Atchafalaya Swamp

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Edisi Tahun Baru 2007

Multi-Purpose Venue: Mosque or Church or Dangdut Joint?

On Rig Yani with Camp Boss, Rig Doctor and Catering Crew on Idul Adha Day.

Rig Yani, Borneo, New Years Day 2007. Dropping by unannounced, three sampans from a nearby Bugis fishing village carrying men, women and children had put the Total Reps in a dilemma: So what should we do ? How do we accomodate these kampong civillians in a highly secure facility like a drilling rig? Does the Total (Offshore Installation) Standard Manual cover this? Apparently these villagers just wished to spend New Year's Eve on a rig, that's all.

The Total 'Pak Aji' Rep had gone home the day before and was replaced by a Welshman who seemed to be a bit of a sport. This was in the boondocks after all, so in the spirit of 'good community relations' our rag-tag visitors, about thirty in all, were allowed to climb aboard. So they were ushered to the recreation room, where barely 12 hours prior was the venue of our Idul Adha prayers. For fear of 'untoward incidents', the cases of Bir Anker and Scotch Whiskies were kept in the pantry - until it was time to bring them them out again to the musholla - sorry, Rec Room - for the midnight revelry. So a deal was struck with the villagers that they should leave by 10.00 pm.

The villagers were feted with leftover ketupats and cakes from the day's Idul Adha's menu, with some sweets and soft drinks thrown in. The Bilal fired up the mini-keyboard with a popular and rousing dangdut number, quickly bringing the crowd to its feet. I spied the proceedings through the window but just can't bring myself to participate (although I was gamely pulled in by one of the village maidens myself) . Sorry, I just cannot reconcile the fact that this particular venue had been our 'mosque' - where we laid prostrate facing Mecca for the Idul Adha prayers barely 12 hours earlier. But now the Rec Room / Church/ Musholla was already filled to the brim with gyrating dancers fuelled by cheesy boisterous dangdut music.

The Total Rep and a 'rather forward' village maiden doing the 'dangdut''..."Good fun, really" said the Welshman.

A rather fetching under-aged village reveller, in a pose with my 54-year old (!) Drill Bit supplier...15 hours earlier I stood shoulder to shoulder with him performing the Sholat Eid - Right in this very room!

I knew that the alcohol would be brought in soon after the villagers left, so I quickly sneaked up to the relative quiet and safety of my bunk upstairs. I needed to be up early - after all, it is a working day on the rig.

To be honest, I missed the 'New Year' completely, falling asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow, and my dreams filled with hip-swaying village maidens...

During tea-break the following morning, I asked the groggy Camp Boss for an update. Through blood-shot eyes he said the villagers left at the appointed time, so no problem there. I was interested in the alcohol-fuelled party after the villagers had left - I meant the crew's New Year Countdown Party, because of the sheer quantities of 'that stuff' made available by our paymaster Total-Fina-Elf.

"So what was the 'damage'?", I enquired.

"Six crates of Bir Anker, four bottles of Johnny Walker, and two 2-liter bottles of red wine".

"Wow...Hell of a lot. All habis (finished)?"

"Habis, Pak."

Any spilled on our sejadah (prayer mat)?"

"I put them behind the TV cabinet."

"OK, good."

I suppose the 'dangdut joint' can now revert back to its rightful status as venue for hosting our Friday Prayers and Church Services.

(Royalty Free Images Credits: Dr. Mirsufi, Irwin, Sudjono, Mat Salo)

Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Last Blog (Of The Year)

Out with old, in with the new.

Oi, I ain’t talking about wives here, oh no, no sir, can’t have that can we? It’s just that New Year’s Day is tomorrow and I’m on the rig. Yes, I was already here a week before Christmas. On most drilling rigs each New Year’s Day will be like any other. Why? Because rigs are costly 24/7 operations, so there’s no such thing as weekends or public holidays. If there happened to be a public holiday on your “Days On”, well, tough luck.

Having had my more-than-fair share of celebrating all kinds of festivals on rigs in Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Japan, United States and Sudan – well…in Indonesia it’s a little different.

Take Christmas last week. French Big Oil Total (Fina and Elf are already part of their stable in this era of mergers) takes extraordinary pains to endear themselves to the citizens of the countries they operate in. Unlike rigs in other parts of the world (Islamic Malaysia's Petronas included), each Friday an Imam will be sent out to lead us in prayers. The Imam is actually an employee from Total’s very own ‘Religious Department’, and I was surprised to learn that he is also an Islamic Studies doctoral candidate sponsored by Total! Apparently there are quite a number of these scholar-Imams for Total’s various offshore facilities and installation. In Malaysia, the Imam on an offshore installation would usually be a fellow employee, albeit the more ‘pious’ one.

Our rig really hasn’t a proper space to conduct Friday prayers for the about 30-40 attendees, so the recreation room gets ‘converted’ by shifting sofas, chairs and TV sets around. That same recreation room will also host the Christian Prayer Meet later in the evening – with another Total-sponsored Priest in attendance. As soon as we exit the small 5m X 5m room after the Friday prayers, the carpets and prayer mats get rolled-up to make way for our Christian brethren to set up their mini-keyboard and guitar. Imagine how much money we can save if we were to have this in the real world eh? By sharing mosques, churches and synagogues, I mean.

But that’s not the half of it. That recreation room was also the venue of the rig’s recent Christmas party. Total being a more enlightened operator, ordered beer and liquor for the occasion. Just so you know, alcohol is strictly off-limits to oil operations everywhere in the world with Total the glaring exception (especially offshore), since it involves a Major Safety Violation in a Hazardous Environment.

But here’s the thing - the Total Client Rep and his Assistant, both practising muslims (the Rep being a Hajj to boot) was invited to 'officiate' the ceremony. I thought it odd that the Hajj Rep, whom we affectionately call 'Pak Aji' (honorific term for those who has performed the Haj) came in the room wearing a 'Bir Anker' T-Shirt. Most of those present were Christians save for the Rep and his Assistant, the Keyboard playing Crane Operator (who just happens to be our Bilal), the Camp Boss and me. I can only manage a wan smile at the inappropriateness of the situation, especially with the Hajj Rep starting his mini speech with an Assalamualaikum - presiding over crates of Bir Anker and bottles of Johnny Walker Scotch on the dais where our Imam usually delivers the sermon. I was half-expecting him to quote verses from the Koran.

Only the Rep’s Assistant understood the ludicrous farce playing before us, because he looked straight at me and rolled his eyes. This room – our musholla – now the site of so much free-flowing liquor and dangdut-style dancing by the inebriated off-duty rig crew, suitably encouraged by our resident Crane Operator / Keyboard Player-cum-Bilal, and we both slowly shook our heads in amazement. Bir Anker T-Shirt joined in the fun too (no, he did not touch the liquor I mean) in a show of solidarity. Of course he prodded me to follow, and soon I was dancing along good-naturedly with all and sundry; the room boys, cooks, roustabouts and roughnecks.

