Friday, July 30, 2010

A cluck and a quack do not make any sense

This article was previously posted on The Malaysian Insider under the title Trying to Bridge the Social and Communication Gap on 28 July. 

Orthodox painting Many Hong Kong People had at some point in time considered immigration before the island was returned to the People’s Republic of China on 1 July 1997. Immigration to developed Western countries was a hot topic of conversation then. If you were rich, it would seem that immigration was the only wise and most fashionable decision to take.

I suppose the reason for this was partly due to the fear of being governed by a less developed and even less liberal country such as China. I assume the Chinese in Hong Kong felt that they had a higher standard of living; they were more sophisticated and ultimately, they were modern. The Chinese in mainland China were regarded as country bumpkins; people who considered spittoons in public places as a matter of practicality, rather than a hygiene faux pas.

Picture above on the left: Christian Orthodox paintings from one of the churches in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

Many Hong Kong movies at that time not only made fun of immigration but also the backwardness of mainland Chinese. Now, it is a matter of the past and as China becomes more developed and already one of the economic superpowers of the world, guess who is having the last laugh now?

While people from the same ethnic race and culture can feel the disparity of social gap as result of economic inequality, it is understandably more so for people of different genetic makeup who live in countries with huge socio-economic gap. Consider someone from Western Europe and another from Sub-Saharan Africa. Culture will not be the only thing which sets them apart. Education, lifestyle, standard of living and social norms will all conspire to further separate them.

I find that as the world becomes smaller due to the impact of globalisation, advancement of information technology and tourism, we no longer fear the unknown and become less and less fascinated with what is known. In many ways, it has helped to reduce the level of xenophobia amongst many of us.

Nevertheless, I realise that there are still certain notions of lifestyles and socio-cultural practices which will remain a puzzle. For instance, in some countries, the practice of corruption is considered normal while in others, completely unacceptable. Individual privacy is better appreciated in more developed country while it is more common here for others to see it as a right to know everything about one’s private life. Taking a pet dog to training school and grooming salon will baffle anyone who treats dog as just another dietary supplement.

I had such an experience while I was in Ethiopia a few years ago. While travelling in Bahir Dar, I met two young Ethiopian students at a local cultural bar. One of them was graduating from a local university and was out celebrating the occasion. They showed my friend and I places to go to in Bahir Dar and we all became friends eventually.

Lake Tana

Picture above: Pelicans floating on Lake Tana in Bahir Dar

One night, while we were walking on a dim but busy street, I decided to send a SMS on my phone. While I was keying in the text message, a man appeared abruptly from my side and snatched my phone away. It all happened so quickly that I was left in a momentary catatonic state. The next thing I knew it, my Ethiopian friend had given chase to the thief and together they disappeared into the darkness of the night.

I regained my composure quickly and shouted after my friend to stop the chase. He returned completely crestfallen and was extremely apologetic. I suppose he felt ashamed that this should happen to me in his country.

I told him that I needed to report this to the police since the SIM card belonged to my husband’s organisation and it was procedural to report a theft. We didn’t have to walk far to the police station when we bumped into two uniformed police officers on the same street. My friend started explaining to the officers in Amharic. I tried to talk to them but nobody listened to me. I suppose it was cultural that in the presence of a man, a woman should just keep quiet.

After a few minutes, I sensed there was a problem since the police officers didn’t look too sympathetic. From their expression, they behaved as if we were the culprits. My friend then explained that the police wouldn’t believe him and instead, accused him of conspiring with the thief.

I was baffled and stunned. He told me that since I was a foreigner and he is Ethiopian, they just assumed that he was trying to take advantage of me.

I didn’t know how to react except that it was one of the most ridiculous things I had ever heard in my life. Believe it or not, this incident actually made it to the top of my list of human absurdities.

I insisted on talking to the officers but when my friend told me that he would be placed as a scapegoat, I decided to let it go. The thought that perhaps my friend might have played a role in the incident did come across my mind but it didn’t matter. Even if he was, how could the police deny him the right to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise?

I left the scene feeling extremely upset and sorry for my friend who is forced to live with irrational stereotypes and injustices. When I conveyed the incident to my other friend, I was so infuriated that tears came to my eyes.

When we returned to Addis Ababa, we continued to stay in touch. One day, the same friend offered to show me around a shopping area in Piazza, notoriously known for pick pockets and snatch thieves. Compared to Bole where most expatriate lives, the Piazza is predominantly inhabited by locals but still a popular place amongst tourists for cheap souvenirs and gold jewelleries.

When I finished shopping, he took me to the bus station to get a ride back to Bole. Feeling slightly embarrassed, I told him that I was not allowed to take the mini-bus and could only take taxis. Out of curiosity, he asked me why.

I explained to him that as an expatriate and also a wife of an international organisation delegate, we were prohibited from taking mini-buses due to the bombing incident in front of the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa which killed 3 and injured 9 in May 2008.


Picture left: A young child selling souvenirs in Bahir Dar

He told me not to worry as mini-buses are usually safe and it is after all the cheapest mode of public transportation in Addis Ababa. (A taxi usually cost about 50 birr from Piazza to Bole while a minibus cost only about 1.90 birr). In order not to appear too “precious”, I explained that if I insisted on taking a mini-bus and something did happen, whether a bomb or just an accident, I would not be covered by my insurance.

