Saturday, September 4, 2010

Random thoughts on Malaysia

Across the Singapore Straits and into a Malaysian bus station: right away bubblegum, Wrigleys and Turkish lavs, what the Singapore airport calls "squat pans."
When I smell the sharp smell of stale pee, I'm home - it says the old Peoples Republic of Yugoslavia, like nothing else.

Something else reminds me. The waiters, taxi drivers, shop keepers, all insisting as they always had in Tito's patchwork Yugoslavia: "We are one -( Indian, Chinese, Malay, Hindu, Moslem, Buddhist, Christian-) no problem!" "There is no problem here."

In the capital, Kuala Lumpur, we stayed in the Citin for thirty dollars, the street market so close to the hotel steps that Dr. Motes would say "Shall we go in through the handbags or the dresses?"
Close by, was the grand, modern Indian mosque, the muezzin's balcony level with our window. We heard the call to prayer in Malaysia, officially Moslem, everywhere, most clearly at dawn and dusk. But nowhere such a voice, not the high, plaintive call but a passionate, deep voice, halting almost to a sob, on the edge, then plunging forward.

"Wow, think of doing that five times a day!"say I, giving rise to another of those eye-rolling family moments -Dr. Motes informing me: "It's a recording!"
I'd been remembering the imams climbing up the steps of the little mosques in the small towns of Kosovo.

Malaysia retains its colonial buildings, many echoing Westminster and the great old "cathedrals of steam" like Paddington Station. Many a night I've pounded down the platform under those soaring, sooty girders, just before midnight, getting the last train home -the cheap day return! In Malaysia, the mini Paddingtons are built in the Indian style and shine in the sun like white pavilions.

The Federation of Malaya, "belonged" to us, the Brits, till 1963. My older brother, a shy suburban lad, was sent to the jungles of Malaya during his two years of national service, to fight "the Communist insurgency," our mini-Vietnam. So we had airmails from Malaya, and postcards of the beaches of Penang where the soldiers went on leave. There were movies too, back then: seas of dark palms, lying in wait, the plucky tea and rubber plantations, the alien fruits, the heat and sweat.

Everyone apologizes for the heat. But we are from Florida! we say. Hey, we don't even have air conditioning! The straight-backed waiters, the hotel staff in their uniforms and white gloves, look puzzled: they must have misunderstood.
Yes, we know the fruits, the different palms! Living in South Florida links us not only to all things Latin but to Africa, Asia, the old Empire, the old imperial world of bananas and coconuts.

My brother is old style too. His only experience of life outside the UK is as a soldier: Germany and then Malaya. If he came to stay he would recognize a lot from his tropical days in the Durham Light Infantry. But he still has some kind of infection from the jungles of Malaya and says he can't take the heat.

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