It’s a funny thing coming home.
Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same.
You realize what’s changed, is you.
It was time for my bi-annual trip back to Malaysia and I was so looking forward to it. This was the first time I flew back in June and not December. A number of reasons and among them was that my father was seriously ill earlier this year and although he pulled through, I needed to see him for myself. My brother-in-law passed away last August and I couldn’t fly back. I wanted to be there for my sister and her children for the first Eid without him. And this was also my first Eid celebration after 22 years away. It was also to celebrate a new Malaysia, as the 60 year old ruling party was defeated in the May elections and she’d her first women deputy prime minister and the oldest prime minister in the world.
Babe took the first photograph of my flight as it flew over Brandon Marsh. He went there as soon as he left me at the airport. The trip from Birmingham to Dubai went smoothly and I was chuffed that Emirates had the film Black Panther on board. Apart from watching some other unmemorable films, I spent the 6.6 hours journey doing Sudoku, playing CandyCrush and reading Phillip Pullmans latest novel ‘La Belle Sauvage’. I was only in transit for 2 hours but the flight was delayed for nearly an hour because they were waiting for passengers from other flights. It was the umrah season and there were many Malaysian pilgrims making their way home for Eid.
The flight arrived in Malaysia 1.5 hours late. I e-mailed Babe while waiting for my luggage which due to the number of passengers, was taking a while to arrive. He knew my flight details because he was monitoring it remotely. As soon as I exited from the arrival entrance, I could see my sister waving enthusiastically. Poor girl. She’d been waiting for nearly 2 hours. After hugs and kisses from her and my nephews, we made our way home. I called my father who was waiting at home and then Babe, to say that I’d arrived safely. As soon as we arrived at my sister’s house, my father was already waiting under the porch. After the obligatory bear hugs, he said a prayer of thanks for my safe journey.
We chatted while I’d a late lunch. Everyone else was fasting for Ramadan and I was exempted due to the long journey. Then a cold shower before heading for bed. They woke me up about an hour before breaking fast time. All the children were home to break their fast and the dining table was groaning, loaded with food. It was a smorgasbord that looked like a visual encyclopaedia of Malay cooking. During Ramadan, food stalls propped up selling all sorts of food and each of the children bought something home to be added to the table. My sister had 6 children and going food shopping when you’re fasting wasn’t a good idea. The table was so full that another table was added so that we could eat together.
We’d a fabulous polishing the food. I missed having long dinners around the table, enjoying each other’s company, sharing the day’s news over lovely food, fostering that sense of belonging. It was nearly 2 hours before everyone left the table and the men missed their tarawikh prayers. Oops …We continued chatting right through the night and the telephone started ringing as my cousins and aunties got the news that I was back. My sister and I didn’t sleep at all as we waited for sahur, the meal before sunrise. This was the only meal we were having for the day until the sun sets at about 7.30 pm.
As usual, I called Babe every morning at 7 am, Malaysia time which was 12am UK time. Malaysia was 7 hours ahead which meant that when I said good morning to Babe, he would wish me good night. After all these years, it was still confusing. I spent most morning reading La Belle Sauvage which was very intriguing. Later in the afternoon, my sister and I would go to the supermarket and wet market to get stuff for the evening meal. Since I was here, I got to choose the menu, which was very exciting. There was soo much food that I wanted to eat and so little time. We don’t start cooking until about 5 pm. Since it was so hot, everyone had a siesta for about an hour. That helped to pass the time and the hunger.
About 5 pm, my sister and I were in the kitchen preparing the meals. My father was always around to supervise and helped a bit. The children would call to ask if there was anything we wanted to add to the meal. Often, they came home to take me out to these pop-up food stalls which was mind blowing, selling all kinds of delicacies. One of the most distinguishing aspect of Ramadan in Malaysia were the Ramadan bazaars that were popping at almost every corner, selling a huge array of mouth-watering delicacies to break your fast with. A visit were a feast for the senses, as we were assaulted with all kinds of aromatic smells wafting in the air as we walked from one end to another. It was easy to get carried away, buying more than what we could eat, which defeated the purpose of the holy month. Most often, those who were working just bought the food to eat at home. People from other races were also seen out and about as this was also the time for them to buy and taste authentic Malay cooking. I tended to buy savouries and the barbecued meats.
The fasting don’t deter us from making preparations to welcome Eid. The excitement had built up usually on the first day of Ramadan itself, where families started shopping for new clothes and accessories, baking cookies and decorating their homes. Brightly coloured twinkling lights were seen adorning houses, mosques and shopping complexes. There was the visits to various banks to ask for money envelopes which were given free with their logo printed on it. These were filled with money and given to young children or the elderly.
The festival of Eid was announced on Friday the 15th. It marked the end of Ramadan and was on the first day of the month of Syawal. It was the day (beginning at sunset) of the first sighting of the crescent moon shortly after sunset. The day before Eid, my sister was busy preparing the obligatory rendang, a rich and tender chicken stew made with chicken, spices and coconut milk. It was cooked on a low heat for hours and you have to sit beside it to stir it occasionally to make sure it doesn’t burn. We left this to my nephews with my father supervising them.
