So many things have happened this last two weeks that I have difficulty processing them, so what follows is just a bit of narrative. I said to Joan when we met at KL Airport that this would be the ‘holiday of a lifetime’ and so far it has more than lived up to that billing. Here are some of the higlights so far:
- Taking vicarious and undeserved pride in my association with the guru of Talking Mats, helping more people in yet another country to communicate better.
Getting to know Fuziana and Ayub again after many years and meeting two of their lovely daughters, Fazlinah and Naziah (the third one, Azimah, is studying in Medan). Fuziana’s generosity was overwhelming, despite her poor health, and the food she prepared at home for us was second to none, especially the Nasi Lemak for breakfast!
- Meals out in KL – eating classic South Indian vegetarian food with our fingers (makan tangan) off a banana leaf with Joan’s Speech Therapy buddy Cecilia and her husband and another equally good banana leaf curry for lunch with Emmanuel in the Royal Selangor Club; classic dosa with teh tarikh in Little India; roti canai with fresh mango juice for breakfast; ikan assam pedas with Ana and her family on our last evening out.
- Meeting the children of our friends Malinee and Natasha, each of whom had stayed with us at different times in Stirling when studying in the UK in the 80s and 90s.
- Wandering the older streets of KL as we did many years ago, even revisiting the YMCA building where Joan and I first hooked up more than 36 years ago.
- Shoogling our way back on KL’s fast LTR (Light Transit Railway) to Fuziana’s house in Kampong Datuk Keramat, feeling quite at home with the ultramodern and faded post-colonial mix that is KL today.
- Revisiting Bukit Fraser (first time April 1975, second time April 2011!) – now a ‘resort’, then a colonial hill station and playing a round of golf on a course soaked by continual monsoon type rain, while Joan nursed a sore stomach after eating a rather unpleasant kway teow (“I’ll never eat kway teow again”).
- Driving along the old highway (not the new superfast motorway) to Penang, which we last visited as part of our first holiday on our own together, in December 1975.
- Discovering that the cheap and charming old Chinese courtyard hotel we stayed in, which at that time was a brothel (in fairness, we didn’t notice that for some time!), has recently been elegantly refurbished to a high standard ( Yeng Keng Hotel). We were amazed that it had not been knocked down long since.
- Experiencing the generous hospitality of Kien Eng and Chee Keong, picking up our friendship where it was left off last time, learning about their new life in Penang and meeting their beautiful children Euan and Enna, both of whom sung beautifully for Joan, moving her to tears.
- Eating till we dropped in the perfect mixture of cooking styles that can be found in Penang – more kari daun pisang (banana leaf curry) dosa and roti canai, hokkien mee and malay sayur santan kelapa in a massive Chinese food bazaar, drinking cendol and watermelon juice, fruit feasts of mango, papaya and durian.
- Climbing Penang Hill (part!) with thousands of local people to take in a view of the city of Georgetown, then wandering around some of the classic low rise shop house areas and floating residential jetties which brought the city World Heritage status (twinned with Melaka) in 2008.
- Revisiting the island paradise of Langkawi (first time 1976 second time 2011!). When we visited first, with our friends Rose and Tim, there were very few roads connecting a few fishing villages to the jetty at Kuah, where one or two streets of recently constructed concrete shop houses ending in a solitary hotel. The beaches were deserted. Now four lane highways lead from the international airport to scores of ‘resort’ hotels, carrying the international tourist trade (now Arabic countries top the list of visitors) to their duty free shopping heaven. Despite this, Kieng Eng and Chee Keong showed us some of the best of the island, with a beautiful hotel, a fabulous trip to the northern Mangrove swamps and meeting some great friends of theirs for a lovely shared meal.
- Driving across the inhospitable centre of the peninsula on the Northern East-West highway, which didn’t exist in our day – to cross the country you had to drive down to Kuantan – through jungles that were once home to the Communist Insurgency, with a small minority still active even as late as 1975.
- Arriving in Besut on the ‘untouristy’ southern side of the River Besut (the tourist traffic to the Perhentian Islands follows the road on the north of the river to Kuala Besut), and, despite some obvious changes, immediately recognising the laid back atmosphere, the friendly interest in strangers and Sekolah Menengah Tengku Mahmud (TM’s Secondary School), where I spent many a happy morning teaching English, and many a happy late afternoon playing football. Now it is much grander than in those days, with an impressive three story Science block among many other new buildings, but the core of the school and the rooms where I taught are still recognisable even now, although my old house has been knocked down long since. 35 years melted away as I chatted with some students waiting to go home for the weekend.
- Sitting late at night on the dazzling deserted beach at Air Tawar, looking across the sea to the Perhentians, lit up by a half moon and some bright bright stars.
- Meeting up with Sudin bin Ismail, one of my favourite students from that time. I had one clue only to where he lived and after several enquiries taking me to different little villages, eventually was led to his house by two laid back local guys who took an interest in my quest. It was very moving to meet up with him again after all these years. I really regret that I did not bring my 1970s address book out with me, so that I could have tried to trace some more of my former students. I still remember so many of their names.
- Proving to myself that my memory isn’t as bad as I thought it was, as so many Malay words and phrases suddenly reappeared at the right time so that both Joan and I were able to chat to local people in Malay.
- Wandering round Jerteh’s new open air food stall padang looking for the perfect Malay roadside meal to celebrate Joan’s significant birthday, and ending up eating a less than average plate of nasi goring (fried rice) as we made the wrong choice of stall. However we did end the evening with a very nice cup of Kopi Tarikh.
- Relaxing on the beach at Bukit Keluang, now as then a favourite picnic spot for locals, made much more accessible by a broad new road, listening to the high volume off key music being punted out by a local DJ.
The next challenge is to drive down the 200 miles of East Coast soft sandy beach and turquoise seas between Besut and Kuantan, stopping off to stay with my friend Razali in Kuala Terengganu, wondering if we could ever get fed up with waking to a blue sun-kissed sky, eating nasi lemak and roti canai, drinking cendol and air batu campur or eating fruits such as mango, rambutan, watermelon and papaya in season.