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May 9, 2012

Dinner Across the River

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysia Borneo – Sometimes, Suriani, Dzul and I cross the river for dinner. There is nothing Biblical in this; and it has become second nature, like getting in your car and going to a diner in the states.


I use this analogy because the food is all Malaysian, the same as a diner is all American. Good inexpensive food, usually home-made, with friendly servers.


We start by getting my 15-month-old son Dzul dressed, not an easy task anymore. Chasing him around the condo has kept my wife in shape. His pumping little legs can move pretty fast.


We take the lift down to the first floor, counting the numbers as they glide by on the lights. I am not sure if this does any good, but I tell myself it is Dzul’s the beginning to learn how to count. So far, he has the “one” down pat.


We walk through the lobby. He waves at all the security people, and they wave back. I had to tell them that in our culture waving can either mean hello or good bye. Using that gesture is not part of their culture. He has developed the outgoing personality of both my wife and myself and loves everyone.


We walk about 10 meters (30 feet) to a floating platform and climb aboard a small boat (sampan). The fare is around 10-cents per person. This time of year the boats are motored by rice farmers earning a few (very few) extra dollars. They will return at planting time when they will begin bending over a thousand times a day planting the new plants in the oozing mud in water, mid-shin deep.


I stop and ask the fishermen on the dock how many prawns they caught, and they usually show me. Sometimes the baskets hold 15-20; on other days, just one or two. We exchange greetings. They are used to me now, but at first they were stunned to hear a white guy speak Malay.


There are 20 stalls lined up in groups of 10. They all sell their own specialty. I always go to #10 because I have been friends with them since I arrived here four years ago (has it really been that long?) and I know their food to be good.


Prepared under the supervision of Mak’na, a 70+ village lady, I usually order mee soup, a concoction of beef, noodles, wedged tomatoes, a green of some sort, and a poached egg floating on the top. Really delicious!


By the time I have finished ordering, Dzul has disappeared. Suriani gave him to someone and he has been paraded down the line and shown to everyone including people in the back rooms.


This bothered me at first. We were at a fried chicken establishment and Suriani passed him over the counter to the lady taking our order. He went back to meet the cook, dishwasher and whoever else was around only to return with our order.


The same thing happens at the stalls and Suriani and I talk while Dzul visits. He returns usually with our meal. My wife has ordered mee goreng, a fried noodle with chicken, soy bean curd, a green something and chilis on the side. Dzul is hand fed, as is the custom, and enjoys his meal. I usually let him down and he chases the cats while Suriani finishes her meal in peace. Everything cost around $3.


When they are eating, a visit to the Imam and other mosque leaders is of great importance. I take his hand and bring it to my forehead as a sign of respect. I do this to other elders. It is an acknowledgement of their religion and their importance within the community. The tables around them get very quiet in disbelief that a white guy would show such homage. I am glad of that.


On leaving, we visit the fish monger with his piles of neatly arranged specimens, people selling aphrodisiacs harvested from the jungle, and tables of fake jewelry. They are all friends after many, many visits.


We then take the sampan back, sometimes stopping for an ice cream.


I have taken this small journey many, many times and it never grows old. And I don’t think it ever will.


…Life is good. . . . .


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