Thing 3: 253/ 251 Steps

40thingsat40When we arrived at the lighthouse, I looked up at the seemingly neverending wooden steps built into the cliff side and wondered to myself “Am I really going to do this?”

The stairs were steep, it looked like they were at a 30 degree angle, and oh there were so many of them! I was worried that I’d be winded halfway up and then get stuck on the steps, and emergency services would have to be called in. After all, I’d just completed an unplanned one hour hike at the Putangirua Pinnacles.

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The vertigo-inducing climb to the Cape Palliser lighthouse

Eventually though, I got out of the car and mumbled to myself “If I don’t do this, I’ll regret it the second I’m on the plane on the way back home.” So, off I went. Despite the fact that my legs were already feeling wobbly.

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253? Or 251?

The official website for the Cape Pallier lighthouse stated that there are 253 steps but the signboard at the bottom of the steps declared something different. Someone had scratched out “253” and wrote “251” instead. I intended to count the steps as I made my way up but with the steepness of the stairs and breathlessness that assailed me, I stopped at 27, so the actual number of steps will remain a mystery to me!

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Success!!!

It must’ve taken probably 10 minutes for me to reach the top, only because I stopped many times and whenever there were folks heading down and past me, I gripped the handrail with all my might, refusing to move. I had this vision in my head that if I continued upwards while they past me, Bernoulli’s principle would be in effect and I’d be blown off the stairs! Though my counting abilities failed me, my imagination was working more than fine!

Of course, after catching my breath and enjoying the view around me, it was time to leave which means going down the perilous wooden steps which either numbered 253 or 251. I said a little prayer that I wouldn’t fall head over heels as I looked at the journey downwards that awaited me. Eeeeeeeek!!!

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Why aren’t there handrails on BOTH sides???!!! Why???

 

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10 Things To Know About Chinese New Year in Malaysia

Chinese New Year is this weekend and where I’m from, it’s a major festival. Every one joins in the celebrations in one way or another, and you don’t even have to be Chinese to enjoy the festive occasion. Here’s what happens in my neck of the woods when Chinese New Year rolls around.

#1. We get a holiday – Though Chinese New Year falls on a Saturday this year, the entire country is granted a holiday the following Monday which means it’ll be a 3-day weekend for me!

#2. Stalls selling Mandarin oranges pop up – It’s customary to give out Mandarin oranges to colleagues at work and to folks who visit your house during Chinese New Year. These oranges are typically sold at supermarkets and roadside stalls which pop up specifically for this festival. There are often multiple stalls along the same stretch of road, all of which peddle these oranges and all of them would be able to turn a profit.

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So many oranges. So many. (Source: The Star Online)

#3. Lion/ Dragon dancers are every where – They’re in shopping malls, in the back of trucks on the streets en route to their next gig and even at your local watering hole. You know Chinese New Year is fast approaching when these dancers with their white t-shirts and colourful pants that supposedly mimic a lion’s/ dragon’s legs show up almost every where.

#4. Streets in the city centre are exceptionally clear – This is one of my favourite things about Chinese New Year. Traffic jams in the city has gotten from bad to worse and it’s only when folks leave the city for their hometowns that I’m willing to drive into the heart of Kuala Lumpur.

#5. Highways leaving the city centre turn into parking lots (almost) – During Chinese New Year (and all other major holidays), commuters returning to their hometowns pack the highways. A regular 2-hour trip home can turn into a 5 hour journey from hell! The congestion is so bad that one year, authorities issued a Travel Time Advisory which recommended times to get on the road depending on where you’re heading. 

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Imagine getting stuck in that traffic with no toilet in sight (Source: The Malay Mail Online)

#6. Retail stores and banks give out (almost) free ang pow packets – Giving ang pows (red envelopes stuffed with money) is a key activity during Chinese New Year. Well, other than eating, drinking and playing mahjong. In recent years, shopping malls and banks stock ang pow packets for their customers and these are where folks tend to get them from. The packets aren’t entirely free if you intend to get them from shopping malls though. Shoppers would need to spend a pre-determined amount before redemption of the ang pow packets are allowed.

#7. Folks exchange their old bank notes for new ones – It’s traditional to use crisp, new notes when handing out ang pows. Hence, the long lines at the banks before Chinese New Year as folks come in with stacks of old bills to exchange for new ones. Apparently every year, the central bank has to print an additional 500 million pieces of the smaller denomination banknotes to meet the demand for new notes!

