Posts Tagged 'Malaysia'

Up and around Penang-2

We now regret a bit that we didn’t decide to fly from Penang to Bangkok and instead are taking the night train which takes about 20 hours. We wouldn’t have minded to stay here a bit longer. The old town is full of beautiful old buildings and coffee houses, a combination Axel cannot resist: sip his cappuccino and sketch. That is how we started our second day in Georgetown.

Last night we had a late night one hour foot massage, expertly (and for Axel painfully) done by two giant Burmese men who had learned the art of reflexology. While Axel let out whimpers of pain now and then, they pointed out that they were working on our spleens, hearts, lungs, digestive system and more. Despite the pain Axel made an appointment for the next evening; there was something very right about what they did. I whimpered only once.

We are both reading the same book: the Gift of Rain, which is a story about the years before WWII on this island and the Japanese occupation of Malaysia. It is a terrifying and beautiful tale of cruelty, love, divided loyalties, co-existence and duty with the beautiful island as a backdrop.

On the recommendation of a Trip Advisor traveler we hired Mogan to take us around the island which turned out to be a great move. Mogan, like Regi and Ravi, is also a third generation Tamil. He showed us the places I was reading about in my book. He took us to the lovely small museum, showed the island’s beautiful architecture and its extravagant temples. Mogan told us many tales about the island where Buddhuism as he called it, Hinduism, Christendom and Islam live side by side, sometimes in harmony, sometime snot, and have been doing so for centuries.

Although third generation, Tamil is still his first language, as it is for his children who learn Malay, English at school and Chinese or Hindi on the side.

We picked a bad day to go up to Penang Hill because of the May 1 holiday. Thousands of people lined up to get into the little mountain train that takes only a 100 people at a time. We bought the fastlane ticket for 10 dollars more which got us to the front of the line. It would have taken us all day to get up and then down again otherwise.

Up on the hill the view is breath taking if you can for a moment forget about the 1000s of other people around you, taking selfies and dragging tired and screaming children along. It’s a bit of a Disney Park up there until you get about 50 meters away from the beaten path. We sat under colorful prayer flags on the empty lawn of the Bellevue Hotel that has been taken over by the government and has fallen into disrepair. I could imagine the pre WWII gardens and the parties held here in the cool air above the stifling Georgetown heat; it was now a badly overgrown garden full of untamed and diseased plants and bushes.

We ended our trip at the old E&O Hotel, a bit like the Majestic in KL, right on the ocean, with a G&T as one should in such places. After a work related call for me we returned to the foot massage place down the street and enjoyed andother hourlong foot massage until after midnight. It made for a good night sleep.

Up and around Penang

We got up early on May (1) day to catch the train to Butterworth, a four hour ride north from KL. The train was modern, airco-ed with assigned seats and not too crowded even though it was a long holiday weekend. I suspect most people had already left on Saturday. While waiting at the KL central station we made friends with a palm oil marketing director whose daughter goes to school in Manchester NH. We wondered how she managed the cold, much as she probably wonders how we manage the hot and humid climate of the Malaysian west coast.

We were a bit disappointed in the food available on the train and noticed most people brought their own. They knew. For coffee there was only 3-in-1 or 2-in-1, both instant packages with sugar and milk powder or only sugar.

We had underestimated the schlepp (especially given the heat and humidity) from the train station to the ferry and from there to our hotel.  We vowed we’d take the road back on Tuesday once we discovered there is a bridge that connects Penang Island with the mainland.

The island looked like Manhattan, from the ferry – tall skyscrapers as far as the eye can see in both directions. This is not quite what we had expected. Luckily we are residing in the low part of town, the old Indian and Chinese quarters with their bustling commercial activities and mixtures of scents of curries and incense.

We were rewarded with a wonderful warm welcome by the innkeepers of the Ren-i-Tang Heritage Inn, a beautifully restored Chinese merchant home in the center of Georgetown’s India town.

