it, and syrup oozed out.

 

Well, I can also tell you what we saw of Kyoto’s temples, sakura, food and other marvels but that will be for another time.

 

On the stove

We bought a small flimsy aluminum stove-top oven for RM80 from Long Bawan in east Kalimantan more than a year ago, and promptly forgot about it after using it twice. It went into the bottom shelf of the furthermost cupboard in our Ba Kelalan kitchen, and dwelled there undisturbed for months.

Sometime last December, I fished it out. I felt like baking a cake. We didn’t have an electric mixer or weighing scales, or any cake-making equipment nor a recipe. But I had a vague recollection of the process, and winged it. And of course, cake number one fell apart, literally.

I turned the tin over, and the cake fell out in a zillion pieces, each one tasting like cake, though. Ah, what happened? My mum-in-law said I used too few eggs. The bright side was that the crumbs tasted like cake.

Okay. Onto cake number two after I recovered from this disappointment. I doubled the number of eggs this time, and voila! Cake number turned out great. It was a real cake, and it was baked in that aluminum tin set on top of our gas stove! Needless to say, I was chuffed.

We have an oven that works. Nevermind that there is no temperature control (I test the temperature by sticking my hand into the oven to see if it’s hot enough), and no light to peer inside its depths. From then on, the oven never went back into the cupboard. I used it all the time.

Cakes are popular in our household, and so I baked one every few days interspersed with cookies. Once, I baked curry puffs but it was really tedious work to make them one by one, and I didn’t repeat that experiment.

The oven really got a workout when Pat and Sus came for a visit, bringing with them an Italian flair for cooking things in ovens. The number one hit was pizza. We had pizza twice, and I made it the second time around. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be, and it tasted really, really good. Well, that’s probably because of the cheese that came from a small farm in Ostuni (southern Italy) but definitely, pizza is our menu now.

Then, I experimented with grilling wild boar ribs. It was good but a tad tough as I didn’t boil it long enough to soften the meat. Next up will be bread.

It’s amazing, really. It’s such a basic tin of an oven but clearly, it was designed with some knowledge of how hot air circulates within an enclosed space. The heat spreads all around the oven, and there are vents to let hot air and steam out. It’s very light and portable, easily cleaned, and not fancy at all. It just works.

It’s true, as they say, that necessity is the mother of invention. Necessity encouraged enterprising people to invent this oven from low-cost material and made it simple to work without any need for maintenance. Being so used to my fancy oven, cake mixer, digital weighing scale and so on in KL, I was seriously doubtful at first if this oven could actually produce cake and cookies, much less pizza. But it did, and it showed me that we don’t need fancy tools to make things work. Just a spirit of experimentation and an ability to fail.

Now, what else can I make in this oven?

Scents, smells, whiffs, wafts

Unless it’s food, street smells aren’t often welcomed. But really, street smells aren’t necessarily unpleasant, and they sure do evoke a sense of the place.

Sometime last year, we took a breather from our hectic days to spend three nights at the Ren I Tang inn in a bustling part of George Town, so full of life and colour. I broke my usual rule about avoiding heritage inns. I know heritage places are charming and atmospheric and all that but really to me, those are code words for ghostly and spooky. But Ren I Tang hit the right balance of atmospheric with quirky and modern, and was super comfy and friendly. Not spooky at all, and that, I attribute to the faint medicinal whiff in the air.

Ren I Tang was formerly a Chinese medicinal hall that sold traditional medicines which tend to have a strong bitter smell. The decades of storing dried herbs must have infused their heady bitter scent into the polished wood, or perhaps it comes from the little museum downstairs. It was far from unpleasant. In fact, I liked their bitter smell that seem to come from earthly depths, as opposed to the powerful floral smells that are supposedly favoured by ghosts in our folklore.

After a soak in the herbal bath, I was lulled into such a deep sleep that I missed a colourful and noisy parade with a cow on the street right below us, late one night. My husband watched it from the window but didn’t wake me, to my annoyance. I wanted to see it after listening to his vivid description but it was a one-night parade.

Still on the topic of smells, once I inhaled the faint medicinal scent at Ren I Tang, I started to notice the scents around me in this old part of George Town. And suddenly, I realised it was not just the unique sights of George Town that stick in my memory, it’s also the smells, particularly of incense. Being an old town where much of life is still lived on the streets, George Town has heaps of small shrines and tiny altars, and often, as you walk past, a scent of incense wafts by. And of course, if you chance upon one of the many temples tucked in between shops, an even stronger whiff of incense greets you.

Incense is my enduring scent memory of walking in George Town. Sometimes, flowers too; a strong unmistakable scent of jasmine can always be whiffed before the pretty garlands at flower-sellers come into view.

And of course, this being George Town, there’s always the tempting smell of delicious food being cooked. Right opposite the Ren I Tang is a lean-to housing a totally un-famous char kuey tiaw stall. This is not to say that it isn’t good, it was. We ate there twice. Honestly, can there really be char kuey tiaw that isn’t nice? Everyone has their favourites but I haven’t had a bad char kuey tiaw in George Town yet, and I have never eaten at any of the most famous stalls.

This stall had the bonus of a super friendly aunty who didn’t get flustered that we don’t speak Chinese. Piping hot, the generous heap of noodles came with that slight charred whiff that makes char kuey tiaw different from other sorts of fried noodles. It was so good that I could have easily eaten two plates! But I didn’t lah.

And so, yes, smells. They are evocative.