Bye bye Indonesia

From Labuan Bajo I took a small bus to Ruteng up in the hills which is the administrative capital of a region called Manggarai. The driver managed to find a few other passengers but it appeared that transport was more ubiquitous than were the people that acually wanted to travel. In some cases prospected passengers clearly needed some persuasion to get in the vehicle and one woman was practically abducted. But when we finally were under way I found myself with ample leg room and listening to my favourite Indo pop, even though the bass was a bit too loud for my liking and the thudding sound almost popped the windows out of the bus.

The van dropped me off at a hotel at a crossroads where I rented a cheap room. At an altitude of 1200 m Ruteng enjoys a mild climate and I decided to stay for a while.

The town is home to a large school of tourism and when school was out I was often approached by students who wanted to practice their English with me. One of themas named Andrew and he told me the following:
To marry a girl the forthcoming bridegroom has to provide 5 buffaloes and an additional amount of money to pay for the wedding. This constitutes a considerable sum of money and it is for this reason that someone who has three daughters is considered to be a rich man.
So if I pay 5 buffaloes I can marry a local girl here? I asked.
Andrew looked at me.
Maybe 6 buffaloes, he said uncertain.
He told me that his mother tongue was Manggarai but that he and most of his generation spoke Bahasa Indonesia as a second language. But older people like his grandmother didn’t speak Bahasa Indonesia. His grandmother was alone now since his grandfather died.
Sorry, I said.
Andrew looked puzzled.
Then he told me that when his grandfather died he went to his grandmother. She didn’t want to be alone, he said.
So you stayed with here for a while, I said.
No, he said, I go back the next day.
You went back the next day, I said.
Yes, I go back the next day, he said.
The population of Flores is mainly Roman Catholic but when I inquired after the practice of growing rice, Andrew told me about religious ceremonies that were hardly in line with the liturgical principles of the Church of Rome. Before the harvest the people in his village perform a ceremony that involves the sacrifice of a chicken and pouring its blood over an altar. Here he described a large circular stone that stood in the middle of the rice fields. This was followed by the offering of an egg and a cigarette.
A cigarette? I asked.
Yes, but Indonesian cigarette, made from big leave, not Marlboro cigarette.
His father was now working on a palm oil plantation in Borneo where he earned 600,000 Rp a day. He sent  money home but the family survived largely on the farming of vegetables and coffee. Before his father had left for Borneo, he had worked in the rice fields around the village where he only made 30,000 Rp. Andrew lived in a boarding house not far from the school. He ate rice every day.
For dinner?  I asked.
Yes, he said, and for lunch.
And for breakfast? I said.
Rice, he said. But we cook the rice the day before.

Sometimes I felt like a celebrity as that one time when I met three girls with bibles under their arms and on their Sunday best who seemed very excited. They were giggling and I got a limp handshake from one of them. Where are you from? More giggling and before I could answer them they had suddenly abandonned me.

teaching

I was first introduced at the school by some of the students I had met the day before and was paraded by my hosts in front of different classrooms answering questions of the students. The format became a bit boring as the questions were much the same. In the last class that I visited I took the opportunity to lecture a bit on Geography after a question was asked about my country. I used the whiteboard to draw a  map of Europe and explained the different countries, the climate, the economy and other interesting facts. A few days later I asked to be introduced to a teacher to see if I could partake in the regular English classes.
Before the class started I met Christian, who was an English teacher and he gave me a textbook and without further ado put me in front of the classroom. It was great and I enjoyed explaining sentences, their meaning and a bit of grammar. After that we did the usual photo session. Then I taught another class and these students too seemed to be very pleased with my performance.
After school was out Christian invited me for lunch at his family’s house. When the food was served Christian stood up to close the front door. He explained this was the custom in Manggarai. He also told me that during meals there is traditionally no conversation and people eat in silence. It is believed that people are at risk of biting their tongues off when they eat and speak at the same time. After she had put the food on the tabel his mother left. She likes to be excused, Christian said, she only speaks Manggarai. After the meal I took leave and said my thanks to the mother and an old woman with betel nut stained teeth who were both sitting in the kitchen. They were all smiles and then I said goodbye.