Incidentally, the Indonesians call this ‘bersilatulrahmi’; spreading cheer and goodwill - sort of like a team-building thing. And this is what endears me to them, the free mingling of people of different faiths within the same ethnic group. Really, try as I might I detected no animosity between them. But I can’t imagine such a scene such as this in Malaysia, and I suspect I never will. Besides, it’s hard to find a Malay Christian in Malaysia anyway…

All images above are Royalty-Free images taken on Apexindo's Rig Yani 104: Credits: Arvin, Mat Salo
(Lady in Pink Frock - Edieth, Total Geologist. Lady in Jilbab - Ratna, Mat Salo's Crew)

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Year End Vacation Edition

Yes, the 'payback' was complete and devastating, but permit me to add - also very satisfying. The 'devastation' was to my pockets lah. Having missed Idul Fitri with my family this year, I went overboard to compensate by taking my wife, my two boys and the new apple-of-my-eye infant daughter to the Gold Coast. The last time I took them anywhere (meaning far and away) was that pre-9/11 trip to the US sometime in ‘00. Five years ago it was just me and my wife then, with the eldest around seven. Technically, the second eldest was also on that US trip - although how could we have known? He was but a zygote - apparently conceived somewhere in the arrestingly beautiful Grand Sierras of California. (Zygote pictured below as viewed from tree)

But that zygote-turned-into-a-little tyke was quick to remind me that how come he hasn’t been to faraway places like his bigger brother has? That was inter-sibling rivalry at work you see, since he has perused the family photo album with sometimes a tinge of disgust, especially seeing images of the elder in places like Florida’s Disneyland. So I had to put this right.

So off to the famed Gold Coast we went and without boring you with details, it was actually a blast. Even as my debt kept piling as the boys traipsed around the theme parks, I actually enjoyed it. The thing is, I was never impressed with Australia to begin with, especially its government, which is sometimes a reflection of its citizenry (we're talking about democratically elected western governments here). The ‘Whites Only’ immigration policy it had in the past and its persecution of the Aborigines (genocide is more like it) certainly did nothing to endear me to the place.

Why the change of heart then, notwithstanding John Howard's role as Bush's Deputy Sheriff in Asia? For one thing the Aussies might’ve got it right - I mean in its immigration policy. This is a country where there are no lowly paid immigrants to do menial jobs like cleaning toilets, unlike in the US or Great Britain or Malaysia for that matter. They do all these so-called ‘dirty’ jobs themselves and are well paid to do it. Imagine a road sweeper with a waterfront home, a car, and perhaps a small boat tied to his or her own personal pier?

This point was brought home to me when I had to quickly relieve myself after arriving at Brisbane International. In Malaysia, if you go to public toilets at airports or shopping malls, you are likely to be ‘accosted’ by an immigrant 'maintenance worker' with a mop and a pail full of brown gooey liquid. So imagine my surprise as I was enjoying the pleasure of spraying the pristine Brisbane International’s porcelain, eyes shut in rapture when I heard a noise at the door. Upon exiting there was a lady of about forty with a mop, ready for any spillover caused by yours truly. Needless to say she was Caucasian and was dressed spiffily in blue pants and white shirt. She dressed like what you expect security officers to wear, and not in dowdy gowns or coveralls. The only thing missing was a tie.

Ah, talking about coveralls, I have a strong affinity for this garment since coveralls are what I wear in my day job on drilling rigs. While waiting for the for the 90 minute ride that would take us past the City of Brisbane and onwards to Surfers Paradise, I surveyed the construction site across the airport's train platform - looking for the familiar sights of men in coveralls.

It was the airport’s extension works you see, and I was flabbergasted at all that construction going on with so few workers - with no immigrant laborers in sight! To be fair, they had plenty of high-tech gear - all manner of power tools, hydraulic this-and-that, cranes big and small. Interestingly there were no swarms of underpaid workers; usually of dubious provenance in my experience. They were in their safety gear: mandatory hard hats, boots with steel toe lining, and wearing - wait a minute - shorts! Whoa! Shorts with short sleeve shirts, shorts with t-shirts and quite a few with shorts and just singlets.

Draped around their immodest tummies would be a leather pouch that held hand tools and radio sets. Their tummies, I noted were mostly distended from drinking all that Fosters and Victoria’s Bitter. Fact: in terms of beer consumption in liters (and not as a ratio of population so this singular fact is even more impressive) the Aussies came out 4th. Remember, in terms of population Australia has only 25 million people, which is smaller than Malaysia's. To put this in perspective the US which has ten times the population of Oz came out a lowly 11th. Definitely the US is not a nation of beer drinkers then. Now you might be wondering who came in 1st don’t you? Europe’s Czech Republic – and I can’t help but suspect that they have beer there for breakfast, lunch and dinner as well. 2nd place went to Ireland, which is not at all surprising since they brew Guinness there don’t they? I can’t quite remember where England stood, but it might’ve been 5th or 6th after Scotland.

I admit I was a little disappointed at the findings because while in college in the US (at a time they called ‘jahiliya’) I did my fair share of imbibing. Even the researchers were surprised and concluded that drinking beer must be a frowned-upon activity in health conscious US of A these days, along with smoking. Religiously speaking the US is not that great a satanic nation after all, since the greatest Satan of all can’t quite convince its own people to consume more of the ‘devil’s piss’.

And I thought we were talking about shorts.

Shorts shopping

Anyway, I can’t wear shorts in my job on the rig even with my hard hat and safety boots on. The rules that govern offshore drilling environments are explicit - must be full ‘cover-alls’, meaning long pants and long sleeves or one-piece types. I hate wearing coveralls because I just don't look good in them. Come to think of it, I don't look good in anything, so I bend the rules a bit to suit me since I prefer to wear short sleeves and pants.

After consulting one of these construction brutes I headed down to K-Mart the next day looking for some ‘Hard Yakka’, ‘Can’t Tear ‘Em’ and ‘DNC’ branded clothing. By the way it’s called Work Wear if you happen to browse the aisles Down Under. I even have my ‘Can’t Tear ‘Em’s’ on as I sit here writing because I just love the feel of the tough but smooth 100 % Egyptian cotton snug against my skin. It also has vents in the underarms for ventilation, so no need for deodorants! Best of all they’re Very Well Made in Australia – reinforced double-stitched buttons and all that. When I took it to the cashier -seeing I was a Work Wear connoissuer of sorts - she quickly informed me that the new incoming stock would come from China, no more arrogantly made in Oz. Bless her for telling me this, so I quickly turned around and bought most of the sets in my size. Of course my spouse think I’m nuts going all the way to Australia only to enamored by shirts found in the remotest aisle of el cheapo K-Mart, somewhere between the garden tools and the garbage area out back.

My long suffering and eternally patient wife can’t help but wonder what exactly turns us males on sometimes, huh?

My passion re-ignited

The passion I’m talking about here is not about 'old flames'. You wish now, didn’t you? Okay, okay, since I’m so fond of digressing, let's sidetrack a little bit.

On the third day of our wondrous Gold Coast holiday, we paid homage to Sea World - our first theme park visit. Why I chose Sea World I don’t quite know because it could’ve have been either Movie World or Dream World. Being the first theme park visit, the boys were understandably excited. Theme parks are day long affairs you see, and it’s just not to pet sea lions or watch dolphins go through hoops. There’s also tons of amusement park rides like roller coasters, dodgem cars and the like. I’d say you need to spend two days at each park to enjoy all that it has to offer.

So I helped my boys go around the rides that interested them, even forgoing the highly rated ‘dolphin’ show altogether, because we had already ‘wasted’ an hour watching the incredibly intelligent Sea Lions perform on stage earlier. Walking from ride to ride I noticed that quite a number were ethnic Chinese or Malay looking. It’s quite easy to spot a fellow ‘Melayu’, especially of the female variety that wear headscarves. Indonesian Moslem females wear their headscarves differently, trust me. Sometimes it felt like I was strolling along Orchard Road in Singapore instead of being in a true ‘western’ country dominated by whites – especially with the sea of ethnic Asian faces you see at every turn. So you ignore them.

