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!

Bunga telang and coconut ice cream

I had never been to Pulau Carey, ever. It’s at my doorstep, or more precisely just 1.5 hours from Kuala Lumpur but it was just never on my radar. And so, I leapt at the chance when Reita asked if I would join her monthly crafts pick-up from the Tompoq Topoh Mah Meri women’s collective.

The Orang Asli women from four villages there had set up this collective to upgrade their skills at weaving and marketing their handicraft.

We left KL in a somewhat rickety borrowed car which we hoped would get us there safely and back! It took us around two hours to get there including a stop for breakfast and groceries at Teluk Panglima Garang (isn’t that a cool name?), on a smooth drive on fairly good roads.

The entry to Pulau Carey was totally uneventful. If not for Reita pointing out the bridge over the tiny stretch of water, I would not have noticed that we crossed into an island at all. Pulau Carey is an estuarine island, hence its proximity to the mainland.

The first sight that greeted us, for miles and miles, was an oil palm plantation. The island is full of oil palm, with the Orang Asli villages tucked inside. It wasn’t long till we reached Kampung Bumbun where the women’s workshop is located. The villages look like any other village, actually. They don’t have a strong Orang Asli identity, mostly because the houses are now concrete ones.

But in the workshop, their Mah Meri identity was strongly asserted through the distinctive nipah decorations strung up on the roof, and the altar.

I wandered around, as Reita got down to work with the handicrafts. I met a group of women inside a building where they were flattening their freshly-woven bookmarks with a laminating machine! The machine had been imaginatively repurposed, with the heated rollers doing a marvelous job of flattening the woven leaf bookmarks as flat as paper.

I later joined the women in the gazebo where Reita was sorting out the business side of things, while laughing and chatting over tea and biscuits. It was not a cut-and-dried business meeting which proceeded briskly, it was really a social event as well where people catch up with each other’s lives while cooing and playing with the children who came with their moms.

Their language was not something that I could decipher by just listening, the words seemed very different from any other language that I’m familiar with. The words are short and clipped, making the language sound fast-paced.

The women here said weaving is considered a woman’s job, although some men can do it too. Men’s craft is usually wood carving. They weave using traditional patterns with the leaves of the pandanus plants that they plant but today, their handicraft is a lot more sophisticated, especially in the use of colours. They now use powdered dyes, not natural dyes. The colours are mixed to create the subtle and delicate yet robust hues that are loved by the contemporary market which does not want kindergarten-type colours. It takes a good eye and skill to mix the colours, and to think that this was something that they learnt not more than a decade ago. My colour-matching skills aren’t anywhere as good as theirs!

Pulau Carey isn’t really much of a destination. The Mah Meri culture is alive there but it’s hidden in pockets that may not be easily evident to the visitor. So I’m glad that I got the chance to meet some of the people, and to get a glimpse of their work.

And we also got a taste of coconut ice-cream, a treat courtesy of Reita! The ice-cream man, a second-generation seller from Jenjarom, comes by daily to sell ice-cream from his cold metal container. It’s the old-school type of a scoop of icy treat plonked on top of a thin wafer cone. It isn’t creamy, it isn’t gelato but it has the freshness without being overly sweet or rich, and is great for a hot afternoon.

So, all in, I had a great day out, and took home a nipah bird as a gift as well as a gorgeous pandanus pouch which I bought. And also bunga telang! A plant was growing profusely there, and its owner let me pick the seed pods which I’m hoping to plant.

Silent movers

Pin-pin, pin-pin!!: went the horn. It nearly startled me out of my skin as I had no clue that there was anyone behind me. It made no sound, this new breed of electric bicycles, or motorcycles, or whatever they are called.

Pulau Ketam is full of them now. Without the whirr of a bicycle or roar of a motorbike, you won’t know at all that they are behind you until they are right up against you. I hadn’t seen such contraptions on my last visit to this fishing island some years ago.

Neither were there then petrol-powered pushcarts which are now ubiquitous. These are regular pushcarts but modified with a small motor to give it oomph and ability to take heavier loads. Unlike those silent bicycles-motorbikes, these motorised pushcarts are awfully noisy. The motor rattles madly, causing the entire cart to rattle along. There’s no missing this one coming up behind you.

Necessity is truly the mother of innovation. Who would have come up with these motorised modes of transport, if not forced into it by life on an island where no cars can be brought in? Bicycles are the most efficient way to get around but they can get tiring. Pushcarts can also get tiring. It was actually nice to see these small changes, since Pulau Ketam itself seems to live in another time.

Paulus and I came to Pulau Ketam on a whim. It’s easy enough to get here by the KTM Komuter to Pelabuhan Klang, and then a ferry across to the island. It does take quite a while though, as both the journeys and waiting times are long. Still, it was a smooth ride.