At the hotel I was often sitting on the veranda close to the kitchen, sipping coffee and reading a book. From that position I could easily observe the maids at their kitchen chores, chopping vegetables, preparing food and roasting coffee beans. A cockerel with beautiful feathers was tied to a block of wood in the small garden and I had helped it the day before when it had tied itself into a knot. Now one of the maids kept it under her feet and unceremoniously cut its throat with a kitchen knife spilling its blood in the gutter. Another chicken, tied to a papaya tree, looked on, nervously picking around while her cousin was swiftly plucked.

Sometimes I bought a durian and shared it with the women who clearly considered it a rare and much appreciated delicacy. In turn I was often served delicious treats from the kitchen.

Fermented cassava and guavas from the tree in the garden.

After I had eaten a whole plate of the cassava I became curious and wanted to know more about it. The cheesy chunks were surprisingly tasty and reminiscent of sweet potatoes without being quite so sweet. Wikipedia had a warning though: Symptoms of acute cyanide intoxication appear four or more hours after ingesting raw or poorly processed cassava: vertigo, vomiting, and collapse. In some cases, death may result within one or two hours. It can be treated easily with an injection of thiosulfate.
I googled where I could obtain thiosulfate but found that most suppliers wouldn’t ship their products to Indonesia. When after a whole day I still hadn’t collapsed I thought I was going to be okay, though at some point I thought I suffered a little from vertigo but it was probably just the strong coffee that I was drinking in large quantities.

In Ruteng I had bought a flight back from Labuan Bajo to Bali and from there to Kuala Lumpur. It was only the night before that I realised that I had only a two-hour layover for my connecting flight from Bali to Kuala Lumpur and that I had failed to foresee that I would have to go through customs while changing from a domestic flight to an international flight. On top of that domestic flights were often delayed and I was afraid that the connection would be really tight. In Labuan Bajo I arrived early at Komodo Airport and asked if I could take my small backpack as hand luggage so that I wouldn’t have to wait to collect it at the conveyor belt on Bali. To my relief this was permitted even though its weight was well over my allowance for carry on.

At the gate I tried to connect with the internet but it seemed they had run out of IP addresses. When I boarded the plane I noticed we were 15 minutes late. Only one and a half hour, I thought.

Flying over Komodo I looked down and from above the beautiful islands looked like a pirate map. Here be dragons I thought.

On Bali I ran to the International departure hall and to my utter relief it turned out that my flight to KL was happily delayed and all was fine.

 

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Flores, fruit and mantas

In Labuan Bajo, the westernmost city on the Indonesian island of Flores, I met my Spanish cycling friends, Hugo and Bego, and we decided to take a tour to Komodo Island.

The boat trip took several hours, but it was time well spent, gazing at island after tropical island with lush vegetation covering these volcanic outcrops that form the emerald archipelago.  The weather was bright, the water deep blue, and cruising towards the green island of Komodo I was imbued with a sense of anticipation as if approaching Jurassic Park.

yoga3

Learning how to fly on Pulau Padar.

After all the administrative hubbub at the headquarters of the National Park, and the parting of more money, we were guided to the Komodo dragons which were predictably found scattered around an open area in the forest. After a short introduction, our guide took questions and when asked if the animals pose any danger to humans, he told us how last year a worker, contracted from one of the nearby islands, was killed when repairing the toilets. With his back to the door he had let himself be surprised by one of the large reptiles. Looking at the animals that lay around lazily, sluggishly, in the shadow, it was easy to forget that they are, in fact, the apex predators of the food chain of this island.

manta

Manta ray, watercolour after a photo

From Komodo island we set course to Manta Point and we were not to be disappointed. The water was teeming with huge manta rays and snorkelling in the strong current we saw one after the other. Impressive and infinitely gracious… um..  fish.

It is a strange phenomenon that our most visual and therefore most direct experiences are often so difficult to write about in an engaging fashion. The reason for this I think is well worded in the popular expression: ‘one picture tells more than a thousand words’. Unfortunately I had no underwater camera.