With her was a boy of about five and her unsmiling husband looking fit and cool with dark ‘Ray Bans’ on and a ridiculous floral shirt. We were both walking in the opposite direction and as we passed - simultaneously we both stopped to glance over our shoulders. In these encounters the window of opportunity only lasts a fraction of a second - so what should we do as our eyes meet? Should we go over, extend our hands and introduce our families? Then of course one would have to explain many things to his or her spouse later. Of having to tell lies and make stories up. She was probably weighing the same thing. Only my eldest was with me at the time because my darling wife was elsewhere nursing the baby in a different section of the park. Thank God for small miracles!

That moment came and passed before we both realized it. Our eyes quickly averted as we turned our heads away. But with great stealth I turned my head around again and watched in fascination at her streaked blond highlighted hair, bouncing on sleeked well-toned shoulders. The ‘Paris Hilton’ wraparound sunglasses framed her face well, which was undeniably pretty. Did I still feel the ‘stir’ as when we first met some twenty years ago? The answer is an unqualified no, and that’s not because one day my wife would get to read this.

The irony is back in Malaysia she lives but a few kilometers from me but we have never ever bumped into each other, not even at the nearby One Utama mall or at the Taman Tun Sunday weekend market. I know this because I know where she lives (because a little bird always updates me on activities of old flames) and work, because lets face it, Malaysia is truly a small place. And yet in a small place one does not easily bump into an old flame. It takes a continent thousands of miles away for this to happen of course.

Enough digressing, as I'm bursting to tell you of my new found passion.

My newfound passion re-ignited (ini baru betul-or this one's for real)

Actually it’s not quite a newfound passion since I was fascinated by photography ever since I was a schoolboy. I joined the photography club in high school and was even its president in my final year. School-club photos then were shot in black and white on 120 mm film taken with a cheap made in China no-name twin-reflex camera, since that was all the club could afford. We brewed the chemicals ourselves (since ready-mixed developer fluid are beyond the club's budget) for developing and printing. For printing to paper we had an enlarger in thet small makeshift darkroom under the staircase. It was all very tedious I tell you, painstaking and time consuming to say the least. And it was certainly no fun sweltering in the darkroom since we had no air-conditioning, so only two or three boys could get in there at any one time. With the advent of digital photography those days are certainly long gone. And some will argue, so has the romance of photography.

The thing about digital photography is how much it speeds up the ‘learning curve’ process. A newbie can very quickly master his or her skills simply because the results are near-instantaneous and if you don’t like the shot, just hit the ‘trash’ button. One learns very quickly and at negligible additional costs after the initial purchase of the digital camera. Best of all you don’t have to keep buying film.

As a ‘former’ true blue film enthusiast, as of a few years ago I still thumbed my nose down at digital cameras. I admit I am a traditionalist because in no way can digital be as good as film. Or so I thought. In equivalent terms, film (shot on a high quality camera and lens) has at least 20 or more Mega Pixels (MP) worth of resolution. That certainly beats most professional cameras on the market these days, which has ‘only’ between 7 MP to 10 MP’s at most.

But now I’ve changed my mind, because cameras, like computers, follows Moore’s Laws – so processing power costs keep coming down even as the computing power goes up. So a reasonable 5 MP Point and Shoot (PS) can be had for as little as a few hundred ringgits, usually with a 1 GB memory card thrown in which can take a gazillion shots in ‘small’ mode. On ‘large’ full resolution settings you can even get 2000 or more shots on that tiny card. As I write this 2G SD cards are already on the market.

But resolution like 3.1 MP, 5.0 MP, 7.1 MP or 10.2 MP and so on you see stamped on camera is only half the story. There are other factors like lens quality, image sensors size and type and image processing algorithms to as well. It’s entirely possible that the same shot taken with Brand A’s cheap 5 MP P & S camera can look better than Brand B’s ultraexpensive 14 MP D-SLR ( Digital Single Lens Reflex).

Being a traditionalist, I decided on the conservative route. So I procured the ‘best’ point and shoot to mess with before I feel comfortable enough (skills wise I mean) to go on the upgrade path. Remember, digital cameras are like computers, so no worries that there’s always a better and cheaper camera in the near future. And I did plenty of research on the ‘Net reading all sorts of reviews and joining all kinds of forums. After fretting and hee-hawing this way and that, I finally decided on the Canon Powershot Digital Ixus 850 (which is also marketed as the Powershot SD 800 IS Digital Elph in the US).

And what a little blast it is! I urge anyone who’s in the market for a compact to consider this camera very seriously. Trust me, I’ve done all the research, and I was impressed that what these professionals used as a ‘back-up camera’ was this small point and shoot! Even from top Nikon endorsees' particularly, whose images appear in the likes of National Geographic! The conclusion I gathered from Nikon professionals was: for compact point and shoots go Canon. For D-SLRs, Nikons (what do you expect from endorsees’ eh?) .

I agree with this wholeheartedly because I already owned a Nikon Coolpix 5100 5 MP point and shoot but was somewhat dissatisfied, so I gave it to my boy. The Nikon PS’ only grace (if one could call it that) was it uses AA batteries, but because of it, it was bulkier. The Nikon couldn’t hold a candle to my Canon. Let me give you a hint. Do not get P & S' that uses AA batteries. Sure they are convenient if you run out of juice because AA batteries are easily available. But that sleek in-camera Li-Ion or Ni-MH batteries are so good these days that the recently released entry level Nikon D40 D-SLR can take 2700 shots on a single charge! I think in the real world, my IXUS 850 with about 50% flash usage can go up to 800 plus shots – and that’s plenty, although the manufacturer claimed it can go more than a thousand. You see, the real drawback with AA battery powered cameras is that it’s so slow! The start-up time is slower and the flash takes forever to recycle between shots and it drains the batteries fast. I’m done with telling people to wait while the flash is charging, and it does get worse with each proceeding shot.

So what do I like (with tons of other enthusiasts swear by it too I assure you) about this camera? First off is its image quality. It's also sexy looking and robust, encased in sleek magnesium aluminium stamped alloy. But the main feature is its 28 mm wide angle lens- only one of three in the market. I just love wide! You know how when you take group photos you have to get them to squeeze together to get them in the frame or else walk backwards until you hit a wall or some other impediment. With wide it’s easy to stand near (and ensuring higher image quality) in small confined spaces and get everybody in. Wide is of course most suitable for landscape and architecture photography, so you’ll have a blast going outdoors. Real Estate agents swear by this camera too since they can get in more of the scenes in their customer’s homes.

Next to wide, the second most important feature is its Image Stabilization (IS). Image stabilization employs motion sensors with high brow mathematical formulas to keep the image steady (competitor Nikon calls theirs VR for Vibration Reduction). Why? Because with three kids in tow and baby things to carry I just hate lugging around tripods. So with IS, it’s possible to take pictures (without flash) in extreme low-light situations with shutter speeds down to 1/8, ¼ or even ½ a second without blur. Normally for anything below 1/30 sec one would need a tripod. All the night scene shots you see here were hand-held.

I hope you enjoy the stories and the photos, but to all Canon point and shoots users out there let me share with you some tips. Always shoot in MANUAL mode to take advantage of the camera’s full capability. The settings I describe for manual mode below needs only to be done once; set-and-forget. (Caveat: I’m only talking about Canon’s here).

1. Go to the in-camera menu, and set Color to ‘Vivid’ – this will saturate colors and skin tones nicely.
2. Canon PS tends to overexpose (other maufactures are also guilty of this) , so shots would appear lighter but losing a lot of color saturation and detail. So hit the compensation and experiment. I like mind set to -2/3 EV. Always remember: Under Exposure is way better. It’s easy to lighten photos up later with software – but not the other way around.
3. When in manual, for hand held shots in low lighting, do not set ISO higher than 200 because the image will be unacceptably grainy. This is where PS cameras lose out to D-SLRs. Most D-SLR cameras give acceptable images even up to 1600 ISO as compared to pint and shoots. Best to leave it on Auto ISO.
4. To minimize blur while shooting kids and pets, set it (Kids or Pets Icon) to increase shutter speeds for freezing action.