He looked at me as if I was from Mars. He didn’t have to speak for me to understand the incredulity of what must had appeared so petty in a country where millions are suffering from famine every single year. Most Ethiopians don’t even own insurance policies, much less trying to understand the exclusion clauses that come with it. This probably topped his list of absurdities.

Two such examples tell me that these are the things which we cannot hope to change overnight. We cannot begin to understand each other unless we are or have been in the other’s position. Like a chicken and a duck trying to converse with each other, we could go on and go trying to speak and defend our choices or positions and it would still be futile and meaningless.

However, since we all have highly developed capacity to learn, we can look to many other means of helping us to communicate. With the aid of information technology, education and sometimes even a translator, we can learn how to speak the same human language. If this doesn’t work, then we should know that we’re not the only human beings living in this planet.

Finally, let’s not forget that there is also the chicken and the duck.


Monday, July 19, 2010

'Forgotten' tribes left behind by development by M. Jegathesan, AFP

KAMPUNG BERTANG LAMA: Just a few hours from the glittering Malaysian capital is a pitiful scene of hungry children and desperate parents, in an indigenous village home to the "forgotten Malaysians".

Naked youngsters with the tell-tale signs of malnourishment - bulging stomachs and brown tinged hair - sit listlessly in a hut, while others cling to their mothers as they suckle milk.

Welcome to Bertang Lama village, home of some of Malaysia's Semai people, an indigenous tribe mired in poverty and struggling to adapt as the multicultural nation races towards modernity.

The village, which houses about 300 people, is located close to Cheroh, a small town in central Pahang that sits along the Titiwangsa mountains which form the backbone of Peninsula Malaysia.

The Semai, once nomadic but now largely settled, are seeking recognition of their traditional land rights as well as basic needs - piped water, electricity, medicine, education and tarred roads.

Known for their tracking skills

There is little food in the village where families live a subsistence life, hunting and gathering to trade in jungle products like rattan and agarwood.

Neither is there much money, as the forest they depend on is fast being depleted of its resources thanks to deforestation caused by logging, and the rapid expansion of rubber and palm oil plantations.

There are an estimated 45,000 Semai in Peninsular Malaysia, among some 150,000 indigenous people divided among 19 linguistic groups who live on the country's mainland.

Colin Nicholas, coordinator of the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns, said the people of Bertang Lama and others like them have become "the forgotten and invisible Malaysians".

Nicholas said the Semai played a valuable role in the British offensive against communist insurgents in the 1950s due to their stealth and tracking skills, but are now seen as irrelevant.

"Come elections, ruling party politicians make promises in exchange for votes but after that they renege on their words. Because of their small population, they are easily ignored by the government," he told AFP.

"The indigenous people have been pushed to the brink. Their situation will only get worse. After nearly 53 years of independence, the government is in a state of denial."

Invisible people

Not all Semai or Orang Asli people are impoverished, and some communities, particularly those located closer to urban infrastructure, have done much better in terms of education, employment and health.

But the plight of Bertang Lama village was highlighted when Lim Ka Ea, an executive officer with the Malaysian Bar Council visited recently and recounted her shock at the scene there in a newspaper article.

"The Orang Asli have been regarded as invisible by many people," she told AFP.

"What we do see in them is their 'primitive' form of lifestyle and the entrenched stereotype that they serve no purpose to the advancement of our nation except to make our tourism advertisements look exotic and attractive."

In the village, 11-year-old Jolisa returns home from the forest, armed with a machete and a bamboo basket on her back as she skips along with three other barefoot friends.

"We went looking for wild vegetables," she says.

"Yes I would like to go to school if there was one in our village," she replies with a smile to a visitor's question.

'Life is difficult'

Nearby, inside a dilapidated hut, a naked two-year-old child with mucus dripping from his nose and an expressionless face holds a bowl containing only mashed tapioca, a flavorless starch, for his breakfast.

The chidren are mostly illiterate, and mostly hungry as their families can only provide them with vegetables and tapioca sourced from the jungle.

The village is located just 11 kilometers from a main road but it is a tedious drive along an unsealed logging track.

"We sell rattan, bamboo and agarwood sourced from the forest. But it is hard to find them now," says Yoke Ham, a 47-year-old father of 12 children who says his ancestors settled here hundreds of years ago.

"The average income per month is less than RM300," he adds, as crying babies drown out the chirp of insects.

Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, who is striving for Malaysia to achieve developed-nation status by 2020, earlier this month assured all Malaysians that no one will be left behind.

"I promise you, as prime minister I will be fair to everybody. We will help all communities to move forward. We will make Malaysia a high-income country," he said.

But the lofty goals mean little to Robina, who looks in her thirties but does not know her age. She holds her sick three-year-old daughter, Sinar, on her lap and appeals for help as tears roll down her face.

"My child has a fever. I have no money to buy food and rice for her," she says. "We have not had our breakfast yet. Life is difficult."

