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As Long as We Remember...

July 29, 2009

Stranger No More

Tom McLaughlin

Kampung Boyan, Sarawak, Malaysia – The sampans ply the Sarawak River between two docks. On one side, where I live, is the city with tall buildings like the Hilton, Grand Margurita (formerly the Holiday Inn), Harbor View Hotel and my 16 story edifice housing my modern condo. These are all at least 10 stories high.


On the other side, in another world, are the Malay kampungs. One and two story houses, some on stilts, hug the river bank and three small streets snake inland. Fronting the river and attached to the first row of houses are a line of stalls which sell satay, fried rice, noodles and other delicious foods.


The sampans are long and low and seat about 10 people, five on each side. They are covered and one must stoop to enter. I cannot count the number of bumps I have on my head from not following this advice. One must also balance the boat with one sitting on one side and then the other until it is full. If not, the boat will tip over. I often have to scold my fellow westerners to sit properly. Because of my weight, I can sit on one side and three locals can face me, then boat is perfectly balanced.


Rush hour, like in the states, is usually in the mornings and late afternoons. Students mill along with workers who are employed in Kuching. Motorbikes are parked at the ferry station as it takes 30-40 minutes to travel between the two points by car. On one particular morning there were about five moving the people on the two minute ride.


Being a creature of habit, I always take one across to the same kedai. Mak’nas, the name, is a cross between a food stall and a restaurant. In the back is a refrigerator, a two burner gas stove and a table for cutting and chopping. In front, several tables, randomly placed, seat four of more. The eating area is under a tin roof and abuts the small road, which can be quite busy at times. Soft drinks are available but no alcohol. This is a Moslem area.


I always sit with my good friend Abdullah. He was raised in English schools and worked in an English speaking environment. As I try improving my Malay language skills, I usually speak in that language while he communicates in English. It must be quite puzzling to passersby as the white guy babbles in the national language while the local speaks Her Majesty’s tongue.


Fried rice, noodles mixed with meat and vegetables or huge bowl of mee soup is my usual meal. The soup contains noodles, veggies and couple of beef bones with small portions of tender meat to be pulled off. Most of the time, I also order Satay, three sticks each of beef or chicken cooked over a small charcoal fire. Spicy peanut sauce is included.


Abdullah and I chat about world events, Michael Jackson’s funeral, for example. We also talk about local things like the upcoming Rain Forest Festival recently. Sometimes we get serious and discuss Islam, but that is another column.


People have gotten used to me by now. When I started going there on a regular basis, they would stare, motorbikes would swerve and cars would stop. They were even more amazed that I speak the local language. I greet the elderly men on the way to the mosque with the greeting selaam alaqoum, peace be with you.


I try to arrive just after Magrib, the evening prayer at about 6:50. I usually stay until about 8:30 the last call, termed Ishak. This allows for about an hour and half for the meal. It also shows respect for my friends who walk to the mosque, next door.


After the call of Ishak, Abdullah leaves to pray and I walk back to the pier. As I wait for the boat, people are clustered around fishing poles, waiting for the next boat, or sitting on park benches.


I keep asking the guys if they have caught any fish (ikan) and they correct me that they are fishing for a type of freshwater crayfish called an udang. They are very patient with me and really should push me in the water because I have yet to get it straight what they are fishing for. I still can’t figure out how they catch these animals with a fishing pole, but will make time one day.


I look forward to dining every day and enjoy the friendships. When not there because of traveling, they welcome me back.


Sometimes it’s hard to be a stranger in a strange land, to quote the book title. But now, I am a stranger no more.


Life is good…


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