The first inkling that this Crab Island has embraced tourism wholeheartedly was the jetty! The jetty was once a ramshackle wooden structure, now it’s a modern concrete building, complete with a giant gold crab and shops selling seafood. It’s meant for tourists, obviously.

On arriving at Pulau Ketam, we also saw a lot of shops having been made over into tourist-related businesses, with one looking suspiciously like the beginnings of a hipster café. It was so brightly coloured that it didn’t appear that it could be anything else.

Food and likewise have also become pretty expensive.

Otherwise, it’s still a laidback sort of place with narrow lanes that go here and there, houses packed close together on stilts, and a sleepy air. The police station, bomba and other public amenities still look as sleepy, as if life doesn’t make too many demands on them. They are like miniatures, harking back to simpler times when life didn’t require so much dependence on public amenities.

The ferry landed us on a jetty with a bicycle park. We didn’t know what to do, so we meandered aimlessly to look around the village, its shops and houses, while dodging silent bicycles-motorbikes. One thing we noticed, all the houses look like kindergartens with their bright colour schemes. Some houses even had two colour schemes! It sounds gaudy but it worked well there, perhaps because it’s by the sea. Restraint and sobriety can be tossed to the winds when you are within view of the sea breeze.

Without much else to do, we headed for a restaurant for a seafood lunch which turned out to be pretty pricey, and just so-so. I remember it being much better in the past, but well, maybe the cook was having an off day. And since tourism has arrived here, tourist prices must accompany it.

With lunch over and the heat blazing, we meandered back to the jetty to catch the ferry and train back, with the thought that nothing ever stays the same. My thoughts, that is. Paulus hasn’t been here before. To me, this visit was a reminder that life never stands still, silent motorcycles and noisy pushcarts will always find a way.

Tame fish

Fish always seem the most boring of pets because they can’t be tamed, and you can’t really play with them. That’s true but given time, fish can actually become tame-ish and responsive although they don’t reply to names, of course.

I have seen such tame fish in Sabah before but this was my first visit to a river under the tagal / tagang system in Sarawak.

I have long known of the Long Lidong village, of course. We pass it all the time on our way home to Ba Kelalan but we were always too rushed to stop for a visit, as we often leave Lawas so late that we would make it home just by dusk.

But we did this time, although that made us late by two hours. I really wanted to see the tame fish. We met Raut there, the chap in charge of managing the fish conservation system.

Basically, it’s a community-based system where a village is given charge over a stretch of river. They enforce the no-fishing zone which covers, among others, spawning sites, and also run a fish breeding project. As a reward, they get to harvest the fish once or twice a year. In good times, this can come up to several hundred kilogrammes of fish to eat or sell.

This is intended to help conserve depleting fish stocks, while not depriving the locals of their source of food and income. At the same time, it also helps keep the river clean.

For a while, it worked well in Long Lidong, Raut said. The Fisheries Department did a good job in technical assistance as well as building infrastructure which, up to today, is well maintained. The fish breeding is still going on, and the pretty gazebo and walkway still functions well.

Fish stocks stabilised, and repopulated the river. The stretch of river closest to the village now teems with fish, and they are tame-ish!

Long Lidong is located on the road from Lawas to Ba Kelalan, and sits in a hollow. From the road, we can see the entire village, with Raut’s house on a choice spot on a hillock. We walked down the cement steps to the rocky river bank, lovely and shaded by big trees. That stretch of river is really pretty, littered with so many huge rocks that look like they had been tossed there for a game by giants of old.

The water looks placid but just beneath the surface are hundreds of fish. It’s easy to call them. Hit an empty plastic bottle against the rocks, and see them come rushing up. The hollow thuds signal to the fish that there’s food! They come swarming to the surface, and even more will come if fish food pellets are thrown into the water.

Some fish are so tame that they allowed themselves to be picked up by Raut! That was a bit too adventurous for me. I wasn’t about to get into the river with all the crazy fish swimming about me. I was happy to feed them from the banks, and to sit on the rocks to enjoy the sound of the water.

It’s a great system to conserve fish stocks and protect the river, and it’s wonderful that it’s done by the community for the community. But it’s not easy lah. Raut speaks of the difficulties in enforcement against poaching. For sure, they aren’t policemen, and it’s made more complicated by the fact that everyone is related to everyone there.

We only had a couple of hours at Long Lidong but we also took the time to visit the pastor’s house (unused as it doesn’t have a pastor). The house is built so high up on stilts that it seemed to sway when we climbed up. It was a good 10 to 12 feet off the ground, and built with ceiling-high windows that turned it into an aquarium.