After spending some rewarding days with my friends, it was time to say goodbye and I travelled to Ruteng, which, I was pleased to find, had a very agreeable climate. Although plenty of tourists come through here, for some of the people here, foreigners still seem to be a bit of a novelty. They want pictures taken with you and, not seeing any reason to refuse, I often comply. When I walk through the town children occasionally yell bule to me but I don’t think it is meant in a derogatory way, certainly not by children.

mangosteen

Delicious mangosteens are ubiquitous and cheap. And no, they are not in any way like mangoes.

 

 

Photograph above is of the King of Fruits, the spiky durian, which, when it comes to taste, has no equal. Unfortunately, it is fast becoming  my major expense as they don’t come particularly cheap.

Then I bought a strip of shampoo sachets and my scant knowledge of the language had the lamentable consequence that I now walk around smelling like an overripe strawberry.

Yogya and beyond

In Jakarta I woke up very early to catch my train to Yogyakarta. I was waiting for an ojek, a motorcycle taxi, to bring me to the train station. The boy who had checked me out of the hotel had an ojek-app on his phone and was patiently waiting for a response. Then he gave up. Drivers sleepy, he explained. So I took to the dark street by myself and started to walk in the general direction of the train station, but I hadn’t walked very far before a shadow called out: transport…  you need transport? Thankfully, I accepted the offer and after a swift ride on the back of the motorcycle I arrived at the station. The train from Jakarta to Yogyakarta departed punctually and brought me to my destination through the verdant heartland of Java.

The hostel I stayed at in Yogyakarta was like a museum. It was even better because I could move objects around to take better photos:

 

I can get very intrigued by old photographs like the one on the right where the girl is staring back from deep time. You can imagine her father fuddling with the camera. Shall I smile? No… just stand still. If… if I just get this thing to work….. Dad, can I go now? No! no just…. just stand still.
That was way before smartphones, now it is: zzzp….click! Ice cream darling?

Bahasa Indonesia is the national language of the country. Learning the basics is not very difficult and doing so acquaints one with some interesting features of the grammar. What I found most striking was that it actually makes a distinction between formal and informal address in both the first and the second person. For ‘I’ one uses saya and aku, respectively, and for ‘you’ one uses Anda and kamu for formal and informal use. ‘He’, ‘she’ and ‘it’ are all dia which is particularly easy when discussing babies: no need to know if it’s a boy or a girl, or animals, if it’s a he or a she. It also accounts for the common mistake that many Indonesians make of mixing up ‘he’ and ‘she’ when they speak English and which can be very confusing.

There are different words for rice:
padi – rice in the field
gabah – unhusked rice grains
beras – uncooked rice
nasi – cooked rice
ketan – sticky rice
goo – trampled rice pulp on the floor of a restaurant

Another interesting feature is the use of exclusive and inclusive forms of the personal pronoun ‘we’. It is something that I think would be very useful in English too. Exclusive means using ‘we’ for all of us except you, the person that is addressed, and inclusive, means all of us, you included. In Indonesian there are different words for ‘we’ in those different contexts. Unfortunately, many Indonesians don’t seem to use it in a very consistent way but if you’ve come this far in bahasa, most people seem to be happy to have you tag along no matter what.

Then the good news. There are no verb tenses, no verb conjugations, no gender and no number. It’s just a matter of putting words together in a meaningful way and most people seem to understand what you want to have along with your rice.
Still, one wonders how to express the future perfect continuous tense in bahasa, so, for example: ‘At twelve o’clock, I will have been waiting for half an hour’. Good luck with that.

Bahasa Indonesia is not the first language of a majority of the people but instead a unifying language based on a Malaysian dialect that had spread across the archipelago as a lingua franca during the Dutch colonial period. On Java, and certainly in Yogyakarta, many people speak Javanese (Basa Jawa) as their mother tongue and this language is staggering in its complexity. This is mainly because it is spoken in three different registers, Ngoko, Krama and Krama Inggil, that each has an entirely different vocabulary. It represents a sort of embedded caste system within the language and the use of each register is prescribed by the complex social mores of Javanese society. This means that to be fluent one needs to learn all three of these vocabularies and on top of that learn how to use them in different social situations based on your social status and that of your interlocutor.

No wonder many young Javanese have simply given up on it.

