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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Borneomen Travelers Tales

Tuan Tanah Inggeris

I finally had a chance to leave civilized Borneo to pay homage to the land of my-once-colonial master, England, that small island with its leader now relegated to being a mere poodle of the U S of A. I was there to attend an industry seminar at my company’s UK facility near Grantham. The seminars used to be held in Houston, but after ‘9-11 the company has found it easier for participants to enter the UK with much less hassle; benefitting the UK in this regard. Furthermore, as a Malaysian, all I needed was to flash my passport and without having to show proof of employment, bank statements, tax returns and the like. Actually I was told to carry the aforesaid documents – just in case, but I had simply forgot since I was pressed for time in my preparations for travel.

I like the English, not quite its people mind you - but particularly its language, without which I would be unable to share my thoughts with you, perverse they may be. Luckily most Malaysians do not share English customs and mannerisms (arguably some do), and for those of Malay stock will look to Indonesia. Malay Malaysians as part-Indonesians? For sure, why not. For me, I have not once looked down at the ‘orang seberang’ – even as Malaysian newspapers keeps trumpeting daily stories of Indonesian criminal gangs terrorizing Malaysians wholesale. How could I ever deny my roots? Both my grandparents’ on my mother’s side were born somewhere near Bukit Tinggi, Sumatera. So that makes me second generation. But to hear Malay Malaysians invectives like ‘orang Indon’ in the tone bordering contempt and spite when referring to Indonesian migrant contract workers – well, that’s just beyond me. It’s like spitting on your parents’ grave.

I left Balikpapan, Indonesia on the last Friday of September, and two days later I found myself outside Heathrow’s Terminal 3, smoking a cigarette at four in the chill of the English afternoon. It also the fasting month of Ramadhan, and I sheepishly admit I wasn’t fasting that day. And why not? Because I just couldn’t find it in me to go without food and water for 20 straight hours.

The plane took off from Kuala Lumpur on the following Sunday with my tummy nicely filled from sahur at my house earlier that morning. As I sat in that cramped 'cattle class' amongst mostly college students (probably going to UK for the start of the new school year in the Fall), I instinctly knew that I was not going to relish my next meal at all, because the UK is never known for its grastonomic delights, unlike France for instance. I had also plainly forgotten that as the plane traveled westward, the sun would also chase the aircraft along the same path, verily ‘extending’ the daylight. At 3.30 pm local London time when I exited the Jumbo Jet in Heathrow, it was already 10.30 pm nighttime in Malaysia – and still about 3 hours from ‘breaking fast’ in UK. Yes, that would make it about 20-odd hours or so, if one were to be fastidious in observing the fast. But don't worry, being the weakling that I am, I broke fast at 'local Malaysian time' since I never bothered to change the hands of my watch for that very purpose. Breaking fast with some Tamar which the small-breasted but lithsome stewardess brought, taking care to fight-off the instinct of looking down her kebaya dress as she bent to serve me, I moved the shades up a little to see that it was blazingly bright outside. I knew there and then I was going to have to Qada (replace) this invalid fast (and that's not for looking down that stewardess's dress either) .

Which is why I have so much shock and awe for my old friend Captain Pakern who drives Jumbo Jets for a living. He can actually sustain his fast throughout transcontinental crossings similar to one I’m undertaking. All the while nudging levers and pressing buttons throughout the ‘crossing in full concentration that his job demands - and being responsible for hundreds of lives-it’s quite a feat.


Grantham – sebuah desa yang sepi

Grantham is a small town in Lincolnshire somewhere north of London, about two hours by train from King’s Cross. The GNER (acronym for the Great North England Railway I presume?) line that I took can apparently also take me – if I so wish - to as far as Hull and Lime Street (Liverpool). Calling Grantham a town is a bit generous, because really, one should call it a village. It was nine in the evening when I arrived that Sunday, so everything was closed, save for the neighborhood pub. So I wasn’t able to ‘stock-up’ for the following morning’s pre-dawn meal, thus losing another day of fast.



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The Training Center also has a small drilling rig for “practice”. It couldn’t actually ‘drill’ anything though…


The UK facility that held the seminar is actually miles away from Grantham, out in the open rolling farmland where a former WW II hangar once stood. And we had to be bused in and out from our apartment accommodations since there are no hotels in Grantham except for some small family run B & B’s perhaps. Fortunately, I met some other Moslem Malaysians who were attending various other courses there and they were able to help me go grocery hunting later. It is quite a big facility, more like a small decent-sized college. Lunch was served at the center, but if you were fasting then it didn’t matter. The following day I was able to start fasting again – but the drawback was to break fast –iftar – at local neighborhood pub near our apartment since there was no time to cook after returning from the facility. I couldn’t cook to save my life even if I wanted to. I was also unsure on the ‘validity’ of my fast –truth be told - especially after having to break it in an establishment where the primary reason of existing is in the dishing of alcohol. I certainly hope that His Most Merciful will cut me some slack here.



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Breaking fast with fellow Malaysians where the devil’s piss abounds


Having been away from the UK for 17 years, I found something I thought was strange and ‘unbecoming’ of a small English town, something I found unsettling. I supposed it wouldn’t be noticed in a big city like Leicester or Manchester, and what I was confronted with really made me miss the good old days. Quite the norm everywhere in the UK I’m told, the waitresses serving in the pubs nowadays are no longer English. True, they were sometimes blond and English looking, but when they opened their mouths, what babbled forth sounded very eastern European indeed.

Apparently since I was gone the whole of the borderless Euro/EEC thing has been exported across the English Channel as well. Hence the onslaught of migrants seeking a better life - especially from the former communist republics - Poles and Czechs 'invading' England for lowly jobs in the service sector.