If you ever find yourself in the neighbourhood of Long Lidong, drop by to visit the fish!

The road by the sea

The magnificent views of the restless ocean must be worth millions but its true value is priceless. And in recognition of this, the views are deemed to belong to no one, and as such, it belongs to everyone.

That, it seems to me, is the greatest bit of the Great Ocean Road that runs a glorious 200-plus km along the southern coast of Victoria, Australia. There is a certain determined egalitarian spirit about this road, fittingly so because it was built by men and women who had survived the trenches of World War 1. The road, thus, belongs to all, and its views as well.

There are no tolls imposed, and the best views are reserved for the people who drive the road or use the beaches. The grandest mansions set way back from the ocean. They still get the views but hey, the marhaen rakyat get a better one! That, to me, is magnificent.

This is my second time driving the entire stretch, and I was as enchanted as my first time two years ago.

Like my last trip, this one was also made in a tiny compact hired car, a Toyota Yaris. It was so light that it almost felt like it was floating especially in strong gusts, but it worked great. Smooth and easy to drive, it took us around for five days without problem.

We began our trip from Melbourne to the Mornington Peninsula where we stayed a few days in St Andrew’s Beach to explore the area. I’m familiar with the area but a visit to Cape Schanck lighthouse still thrills me, and picking strawberries is still great fun. And this time, Paulus was with me, so it added a new dimension to the trip!

Mornington Peninsula was gorgeous, as always, the wild seas all around, crazy soft sand dunes, and so much space to get away from it all. That was always its appeal to me, and at one time, I entertained the crazy the notion of buying a tiny house hidden in the dunes with the ocean’s roar at its doorstep.

Or perhaps, one of the rolling farmsteads with a view of the ocean.

A dream.

From Mornington Peninsula, we headed to Sorrento to catch the ferry across to Queenscliff to begin the Great Ocean Road drive. With an hour to kill, we browsed Sorrento’s coastal chic shops, and were amazed at the prices of the rustic goods to tempt holiday-makers. AUD180 for a reed basket?! From Sorrento, we took the car onto a ferry for a 40-minute ride across Port Philip Bay to Queenscliff. As the ferry neared the jetty, we thought we spotted a seal in the water. But then, maybe not.

Our adventure began in Queenscliff where the lack of signages soon led us in circles! But that was easily resolved by the tourist office lady who fished out a sheaf of maps to lead us to the start of the road in Torquay. Without those maps, we would have gotten lost, for sure, as there were not enough signs. But that glitch was soon forgotten, and soon, the anchor sign began to appear regularly enough to assure us that we were heading the right way. Not that there was any real doubt, the ocean on one side all the way was reassurance enough.

The story of the Great Ocean Road is as magnificent as the views. It was built by returning soldiers of World War 1 as a memorial to their fallen comrades, and much of it was built by hand. The story can be read on plaques at the many viewpoints along the way, and in the Lorne tourist office. What an amazing story, and as lovely as the fact that the road had been built with the ordinary person in mind. A gazillion viewpoints and rest stops ensure that visitors (especially drivers!) get a chance to take in the views, and best of all, a large part of the road runs along the coast or on cliffs high above the ocean. There is nothing to block the view because all other buildings including expensive mansions are set back from the road. That, to me, was really one of the nicest bits of driving the Great Ocean Road – this regard for the common man. In many other parts of the world, the choicest views would have been cordoned off for those who can pay but here, it was the other way around.

Oh yes, there’s another great thing for the modern traveler – free wifi! There’s free wifi at the tourist offices along the way, many of which are situated just off the road with plenty of parking and space to stretch the legs. I discovered that when we took a break at Anglesea’s pretty tourist office with a walkway overlooking a reedy river. Ah, wifi! What a lovely surprise. We tarried there for a while, then went on our way. We also stopped at Lorne to look at the exhibition of the road’s construction, browsed the gift shop, had a coffee, and went on our way again.

Our stop for that night was Apollo Bay, a small town with a charming view of the sea. As it’s almost off-season, it was quiet. And as we had a kitchen, we decided to cook a simple meal to eat by the heater. It was a chilly night! It was nice to eat at home, just both of us.

The next day dawned cloudy – our first cloudy day since we got to Australia. It lent a different mood to the day, and the sea looked ferocious yet melancholy at the same time. The road led us into the mountains and woods as it went through the Otway National Park. We took a detour to Cape Otway to see the koalas and kangaroos but skipped the lighthouse as it was raining by then. No fun in a lighthouse in the rain.

An on-off drizzle accompanied us for most of the drive, although the sun was determined to break through occasionally, often when we reached a particularly lovely spot. It suddenly turned sunny when we reached the iconic Twelve Apostles. Us and a million other bus tourists. Such is the fate of popular sites. We got ourselves coffee, and strolled along the boardwalk to admire the views of the ‘apostles’ which are free-standing rocks in the sea. It was too crowded for any sort of serene reflection though, so we didn’t stay long.

