Monday, April 02, 2007

From the New World to the Old

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At the boat, L-R: Some Chinese dude I don't know, Wang Wei, Marissa, Gene, me, Julia, Hiroki


I don't quite remember when was the last time I went on a bus trip out of town. Of course, "out of town" in the Philippine context pretty much means that you're in Manila (or some other urban center) and you go to the provinces - whether it's a province like the boondocks of Mindoro, where you can die and no one will find your body until a few days later, or like Baguio, where you can sleep happily to your heart's content and actually get away with wearing fur-lined coats. In the Singaporean context, however, "out of town" means "another country" altogether - Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand - you name it, it's just a hop-skip-jump along the way.

So it was quite an opportunity when we signed up for a Malaysia trip courtesy of the NUS Graduate Students' Society. The itinerary included a visit to the fishing village of Kukup in Johor Bahru (the southernmost part of Malaysia, and the one directly connected to Singapore), a seafood lunch, and shopping in downtown JB. Not a bad deal for SGD 30.

Of course, I didn't anticipate the fact that we all needed to be up by 5.30 AM in order to make it to school by 7, or the fact that since there were no shuttle buses (the NUS version of the Ikot/Toki jeepneys) at that unholy hour, we would need to walk. Half-awake, I managed to make it to the parking lot where we were going to meet, and learned that I was the last one on the bus. Ah well. *shrug* There were six of us that signed up: myself, Marissa, Julia, Wang Wei, Gene, and his friend, Hiroki Nomoto. We left NUS just as the sun was coming up.

I suppose what really felt surreal was that, about thirty minutes into the bus ride, we had already reached the border between Singapore and Malaysia, and we had to go down and go through customs. Like what happens in airports, they give you an embarkation/disembarkation card that you fill up en route, and then you queue up and they look at your passport and visa, take half of the e/d card, and stamp your passport. I think this was the time that I realized how contrived Singapore is, and how absurd the border must be, and how necessary it is in this world we live in right now. Anyway, after going through customs, we crossed a bridge across the Causeway, and into Malaysia, where we had to go through the entire rigamarole of having our passports checked. And it was such a difference: on the Singapore side, everything was chrome and clean and sparkling; on the Malaysian side, customs was dark and poorly lit, grimy and creaky.

I loved how Malaysia seemed more lived-in, that there were all these trees and long highways punctuated by the occasional factory or housing development. Even the bumps on the road and the wheezing rattle of the charter bus was more familiar than irritating. From the border, our tour guide took us first to breakfast at a kopitiam (yes, Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine - and the people who make them - are very similar). I had roti prata with chicken curry, and I suppose it's a testament to the fact that I've been living in a country with very spicy cuisine that even though the curry was turning a very mean red, I could barely taste the spices. Their Milo was different, though - in Singapore, there's more of the chocolate than the milk; in Malaysia, it's the other way around.

Afterwards, the tour guide took us to the local pewter factory in JB, where we could see how the workers made pewterware. It was very fascinating: how the boiling liquid was quickly transferred to the mold, how each detail was etched along the shiny silvery surface, how to polish the wares. It was also awfully expensive in the shop, so we just contented ourselves with taking photos of the products on sale.

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Raw and finished pewter materials


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Local handicrafts for sale


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Find the hobbit, win a prize!


And then it was a long, two-hour journey to the village of Kukup, along the JB coast. The village was notable for the houses being on stilts (kinda like our fishing villages in Mindanao). It was very interesting how there were all these cement sidewalk-style pathways connecting one house to the other, and then the seawater just glimmering underneath your feet. The houses were all clustered together rather haphazardly, but they were very pretty, cottage-like bungalows, cemented and painted in bright colors. Everybody there had bicycles, and I'm sure that they all had an amazing sense of balance when it comes to navigating the walkways on their bikes - although I'm sure there's been a couple of accidents already, where kids knocked their heads on the cement or fell into the water. O_o

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House above water...just before high tide