Now that I’m almost done playing with the Canon, I’m really eyeing the recently introduced Nikon D40 entry level D-SLR. I heard it costs something like 2200 ringgits with a nice 18-55 mm kit lens thrown in. Actually I don’t even have a camera anywhere near right now as I’m writing from my swamp barge. I would have taken it along but my wife loves the Canon PS so much that she's already declared it to be hers.

My rig is moving to another location as I type this, meandering gently in the vast Mahakam Delta, steered and towed by four powerful tugboats. Just yesterday I saw the most beautiful cloud formations right around sunset, with all types present: Cumulus, Nimbus, Cirrus. With dizzying colors as reflected by the sun, a deep red disc on the horizon. As I stood in awe on the rig's helideck, my heart broke for not being able to capture the arresting vistas before me.But I did manage to record the image with my cheap Nokia cellphone though. Sigh…looks like I have to get the D40 for sure now for missing out on moments like these…

Sunday, November 5, 2006

My First 'Lebaran'

Selamat Hari Lahir di Bulan Nopember

Not only did I miss Idul Fitri with my family this year (being away at work in Indonesia), I had also missed some birthday celebrations of my loved ones back home. My son turned thirteen on November 1 - coincidentally on the same day as my eldest sister’s birthday. Through some mysterious twist of fate, most of the members of my family share their birthdays very close to each other; November 1 (my son and my eldest sister), November 2 (my dad), November 3 (my younger sister) and last but not least, November 11- my wife’s!

It’s a good thing we don’t practice lavish gift giving on our family birthdays, or else it’ll cause quite a dent in the family finances – especially when the bithdays are so close together. Mostly it’s just buying cakes at the nearby bakery and having some immediate family members over. But for the little ones - it's customary in this day and age (how it got to be like this I don’t know) - to prefer to have their parties thrown at McDonalds, Pizza-Huts, TGIF’s and the like, and have their kindergarten or primary school friends over. Which in turn obliges the parents of their invited friends to hold their children’s parties at similar venues in the future. Some parents in a subtle game of one-upmanship, will go ‘upscale’ and rent a whole Jungle Gym that you find in malls these days, for their Little Emperor's or Little Emperess' do. I bet it’s expensive as hell - because when I took my little 5-year old there one time, it had costs me something like 15 or 20 ringgits for an hour. That's just for my boy to humor himself going through plastic tunnels and pelt other little kids with soft balls. The other kids will have their Indonesian maids stand nervously by. I don't have a maid, so I nervously watch the maids instead, while pretending to look out for my boy. I suspect the Jungle Gyms were invented to fill the need for parents to dump their children (and maids), so mom and pop can shop in relative peace.

Anyway, I wish a very happy birthday to my first-born, to my beloved sisters and to my old man too.

Menyambut Lebaran Pertama di Indonesia

My boss had called me way too early I think, to go to Indonesia to stand by for work. Unfortunately I stand by’-d all right, but in a Five Star hotel with absolutely nothing to do except bang my head against the wall swearing silently to myself, ‘ what the hell am I doing here when I should be with my family celebrating Eid'?

Well, it wasn’t my boss’ fault because the job I was supposed to go to was cancelled at the very last minute, and I shouldn’t blame him. After all he was from Beunos Aires, so what does he know about Eid / Lebaran? So I ended-up in Balikpapan three whole days before the BIG DAY. The BIG DAY – of course - was Idul Fitri, which billions of Moslems around the world also know as Eid Mubarrak, or Hari Raya Puasa, if you happen to come from Malaysia.

So what do you do in a hotel room during the festive period, all alone without relatives or friends? And also as a Moslem - in one of the largest Moslem countries on earth? Not much, for me at least - except go to the mosque nearby, eat bland hotel food, flirt with the comely girls in the reception, sleep, wake, then flirt with the girls some more.

In the spirit of Ramadhan - this is the only time of the year when the hotel girls – be it F & B Manager, Captains, reception area staff, waitresses – all exchange their black skirts and jackets for kebayas. Regardless, they all still look delectable and ravishing either way. And I do mean, ravishing. The kain batik now cover their previously exposed exquisitely chiseled calves, thus limiting the view of their petite ankles dipping seductively down into black hotel-issue high heels. But the kebaya exposed their cleavages instead, since it's cut a trifle too low - accentuating the female form perfectly. So instead of a view at the bottom, we now have a view of the top.

I don’t know how they do it, all of them unquestionably youthful-looking, slender and pretty. I was (pleasantly) surprised that upon enquiring, most of them were already married – some even with kids to boot! Erna, Fitri, Novi, Dewi…aah, the list goes on. And by any standards, they are beautiful.

The reason I was (pleasantly) surprised was that most of them had all openly flirted with me, making me feel genuinely ‘desirable’. And I, thinking they were all single and available (and of course desirable too). Alas, it was a comedown to know that they all go back to their husbands and kids at the end of their shift. I suppose it’s in The Indonesian Lass’ psyche to treat men in this particular way, which perhaps is a normal thing for Indonesians females. In this regard, I consider Indonesians to be more cultured than Malaysians, since flirting is a very fine art. The girls love to flirt for its own sake, not because they find me desirable in any way (though I prefer that they do) , but for the fun of it. Which is a good thing, since I too, am married.

Looking for something to eat during Lebaran became a nerve wrecking experience for me. You can’t even go to restaurants in town because they were all closed for the festive season. So I was forced to eat all my meals at the hotel. Which you will find boring because most hotel restaurants serve the same damn menu everywhere; Nasi Goreng this, Mie Goreng that – all variations of the same theme.

Malays (technically ALL are Moslems) in Malaysia, will look forward to tucking-in into Ketupat, Rendang, Nasi Himpit and Lemang upon coming home from the Sholat Eid prayers. But in Balikpapan that Eid morning, what was there for me to look forward to?

After performing Eid prayers at the AT-TAQWA mosque, perhaps the largest mosque in eastern Borneo, I became ridiculously aware of my predicament. I did not know a single soul, not one, amongst the sea of the faithful. Well, I did have a chat with the amil (officially appointed tithe collector) two days prior while handing him my obligatory tithe, but he doesn't count. Certainly not someone I can be chummy with and say, “can you invite me into your home for Lebaran, Pak?”

Halfway while walking back to the hotel, I had a brainwave - or so, I thought. Immediately my stride picked up a little. Someone once told me that Balikpapan has a Malaysian Armed Forces military attaché – but where? So upon returning to the hotel (hungry, mind you, but I do have my hotel breakfast coupon with me, but no self-respecting Moslem would eat scrambled eggs and toast on the First of Syawal), I borrowed the thick Balikpapan telephone book from Devi the duty receptionist that morning, and eagerly took it to my room...

It was not meant to be. Try as I may, there was no listing. But even if I found out where the attache lived, I would inevitably embarrass myself - because exactly how does one invite oneself into a stranger's home? Even if he was a fellow countrymen?

Impotent and despondent, I trudged back down to the lounge and failed to notice my favorite waitress wishing me “Selamat Hari Lebaran, Pak… Minal Aidin Wal Faizin”. I glanced over my shoulder and watched her cherrubic face and eyes light up as always. She was not called 'bosomy Lia' for nothing. I noticed the strain of her too small kebaya top had caused the exposed ‘upper extremities’ to ripple. Lia was working that Eid morning because she was Catholic. The hotel had given all the Moslem staff the first part of the day off so they could spend the morning celebrating Eid with their families at home.