Yogya_food

Eating ayam betutu (photo above) was not the joy I had expected. The screaming Javanese music from nearby speakers added to the Stoic challenge of eating this eye watering dead chicken in dense tropical heat while at the same time being under siege by intractable stealth mosquitoes. Having dinner in Indonesia can be hard work.

Later I was having coffee and studied some graffiti on the wall at the other side of the street. It read: Love is.. but it was unfinished. We will never know what love is I thought.

Then it was time to move on and I booked a flight to the island of Flores further east. At the airport I learnt that it’s not okay to bring bombs on board the aircraft:

 

Thank you for your kind attention. The air hostess sounded like she  had something in her nose and had done her English classes in Moscow. During our short stopover on Bali the other passengers and I had to walk to our plane which stood quite far out on the runway. Most were taking selfies and they were all over the place. Security wise it looked like a nightmare. From the air I had a spectacular view of the lush tropical islands dotted in the sea below.

We arrived at Flores unscathed.

The Big Durian

The Big Durian, that is Jakarta, a metropolis of over 10 million people and navigating this termite nest is like walking through a throbbing swamp of consciousness with its swimming faces and a stream of molten cars moving through the streets and the pavements blocked with warungs, selling sate, soto, nasi nasi goreng goreng, gado gado and other greasy stuff no normal person would put in his mouth.
After I had taken a train to Kota in central Jakarta, I had to get to the other side of the street and it took some courage to just step in front of the careening cars that immediately came for me, surrounded by swarms of motorcycles, that could as well have been angry hornets, and then it came down to hoping none of them would be busy with their phone and hit me. It was an unnerving experience as I shuffled from one lane to another, frantically waving and making myself large, but I made it safely to the other side. There was actually a traffic light but it had no effect whatsoever… It was red but it might as well have been Daffy Duck.

Batavia

Gouverneur Kantoor Jakarta

In the capital I visited The Bank Indonesia Museum which is about money and I find money fascinating. In the National Bank Museum of Kuala Lumpur I had seen a replica of a Rai stone, which very much resembled a millstone, and was the currency of Yap, which is an island in the Pacific. It was mind-blowingly large and it was used (apparently still used) in rare transactions in the social sphere such as marriages and inheritances. It was less practical if you wanted to buy some eggs as it weighed well over a ton. Interestingly, when a shipwrecked Irishman arrived who started to introduce more effective methods of producing these stones, inflation started to rear its ugly head. No sooner had you acquired this wonderful valuable stone then they started to appear in all your neighbours front gardens. And then there was of course the matter of moving the stone, which you couldn’t… but you’re on an island and so your money was safe.  These stories I find very interesting and I was therefore pleased to find some more anecdotal fodder in the Bank Indonesia Museum about the early and chaotic stages of money production in independent Indonesia.
During the Second World War Indonesia was occupied by the Japanese who issued their own money in lieu of that of their Dutch predecessors. Not being very responsible, they printed as much money as they thought necessary and of course rampant inflation was the result, especially since the gold reserves were evacuated by the Dutch not long before, at an early stage of the war. After the end of the Second World War, during the Indonesian War of Independence, there was a bewildering array of money in circulation: pre-war Dutch money, Japanese money, Netherlands Indies Civil Administration money, and then national and even local rupiah, the last two issued by the aspiring Indonesian government. The Dutch administration at the time issued bronze and silver coins in the original pre-war denominations, but due to inflation, the coins were worth more as scrap, and many were simply melted into more useful household goods and silverware, so there goes your money. The incipient Indonesian government had limited printing capacity and it therefore focused primarily on printing its largest denomination, the 100 rupiah note. But then the limited supply of smaller notes led to the curious fact that the 100 rupiah notes were actually worth less than a combination of smaller notes. Widespread counterfeiting exacerbated the inflation of the Indonesian rupiah. Then, to make things more confusing, there were the local rupiah that were currency in some thirty different districts in Sumatra and around a dozen towns in Java.
Soon after Independence the government decided to deal with the amount of money that was in circulation in a way the became known as the Sjafruddin cut, so called after the then minister of finance, and which required citizens to cut their money, literally with a pair of scissors, in half. The one half was worth half the money and the other half could be exchanged for Bank of Indonesia bonds (which were presumably, the article doesn’t say, but I suspect, almost instantly worthless). A remarkable and certainly creative solution for curbing inflation.
Then after more unbridled inflation, a new rupiah was issued, deleting a number of zeroes and I was pleased to read that the one rupiah coin was already worthless at the time of issue.