#8. Almost everyone organises an open house – Eating is a national past time and open houses are basically an opportunity to eat all you can for free! This tradition encourages family and friends to visit one another’s homes to celebrate together. Even companies and government agencies have started organising open houses to which the general public is invited.

#9. Eateries serve some variation of yee sang – In the weeks leading up to Chinese New Year, expect to see some variation of yee sang or the prosperity toss in any eatery you visit. Apparently, this cultural activity is unique to both Singapore and Malaysia as it’s not practiced as much in other countries.

#10. You hear firecrackers eventhough it’s illegal – Yep, fireworks are illegal in Malaysia. Unless you have a permit. I don’t think the homes in my neighbourhood who light up their firecrackers applied for one though. Yet, I go to sleep on the eve of Chinese New Year listening to a barrage of fireworks. All night long.

Remembering Gawai days

For Ibans, Gawai is a much-anticipated celebration. Back in Sarawak, celebrating Gawai used to last an entire month and by celebrating, I mean drinking lots of tuak or rice wine. If you’re hardcore about Gawai, you’d forego the tuak and head straight to drinking langkau, tuak‘s less refined sibling. Anthony Bourdain depicted this in an episode of No Reservations much too accurately. 

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When drunk, these stairs are the most hazardous part of my grandfather’s house. Many men (and women) have stumbled down these 4 steps unfortunately

Typically, in my kampung, there would be lots of food being cooked by the womenfolk in the kitchen of my grandfather’s house. Children would be outside playing, waiting for the meal to be served. The menfolk would be playing cards while drinking tuak/ langkau/ beer/ any alcohol/ definitely not water.

When my grandfather was still alive, the Gawai celebrations were truly memorable. Many years ago when I was back home for Gawai and after a most fulfilling dinner of ayam pansuh (chicken cooked in bamboo) and many other local delicacies I forgot I missed until they’re cooked and served, the chairs in the living room would be pushed to the wall and music and dancing would follow. Mostly it was the older folks who’d start while the young ‘uns looked on and tried not to cringe. I’d be sitting cross-legged on the floor in the living room, in awe at their enthusiasm and energetic gyrations. And there were always violins. After all, keronchong wouldn’t be keronchong without violins. And there was always singing. Or perhaps, more apt, there was a singing competition and it would always end up as a berbalas pantun singing competition with the men and women trying to come up with the most creative tune, lyrics and even insults. If only I had a video camera then…

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Cooking meals in bamboo, the original Le Creuset. Somehow, meals cooked on an open fire outdoors always tastes awesome

Another memorable Gawai for me was the year my family purchased three pigs and gave the meat to 106 families in the kampung.

The (poor) pigs were delivered to the main house Gawai eve. Men from the kampung were all ready to begin the butchering. There must’ve been about ten men, many of them I’d not seen before but were friends of my uncle. It was an interesting sight to watch (although slightly `slaughter house-ish’) – the sharpening of knives, the sounds of chopping, the men drinking and smoking, telling jokes, singing as they went about selecting the cuts of meat.

The men finished up by  dividing the meat into 106 individual plastic bags all laid out on a tarpaulin sheet that was placed on the ground next to them. It was an extremely methodical operation as they wanted to ensure that every family had the same amount of meat and also that each bag had a good ratio of ribs to meat. This seemingly simple task took almost 2 hours to complete. The final touch was to tie the plastic bags with raffia string and we added a gift tag that said `Selamat Andu Gawai Dayak’ (Happy Gawai Dayak Day). The men then divided  all the plastic bags among them, filled up their juah or rattan basket and went off in twos on motorbikes to deliver the bags to the families, like santa’s little helpers. It was a good day.

What I’d give for a glass (or bottle) of tuak right about now. And some ayam pansuh too.

 

Observing Friends/ Parents

I was at a gathering of old school mates the past weekend.

There were 9 adults.

And 9 kids, ranging from toddler to 7 or 8 years old.

To describe the scene as fairly chaotic would be an understatement.

The amazing thing for me being there was that I had the rare opportunity to observe my old friends, not as my old friends, but in their role as parents. This was enlightening to me because among the group was an old classmate I never got close to and never would’ve imagined ending up as a doting father of two girls. Yet there he was, sitting in the armchair in one corner of the room, his girls running around him and not a raised voice heard from him. They were his princesses. This was the guy who was well known in our class for his short temper and would frequently get into arguments at the drop of a hat. Huh.