Upon crossing the threshold, I became distinctly aware that I was the only patron in the stately restaurant lounge. And when I handed Lia my breakfast coupon, she too sensed my state of depression, and decided not to flirt with me that morning. But I wish she did flirt with me, because at least it would make me feel alive. That would've been nice.

“Yes Lia, Coffee… and Orange Juice would be fine. Perhaps Telor Dada (omelette) today. And why isn’t the hotel serving special Idul Fitri meal this morning Lia? At least you should have ketupat", I ventured.

Ma’af ya Pak, you are the only muslim guest in the hotel Pak, so the kitchen didn’t cook anything special Pak…maybe tomorrow I bring you some ketupat...and I ask the cook make some rendang for you also, ya Pak?”

Terima kasih Lia… but please don’t bother thank you, just pass me the asbak (ashtray)…and bring me the Koran (newspaper) – oh I forgot, even the Korans are on holiday today!”

I dragged my cigarette deeper, even as I saw her pert rear jiggle suggestively against the soft brown kain batik as she went to get the asbak - causing me to inappropriately wonder about invisible panty lines. There and then I knew - deep down and without a shadow of doubt - that this was by far the worst Eid that I have ever spent, even as my finger traced those imaginary lines on the napkin.

I opened the pack of Dunhills, pulled another cigarette out and immediately lighted it from the smoldering tip of the half-finished one.

It was to be the longest Lebaran day, ever.

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...

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Happy Birthday Indonesia!

Sambutan Dirgahayu HUT* ke 61!

LAST AUGUST 17th SAW Indonesia celebrate its 61st Independence from their previous Dutch masters. With increasing oil prices that has burned holes in their citizens' kantong celana, and calamities both natural and unnatural (man-made) that have befallen the nation, I expected it to be a somber affair. It was far from being somber of course, and like other developing nations elsewhere, there is always a governmental budget to blow on friviolities - parades and fireworks. All governments I suspect like their warga to think that everything is hunky-dory despite the extremely worrying economic indicators. Better to lull them into a false 'feel-good' atmosphere rather than have a revolutions on their hands.

I happened to be on the rig that day, and not only did I witness the event but for a brief moment participated in it too. Does this mean I had become a murtad?†

All I can tell you is that the Indonesians take their Hari Merdeka seriously. Very early that glorious morning all work on the rig had to be stopped, and at great cost to the oil company. For about two hours the crew assembled on the helicopter deck to hear patriotic songs being played over a megaphone, all the while standing in rapt attention saluting the jalur merah putih. But no, in case you were wondering, there was no lump in my throat as the Red and White fluttered in the breeze as the Pancasila (state ideology) was boomed over the megaphone. But to stop work like this on rigs in Malaysia? No, it just doesn’t happen.

The person in-charge of leading the celebration was the rig's L.O. (Liason Officer). We'll have more on the L.O. later. Looking resplendant in his full ex-Captains' naval regalia, he commandeered our small parade and after the flag was raised, delivered a speech from a paper probably sent by his navy masters or BP Migas (the Indonesian Oil Regulating Comission who pays his salary). It was all very impressive since only then did I realize that my crew mates must've rehearsed for the occasion since the marchpast, unfolding and subsequent raising of the Red and White went with clockwork precision.

Curiously, the L.O. is a position found only on Indonesian rigs. In theory the L.O. is the most powerful person on-board, able to ‘run-off’ – dismiss – anybody at will, and has the power to stop operations. But I suspect the post was simply created to make suitable employment opportunities for retired naval officers. Occasionally some L.O.’s would attempt to justify their existence by asking me a copy of my Indonesian residency pass or work permit, which they then unceremoniously dump in the bottom-most drawer to be quickly forgotten. It might as well have been in dumped in a trash basket.

*Hari Ulang Tahun

Teori Emosi

I suppose I can be forgiven for being taken by their local television news. Ever since becoming a bona fide resident and tax payer, I’ve slowly but surely become acclimatized to the to the Indonesian State of Mind. One thing I've noticed is how “emotional” the Indonesians can be. This is a generalization of course. The amateur psychologist in me have been working overtime trying to understand what makes these people tick. The TV news will without fail show scenes of people running amuck; burning effigies and protesting one thing or another, hawker evictions, fighting for better labor conditions, demonstrating against Bush-The-War-Criminal, and lately - US or Israeli flag burnings. Interspersed will be painful scenes of shell-shocked survivors from the recent Java tsunami.

If I were to hazard a guess, the one trait that sets Malaysians and Indonesians apart is probably the latter’s propensity for emotion. Emotions can run the gamut from being hysterical to full-blown rampage incorporating burning and looting. Some might even remember the horrors of the Asian Financial Crisis in ’97 where rampaging mobs (read: Ethnic Indonesian - mostly Javanese) burned Chinese-owned shops and premises. Furthermore, stories abound of gang rapes against ethnic Chinese women in Jakarta during that tumultous time.

But this particular emosi trait is probably truer of their citizens at the lower stratum of society. Having been being dealt a lousy hand in the card-game of life, this powerless and oft-victimized group probably feel that they have the least to lose. Even the Indonesian courts were not spared: Scenes of victims and even defendants alike wailing and crying hysterically in court is not uncommon. One will be hard-pressed to see such scenes in a Malaysian Court, I can guarantee you that.

It is no wonder then the term amuck came from the Indonesian-Malay amok

Elsie, my beloved

Is it possible to ‘love’ an inanimate object like a car? Elsie is my trusty 16 year-old Land Cruiser (LC) that I had ‘lovingly’ sent for a makeover recently.

The ubiquitous before and after pictures below. Manyak syiok oo… possibly this how one must feel must feel after undergoing successful plastic surgery.

The Before

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And After...

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Only in Indo – a Muslim Revival TV show

To further add on the peculiarities – and differences - with neighboring Malaysia, I just saw something on Indonesian TV that left me dazed and confused, because my Melayu-centric mind couldn’t comprehend scenes that was in the programme.

It was a live outdoor event with thousands of people attending. It looked something like a Malaysian TV3 Sure Heboh Carnival – except that this was a 'carnival' in praise of Allah - a religious ‘concert’, if you can call it that. It reminded me of scenes in a Christian revival meet where people openly sang, danced and clapped their hands. In this particular show even bawdy jokes were tendered – all in the name of Allah - and TV ratings.

The two hosts that presided over the show were excellent MC's to say the least, and could easily give Malaysia’s Aznil Nawawi and A.C. 'Disini' Mizal a run for their money. If Aznil and A.C. are entertainers of the Lettermen / Leno school, then the difference is that these host were religious scholars – full-fledged Ustads who graduated form elite Middle-Eastern universities and spoke fluent Arabic. One was supremely telegenic and carried some triple-barrelled Arab sounding name that ended in Al-Habsy something or other. This good-looking Al-Habsy fellow would not be out of place in an Indonesian soap opera. Plus he could crack jokes at will, had tons of stage presence - and best of all had an excellent singing voice when reciting verses from the Quran.

It was a live TV carnival show unlike anything I’ve ever seen - serious preaching one moment (with obligatory Hadith and Quranic verses) then mixed with jokes bordering on the bawdy immediately after, and eventually ending with a nasyid-type song and dance. It was surreal to say the least. The show had special guests – in this particular segment was the band Steven (not a very Moslem sounding name is it?) & The Coconuts. Steven looked like an extremely pious Mat Rock, and he gamely chatted with his hosts concerning his plans 'to be closer to God' for the upcoming Ramadhan. I know, some of you already think the word rock and piety towards God shoudn’t be in the same sentence – in other words - an oxymoron.