Colonials

Photo of a Dutch family. Bank Indonesia Museum

 

After my visit to the museum I walked to the Sunda Kelapa, not quite knowing what to expect, but I gave up on the mad traffic, the tiring heat and the grime and the mud and the ugliness of it all, so I will never know what I have missed….

After dark, or rather, after it had become dark, the mosquitoes started to feast on my ankles and, despite the stifling humidity, I had to wear my only pair of trousers and put my socks on.

The National Museum which I visited some days later had a different story: the history of mankind. At the end of the 19th century, during the Dutch colonial time, Dutch paleoanthropologist Eugène Dubois found the remains of what has become known as the Java Man. What I found unbelievable was that he actually was looking for it as the missing link. That went back to the controversy between Darwin and Wallace, the first arguing that man had evolved from a common ancestor with chimpanzees and gorillas in Africa, and Wallace who thought that that common ancestor was rather with orang-utans and gibbons who were found in Asia. Dubois, as he was supporting Wallace’s view, set out to look for remains of that common ancestor and, quite extraordinary, he found what he was looking for.
The anthropological section is on the ground floor of the National Museum and small groups of tattering Indonesians were studying the displays. The fact that most women wore head scarves reminded me that these explanations of the human evolution were strangely at odds with the beliefs held by the majority of Indonesians. Even necessarily so as the Indonesian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but not from religion. In Indonesia everyone is required to have a religion. There are 6 affiliations to choose from under Indonesian law but atheism is not one of them. Most people are muslim.
Besides the famous remains of the Java Man, there were also bone fragments and a skull from the Flores man, Homo floresiensis. The discovery of this new hominid in a cave on the island of Flores made headlines in 2004. Because of its small posture and large feet, it was widely nicknamed as the Hobbit. It was even proposed as its scientific name: Homo hobbitus, though a reconstruction in the museum of what it might have looked like, bears very little resemblance to Frodo. Its feet were so large that scientists now think it walked much like a clown does with high lifted knees. It is thought to have predated on pygmy elephants, the remains of which have been found in the same stratus. Hobbits hunting pygmy elephants, you don’t make that up.
In 2004 famous Indonesian anthropologist Teuku Jacob contended that, rather than being a new species as was generally believed by his international colleagues, the hobbit could be a pygmy person with microcephaly. He caused a scandal by taking the remains to his own laboratory in Yogyakarta and subsequently failing to return a couple of bones that were hidden by his dogs and now he couldn’t find them back. He also broke the skeleton’s jawbone but craftily reconstructed it with some duct tape. In 2005 subsequent excavations at the site were blocked by Indonesian authorities to prevent Professor Jacob from being proven wrong.

 

 

Three photos of one skull of the ‘Hobbit’ that I took as I walked around it.

On the upper floors there were more odds and ends of the past:

 

 

Hindu gods were invested with multiple pairs of arms at the time, apparently because tables were not invented yet so they had to keep stuff in their hands. On the right some terracotta pot ornamented with um, what looks like, um, doesn’t look like anything… really. Well, anyway, it was ornamented which looks like a good start.

Next I am going to Yogyakarta.

From Singapore to Jakarta

From the hostel I walked to the Lavender MRT station. The ticket vending machine didn’t accept my 10 dollar bill so I went to the information booth to ask why. The woman changed my 10 dollar in two 5 dollar bills. Now the machine gave an error and spewed out a receipt. I went to the information booth again and she gave me back my money. I tried it again but with the same result.
Maybe try the other machine.
Thank you
, I said. That was good information.
Meanwhile I had ten minutes delay, but after that everything went like clockwork which is just what you expect in Singapore. First to Tanah Merah and then changing trains to Changi Airport. I didn’t go to the front to see that the trains were fully automatically propelled and had no driver. I have not much confidence in machines. At some time in the future the doors will say: Doorss close now. As they did now. But they will not open again till the train stops at some small wind blown station in Eastern Europe where the rails curl up and the snow whirls down. And then what?