The inn has a lovely café open to the street, serving wonderful food. I tried a local dish that let’s you wrap tiny pieces of shrimp, ginger, onion, cucumber, calamansi (small limes) and chillies in a fresh leave from something that grows below our balcony. The assembly concludes or starts with a sweet soy paste and is then popped into one’s mouth.

Everything is very low key. It’s not quite like the Majestic, more homey and very comfortable in a backpackers kind of way – guests greeting each other and exchanging tips, and at a price that is more manageable.  We picked another Heritage house for dinner and are largely making up for the not so great dinners of our Best Western days and its mediocre culinary neighborhood.

Holiday two

We had hired Ravi, a friend of  Regi, a third generation Indian who took Axel around KL one morning while I was still working. Ravi  is also of the third generation, but he ancestors came from Sri Lanka. Ravi took us to Melaka, a place I insisted on seeing even though it is now a tourist trap. Melaka is tied up closely with Dutch history. I had read about my forefathers (and a few unlucky foremothers) who traveled to this part of the world from 1600 onwards. Many died young, in the prime of their life or in childbirth, as did many of their children. This wasn’t an easy climate for the Dutch and they had little resistance to the diseases common here.

We looked at their enormous tombstones which had been lifted from the church floor and stood side by side against the remaining walls of the original Portuguese church.  “hier leyt…” said many, describing the person who was remembered. Later in the museum (the old ‘Stadthuys’ which means town hall in Dutch), we looked at the painted scenes that described how Melaka went from a small village inhabited by forest peoples who lived from the land, the sea and piracy, to the current modern city that lives for a good part from the tourist trade, oil and the technology industry.

Downstairs life size bronze statues represented the various conquerors in front of their flags. Upstairs the various eras (Portuguese, Belanda (=Dutch), British and, Japanese) had their own room with artifacts from that time.  Judging from what I saw in Melaka and what I known from history taught to Dutch school children in the 50s (I was 5 when Malaysia became independent), this has always been a place of great suffering. A suffering that was born out of greed and intolerance. Now it seems peaceful although we figured from Ravi’s explanations that there are dangerous undercurrents here. The surface tolerance between the ethnic and religious groups is paper thin. Below it are the same drgaons of greed and intolerance that are ready to rear their ugly heads.

Ravi took us to the water’s edge so that I could wade my kakies (=feet in Malay, a word that has crept into the Dutch language) in the (in)famous Malaccan Straits waters.  A lovely mosquee was built on stilts and open to visitors, even to foreign Christian women as long as they put on long satiny gown with pink and blue flowers and a baby blue stretchy kind of tube to put one’ head through, leaving only the front of our face visible. All nylong and polyester, the gear left me sweating profusely, but it allowed me to wander around the sacred space, anonymously.

An entire section of town near the old docks had been remodeled and expanded with fancy condos, but them something happened. Nobody lives there and the buildings are falling into disrepair. The large billboards with pictures of beautiful smiling couples clinking their champagne glasses and reclining on fancy furniture are the only remnants of the developers’ visions. The Muslim Malay  (and foreigners, read: Arabs) were not able to pull off the development without the Chinese who refused to be part of this in a subordinate position.  We learned all this from Ravi whose opinions are colored by his own prejudices that were dripping into the conversations. As a Sri Lankan he can never be a ‘bumiputra’ Malay (derived from Sanskrit meaning ‘sons of the soil’.) He will always be a second class citizen. It is a bit like townies in Manchester, except in Manchester we have the same rights – this is not the case here. At any rate, the stalled and mildewy developments reminded me of a similar failed dream on the outskirts of Karachi – that one stalled when the housing prices in Dubai hit rock bottom and people lost a lot of money.

The roundtrip KL-Melaka took nearly 6 hours which meant that we missed both the high tea and the cocktail hour when we came back to our fancy hotel. We were too tired to go out and spent an extravagant amount on dinner because we didn’t understand the arrangement with wines that came out of a machine. Beware of wines that come out of a machine!