Back on the road, and straight onto Port Fairy, a sweet town filled with elderly people. Like everywhere else in the world, urban migration has left many country towns and villages the province of the old and very young. Port Fairy is a just a small town that didn’t have much prospect for chic shopping but there was a supermarket and a number of cafés. Its old quarter is picturesque.

After a night in Port Fairy (named for penguins, I think, not elves), we took the inland Prince’s Highway back to Melbourne. That drive was just as scenic, taking us past farmland, homesteads, and rolling hills. Australia is indeed scenic and beautiful.

And best of all, the drive went well, despite me not having driven long distances in ages! My feet did not forget how to drive.

Blue houses

I didn’t know this before but blue seems to be the favoured colour for some of the older houses in Kampung Baru. I must say that blue wooden houses have a certain charm, as if they are striving to become part of the sky … ethereal and whimsical rather than grounded and serious.

But the sky that day wasn’t exactly blue; but of course. The rain gods have this odd sense of humour, and chose to wait until we were about to start our walking tour to decide to bestow us the gift of rain. But well, it has been so dry that we didn’t want to bemoan the precious gift that was about to descend on us. Still, the sun beamed enough to provide us with foolhardly courage to ignore the peals of thunder.

So, we began our walking tour of this Malay village enclave in Kuala Lumpur, a tour recently introduced by the KL City Hall. It was me, and a motley group of tourists and tour guide interns. I was quite excited actually, to go on this walk.

Although I have been to Kampung Baru many times, I had never really taken the time to explore this throwback to another time, this slice of history still surviving in the shadow of the Twin Towers.

We made our way to an intensely blue house built in 1921 by Master Mat. He was known as Master Mat because he was the headmaster of an English school, and his name was Ahmad: Headmaster –> Master, Ahmad –> Mat. It now belongs to his grandchildren. It is stunningly beautiful, and as I learnt that afternoon before the rain fell, it was designed in the Malay Palladian style. Not knowing anything about architectural styles, I looked this up, and discovered that Palladian refers to a style of architecture inspired by the designs of Venetian architect Andrea Palladio.

This house has several striking features although I’m not sure if those were Palladian or not. A balustrade stairway stood out for its elegant curve, and the low windows that allowed people seated on the floor to look outside easily. But the house was cleverly designed to afford them privacy through its imposing height on stilts.

It was so tall that a Myvi sat comfortably under it. In those days, that would be the space for preparations for a kenduri or other communal activities, but today, a car sits there. I thought of Master Mat coming down the balustrade so many years ago, and probably getting into a car to go to his school in Setapak.

There wasn’t a lot of time to inspect his house, or the dilapidated one next door, as the rain gave a more insistent warning of its imminent arrival. Drop, drop, drop … we scooted for a covered walkway, hoping to get to shelter on time. But no luck, the rain fell in buckets. We took shelter in a school for quite a while, as a teacher donned her tourist guide hat to tell us stories about the school’s history.

The rain stopped, and we proceeded to another house, also in blue, this time one that was built in 1931 in the colonial-Malay hybrid style. Also raised on stilts, it belonged to another person called Mat as well, although I’ve now forgotten the details of who and what. The house has a million-dollar view of the KL skyline although that probably acts as a reminder of development pressing in fast.

From there, we went onto to food stalls, medicine shops to fruit stalls. I was particularly taken by the mind-boggling range of medicines and toiletries that I had never heard of, being sold in clinical air-conditioned shops. Most of them offered the allure of youth and beauty, and health. I am beginning to think that if you want to know a community, one needs to visit their toiletries!

Kampung Baru is really a lovely enclave in the city, and it would be nice if it stayed the way. I mean, where else can you find a tailor who still stitches by hand? Or nasi lemak with so many condiments? But I also know that their owners might probably like to earn some money from the charm that they guard, and that’s fair enough. The custodians of charm, beauty and nostalgia are rarely fairly remunerated, and in fact, often need to spend more to preserve the charm. It’s as if charm alone is considered as being adequate remuneration. But life doesn’t work that way, does it?

It’s not clear how long Kampung Baru will remain as it is, as lots of development is already taking place in this small enclave. But for now, it remains as it is, and the walking tour was a great way to discover its nooks and corners, and to hear its stories.

And oh, by the way, did you know that Kampung Baru is made up of seven Malay villages that were merged and became the Malay Agricultural Settlement in the 1890s? And that padi was once planted in this area but that didn’t work out because the soil wasn’t suitable? It’s now hard to imagine this!