When I left the metro the sudden rise in temperature fogged my glasses over.

changi

At the airport I took a shuttle bus to Terminal 4 where I made use of the toilet.
A screen at the wall asked me to rate the toilet and I rated it ‘Excellent’. It was a job well done and cleaner 17 could be proud of him or herself. Or itself. Thank you.

The self check-in went like a dream. I touched in my ticket code, scanned my passport and printed my boarding pass. The machine then detected the straps of my pack and I had to put it on a tray. It weighed 8,4 kilograms and I printed the label and attached it to the pack. It then disappeared in the belly of the airport. Passport control was automated as well so I scanned my passport and took my fingerprints, the machine took my picture, compared it with the one in my passport, thought what a handsome guy I was, and then I was through.

After that I tried to use the internet on the airport but I couldn’t get on the WiFi. Then I tried to connect to the laser printer of Check In but with no success. The only other diversion seemed to consist of large screens that tried to sell Lancôme, Armani and Yves St. Laurent by showing women who threw shawls in the air and who looked very seductive in other ways. Bored out of my head I thought it would be more entertaining if I could redirect all luggage to Uruguay but I still couldn’t connect with the laser printer. Listlessly I watched the screens.

When I boarded the plane, I realised that I hadn’t spoken with a single person at the airport.

 

Singapore

Not far from my hostel is the Tibetan Buddhist Society. A sign on their door says that they will perform puja for 1 dollar a day. Or they will fly prayer flags for the same price. The monthly package for either of these is just 30 dollars a month. Singapore dollars. The largest note in circulation is 10,000 Singapore dollars which is roughly 7,600 US dollars and the 7-Eleven will go bonkers if you show up with that to pay for your cup of coffee.

Singapore derives its name from its mythological founder: Srisomething from India who saw a lion and for that reason named it the city of lions. Some say that is nonsense and it must have been a tiger, but there do exist Asian lions (in India) and in theory there could have been lions here in mythological times if they would have bothered to walk all the way to the end of the Eurasian landmass.

Sir Raffles took Singapore in 1819. He told the population of 1000 that from then on they were British subjects and had henceforth to drive on the left hand side of the road. What the?  they said.  Drive?

Singapore is very strict on drugs. Drug trafficking carries a mandatory death penalty. If one has been found guilty they will be hanged by the neck until dead on the next Friday after their sentencing.
Walking through a red light is illegal too and punishable with a fine of $25. Repeat offenders can be charged $1000 and up to three months in prison.

It was a long trek out to the Indonesian Embassy and after a while I had enough of waiting for traffic lights and so I risked several years of detention. The Embassy was an enormous building, but the section that gave out visas was comparatively small and at the back. The rest of the building was for fancy cocktail parties, espionage and intrigue, or so I assumed. When it was my turn I handed over my documents to a woman at counter four.
You are travelling to Pontianak? She asked.
Pontianak? I said.
She waved the copy of my ticket to Pontianak. It was the cheapest ticket out of the country that I had found on the internet.
Yes, Pontianak. I said. So much for intrigue.
She smiled and gave me a slip of paper. Tomorrow,  she said.
Tomorrow? I said.
Yes, you can collect your visa tomorrow.

The day after I collected my passport and it now had an Indonesian visa for sixty days in it. In the embassy I met Molly again and we set out to do some exploring.

 

 

Some photos Molly sent me.

The dormitory of the hostel was large with steel bunk beds. In the  middle of the night I woke up to the thudding sounds of a nearby nightclub and lots of people zipping up and down through their luggage and repacking stuff in plastic bags.
I can never sleep in this ruckus, I thought and turned around.
Then I fell asleep.

The day after that was the Chinese New Year. There was dragon dancing and there was beating of drums at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth of Buddha. It was an enormous tooth and it was my second tooth of the Buddha. Some years ago I had seen another one in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Give me enough time and I will explore the whole dental anatomy of the Buddha. The one on display in Singapore looked more like a horse’s tooth and it was obtained in 1980 from a derelict pagoda in Burma.

 

 

The photographs above shows some dragon dancing.