Monday, July 12, 2010

Avillion, Port Dickson – An oasis of calm just a stone’s throw away from Kuala Lumpur

Room2 Port Dickson is probably not even close to being on the top 10 list of beach destination in Malaysia. But, it would definitely qualify as the fastest gateway to a relaxing weekend for any KL city folks. Well, the good news is, there’s Avillion, Port Dickson, a relatively luxurious beach resort which my husband and I discovered lately. And the bad news? It does come with a price.

Since my husband and I are both very fond of the sea, we decided to splurge on the premium water chalet which has a full frontal view of the ocean. At the price of RM400++ per night, it does come with a magnificent view of the light creamy-coloured sea and breathtaking sunset. One of the best I’ve seen in my life, by the way.

The chalet was spacious and furnished with a king-sized four-poster bed, a TV and an open concept bathroom cum shower to die for. It was heavenly taking a shower while listening to the faint sound of sea water gently slapping against the chalet’s concrete pillars below. If it had rained, it would have been surreal to feel droplets of rain water falling from the sky above and massaging every single pressure point of our scalps and bare skin.

Balcony3 I could have sat all day on the balcony just looking at the ocean or simply lying on the additional twin bed by the window reading a book, but there were so many other things to do at Avillion that staying indoor would have been a waste.

Usually at 10am after breakfast, I hit the pet farm to help Saroja, the friendly pet keeper, feed the other more adorable residents of the resort; hens, roosters, rabbits, guinea pigs and tortoises. I was particularly besotted by the cuddly and cute rabbits, some with floppy ears. I would often stop by the sand pit and observe how they dug into the sand and lie there to keep their bodies cool. The pet farm was very popular not just amongst the children but also adults.

Most of our afternoons were spent at the Cochin Pool, a deep blue-tiled pool which made the water looked like the Mediterranean sea but since it was surrounded by tall coconut trees, you’ll definitely know you’re in the tropics. As only adults are allowed at this pool, it was quiet and calm.  What was even more enticing was the peacocks and peahens roaming freely around the pool areas. We could see that they’re very comfortable with the surrounding as they would often call out what sounded very much like “Lee-on” to each other or simply take a nap around the deck chairs, as if they own the place.

Bunny2One of Avillion’s strengths is how they manage to cater to both adults and children’s needs. While it is still possible for couples to rekindle lost romance, children will get to have fun doing water-sports, swim at the inviting village pool and play games at the kids’ cabin. Even if you’re not there as a couple, you can occupy your time by hitting the gym, using the sauna and steam and playing tennis. I think Avillion has every potential to make everyone happy and fulfilled.

We ended our trip with possibly one of the most indulging and decadent spa treatments I ever had. We had the 3 1/2 hour water treatment, body scrub and massage package which came with hi-tea on a rotund balcony overlooking the ocean. I almost felt as if I was on a boat.

AviSpa is by far one of most tastefully decorated spas. I could be bias though since the colour-theme is robin egg blue (think Tiffany) and white. By the end of the treatment, I wished I could be rich enough to afford my own spa by the sea!

 Avispa4    Avispa

There are certainly many strengths in this resort. If I can choose several things I like best about it, they would be these:

  • I really had the feeling that I was surrounded by nature. They really paid a lot of careful attention and details to the garden landscaping;
  • The inviting Cochin Pool. This would definitely be the place where I would spend hours and hours dipping in the cool water of the pool while feeling the sun on my head;
  • Observing how the sky slowly changed from grey to vermillion red during sunset from the chalet’s balcony;
  • AviSpa. Completely and utterly indulging. Plus, it’s such a beautifully-decorated spa.
  • The clay urns that are filled with cold water at almost every corner of the resort to allow guests to refresh or clean their tired and sandy feet. This is where small attention and details made a great deal of difference.

Sadly, nothing is ever quite perfect. While my husband and I had enjoyed our short trip and would definitely go back, we thought there are some things which the resort should improve on, especially with the price that we paid. We thought the variety of food offered at the two restaurants was poor and over-prized.

Spa food We also thought customer service was rather poor. For a place such as Avillion, one should really expect the resort to provide the best customer service it could ever offer. For example, after we had our spa treatment, we were asked to present our spa vouchers so that they could process the payment. Unfortunately, we had left them in our chalet. Instead of sending a staff to pick up the vouchers from our chalet, we were asked to bring them back ourselves.

While lying on my front with my back being massaged and dozing into sweet slumber, I was rudely awakened by the sound of motor engine in the sea just by the window of the spa. Such disturbance did not match with the spa’s philosophy of providing guests with complete relaxation and tranquillity.

The resort also did not pay any attention to environmentally-friendly practices. There was no instructions posted on the bathroom or the pool to encourage customers to “recycle” towels or to preserve water. I was guilty of disposing more than two towels a day since I spend half of the time drying myself at the pool, bath and shower.

In the end, I think what we truly like and appreciate about Avillion is that we now know where we can have a place to get away from the noisy, crowded and stress-induced city.  A word of caution, do make your bookings early if you intend to spend your time there during the weekend. Otherwise, weekdays are the best as you’ll avoid the huge influx of local and foreign tourists who seem as eager to explore this oasis of calm.