There was also the ex-class clown who passed on his silliness to his firstborn and to see him interacting with his son as if his son was such a wondrous gift from Heaven…well…there were moments that I had to blink furiously to dispel the tears that hovered at the corner of my eyes.

Then there was the girl who was my partner in crime with whom I’d get into tonnes of mischief with, who is now a mother of three. I think watching her with her children was most fascinating. She retained that youthfulness and playfulness about her even when she was reprimanding her kids for running around on a full stomach. And her little boy…oh, I almost brought him home with me.

Then of course there were the high school sweethearts – whenever they speak about their kids, I get wistful. Their kids were so energised, I got tired just watching them but it was their youngest girl that held me and I imagined her future when she’d realise she has such wonderful older brothers to protect her as she navigates life and I thought what a lucky little lady.

I drove home that day with so many thoughts in my head and a smile in my heart, grateful to bear witness to old friends who are an amazing group of parents with their equally amazing bundles of joy.

Originally posted on the 19th of August, 2013 at Stories from Sonobe

Christmas Trees, Eels and Batfishes

Snorkeling at Mak Cantik (Beautiful Mother), a dive site off Redang Island, was an unforgettable experience. Not only because of the marine life I encountered there but also because of the number of other snorkelers who were there. There was a carpet of people, literally! Snorkeling near the boat that brought us from the hotel to the site, I had repeat `excuse me, excuse me‘ and tried my best not to snorkel into other people’s feet lest I get a kicked in the face! I pitied the fishes, they must’ve been terrified to see so many bodies in their territory! We did manage to get some peace and quiet from the other snorkelers later though and went further away from the boat so that we could actually have the opportunity to see some fishes instead of other people’s hands and feet.

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A not-so festive looking Christmas Tree worm (The Amusing Planet)

It was at Mak Cantik where I saw my first Christmas Tree worm. I was utterly fascinated with them as I disturbed the water above them and they retracted back into themselves. And if you waited a few seconds, the bristles would emerge from the tubes into which they retracted and they’d fan themselves out. Truly amazing! I also saw many Giant Clams, which I at first thought was a kind of coral because its shell was so crusted, it truly looked like the hard coral that it was sometimes attached to.

Unfortunately while we were gleefully bobbing up and down in the water, we noticed that there were many tiny, golfball-sized transparent thingies (jellyfish???) around us and some of us felt stings which hurt for a little while. When I was stung, I searched my arm for any swelling but when I saw none, I thought it best not to emerge from the water and shout, `Jellyfish! Jellyfish!’ causing a mass panic of hand and feet when I truly didn’t know if they were indeed jellyfish.

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“What are you doing in my backyard???” asked the Giant Moray Eel (Ocean Treasures Memorial Library)

Later that afternoon, we were brought to the Marine Park located at Pulau Pinang (a tiny island off Pulau Redang proper). The park ranger told us that an 8.5 foot Giant Moray Eel was in resident. I remember pretending to be excited but secretly, I hoped it was taking its afternoon nap. After 10 minutes in the water, we noticed something large undulating a few feet beneath us. I looked down and my breath caught in my throat. Apparently, the eel was NOT taking a nap, as I’d hoped. It was elegantly drifting in and around the corals, going into any nook and cranny. Witnessing the eel swimming casually was amazing even though I was scared out of my freaking mind. Generally, eels aren’t that active preferring to anchor the rear portion of their bodies in a crevice and stay hidden during the day. I had a sneaking suspicion though that all the marine life at the Marine Park were there to `work’ – entertaining the tourists, and when the park closed down at night, they would clock out and go to their real homes in a reef far, far away.

Before we returned to our resort, we managed to squeeze in a final 45 minutes of snorkeling at another site, Tanjung Tengah (Middle Cape/ Point). This was where I saw my first Titan Triggerfish, a fish that I’ve been told to stay away from at all costs. When I caught sight of it, I started swimming sloooowly away. Well, actually there were two of us swimming sloooowly away, trying not to make eye-contact with it while also trying not to bump into the corals in our semi-haste to escape. Another colleague though was following it from a distance and we wanted to tell her to move away, but what the hey, we were cowards and we wanted to save ourselves. In the end, nothing alarming happened though which made me realise that the Triggerfish was probably a sweetheart with a bad rep.