They were a traditional rock group but had this time around performed an acoustic ‘unplugged’ set - meaning without electric bass or guitars. Wide camera shots of the crowd, mostly made up of women -young and makciks - wearing the jilbab. And get this – their jilbab'd bodies swaying to the music. I was totally mesmerized. Of course, the crowd weren’t segregated and the men and women sang and danced freely. Everyone looked happy. If not for the skullcaps and jilbabs it could’ve been mistaken for a ‘revival’ meet. To be honest I liked it for its sheer entertainment value. Whether it brings one closer to God is anybody's guess.

* * * * *

On a barely related issue, I was sent a trainee who had recently graduated from the prestigious Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB – pronounced “ee-tay-bey”). His first name was David, and I can be forgiven for assuming him to be a member of the Christian faith. So I was pleasantly surprised when he whipped out a sejadah (Moslem prayer mat) from his bag.

“Hey David”, I said, “How come as a Moslem your name is ‘David’?”

“What to do Pak, my parents gave me that name”, was his forlorn reply.

Later on I saw images of his siblings and parents run on his laptop screen-saver. I would have been excused if his family is of the ‘secular’ type, but I was wrong. His mother and sisters all wore the jilbab. In other words, David was brought up in a strongly religious and conservative Moslem environment. But why the Christian name then? In Indonesia there are probably millions like David. And amongst other things, that is why there will always be an invisible line that will forever divide Malaysia and Indonesia despite sharing a similar language and faith.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Edisi Juli 2006 Komentar Terkini

Some of you might be a tad pissed to see that I have not updated my blog for a while. So I apologize for adding to your woes of ‘carpal tunnel syndrom-ing’ your fingers - clicking on the mouse to my site - but to no avail. Sorry.

No excuses, except that writing is hard. But I had an interesting two months, and so did the whole wide wild world in general. That reminds me of Yusuf Islam’s seventies hit Wild World that has been regurgitated by the likes of Mr.Big and countless others.

Oh baby, baby it’s a wild world / It’s hard to get by
With just upon a smile…

Stars of ’74 brought by The Power of Google

Those of you who read my previous ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ piece will realize that the Internet is what had made it all possible; specifically the phenomenon of googling.

If I hadn’t googled Chin in the 'States, who led then led me on to Dr. Yong, then my inaugural ‘Stars of ’74’ group would not have come to fruition. Yup, that’s right. There is such a group now.

We had a mini-reunion recently - lunch at a superb Nyonya eatery, somewhere in the Curve Mutiara Damansara, Petaling Jaya. When Dr. L. Yong PhD (the big-time US Defense contractor - some say ‘war’ contractor who had sold-out his nuclear engineering expertise) came to town recently, I had hastily drawn up a get-together with my Year Six primary school mates from Johor Bahru.

To view the group you can go to www.flickr.com/groups/star2.

Interestingly, some of my high school buddies, also hailing from the same school but in different sessions, are also eligible for membership. If if you happen to be reading this, please join.

And all this happened within the course of six months; from the click of a mouse to a full-fledged reunion! Err…not quite full - I meant mini-reunion.

For sure, not all the classmates from 35-odd years ago can be contacted. But to be able to pull a few guys from around the globe for lunch I considered a feat in itself. These were people who had not laid eyes on each other for decades and was curious to see how the other had fared. It was like trying to connect people who once knew each other as children, jumping decades ahead to now mid-life adults. I know. It's a poor allegory.

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Raja Rahman (holding Std. 6 classphoto),
Left-Right: Dr. Yong, Dollah Rahim, Bad Gumpunk

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The so-called Stars of '74.
No prizes for guessing which one's Mat Salo though.

In the News: Wedding of the Year

I’m sure most of us, try as we may, could not ignore the 'sensationalistic' news thrust upon us by Arus Perdana braodsheets and tabloids - on the impending wedding of Malaysia’s number one songbird to a married Datuk twenty years her senior.

Re-printed below is a tongue-in-cheek jibe from a fellow Malaysian blogger (reprinted with his permission of course). You can find his interesting and hilarious commentaries at www.simontalks.com . It's one of the best local blogs, me thinks. I’m mildly amused that our local Cinapek blogger show some interest in this 'CT' phenomenon also.

Dear Leading English Newspaper, We Want More Siti! NOW!
July 23rd, 2006

Dear Leading English Newspaper,

I am OUTRAGED. As a long time esteemed reader of your respectable newspaper, I want, no I DEMAND to know why there has NOT been any coverage on the FRONT PAGE of your hallowed newspaper for the past two days.

Yesterday, there was a fantastic write-up about that Datuk K’s ex-wife making claims to some of the Datuk’s house and property. Although I was over the moon the see you manage to dig out this fabulous piece investigative journalism, I am slightly disappointed that it only made the 4th page, not the FRONT PAGE. Plus, you did not give the exact details of the condo and property for us to hunt it down and stake it out to get a glimpse of our angel, Siti.

ANY news of Siti MUST be put on the FRONTPAGE, it’s your duty as a national English broadsheet - I don’t care if there are other ’so-called’ more important news like tsunami in Java, or national sugar shortage, or stock market crash - I want Siti! I want to know about the 5-man designers making her dress that’s more expensive than my car, I want to know when she says that her marriage is fated / destined / arranged in the stars / predicted by Joey Yap or anything like that. Even if MAS goes bankrupt it can appear on page 5 or later.

If on any particular day, Siti does not make any newsworthy press releases (God forbid that should happen), then I will settle for any coverage on Mawi, especially the details of his engagement break-off with his fiancee. A transcript (or better yet, camera phone video recording) of the negotiations between the parents will do nicely. Don’t forget, you’re the LEADING ENGLISH NEWSPAPER, not some piece of sensational tabloid like those who are more concerned with ‘real news’ or ’social issues’.

Tomorrow, I had better see a printout of Siti Nurhaliza’s wedding guest list on YOUR FRONTPAGE or there’ll be another letter from me. And when are you guys to HEADLINE an interview with Datuk K’s kids? That stuff would be GOLD, man.

Yours sincerely,
Concerned Citizen

Ha, I wish this Simon chap would send this letter to every damned leading newspaper in the country. They might even take it seriously.

Cikgu Wilson at Malay College Kuala Kangsar – A Clockwork Orange

I’m quite embarrassed to admit that I know nothing of a little known fact concerning my secondary school. Cikgu Wilson had once taught Form Six English at my hallowed alma mater. Wow! Of course this was some twenty-odd years before my time.

Some of you are already going, "Cikgu Wilson who?"

Most of you know him as Anthony Burgess (d. 1993), the famed British author and scriptwriter. He changed his name to become a full-fledged writer upon returning to England a year after leaving Kuala Kangsar. That was right around the time when Malaysia was about to gain independence. His most famous work, A Clockwork Orange, was turned into a movie by Stanley Kubrick (d. 1999) . Kubrick also directed that steamy Cruise/Kidman vehicle Eyes Wide Shut. But who can forget Kubrick's 2001 A Space Odyssey with that majestic Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarusthra score in the opening sequence?

I only found this out after browsing through one of the MCKK ‘old-boy’ websites, a blogger-site at http://www.mcoba.blogspot.com/. In it were some posts by prominent old-boy Tun Haniff Omar, one time IGP and now Chairman of that gambling group – Genting Berhad. In an article that was re-printed from his NST column, he mentioned that Wilson/Burgess had taught him English in Form Six.

Again, wow. Can’t imagine someone world famous once walked the hallways and hung around the classrooms of my former school.

Mat Salo’s own brush with fleeting fame.

