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.

Kebun-Kebun Long Rusu

The last time I wrote here, our garden was just at its early stages. We had made the beds, an A-frame for poly bags and built a compost bin. Seeds had been sown, and then I went back to KL for a few weeks.

When I came back, the plants were huge! It was amazing. It’s like children. They never seem to grow much when you’re watching them – and I watched these little plants very closely – but as soon as my back is turned, they sudden shoot up! Plants seem to grow a lot at night, and for sure, these grew a massive lot in those few weeks.

The baby basil went from an inch high to more than a foot tall! The leaves sprouted so profusely that we could pick them almost every day, and they were still lush. The bawang leaves were a foot tall, all floppy but still green and sprightly. It looks like it’ll take a while more before the shallots can be harvested, and I’m super curious to see what’s underground. I did pull up one orphan plant that wasn’t doing well, and it turned out like a spring onion. I chopped it up to make cucur.

The siew pak choy grew super fast. In just a month, we had a massive harvest of green veges, plump and juicy. That time was fun, as we could pick veges straight from garden for the kitchen.

The slower-growing brinjals and chillies seem to be doing okay.

I sowed some broccoli seeds, and in a few days, they all sprouted and began growing rapidly. Two leaves, then three, then more. The real test is whether the broccoli itself will grow, as these seeds are meant for Australian weather! Will Malaysia be too hot and wet for it? We shall see.

Gardening can be so exciting, in its way.

It really does feel miraculous to see green leaves and stems emerging from that tiny lifeless seed that I had sowed. Each time I see a new plant, I can’t quite believe that it has come from that dry seed that I dropped into the soil. Each time I see new leaves sprouting, it’s like a miracle.

There’s something so satisfying in seeing a lush garden grow, and eating from it. People often ask if we plan to do this on a bigger scale for sale. We have sold some veges but really, the joy is in the planting. I don’t think we have plans to do this purely for sale. Then, that would feel like work, with all the stress that comes with it! It’s nice to just enjoy the process of sowing, watering, harvesting, and even the weeding and digging.

Not every venture has to yield some measurable outcome, meet some KPI or earn some money. Even if the vege yield wasn’t great, I’d still have had the fun of seeing the plants sprout, and marvel at the miracle of it all.

But that said, I still want to see that broccoli produce something edible. I’m counting on you, broccoli!

Across the border for a wedding

The last time I went to Long Midang was with a few anthropologist friends who were on a research mission. That was the only time I spent any time at all in this small Indonesian village just across the border from Sarawak. Mostly, we just zoom by to the bigger town of Long Bawan where we can buy items like straw mats, or to Long Api to see relatives.

This time, though, we made a special trip to Long Midang for the wedding of my husband’s distant cousin to a man from that village. Don’t ask me how they are related, it’s too complicated and goes something like four generations back.

Things have changed a lot in just a few years. Previously, we had to walk to Long Midang – a two-hour muddy walk. Today, there are paved roads. They aren’t the best roads, and are only usable by 4WD but still it’s a great improvement. It takes us less than an hour to get there now. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have gone to this wedding!

I can’t say that a better road has really improved cross-border family ties, though, or anything of that sort, as far as I can see. Families still visit each other across the border, only but rarely, and like younger people everywhere, the younger folk in Ba Kelalan are also becoming more distant from their relatives in this part of the world. Easier border access can’t transcend the natural process of generational distancing, or overcome the artificial sense of distance created by borders.

Those from our side of the border who attended the wedding were generally older people, with the younger men only there to drive their parents to the party.

Long Midang is a biggish village by the standards of Ba Kelalan but probably, there aren’t more than a few hundred residents.  But it does have three churches of different denominations. That surprised me. Having more than one church in a village this size, would probably be regarded as divisive in Ba Kelalan but the folk of Long Midang take it in their stride.

Most of the locals were at the wedding, and from what I could see, the spirit of gotong royong was still strong. The villagers chipped in to help prepare the food in a makeshift tent outside the house, and to keep the party running smoothly.

Because of a shared culture and religion, the wedding festivities were similar to those I’ve attended in Ba Kelalan, perhaps a little fancier with the inclusion of a ‘live band’, ie local women doing the traditional dance to traditional music. It was a church wedding, followed by lunch and an exchange of gifts. As per tradition, we were served a delish lunch there as well as given a tapau of pork and buffalo meat to take home. That’s tradition, all guests are given food there as well as to take home. That’s why a Lun Bawang (or Lun Dayeh) wedding is such a mega affair!

We went home, soon after lunch. It didn’t take long at all before we were home, yet it felt like we went to a different world and back.

A little less lonely

Isn’t Balik Pulau a wonderful name? The locals might prefer a sassier name but it’s just so perfect to describe its location and loneliness, around the back of Penang island.

It even feels far away, in another world. But it isn’t quite so lonely anymore, though. In fact, it was for this reason that I went to Balik Pulau, to see how it’s becoming less lonely.