Later at night, one of my nephew invited me to Kuala Lumpur to see last night of Ramadan shopping. During Ramadan, one of the major shopping area, Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman was transformed into a night market where petty traders and hawkers sold an assortment of Raya goodies in the open air. This stretch of road was flanked by pre-war buildings whose distinctive facades had been preserved and readapted to accommodate modern retailing businesses. Here, cars were parked haphazardly with the stalls spilling into the street. What a festive atmosphere. Raya songs was blaring into the night, with the honking of horns and from time to time and firework displays lit up the skies. You have to have your wits with you and lots and lots of patience. Traffic barely moved that we were able to stop beside a cookie stall and bought tubs of cookies before joining the traffic. No one bat an eye-lid. Everyone was in a good mood.
On the way home, we stopped at Dataran Merdeka to watch the clock chimed at midnight. It was situated in front of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, a late 19th century building which originally housed the offices of the British colonial administration. It was here the Union Flag was lowered and the Malaysian flag hoisted for the first time at midnight on 31st August 1957. Since then, Dataran Merdeka had been the venue for the annual Merdeka parade. In front of the building was located a 95 metre flagpole, one of the tallest in the world. When the clock struck 12 midnight, the 5 of us stood under the flag and sang Negara ku, the national anthem. There were a lot of visitors about and they joined in and later everyone clapped their hands and shouted Merdeka, Merdeka. It was hilarious but so much fun.
On Eid morning, everyone got up early and dressed in their best clothes. Blue was the colour they chose this year and they even got me a beautiful long maxi.The males went to the mosque to perform the Eid prayers with hundreds of other Muslims. Before performing the prayers, one of my nephew paid the zakat for the whole family. Zakat was the 3rd pillar of Islam, a mandatory charitable contribution which would be distributed to the poor. While the men were in the mosque, the women stayed at home to prepare the Eid meals. We could go to the mosque if we wanted to. About 2 hours later, the men returned and all of us enjoyed the special celebratory meals. After that was the posing for the obligatory family portrait and then going around asking for forgiveness, with the youngest starting first.
After the Friday prayers, we headed to my late brother-in-law’s grave. The cemetery was busy with families paying their respects. We laid flowers and my father said prayers. RIP Khamarul. Then we got ready to drive back to Port Dickson to visit my late Mother’s grave. We headed straight to the cemetery, laid flowers and said prayers. I was chuffed to find a bird nest with 2 tiny eggs on a shrub that we planted on top of her grave. Even the birds wanted to keep my mother company. Then straight home and found out that there was no electricity!!! One of my nephew called the electric company and they came straight away. After they’d restored the electricity, we invited them in for cookies and coffee. It was Eid after all. Later that night, the youngsters were outside letting off fireworks, firecrackers and sparklers. They were having a competition with a few houses around the village and all you could hear were the sound of exploding fireworks echoing. They were trying to do each other with massive displays and huge bangs.
The next day, all of us headed out searching for breakfast. Most shops were closed because it was still the holiday and festive season but we found one by the beach. We’d a leisurely breakfast before planning our itinerary for the day. My father wanted to go back to my maternal grandmother’s home about 2 hours drive away. Usually, the first three days of Eid were reserved for visiting relatives. In Malaysia, the first 2 days were public holidays but most people took a week off. Those working in the cities returned to their hometowns and reunited with their parents and old friends, leaving the cities quiet and empty. And the roads leaving the cities would experience a horrendous traffic jam as people made their exodus.
We closed the house, packed our stuff and went to my late Mother’s grave to say goodbye. On the way to my grandmother’s, we stopped at my favourite place to feed the monkeys. There were already a few cars by the lay-by throwing fruits to them. A few came over to check us out. As soon as they saw a car stopping, they would come close and waited in anticipation. They never climbed on top of the cars like the monkeys in the safari parks here in the UK. We threw bananas, water melons and carrots from the safety of our cars. We didn’t stay long.
Our first stop was at my Grandmother’s house. The place was buzzing as all the children and grandchildren had turned up. It was a tradition that on the first day, everyone congregated at the most senior family home. It was a joyous occasion filled with festive cheer and merriment. My poor aunties were swept off their feet, entertaining and preparing the meals. It was lovely catching up with everyone, some of whom even my father had not seen for a long time. Eid was seen as a time for reconciliation and the renewal of family ties and it was touching to see the festive season beyond feasting and celebration. We let the visitors had the first share of the food as they were leaving together to visit another relative in another town.
When they’d left, my aunties took the opportunity to have their lunch before the next visitors arrived. Before we left, it was the obligatory photograph on the steps with the tribe. Most of the houses in the village were built on stilts which was originally built to avoid wild animals, floods, as a deterrent for thieves and most importantly, for added ventilation. Steps were built to reach the elevated interior and there were additional steps at the back of the house. Nowadays, the lower spaces were normally boarded up and made into extra rooms or garages.