While we’re on the subject of fame, aiyah, I have a story to tell too. This happened right after I graduated from college in the mid-eighties.

I went home and found myself in a country undergoing a recession. There’s also a raging recession going around now but few care to admit it - least of all the government of the day. They wouldn’t know the ‘R’ word if it hit them in the a*s*. Sorry, I digress. We’re talking about fame here weren’t we?

So I had come home with high hopes and dreams, and found myself with no job, nor any offers. It was quite a trying time, and I appreciated some friends (again from MCKK) like Anduq and Que who occasionally propped me up with cash to enable me indulge in my nicotino addiction.

To keep the Devil at bay, who seemed to like idle hands so I hear, I embarked on a few ‘enterprises’. One of these low-brow enterprises was selling illegal fireworks at pasar malams (there weren’t VCD’s and DVD’s then!). The other was accosting young, impressionable pubescent schoolgirls at shopping centers.

Let me explain.

Under the guise of 'interviewing' for 'research' purposes while employed by a market research firm - allowed me to amass quite a formidable database of these young girls in my address book, for perusal later. I meant the book, not the girls. But sometimes one does ‘get lucky’. All that shenanigans came to a crashing end when one of the girls I contacted was an old schoolmate’s sister. I’m glad my schoolmate never found out – and we’ll leave it at that.

Anyway, one of the higher-brow projects was to put some of my university education to good use. Gold was being mined in Kelantan and the state was opening up ‘blocks’ to be explored. I contacted a small Australian mining company and the owner agreed to recce some of the potential areas with me, provided I secure the logistics part on my end. Plus I should also connect him with some influential locals and he would thus underwrite all expenses. It sounded good.

In a rented Pajero at the Pengkalan Chepa Airport of Kota Bharu, I collected the Aussie and a business associate of his, a gold trader from Singapore by the name of Derek Seagrove. Derek was actually British , but became a Singaporean 'convert' – ensconced in our part of the world since the British Days. I was surprised Derek could speak the Kelantanese dialect, better than mine, even. He said he was once posted to Kelantan as a settlement officer something-or-other in the late forties and early fifties. Ah, that explains it.

Armed with a topo map and a local partner - a Datuk lawyer-cum-ex MP, we set out to a potential site south of Kelantan called Dabong. This was where we panned the streams for samples. Kelantan was once known some centuries back as the Golden Chersonese so you can bet we did find gold in them streams. The trick was where to find the ‘mother lode’ – which could be anywhere upstream. So it will require extensive and detailed exploratory work in thick jungle. Not to mention huge financing too. I suspected it to be way over my head to be honest.

With that in mind the Datuk and the Aussie got back to Kota Bharu in the former’s Alfa Romeo GTV. For a retired Datuk in the hinterland, it was quite interesting to find his choice of car. I still remember the license plates DB3, and I thought it was pretty cool. I, on the other hand was entrusted to bring Derek to KL via the old road in the Pajero, where he was to catch a flight back to Singapore.

That was when it got interesting.

Derek wanted a trip down memory lane so he had specifically asked me to stop at the rest house in Kuala Lipis for the night. Apparently he must have had good memories of the place. We were quite beat from two days wading streams and panning, plus carrying all that equipment. Not to mention fighting leeches and mosquitoes. Thus it was a welcome respite to check into a quaint little rest house by the river and savor some good Hainanese-inspired Chicken Chops and Steaks.

After dinner we repaired to our rickety-beds with only the mosquito coil and ceiling fan to thwart the mosquitoes away. The rhythmic chirp chirp chirp of cicadas can be heard outside the corridor on that hot, muggy night.

We chatted side by side in our single beds as he regaled me with tales of his time in then British Malaya, letting fatigue wash over us in a haze of cozy camaraderie.

Then he said something quite out of the ordinary that caused my jubor to terangkat.

“Jenny would certainly like someone like you.”

Jenny was his daughter, and by that he meant I was his daughter’s ‘type’.

What…me? I don’t even have a job. He went on about how his only child was divorced and how her former husband was ‘rough’ with her. I take this to mean he was a wife-beater or something.

So this Jenny might like a jeans-and-T-shirt kind of guy with no job. I was quite flattered thinking this genial old man having a good impression of me—well, good enough to recommend me to his daughter. Sort of. But wait, then he said –

“She’s actually quite famous.”

Whoa, wait-a-sec. My heart picked a couple of beats. Who ah?

“Jenny…well, she’s the star in an American TV mini-series called A Woman of Substance”.

At that time I had not heard of the TV series nor the book by Barbara Taylor Bradford. And I thought the old man was pulling my leg. Come on.

“Never heard of her?”

Err…sorry Derek, no.

So with my interest piqued, I asked a bunch of questions about her. Now he really got my attention and followed by my "oohs" and "aaha". Her former husband was the British Indian comedian on Mind Your Language, a popular English TV series of that era. That one I know, but can’t for the life of me recall which character the ex-hubby played. But what I really wanted to know was how this Jenny looked like.

Then the big let-down came. Derek, in a conspirational whisper and eyes casted down confided that Jenny was now living-in with Michael Winner, that’s Sir Michael to you – the Producer of that ‘Death Wish’ string of movies starring Charles Bronson. Potong stim laa braader!

I was up in the clouds already. Fantasizing I might someday meet a famous Hollywood actress. After all Jenny does fly in to Singapore now and again to visit her dad. Derek had promised to invite me over when Jenny comes to town. That day never happened of course, and I have since lost his business card.

In case you were wondering, the gold business never took off either. As in most episodes, that about sums up the story of my life - so far.

As we drove into Kuala Lumpur, he asked me to drive by the church near the Selangor Padang. That’s where he was married, he said. Then we drove to Bangsar where he showed me the hospital where Jenny was born. It’s now a government maternity clinic along off Jalan Bangsar, opposite a 24-hour mamak joint that serves excellent roti canai and frequented by the likes of Hishamuddin Rais and the late MGG Pillai so I hear. Can't quite believe that the Klinik Ibu Dan Kanak-Kanak across the mamak joint actually delivered one of the World's Most Desirable Women Of The Eighties.

A few days after Derek left, I went to a bookstore to browse. I needed to check out how this Jenny looked like remember? A Woman Of Substance was on the bestseller list in every bookstore in town. And every cover of the paperback had Jennifer Seagrove’s face on it – a glamorous Emma Hart still taken from the TV show.

Not long after, the mini-series debuted on Malaysian TV (TV3 if I recall correctly) so ‘my Jenny’ became a household word to bored housewives.

So that was my brush with fame - albeit fleetingly - that I once knew the dad of a famous Hollywood A-List actress.

But back in that bookstore I felt like shouting to everyone within earshot – hey, I know this famous Hollywood actress father-lah. We shared a room in a rest house in Kuala Lipis worrr!

You think anyone would have believed me?

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Contemplating Mid-Life Part One


Quite a bit has happened since I last graced these pages, so a little update is in order. You might imagine distractions abound aplenty—the World Cup, and of course the recent arrival of my daughter Alesha.

She’s getting along nicely, thank you, and able to lift up her head bit. At least that’s what my wife tells me. Pretty soon she’ll be able to roll over on her tummy. Don’t know whether I’ll be around for that. I was only home for about a month to “bond” with her, until work has beckoned me back to the swamps of Balikpapan, and that’s where I am now, which brings me to the ills of being an overseas worker being constantly away from one’s family.

It never did bother me much, being away that is. I wasn’t home when my first-born came into this world where my wife had to go the labor room in a taxi. I came home a day later and took-off again for work soon after I drove her back to the house after the required two-day observation period. Of course I made sure there were enough groceries and baby-things before I left. I was lucky I had my mother-in-law come in a few weeks earlier. Especially being in a ‘foreign’ place like Miri, where we had no relatives.

