My theme this year came to me immediately after I was done with the challenge last year. In fact, I even started brainstorming some post ideas! So, this year, for 26 days, my posts will be centered on the theme
I’m excited to write about the food, culture and everything else about Malaysia. So far though, the posts I’ve drafted are food-related 😀 Which isn’t surprising because we Malaysians are food-obsessed! Can’t wait to start posting as well as reading everyone else’s posts!
Last year, a friend from Canada came to Malaysia and was in the country in time for the Thaipusam holiday. She’d already made plans to go to Batu Caves, one of the main hubs of the celebration, to observe the procession and asked me if I’d ever been. I had to confess that I’d never gone to Batu Caves to participate in the Thaipusam celebrations. Thaipusam is one of those festivals that I wish I knew more about and since the celebrations started yesterday, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share what I do know already and also what I recently found out:
#1. We get a holiday – Any festival that results in a holiday is a worthy one to celebrate, in my books. However, not all of the states in Malaysia declares Thaipusam a holiday so boo hoo to those states that have to work on Thaipusam.
#2. Batu Caves becomes a sea of people – The Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple located at Batu Caves (or Rock Caves) is one of the main places where Thaipusam is celebrated. There’ll be masses of people, locals and tourists alike. Apparently, this year, 1.6 million people are expected at Batu Caves.
#3. It starts with a procession – The night before Thaipusam, Hindus gather at the Sri Mahamariaman Temple along Jalan Tun HS Lee (Chinatown/ Petaling Street area). From there they will leave around midnight on a 15 kilometer (approximately 8 hour) walk. During this procession, devotees pull a golden/ silver chariot. Penang, another location that celebrates Thaipusam on a grand scale, apparently has a golden AND a silver chariot procession this year.
#4. There are piercings everywhere – During this festival, devotees choose to honour Lord Murugan by the carrying of kavadi. I’ve always thought that the kavadi refers only to the elaborate framework that is attached to the devotees bodies via hooks or piercings. Now, I know that a kavadi can also refer to a metal pot filled with milk, carried on the head or shoulders. Seeing a kavadi-bearer pierced multiple times can be pretty gruesome.
#5. Coconuts are everywhere too – A whole lot of coconut smashing goes down during Thaipusam as well. The coconut is an auspicious fruit for Hindus and apparently, the action of smashing a coconut on the street is to cleanse the street before the chariot passes through. This year, an additional one million coconuts had to be imported from Indonesia to cater for the demand during Thaipusam.
This video from National Geographic shows how Thaipusam is celebrated in Malaysia (Warning: Piercings pretty much dominate)
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.
#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.
#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.
#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.
#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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
In response to the Daily Post’s Daily Prompt: Eerie (and based on an actual event that occurred in my office).
I 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.”
We entered my Uncle’s house. The Uncle who’d just passed away the previous evening. My father’s sister-in-law saw us and immediately went to my father, clutched his shoulders and wailed. My mother and I excused ourselves as we walked pass the relatives who were already there, sitting cross-legged, on the kasah that was scattered on the floor of the living room. We sat in a corner of the room furthest away from my Uncle’s body.
I’d gone back to Kuching that weekend to spend time with Auntie Jenny and Uncle Steve, who’d come all the way from England. The possibility that I’d be on the way to Simunjan, a 2.5 hour drive away, that hot and sultry Saturday morning with my parents, was unplanned for. Truthfully, I was reluctant to go. I didn’t know my father’s relatives and the customs. I was afraid that I’d accidentally say or do something inappropriate. After mulling it a bit, I decided not to worry about it though because surely everyone would be busy planning for the funeral and I’d just be another face in the crowd.
Unfortunately, despite trying my hardest to be unobtrusive, relatives descended upon me mainly because…
…of my tattoos. You would think that coming from an ethnic group that prides itself on its tattoos that having them would be commonplace. Apparently not among this group of Ibans. Except for me, no one else had visible tattoos. I kept catching the older relatives glance not too discreetly at my tattoo-adorned wrists and ankles. The younger relatives were just outright staring as they sat on the wooden benches chain-smoking.