Nearing the end, I beheld a mesmerising sight – a school of batfish suspended above a coral outcrop. I was in awe and was so excited that I tried to clap my hands but because I was underwater, it was a slow effort. I watched them in near-suspended animation, flexing their tiny fins a little whenever there was a slight current change. They projected a sense of peace which made me feel at peace too. It was a good day.

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A school of batfish sans capes or batmobiles (Tropical Marine Biodiversity

Daily Prompt: Eerie

In response to the Daily Post’s Daily Prompt: Eerie (and based on an actual event that occurred in my office).

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tumblr_mz1cbf1lmf1s3qo6jo1_1280I stepped out of the office into the corridor and heard a woman’s voice wailing and a man reciting the Quran. I walked towards the lifts and saw a crowd had gathered outside the stairwell door where the voices originated from. I went to the washroom located in the other stairwell then quickly returned to my desk. My colleagues asked me what the sounds were and I declared that I didn’t dare look. So, they went.

Several minutes later, they returned and told us that it was Sumi, the lady who cleans our office, she was possessed. Ten people had to hold her skinny and frail body down as the cleric recited verses from the Quran. In our office, we could hear Sumi’s voice – at times, she wailed, then cackled. Her voice altered from a sweet tone to a deep baritone. The hairs at the back of my neck were standing on end as I tried to shut out what was happening just meters from us.

After half an hour, we heard another voice, another cleric and this time he was shouting “Out! Out! Out!” My colleagues rushed to see what was happening now. There was silence, then I heard a loud thud followed by a high-pitched cackle. My colleagues, their eyes wild, marched back into the office. The spirit tricked the cleric, they told me. Inside Sumi’s body, it went limp. Success, everyone thought and Sumi was offered a bottle of water. Sumi became alert and flung out her hand, the bottle flew and she laughed. The recitation continued.

Another half an hour passed, when silence descended yet again. My colleagues, curiouser and braver than I, went out to find out what was happening. There was no one in the stairwell. They went to the other offices to ask what had happened and was told that the spirit inside Sumi didn’t want to leave her body. This was where it belonged after all, and where it was strongest. The cleric decided that for the exorcism to work, it had to be done outside the building and so they brought Sumi away.

Three days later, Sumi was back. She entered our office, her behaviour normal as if not several days before, she was wailing, cackling and jeered at the cleric while he recited the Quran telling him that the recitations were unpleasant to her ears. Before she entered my cubical, she asked if I had any rubbish for her to collect. I felt the hairs at the back of my neck stand and replied “No.”

Daily Prompt: Ancient

In response to the Daily Post’s Daily Prompt: Ancient

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dsc_0413I stood on the exposed terrace of the Aerial Temple, contemplating the crumbled sandstone steps in front of me. Though I was on the second level, away from the crowd walking the grounds, faint tourist chatter still managed to reach me. The guide had explained that kings of long ago used to climb these steps which led to a room with walls made of gold. Whether or not the gold tower room existed out of legend would remain a mystery because from my vantage point, there were only sandstone columns at the top. The steps were steep and there were no handrails. The only way to reach the top was to crawl up the broken steps on all fours. The early afternoon heat warmed my skin as I pondered the climb. I squared my shoulders, secured my rucksack across my body, popped a refreshing mint into my mouth and gripped the first step with my hand. Bits of sandstone broke away. The cool January wind whipped my hair around my head, lightly flicking my face. I took a quick peek behind me and immediately regretted my action. I swayed a little and gripped the steps harder. Several minutes passed and I finally pulled myself up the last one. The scent of sandalwood assailed me. Was there someone else here? I peered around a fallen column adorned with carvings of demons and deities and saw an old woman who was on her knees, clutching incense sticks.  She turned her gap-filled smile my way. So this was where the legendary Snake Princess lived.

Daily Prompt: Jump

In response to the Daily Post’s Daily Prompt: Jump

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It’s Day 6 of our New Zealand trip and we’re in Lake Taupo (toe-paw) which is approximately one and a half hours drive from Rotorua. Well, closer to two hours since the maximum speed limit in New Zealand seems to be 100 km/hr and every time I went up to 110 km/hr, Emily (our GPS) started to ping wildly.

The sign entering the Lake Taupo area proudly proclaimed it to be the ‘Rainbow Trout Capital of the Universe’. Reading the travel brochures, I also learnt that Lake Taupo is actually the crater of an ancient volcano. Though that was an interesting tit-bit, the primary reason for my being in Taupo was because it’s the home of Taupo Bungy.