It has changed quite a bit since my visit a few years ago.

It seems to be awakening but very slowly. The pace is so slow, so far, that it’s still fun to hunt down its hidden gentrified nooks. They aren’t everywhere, yet. So, it still feel like treasure hunting to find the new within the old, very much like how George Town was just a few years ago.

The most noticeable change is the four new street murals in Balik Pulau town. You can’t miss them. They are giant, not at all like the delicate ones that first appeared in George Town four to five years ago. These ones are dramatic stuff that cover the whole building, two-storeys high. They are nicely done but I felt that they lack the evocative nostalgia of the earlier ones in George Town. Or maybe I’m just a bit bored with street murals.

The one I liked the most is a particularly inventive one of an old man whose features were created with lines that had been blasted clean from the black grime encrusting the wall. Instead of adding paint to the wall, it was made by removing dirt!

These murals are found in Balik Pulau town, and can’t be missed. But if you do miss them, just ask the locals as we did when we stopped for the famous laksa. Now, the laksa is still worth a stop! I only had one bowl, to my regret up to today. It was that good.

It’s not just murals here, of course. If you keep your eyes peeled as the car goes along the winding narrow coastal road, you might just spot a small sign over a gate that beckons you to stop and enter. It’s an art garden, and that isn’t as boring as it sounds. I know, art inside a garden doesn’t sound too interesting.

But Art and Garden really is lovely. It’s landscaped on steep terraces that keep luring you higher and higher, revealing new surprises at every turn. Turn this way, and there’s a gazebo with tremendous views, and hidden art. Turn that way, and a stained glass wall catches the light. Turn the other way, and there are hidden chairs. And so on, and so on; I just kept going and going despite the heat and insects.

Super charming.

And to think that all this (and more) are hidden away in this remote back of the island. Balik Pulau is changing, inevitably so, but luckily, the road is so winding and narrow that it doesn’t seem likely that it’s going to over-touristed any time soon.

Brief Encounters

A two-hour delay, said the SMS from the airline, apologetically. I could have ranted but instead decided to see it as bonus time in George Town. After all, there was no real reason to rush back to KL.

The delay gave me just enough time to fit in two brief encounters. Number 1: the Tohoku exhibition in the state museum. This exhibition displayed a small range of handicrafts from the Tohoku region in northern Japan which suffered a devastating earthquake in 2011.

The roving exhibition was aimed at showcasing the area’s rich heritage on the fifth anniversary of the quake.

I have long been fascinated by Japanese crafts which seem, to me, to be the pinnacle of artisanship. And each of its regions seems to make something different, it’s not the same old, same old. Also, I liked the idea of a handicraft exhibition to remember the quake because this seems, to me, to tell a story of resilience and persistence.

Isn’t that a nice way to tell a story about people? It’s probably also intended to shift the media narrative from woe to hope.

It seems that hardly anyone ever visits the state museum. I arrived a few minutes before 2pm, to a sign on the gate that the person in charge was out to lunch. Only one person in charge, then! He turned up shortly after, on a motorbike and waved me in.

Tohoku was just a small exhibition in two rooms over two floors. Being the only one in there felt a little spooky, as if a djinn might float out from the painting of scowling warriors, or the huge ceramic jars. But I steeled my heart, and wandered around to see the crafts up close. I was thrilled to see that many of the items were regular, everyday items like farm baskets or daily use textiles. Even these prosaic items had been made so well, as if daily work is also worthy of recognition.

Gorgeous.

There was still loads of time left. So, where to, next?

The Yeap Chor Ee mansion seemed to be a bustling place, and so, there I went. The downstairs too crowded, I wandered upstairs to a room showing the work of a Korean artist. Now, I know nothing about art, and even less about Korean art. And didn’t know what to make of the giant screens showing moving images that seemed random.

But there were chairs! And I was tired. So I sat down to watch the four screens in a row. Together, they showed a gorgeous classical painting of a pristine countryside, like a long, long time ago. It was soothing to watch the snow fall, and then pink cherry blossoms heralding spring. Then green leaves and the colours of autumn.

But it was not intended to be a soothing work of art. The tranquility didn’t last long, vanishing as all kinds of modern-day structures floated across the screen and planted themselves on the landscape. Some were ugly but useful like construction cranes, and some beautiful but useless like the Statue of Liberty. At one point, aeroplanes flew by, throwing out colourful circles.

Does development always have to be ugly, or at least, always detracts from the original? I don’t think so. I can think of numerous sights that have been enhanced by man-made additions but sadly, these are few and far between.

I’m glad I stumbled upon this mesmerising exhibition of very modern-style art.

This is the one thing that I really like about George Town. Quite often, there would be a random little exhibition somewhere, and quite often, you will be the only one there. It’s like finding small treasures hidden around town, to be discovered by chance, without fanfare.

They are just there, for a while. And if you do stumble upon them, they make your life so much the better.