Then seven years down the road came my second boy. I told myself that I had to be in the labor room this time around, meaning I had to be home prior to the anticipated date. I was on a rig in Vietnam at that time. Fortunately the Drilling Superintendent was an old crony from the ExxonMobil days in Terengganu so he could arrange choppers from the rig to shore.

But what was not so fortunate was the weather. The mid-year monsoon came early off the coast of Vietnam that year (El Nino?) so no choppers could be run in the gusting 30-50 knot winds. So there was no choice. A week prior to EDD (estimated time of delivery) was my deadline to be home. So I asked the Superintendent if it was okay to hitch a ride on the supply boat. It was perhaps about 150 km from the rig to the Port of Vung Tau, on the southern tip of Vietnam. He said okay.

Oh boy, was that the worst boat ride of my life! Five-meter swells, 50-knot winds, you name it. The supply vessel looks nothing like a ship. It has a shallow draft, has an open deck to facilitate transfer of large cargo. What it looks like is a huge tennis court sitting a few meters above the high seas.

What it means is with five-meter swells, the deck (and cargo) is constantly awash with seawater with every rise in the swell, which occurs every couple of minutes or so. I was prepared of course. My wallets, passports, tickets were already zip-locked in plastic and will stay in the breast pocket of my coveralls.

The transfer was slated at midnight. I would go down in a personnel transfer basket together with my two offshore bags; a duffel bag with clothes in it and one laptop bag carrying the company’s Dell. The crane operator that was going to pick me up must really be on the ball. He will time the swells so I don’t get awash with rushing seawater on the boat’s deck. The “window of opportunity” when the boat deck is clear would only be about a minute or so. Oh yeah, from the rig level where I was down to the boat’s deck below is about a hundred feet.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done plenty of basket transfers before, but in relatively benign weather and in calm seas. And most operators allow basket transfers during daylight hours only. Because of obvious safety reasons like, in a man-overboard situation it’s easier to spot someone if he falls off the basket into the sea.

But here I am attempting the transfer at night, in stormy seas. It broke every rule in the book. But it was a ‘genuine’ emergency because of a promise made to a spouse to be in the labor room. Plus I had a crony superintendent in HQ who was willing to ‘close one eye’. Just as long as I don’t do anything stupid like drop in the sea or something and create an incident that requires SAR. In other words, don’t tell anybody, and please don’t screw up.

But things went wrong the moment crane picked me up. I found out later the crane’s radio ran out of batteries and the operator had to rely on hand signals from the boat’s crew below when he should be communicating by radio directly with the captain. Remember it was night and the spotlight illumination was sketchy at best. I was connected by piece of rope on top of the basket where 50-knot winds blew me around, so I hung tight. He’s got to time it just so or else I will crash on the deck since the deck constantly rises up and down by as much as five meters. Then there’s seawater rushing on deck.

So the crane operator misjudged. I just managed to jump on the deck from the basket so I wouldn’t break my legs. I screamed for the deck crew to grab my bags but there were more concerned about my wellbeing than my bags. In a matter of seconds the sea came rushing up to my knees obscuring everything. My two bags were “swallowed” by the rushing seawater, and for a moment all I could see was just the sea on deck. The bags totally obliterated. Oh-oh I didn’t want to think of the Dell and all its related accessories like adapters, mouse and so on. It wasn’t submerged for long, maybe ten or twenty seconds, and it was in a laptop bag after all. I was more pissed-off because I knew I had to dry my clothes in the hotel after I get in to port.

The journey was horrible you can imagine. What normally took twelve hours now became a sixteenhours. It was also the first time I threw up. And I’ve got considerable “sea-legs” I tell you. Don’t worry said the Chief Mate, because he had just thrown-up too. And he’s got close to twenty years on small vessels like these. It was THAT bad.

I spent a day in Saigon to get my clothes dried prior to flying home. I dared not power up the Dell in case it’s totally fried. When I opened the bag, it didn’t look too bad, no water sloshing around I mean. Just a bit damp, that’s all. But I’ll have to worry about that later. I got a baby to receive.

And that was five years ago.

In case you were wondering, I dried that laptop for a whole day when I got home. So nothing would get shorted at the touch of electricity.

Imagine my surprise when I fired it up and it worked perfectly.

* * *

Right now as I hit mid-life, I value more and more the time I get to spend with my family. Most people take it granted since they see their loved ones on daily basis. Me? I miss the critical moments, like when my first-born started to walk. Or when he first mouthed the syllable ‘Ma-Ma’. These are moments that can never be repeated. Ever.

So with the recent birth of my Alesha, I hope to change a few things. Make some resolutions to enable me to be home more often. Got to talk to my boss, rearrange some schedules.

Don’t know what it really is folks, whether it was the birth of a daughter, or contemplating mortality.

A little bit of both perhaps?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

It's A Girl, Mat Salo! - 16 May 2006

STOP THE PRESS! Kuala Lumpur, Tuesday 16 May. After two boys--13 and 5--year-olds, Mat Salo ('Overprotective' Daddy and his Lil ' Gal, pic) was once again blessed, this time with a much-awaited baby girl, who has yet to be named at press time.

"Don't worry", Salo assured everyone, "the baby's special, so she'll have a special name, Insya'Allah". Both mother and baby are reportedly doing fine.

Next to TomKats 'Suri', and the yet-to-be delivered Brangelina offspring rumored due on May 18th, this was the most anticipated Baby-of-the-Year Event (according to Mat Salo, of course!).

The 3.2 kg bundle-of-joy was delivered at 8.03 p.m. by Dato' Dr. Abdul Hamid Arsat at Pantai Hospital K.L.

An ecstatic Mat Salo was especially grateful since the Doctor had 'made it back in time'-- but barely-- just two days after returning from performing the Umrah in Makkah.

"For a moment, I thought sure dah kena back-up Doctor dah--Dr. Derih [Idris]-- but I guess the baby decided to wait for Dr. Hamid. I also bersyukur-lah that I had just managed to come back a week ago from work in Indonesia", added the happy daddy.

The mother Puan Sity Suriani (Sue) was needless to say, joyous too.

Two years ago she sufferred an ectopic pregnancy and had to have a fallopian tube removed. There were doubts as to whether she was able to conceive again. Even so, could she have a 'normal' delivery after undergoing surgery less than two years prior?

The doubts were gratefully, put to rest.

She had undergone the emergency procedure at Damansara Specialist after being admitted for 'extreme stomach pain'. Fortunately Mat Salo was at home at the time, and neither one had known that she was pregnant. There was no time to seek a second opinion even. The 'embryo' became 'stuck' in the tube and had subsequently 'burst' . This was what caused the internal bleeding and acute pain. Dr. Maziah*, the O & G physician in attendance who performed the emergency surgery apparently did a great job. Because Puan Sity was able to have a normal delivery two years later.

And that is why, folks, this girl is special.

My baby girl / U chang'd my world...

' Chubby Cheeks' Up Close... eee..geramnya-cubit!


AS Mat Salo would have his hands full with the 'new girl in his life', he regretfully declines any invitations to 'Teh Tarik' sessions and Friday Nite Futsals, or other similar activities until further notice. He welcomes calls and SMS-es from well wishers though. At the moment, he's holed-up in Room 312 for at least another day or two, where fortunately, there's Wi-Fi, and Astro.

*To keep up the '6 degrees of separation' spirit, Dr.Maziah's husband, a brain surgeon, just happens to be Mat Salo's senior in high school)