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One of the Top 10 insanest things I’ve ever done

Little Sis told me, “If you’re going to New Zealand, you have to go bungy jumping, or else what’s the point? It’s where bungy was born!!” How do I argue with that? And so that’s how I found myself standing on a weighing scale getting my weight checked before I voluntarily threw myself off a wooden platform 47 metres above the gushing river below.

“Ok, your weight is 48 kg. You’re good to go,” said the guy behind the counter, his eyes hidden behind matrix-esque sunnies.

“48? Oh, I thought I was 46 kg, must be the mussels,” I said more to myself than to matrix-sunnies guy.

He slipped the receipt into a tag with a lanyard and told me to hang it around my neck, took my left hand and wrote in bold with a flat-tipped marker (not permanent, I later sighed in relief), “48”. Ugh, my weight, for all the world to see. The world being everyone at the bungy centre.

“Erm, so what do I do now?” I asked when actually, what I really wanted was for someone to take my hand and lead me to where I was supposed to go to next. After all, I was on the verge (pun intended) of doing something that my life insurance agent should never be told about as I was pretty sure that if she did, my monthly premium would go up exponentially.

“Head over to the cantilevered bridge over there and queue up and wait for your turn,” he explained slowly in case this Asian person could not understand English. “Have a good jump!” he added as an afterthought.

GULP.

And so, I walked over and waited my turn. In front of me was a Japanese lady. She looked as zen as can be, standing there admiring the view so I thought why not ask her, “Is this your 1st time?”

“No, it’s my 14th.”

“Wow, so, what advice do you have for me? It’s my first time.”

“Just relax, at first you’ll be nervous. I’m always nervous before I jump. But after you jump, no problem!” She assured me.

“Okay…thanks. No problem.” My nerves went into overdrive.

I saw the bungy guys call her when it was her turn and as she sat down on the bench, they strapped the cable around her feet, giving her instructions which I was attempting my best to listen to even though I knew they’ll be giving me the same instructions later. I suppose if I heard it twice, the information would be burned into my brain. When she stood on the ledge, I was extremely nervous (on her behalf) and cringed a little when the bungy master counted down and then I heard her scream as she jumped. Yikes.

I laid my hand on my heart and sure enough, it was beating quadruple-time, as if I’d run full speed for 15 mins around the park in front of my house. Then, it was my turn.

I sat down and as the bungy master strapped the cable on, she asked, “How are you today?” No point in trying to be suave so I replied, “Super-nervous!” And after that she gave me a litany of instructions that’s a blur to me now and next I knew…

…I was at the edge of the platform looking down at the Waikato River.

Yikes! I’m going to go all that way??? It felt like I was going to hyper-ventilate. My ears were beginning to buzz and through the buzzing spimd, I heard the bungy master remind me to put my hands out and after she counted to three, I should lean forward and let gravity do the rest. At that moment, I thought gravity was evil.

I heard her start the countdown – one, two, three… and like an automaton (I’m pretty sure it was just my body responding automatically as my brain had temporarily shut down to protect me from this crazy thing I was nano-seconds away from), my body obediently had its hands out and I leant forward and even at the nano-nano-second before my feet left the platform to meet the air, the motto I read at the Taupo Bungy hut flashed through my mind – Why live on the edge, when you can jump off it? Stupid motto, was what I thought as well.

With that thought, my entire body already in the air, I opened my mouth and screamed and flew…and hoped that the bungy guys got the cable measurement correct.

Daily Prompt: Perplexed

In response to the Daily Post’s Daily Prompt: Perplexed

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He was perplexed.

There was the old go-to needle and thread.  There was also the hole puncher.  Not forgetting the stapler.  But his hand hovered over the paperclip.  Paperclip it is, he thought.  Got to sharpen it first though.  

He picked up the metallic paperclip and used a sandpaper to taper the ends until it was sharp, capable of puncturing through most anything.  Finally satisfied, he turned to the woman on the chair at the far end of the room.  She was bound by her hands and legs with rope as tight as could be.  She tried to wiggle free but the knots were securely fasten.  This wasn’t his first rodeo.  Tears spilt down her cheeks.  Tape over her mouth.

He smirked as he approached her, modified paperclip in hand.  “Now, let’s see about keeping that mouth shut, shall we?”