They are rarely big or sleek but it is their bite size and randomness which makes them all the lovelier; perfect brief encounters.

The old way

After some months of using plastic strips to weave baskets (I’ve yet to successfully weave a sale-worthy one), I’ve decided to go back in time and use leaves for the weaving. I have no idea, of course, how to do so but there’s no better way to learn than to do, no?

Harvesting the leaves is hard. The thorny plant grows in muddy places, and I really didn’t know how to get their leaves. Besides, the plant might belong to someone, and it wouldn’t be nice to swipe it. Paulus, on the other hand, is good at these things, and harvested a whole bunch of leaves for me in no time.

The leaves are super long, around 6-8 feet, and thorny. The first thing to do is to remove the thorns. Fortunately, the thorns are quite small and soft, so they don’t pose too much of a hazard. The thorns run down the sides as well as along the spine of the leaves.

The dethorned leaves are then cut into strips. Many people use a wire stretched between a forked branch (it looks a bit like a catapult, with the wire replacing the elastic) to cut the leaves by hand, smoothly and swiftly.

Paulus was more imaginative! He hammered a few pieces of wood together and arranged a row of blades to make a ‘machine’ through which we can pull the leaves smoothly, leaving them in three even strips. It was bril. It didn’t take long for me to split all the leaves into long even narrow strips.

Then, comes the long but easy part. The leaves have to be sunned to dry them into a creamy white colour. The number of days depend on the sun but it’s usually 2-3 days. After that, each and every strip has to be smoothened one by one, with the fingers, until they are as flat and smooth as possible. It’s awfully tedious work that should ideally be done in the cooler hours of the early morning or late evening. But I have things to do in those hours, so I worked in the late mornings and early afternoons.

That, of course, was to my detriment as the leaves are brittle and prone to breaking in the heat!

After smoothening them, and cutting the leaves into even smaller strips, I dyed them in henna and kunyit to get lovely brown and yellow shades. They were gorgeous.

Everything seemed to be going smoothly. I was chuffed. Until I started to weave the strips. I wanted to make a basket but decided to start with a small container first to see how it goes. That turned out to be a good thing because it was impossible to weave the leaves! Again, as I did the weaving in the hottest hours of the day, they were brittle and hard to manage.

The leaves kept snapping and breaking at the crucial points when they had to bend to form the edges and corners of the basket. They were too brittle to pull to form a tight weave. In the end, I had to abandon the effort, and cut losses. I turned the woven base into an errh coaster? It doesn’t actually function as a coaster because leaves aren’t good with water but oh well, I hung it up in the KL condo as a reminder of my first effort! Also, I wanted to see how long the colour stays on the leaves.

Next try? Another time.

Kebun in front of the house

My one and only attempt at growing vegetables on my condo balcony some years ago, ended with the poor baby choy sum withering from a lack of water. In my defence, I had to go to Penang for four days, and hoped it would somehow survive the neglect. It didn’t.

With my frequent travel, it’s really impossible to nurture plants on the balcony although I have always wanted to grow my own vegetables.

But now, after some years living in Ba Kelalan, we have finally set up our own vegetable kebun! Aunty Rose and my mum-in-law have their own, which I could tumpang, but I wanted one of my own.

For one, I want it to be easy to use which means minimal mud and mess to clean each time I garden. That’s important because it rains a lot in Ba Kelalan, and I don’t want to spend my days cleaning the mud after gardening.

Second, I want to plant fun stuff like basil, broccoli, asparagus and carrots which may or may not thrive. It’ll be our experimental kebun which may bear no edible result, and well, one can’t really take up precious space playing around on someone else’s kebun.

And lastly, I want mine to be aesthetically pleasing. A neat kebun with organised beds, and beautiful to look at. Of course, vegetables can’t beat flowers for their beauty in colours but there’s a certain appeal in the symmetry of vegetable beds. Beauty and functionality: I want both!

So, we finally got around to making the soil beds in the unused section of the front garden, and it does look quite nice although there’s still work to be done, of course. There’s still muddy bits so I’m planning to lay down more planks between the beds, and transfer some grass over to soak up the water.

We can’t plant anything yet because the soil beds aren’t ready. We have been composting to enrich the soil, and it’ll take some time for the vege scraps to break down, and for us to add buffalo manure to it.

But we have already amassed a good selection of seeds like basil, broccoli and leeks. Neither of us are very good with growing vegetables so it’s going to be a lot of experimenting.

There’s something about planting our own vegetables that resonates with so many of us even though we know that it’s probably easier to get vegetables from the market or supermarket. It helps that there isn’t a market or supermarket or even many places to buy vegetables in Ba Kelalan, let alone veges like broccoli and basil! So it’ll be great to harvest our own.

I don’t have strong feelings about organic veges but we will keep this patch organic, simply because it’s an experimental kebun, and we may as well take the experimentation all the way.

Fingers crossed that my next post will be on a successful harvest!