…I barely speak the language. Growing up, I learnt the native language my mother spoke, not my father’s. The only thing I knew how to say in my father’s native language is makai (eat), ngirup (drink), jalai (walk) and aku enda mereti (I don’t understand). Thankfully, Iban and Bahasa Malaysia have similar words so when one of the relatives spoke to me in Iban, I tried to catch any Bahasa Malaysia-sounding words and extrapolate the conversation from there. Even then, the relatives tended to speak to me three or four at a time and this made following any conversation difficult. In the end, I smiled and replied au (yes). I had some weird looks when I kept repeating au, but I was overwhelmed.
…I am still unmarried. My relatives (and even strangers, unfortunately) love asking about my marital status. I didn’t think this question would even come up though since it was a wake and the last thing anyone should be talking about is who is married and who isn’t. I was wrong. Again. A grandaunt asked my father how many children he has and was I the oldest, youngest or middle child. She then asked him if I was married and when he replied that I was bujang (single), that’s when my ears perked up. She followed up with asking if my younger siblings were married and when he responded in the affirmative, her eyes widened with surprise (I suppose). This discussion between the grandaunt and my father attracted the attention of the other relatives and the word bujang kept coming up. I inched away from them as stealthily as possible and went outside where no one was talking about my state of singlehood (I hope).
Maybe next time, at another gathering of relatives, I’ll cover up my tattoos and get a quickie marriage so that the relatives will notice someone else instead.
It was Christmas 2014 when my mother finally decided to go through the attic in Babai’s house. She’d enlisted me to help and before I knew it, I was holding the ladder steady while she climbed up to the attic.
Among the many treasures she discovered were these rattan hand-woven baskets Babai made. We were pleasantly surprised to find them in fairly good condition despite the fact that they must’ve been left up in the attic since he passed away 7 years ago.
Most of my grandparents passed when I was very young and Babai, my mother’s father, was my sole grandparent for many years and because of that, he was the closest grandparent to me.
I didn’t know that much about him and it was only several years before he died that my late uncle revealed that Babai was a champion poet among the villages in the area. I remember thinking then Oh, that’s where our creative streak comes from.
I have memories of Babai membalas pantun (sing song reply in poetry form) with other village folk but didn’t realise that he was considered as one of the best. That night when we found out his status as a champion poet, he was singing in poetry form with a friend and I assumed then that it was merely a hobby.
“He was very sharp and quick with his rhymes in his younger days”, said my uncle.
Oh, I thought and looked over at Babai as he sat in his chair with a plate of sticky rice balanced on his lap, exchanging rhymes with his friend while waving his hand in the air to emphasise his point.
Though he suffered a stroke when he was younger which left the right side of his body semi-paralysed, Babai still managed to keep busy by weaving rattan baskets. Most of the baskets were used daily while some were given away. As far as I knew, none were sold. In fact, he was also one of the last in the village that possessed the skills and knowledge to do this. I remember asking my mother several months ago if there was anyone in the village who could teach me to basket weave and she told me that Babai was likely the last to know how. That knowledge made me regret not asking him to teach me while he was still alive.
So, when several of his baskets were unearthed from the attic, some of them not quite finished, I asked my mother if I could keep one. I chose a small basket or reked, and it hangs on the wall of the corridor that leads from my bedroom to the main living area of the house. Every time I walk along that corridor, I look at it and remember Babai as he sat on a small wooden stool, on the patio of his house in the village, weaving the rattan strips, creating cherished objects.
So, this is where I get my regular fix of chestnuts. Or “chest nuts” as the sign says. This fellow is parked in front of my local supermarket most evenings and when I’m in the mood for chestnuts, I drop by and get a bag. These days, he’s diversified to steamed peanuts and also sweet potatoes. I’ve yet to try either.
Here, the chestnuts are being “dry-fried” in a wok with pebbles stained with black soot. There’s lots of popping and I stand back a little. Once done, he removes all of the chestnuts using a slotted ladle and places them in the blue box behind the wok and stuffs a pillow into the box to keep the heat in and chestnuts warm.
Not quite “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” but when I crave for chestnuts, this will more than satisfy the craving.