The character of the English Pubs has now changed and I can’t say its for the better. How I missed the the times when the dear old lady at the ‘local’ said, ‘Oh, would you care for another pint of your favorite Bitter, luv’?’ Now rarely, if ever, do you hear the word ‘luv’ spoken affectionately by old English lady bartenders anymore. All the old English ladies have probably left England and participated in Malaysia-My-Second-Home-type programs or something. And that makes me weep.

In the Sunday Express broadsheet that I perused that weekend, a story quoted in a report by the British Home Office said the floodgates would be opened even further by years’ end. Apparently ‘hundreds of thousands’ of Romanians (newly minted member-country of the EC) are coming next. I suspect laws will probably be enacted in Whitehall to restrict immigration to UK in the coming months.


Undang-Undang Newton

A little trivia, something mildly interesting about Grantham and its claim to fame – is that it was the birthplace of Sir Isaac Newton. Arguably the most important scientist ever to walk the planet and the 17th century holder of the Chair in Mathematics at Cambridge University. Sir Isaac's theorems and calculations define our bloody lives even up to today. Every piece of machinery and modern convenience that we take for granted in our daily lives must – and I mean MUST – be traced back to Sir Isaac’s fertile Grantham-born brain.

I found this out after stroll one evening to downtown Grantham (downtown being 3 small intersecting streets) looking for a place to break fast. I was tired of having to break fast over a pint of … err… in pubs, plus I was looking for more ‘kosher’ venue. I eventually found a North Indian restaurant where the Indian-looking chap hanging in front apologized in perfect Lincolnshire accent that the shop was closed for renovation, and can I please come back next week? Next week? Next week could be the end-of-the-world for all I know, I felt like telling this Paki-Brit.

Flicking away my cigarette in disappointment (yes, I broke fast with a cigarette) I put my hands in my fleeced jacket and strolled some more. Then at a fork down the road in front of the empty Fish and Chips diner sat a slightly larger-than-life steel statue on a pedestal. No need to guess what the inscription read. I looked around for a native to ask some pertinent question, like, where was the hallowed apple tree that Sir Isaac had sat under some four hundred years ago, when THE apple fell on his head? If it were up to me, I would cast that apple tree in bronze too. Because the act of the apple knocking on his head caused him to formulate what every high-school science student today know as the Gravitational Laws. Hmm, I need to file this jolly piece of info away for my kids. Of course that apple tree might very well be in Cambridge for all I know.

Finding nowhere else to go (except scores and scores of pubs) I settled on the Fish and Chips take-away across the lifeless but steely Sir Isaac, and settled for a Haddock – as recommended by the Indian owner - with gobs of vinegar and salt and a Coke to wash it down with. That set me back 4 Pounds and 75 Pence, which is about 33 Ringgits. For that kind of money I can eat Fish and Chips in a 5-star establishment in Malaysia -instead of poking the Haddock with a plastic fork with my unsteady shivering fingers on a park bench in front of Sir Isaac’s statue. If I remember correctly, 17 years ago the same thing would’ve have cost only 75p. Between Newton’s First, Second, and Third Laws, I was also reminded of a powerful lesson in Economics – both the powers of inflation and of the compound interest.

Speaking of North Indian eateries in general, a couple of days later a British Indian taxi driver told me that most so-called Indian restaurants serving Mughal and Tandoori cuisine are no longer run nor owned by Indians from India. What? Indian restaurants operated by non-Indians? Apparently “the Bangladeshis” have taken over, and I detected that familiar contemptuous tone whenever he says “the Bangladeshis”. So the ‘Indian’ in ‘Indian’ restaurants in the UK is a misnomer these days. This sounds familiar, innit? There are plenty of ‘Banglas’ in Malaysia too these days, apart from ‘orang Indon’ of course.


Tenaga Kerja Ilegal Malaysia di perantauan

My impressions of UK also reminded me of US in the early nineties, while I was there working the oilfields of Oklahoma and California. I make this sweeping statement without reserve: Every Chinese restaurant in Small Town America has either a Malaysian Chinese cook or waiter/waitress lurking in there somewhere. Even in small towns where the population numbers less than ‘five figure’. In the bigger towns and cities? Definitely. They were of course illegal there, overstaying and making themselves 'lost' (technically an Illegal Alien as defined by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service – INS). Some who bravely revealed themselves to me, thinking erroneously I was a ‘comrade’, said they got off the tour bus and just never got back on. In those days flights from K.L. to L.A. were even cheaper than flights to London. Something like 2000 Ringgits or less, and this was for two-way return tickets. Prior to ‘9-11, visas to the US were also extremely easy to get.

Come to think of it, even the Nasi Padang Sumatera restaurant near my house in Malaysia are run by the Kelantanese, as I suspiciously detected from their accents when I placed my order. I suppose it should not matter one bit, as I found the food there to be extremely pleasant to my palate.



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Scoring 100% and receiving the certificate of merit. Cheating? Whatever gave you that idea?



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Reunited with my Sudanese boys who coincidentally were attending some courses in the UK too… I worked with these boys in Sudan in 2005.



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Who says there are no bechas along London's Regent Street? The accents of these pedicab drivers were suspiciously Eastern European too…



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Meeting up with Faizal Aziz (MC Class of ’80), an old schoolmate of mine at his house in Ealing, West London. I’ve not laid eyes on this chap for at least twenty-six years or so. The self-professed anglophile has never returned to Malaysia, and is acknowledged as the penghulu of London by virtue of his long-time residency.
Something he said about my alma mater made me swell with pride. He claimed that you could walk-in any British hospital, anywhere in the UK, and without a doubt one can find an ‘old boy’ doctor working in there...

1 comments:

Zawi said...

Mat,
I am the first to comment on this great piece. I guess people are lazy to comment after reading it. I enjoyed it immensely.