Our next visit was to another aunt’s house in another village. She had not been well and it was a great opportunity to pay her a visit. Again, her house was packed as all her children and grandchildren were here celebrating the festive season. My cousins worked all over the country and because of the long holiday season, Eid was the only time they could all meet and celebrate together. It was a golden opportunity to catch up while indulging in the various delicacies. And what better place than at their parents house. Once a year, this house was filled to the brim again. I was also chuffed that another cousin who had studied at the University of Kent was also there.
Our last visit was to another aunt, this time from my father’s side, in Seremban. I haven’t been to their house since I moved to the UK and there were a lot of changes in the area. I stayed in a boarding school in Seremban and it felt strange coming back. It had changed so much. My Aunt was at home with my eldest cousins but the rest of the tribe were out visiting their friends. We didn’t stay long as it was getting late and we’d received news that all the roads into Kuala Lumpur were congested. Before we left, I took the opportunity to check out this amazing playhouse that my cousin had built for his children. It was a replica of a traditional Malay house.
One of my nephew, Erif, celebrated his 20th birthday and we surprised him with a huge party at the Aroi Dee Thai restaurant located at the Palm Garden Hotel IOI Resort City where my niece used to work. We told him that it was a dinner for me and you could see how shocked he was when the waiter brought the cake after we finished our dinner. We embarrassed him more by singing Happy birthday and the hotel staff and the rest of the diners joined in. It was wonderful. He was so overwhelmed that he shed some tears. Happy birthday Eriff and may you have everything you wished for.
The restaurant had moved to a new location by the golf course. The name ‘Aroi Dee’ simply meant ‘great taste’ in Thai and that was what we were served at this lovely restaurant. As usual, we started the meal with Tom Yam seafood, a spicy and sour soup. Then the main meal which consisted of Kai Kha Tak (sizzling chicken style), Near Pad Prik Thai Dam (stir fried beef with black pepper), Plar Neang Si Eaw (steamed fish with ginger and soy sauce) and fried mixed vegetables. All eaten with fragrant steamed Jasmine rice. We finished the hot, spicy meal with a cool dessert which was Tab Tim Crab (water chestnut with chilled coconut cream). We’d a wonderful time polishing the meal.
My niece later accompanied me to Kuala Lumpur because I wanted to get some souvenirs and tee-shirts for Babe. We took the LRT (Light Rail Transit) from Pucong to Kuala Lumpur. It took us only an hour and we whizzed past some amazing sceneries. It was very strange that only 20 years ago, the housing estates that we passed through were either tin mines, oil palm and rubber plantations. All these industries were now long gone and replaced with homes while the people worked in the cities. That was also why LRT were built to make it easier for people to get to work and discouraged them from driving. The train were running every 15 minutes and fares were reasonably priced.
We disembarked on the Central Market station which was just a few minutes away from our destination, which was the Central Market. The original building was built in 1888 by the British and was originally used as a wet market. The current Art Deco style building was completed in 1937. It has been classified as a Heritage Site by the Malaysian Heritage Society and was now a landmark for Malaysian culture and heritage. It had stalls representing the different items and ethnic groups living harmoniously within Malaysia.
We stopped for lunch at one of the hundred stalls scattered around the area. We didn’t eat in the Central Market because it was quite expensive. We’d Indian style fried noodles with satay and washed down with a tall glass of iced lemon tea. Then we went back indoors to get a few tee-shirts for Babe and a few obligatory souvenirs. At first, I planned to check out the famous Petaling Street but it was too hot to wander about. We bought a few traditional cakes for tea and headed home.
We were shocked when one of my nephew, Evin, was hospitalised for a week with dengue, a viral infection. The viruses were transmitted through the bite of infected Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus female mosquitoes that fed both indoors and outdoors during the daytime (from dawn to dusk). Thankfully, it don’t spread from person to person. We still took precautions by closing the house at dusk and sprayed with mosquito repellant and burning mosquito coils indoors. It was a common outbreak in Malaysia and monthly Spray Chamber Thermal (Fogging) and Environment Fumigation Spray (ULV) were carried out.
I’d a very busy time visiting relatives and friends, shopping, travelling and eating out. There was so much catching up to do during the three weeks I was in Malaysia. In between, I managed to watch the World Cup when it was played on terrestrial tv. The popular team matches were played on subscription tv which we don’t have. It was quite difficult to follow due to the different time zone. I was chuffed to see England playing well. I also read Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage at every opportunity. The camera was never far away and I love this shot of my youngest nephew, Eris, imitating the pose of his pet cat, Oranjie. Both of them were real posers.
After 3 weeks, it was time to fly back to the UK. I’d a wonderful time with my family but I have commitments in the UK. My heart was in Malaysia, but my life was here in the UK. The whole family took the day off to send me which I found hilarious. I stopped at the hospital to say good-bye to Evin. Since it was an early flight, we decided to have breakfast at the airport. Then it was time for good-byes and hugs. It was very hard to say good-bye to my elderly father but cie la vie.
“The magic thing about home is that it feels good to leave,
And it feels even better to come back”