Holiday one

We celebrated the end of our assignment in the Buku Bintang area of KL. First we went to the whiskey bar. We ordered samplers of several half ounce glasses (I tried the Japanese collection) and then walked to Alor street to sample KL street food:  durian, sweet yellow and spicy green mango, crayfish and other fish and meat on bamboo skewers, fresh coconut milk, coconut ice cream and much more.

At breakfast we said goodbye to T. who should have landed in Sri Lanka by now. We packed up, did a rather stupid walk at the hottest part of the day in a rather tepid park, took a cab to our new digs, the majestic Majestic Hotel. We splurged by buying the upgrade special for 75 dollars a night which put us in the original Majestic building, feeling like we landed in the days of the Raj. the British left their fingerprints all over the place. The upgrade came with breakfast (apparently quite a spread), an English tea at 5, cocktails at 6, free laundry, free minibar contents and our own butler. After a week of mediocrity and too many Chinese for company in the Best Western, we felt like royalty. We have now a 2 room suite with plenty of horizontal surfaces to spread our belongings; it’s a relief after our dormitary style Best Western roomlet with its tiny desk and twin beds, and hardly any space to manoeuver.

We visited the nearby Textile museum, Axel for the second time, and learned about the many inventive ways that the Malay have adorned their bodies and heads with the most amazing textiles and hats. I don’t understand how these textile techniques work, let alone how they were invented, but for Axel the silk painter, it was all very illuminating.

Tomorrow we will sample the breakfast buffet which will no doubt be an improvement on our breakfast experience of the last few days. At 9 a driver will pick us up to go tho Malaka, a place of great historical interest, some two hours south of KL.

Rolling together

On Wednesday we started the stakeholder meeting – also part of WHO’s Wheelchair Services Training Package (WSTP).  We had expected 50 people but some 35 showed up. We had vendors (wheelchairs are not manufactured locally but imported and assembled here), academics, organizations of people with disabilities and practitioners in the room. We did not have anyone from the central or state governments, nor from the disability rights commission, unfortunately. This is, according to our participants, a symptom. For me it was a missed opportunity. But then again, I remember Harrison Owen Open Space principle: who ever are there are the right people.

We brought the abstract notion of a shared vision to life using a type of airy modeling dough and letting people dream about a barrier free Malaysia.  The modeling dough was sent all the way from China to the US and then carried in checked luggage back to the Chinese neighborhood.  We told people to use all the resources in the room, and they did: the modeling dough, paper, glasses, water bottles and markers. The creations were great.

The visions depicted wheelchair access in 2025 in Malaysia, ranging from  high touch to high tech and everything in between. They then worked backwards and acted out scenarios (in song and mime) that got us from 2016 to 2025. The themes that we identified had to do with standards and guidelines (there are none now), training (there are just a handful of trained wheelchair providers in the country now), teams responsible for strategy development in the hospitals (there are no such teams nor services now), public awareness (there is little of this), stakeholder collaboration (all silo-ed now) and resource development (there has not been much of collective effort to increase funding). The last step in the process brought stakeholders together around areas of common interest, influence, roles and/or expertise. Usually at this point the interest and energy wanes – partially because people are tired but more importantly because I insist that each activity proposed has to have the name of a person willing to take responsibility and lead the effort. But with this group there was none of this. Later, when we reflected on the two days and I asked them where they had felt ‘in the flow’ they mentioned both the dreaming and the activity planning; a first in my experience.

Expanding

Although it is not, as I was told, rainy season, the moment we arrived the monsoons started – thunder, lightning and downpours I have never seen descended on us daily. Since we were in a conference room it didn’t matter to us, except for the breaks which are offered on the hotel’s 15th floor rooftop, next to the pool. The pool would overflow for a while and then everything dries up again. The Malay are very happy about this rain – the draught had reached panic levels. Here, like in Afghanistan, water brings luck. For the most part it is hazy in this otherwise lush tropical paradise. Most of the time we cannot see far from our 13th floor room.