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Transportation of choice


After the walking tour of Kukup Laut (like our word "laot" for "lake," the Malay word "laut" also refers to a body of water) we got into a rickety boat for a tour around the bay. Apparently, Kukup straddled the watery divide between Indonesia and Singapore; in fact, most of the fishermen on the Indonesian side of the village are actually Indonesian. The boat "captain" was this dark-skinned man who spoke rapid-fire Mandarin, which meant that our tour guide had to translate everything. We saw a fisherman harvesting pale jellyfishes from the sea, neatly shucking off the poisonous parts and throwing it back into the sea. It looked like he was was collecting giant, bulbous onions, or maybe gelatinous hot-air balloons. Then we visited a kelong, which is like a fishing outpost on wooden stilts. Kelongs are built in a grid-like pattern, and each "square" has a net submerged in the water to catch fishes and turtles. They also sell dried fish and other marine delicacies on these structures, freshly caught, of course.

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Distant shores


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Stepping across the kelongs


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A show of national pride


Then the boat brought us back to the pier, which doubled as the open-air section of the High King Seafood Restaurant, where we had our lunch. Aside from the six of us, we were joined by two Chinese students who became friendly with Julia and Wang Wei. The food was excellent: we had grouper cooked in vegetables and sweet-and-sour sauce (which leads me to suspect that this might be the grouper we were introduced to at the kelong), barbecued prawns, sea crabs in chili sauce, marinated fish balls (not the fish balls we have at home, mind you, but real white fish meat fried in bread crumbs), the usual green bean sprouts in oyster sauce, and rice bowl after rice bowl. Just as we were settling down, the rain started to pour in earnest, and it felt lovely to just sit back, your stomach full, with snatches of conversation here and there as you watch the boatmen struggle with their fish nets as they hauled their morning's catch to the docks.

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The remains of the day


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Rain on the docks


When the rain abated, we made our way back to the bus and went back to Johor Bahru, and visited a local Malaysian batik shop. The sun mercifully came back just as we got down, since the batik shop had an open-air studio and a man painting golden flower designs on white silk stretched out across a shuttle loom. Inside the shop itself were various Malaysian instruments, like the angklung, which we also have, and lovely hand-painted masks, and of course, swaths of batik silk that exploded in a riot of colors, like you were walking into an orchid garden. I couldn't resist buying a hand-painted batik silk scarf for my mom (they were giving us a student discount, anyway, for 40 ringgit) and I wanted to get a mask for Hiyas, but at 150 ringgit and up, it was more than the money I brought over.

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The artist painting the gold flower design on the silk; colors to be filled in later


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The finished patterns


And finally, just as rain clouds started brewing over the horizon again, the bus took us to the local Giant Supermarket, which was similar to Shop-and-Save in Cubao, for us to buy local goodies or to shop (since prices in Malaysia, when converted, was cut nearly by half than if you'd buy the same product in Singapore; a bargain, if there was ever one) - and I ended up buying hair products and a refill for my Body Shop spritzer. ^_^ We happily hauled our purchases back to the bus - buying a celebratory cup of ice cream along the way - and settled down for the trip back. We left JB at around 5.30 PM and reached Singapore (where it was also raining) around 7. I finally crashed back in the flat just before 8.30, and the bath, as always, after a trip, was heaven-sent.

Of course, after dinner and the bath, I simply crashed on my bed and slept for a good 12 hours.

In hindsight, I think what I really enjoyed about Malaysia - at least from what I've seen - is really the countryside and the landscapes, and how the place felt lived in, how living there felt palpable and real. Singapore now feels so contrived, particularly after the existence of the border that separated the nation-state from the greater Malaya regions, and so sanitized and fake. Malaysia pulsated and breathed under our fingers, where there was more than urbanized HDB flats and high-rises. It felt like how the Philippines should have been like: urban without losing the greenery, developed without being false, being able to appreciate the land and the sea while making a living from it. The countryside even smelled like the province, and if it wasn't for the Malay road signs, it felt like I was on the South Superhighway, on my way to the Batangas coastline. I just wish that our country was able to sustain the kind of lifestyle and livelihood that Malaysia exhibited - a respect for the old way of life while making way for the new, being able to govern a country without losing touch of the values that are inherent to the society, and being able to develop a homeland that people will want to come back to, instead of forcing its citizens to seek shelter in more distant, foreign shores.

PS. More photos up, properly this time, at After Bright Lights. ^_^

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