Saturday, 1 August 2009

Destination unknown

This excerpt is one of those stories created when the title was given to me, instead of me having to create a title for a story that I experienced, which is true for my other blog entries. Like most fictional writing, part of it is true and part of it is what fills the imagination.

This is the city where I grew up and somehow could not recognise. Latitude 3° 14' North; Longitude 101° 68' East. A city filled with my childhood wonder, my teenage rebellion and my adolescent aspirations, also a city that I no longer knew.

It was 26 degrees when I landed, the morning sun was shining sweetly and the air smells like how it does after the rain. People were wearing sandals and t-shirts and droopy skirts. A scene so distant from the place I had travelled from.

I never fail to be taken aback each time I board an aircraft, at the magic of suddenly being in a time and place so dramatically different as the one I had left a few hours before. Watching Earth from the sky was equally mesmerising, as the landscape changes from the manicured British grasslands where even the forests looked as if they sprouted in perfect squares, to the forbidden Thar desert, majestic Hindu Kush, and finally the raw and primitive tropical jungles, lush plantations and deep blue untouched lakes, or who knows if they were in fact abandoned mining pools.

“Can you take me to see the shop houses in the city centre? The ones built since the 18th century; probably you can find a stretch of them near Petaling Street?” I could sense the taxi driver’s muted bemusement. He knows that I am not a stranger to this country, but neither am I a resident.

Those buildings were the first things I wanted to see: the shop houses where people traded goods or services on the ground floor while they slept and ate and lived on the top. The landing in front of these shop houses were called ‘five foot ways’ where children played and women gossiped. If they were coffee shops, these five foot ways would be scattered with tables and chairs for customers to have their meals. This was the part of Kuala Lumpur I yearned for. In the morning, the aroma of local coffee, half boiled eggs and steamed buns wafted together with the smell of newspapers and incense and car exhaust. I use to come to the coffee shops close to midnight with a steaming bowl of rice porridge or some other brothy meal, and enjoy the cooling night air in front of their dilapidating walls. This is a city where you could eat at any time of the day.

As a child who was constantly tugging at my father’s sleeves, I ran up and down these streets, admiring the nougat maker, or the barbequed meat seller or the fruit mongers. There were a few bookshops my dad would take me to, those that had a labyrinth of books, books with old fashioned binding and rice paper thin pages. After the books I would pester him to go to the pet shops that smelt awful but I would be too engaged with the furry minions to care. There was also a cafe somewhere here, where I had my first bottle of alchohol at 14, listening to some unknown music band.

I did not know the exact location of these places and neither did the taxi driver so I asked him to drive on. We passed the Central Market where handmade rattan crafts, wood carvings and canvas paintings were sold. I remembered the place thriving with tourists, now they looked very much unpopular. Nearby was a tuition centre I used to walk to after school hours. In an exam oriented country, centres where students were trained to obtain good grades prospered.

“I heard the Bok House was demolished? Can I see ground zero?” The mansion of an old Chinese entrepreneur had not meant that much to me before when it was still standing, but as it is not there anymore, I thought I should reconstruct its facade in my head. We passed the buzzing Pudu station. It used to be the only station to catch buses in and out of this city and I recalled the various times I stood excitedly amidst the dust and heat whenever I was going on a trip. It was during those times when I particularly loved taking bus rides to nowhere, harbouring a spirit of adventure, I imagined that I could travel the world, by hopping onto the next bus that was heading off.

The twin towers had long been visible, studded against the city skyline and we were now moving closer towards it, towards the more affluent part of KL, the glass and steel part of KL. We see the psychedelic clubs, a Dravidian temple, the glistening shopping malls, a giant mosque, the royal golf club, secondary schools, the Merdeka square, veteran hotels juxtaposed with the stunning new ones.

“Sekarang mana?” Where now? I do not know. I flew 11,000 miles to be home, but I am once again lost.