We started on Monday with the management training of people who run either Occupational Therapy services or facilities and who are planning to add wheelchair services to their repertoire. ideally this training is for managers of staff who have just completed the practical training on how to deliver wheelchair services. This is what my colleague T does before I join her.

Through the WHO program people are learning that wheelchair service delivery is more than giving a wheelchair to a person. It includes extensive diagnostic interviews, measurements, wheelchair adaptations & fitting and user training. Few of the 20 participants were actually in management positions (they rarely are in these trainings) and so much of the management content was quite new to them, as was the wheelchair service process.

I have never worked in a middle-income country and I don’t know how they managed to get USAID funding which is usually reserved for low income countries. The difference in attitude is striking: there is no expectation that some outside funder will take care of everything – there isn’t the helplessness (we are poor we cannot help ourselves) that I see so commonly elsewhere. The enthusiasm, the gratitude for this opportunity was striking, and so was the realization that there is money, and that getting it to expand services is possible albeit it difficult.

We divided up the sessions between the three of us and adapted the fixed curriculum to the context. Usually we do this training in a country that has a language and script we do not know. This makes changes nearly impossible as we would need to get translators to make the changes on the slides and the kind of spur of the moment changes I tend to do are not possible. It was a luxury to teach in English and be able to read the slides. It also allows me to put in some leadership content which I can never do in the other settings.

A taste of Malaysia

I arrived in cork dry Malaysia in the afternoon. With hand luggage only I was off the plane, getting through immigration and finding my driver in 12 minutes. It’s  an easy country to get into, compared to others where the lines are long and the paperwork considerable.

Axel waited for me in the lobby of the hotel. He had arrived the night before. We are staying in the Best Western in Petaling Jaya, a suburb of KL. It is enormous and sells itself as a ‘midclass iconic.’  We haven’t figured out the iconic part. The ‘midclass’ part is obvious. It caters mostly to Chinese travelers who are easily recognized by their moving as flocks and very loud voices. We quickly learned to avoid the elevators when a new batch came in.

On Sunday we met with the team, my colleague S. who had flown in from DC and T. from Sri Lanka who had already spent 3 weeks here teaching occupational therapists how to fit wheelchairs for children and adults with a variety of serious physical disabilities. As usual, the before and after pictures were moving: lives are changed for the better.

I have never quite understood Malaysia – there is a part of the country on a faraway island (which I was taught in school is called Borneo – the same island that also houses Brunei). There is Singapore which is on the same peninsula but a city-state all by itself, and there are states, represented in the flag (that looks like the American flag) by stripes.

The food here is quite familiar, similar to the Indonesian cuisine I know so well. Malaysia and Indonesia are like first cousins, close cousins with regard to food and language, more distant culturally depending on which Indonesian island you compare with.  I recognize words that have been integrated in the Dutch language due to some overlapping history.

Although I had just been travelling for more than 24 hours, we decided to go into town (KL) and get at a taste of this place – something hard to get in and around our hotel in the suburbs.  Axel had done his Lonely Planet research and took me to the Old China Cafe in the Chinese quarter. We used Uber and the light rail system which was our first and very positive close encounter with Malaysian society.  We did get a taste of the undercurrents that are stirring up discontent on this peninsula. The Malakka-born traveler next to me nodded indignantly at the young girl sitting on my other side (Bangla, or Indian) who did not stand up for grey-haired Axel while a young Malay boy did. “See,” she said, “these people are no good.” It was the first of several whiffs we got of such attitudes.

I was quite surprised about the pervasive influence of Islam here. I knew Malaysia (like Indonesia) is mostly Muslim but I had expected something a bit more secular (remembering my brief visit to Indonesia in 1989). We are finding something else. Older people have told us the change is slow but persistent – conservative Islam is on the rise. Most women are wrapped up from head to toe in cloth and fashion lines advertise subtle variations on the basic theme: hijab, long dress, long-sleeved tunic.  Some men will not shake hands with women.


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