The photograph below is from inside the temple. No idea what it is, but I’ll be expecting Indiana Jones any minute…

Holy_orb

Singapore is the most expensive city in the world according to the Economist, but it was quite possible to get by on a budget. A meal in a food court cost me 3 to 5 Singapore dollars, a coffee set me back one dollar twenty and a coffee in the 7-Eleven was one dollar fifty. My bed in the dormitory cost me 20 Singapore dollars and you get a ride on the MRT for just a couple of dollars.

Next: Jakarta

Malacca

The bus from Kuala Lumpur to Malacca was cheap, fast and comfortable. It was wonderful to read in a comfortable reclining seat while being cooled by an agreeable dry air conditioning and it was with some annoyance that I looked up when we stopped for a break, only to realise that we already had reached our final destination. It was when I was leisurely striding through the bus station towards the local bus station when I felt for my smartphone and in a rush of panic found out that I had left it on the bus. Fast pacing back to the bus, but it had gone. To the information desk and from there to the bus company’s ticket booth and somebody who worked with buses pointed out where the bus I had taken now stood, but the driver was gone. Where was he? Why do drivers leave their bus? Do they have no sense of duty?  Back to the company’s ticket booth, impatiently waiting and cursing, then back to the bus and there he was, the glorious  driver, who had returned from wherever he was, now sleeping on one of the comfortable reclining seats and, on my knocking, which woke him up, he opened the door and with a smile he handed my phone back to me. Walking back through the bus station I knew I was the biggest idiot traveller in the world… the biggest, prolifically sweating, idiot traveller in the world, I decided, because it was extremely hot and humid.

The hostel was atmospheric and it had a tiny courtyard where somebody had tried their hand at some artsy New Age symbols. When people asked me I told them it was the WiFi code of the hostel:

WifiCode

Malacca has a rich history. It was first Malay, obviously, and then Portuguese, Dutch, British and finally Malay again. In the first half of the 15th century the famous Chinese admiral Zheng He visited what was then a small Malay settlement. When I looked up the admiral on Wikipedia he proved to have an interesting biography. His occupation was mentioned as admiral, explorer and palace eunuch, a rather unexpected career choice, I thought.  His appearance has been saved for posterity: he was 7 chi tall and had a waist that was 5 chi in circumference, which must have given him a BMI of mumble 3 point something kilowatt. Furthermore he had a high forehead, a small nose, glaring eyes, whatever that meant, white teeth, because of a life long habit of brushing them with sea salt and a voice that was loud as a bell, presumably high pitched though, given that he was a castrate after all. During his career as Chief Envoy he made seven sea voyages for the Chinese emperor, collecting tribute, trading and generally messing around the Eastern Pacific and the Indian Ocean. In his controversial book, ‘1421’, the British author Gavin Menzies, claims that Zheng He may have circumnavigated the world and, almost one century before Columbus, must have discovered America.
Malacca, as other South East Asian cities, has a temple dedicated to the great admiral who is greatly revered by Chinese people in the region.  The fleets he commanded during his travels consisted of enormous ships that carried complete vegetable gardens that provided food during those long voyages and even prostitutes for, well, various reasons, good conversation and stuff. They sailed through large parts of the then known world and brought back such extraordinary treasures as ostriches, zebras and even a giraffe which undoubtedly gave rise to great excitement among Cantonese foodies at the time.

Together with Molly and Adam who I had met at the hostel I set out for lunch. Halfway the street was a queue for a restaurant that served the famous chicken rice balls. Molly was adamant: long lines mean good food, she argued. I was not so sure. Adam was happy go happy and so we waited for our food in the hot afternoon sun. When it was our turn we ordered a large portion of chicken rice balls and were seated. The chicken rice balls were very unimpressive: balls of rice and a plate with what can only be described as ‘just chicken’. The recipe was brought here by Chinese settlers from Hainan. Good riddance, the good people of Hainan must have thought.

On one of my walks I stumbled upon the old Dutch cemetery.

tombstone_Malacca

This is a photograph I took of a gravestone of some ancient Dutch trader who left his bones there. Other gravestones I saw at the ruins of the St. Paul’s Church, indicate that few of the Dutch traders at the time lived past the age of 45, succumbing to fevers, diarrhoea or the clap. Or possibly all of these together. Malacca had a brutal climate.

During the weekend there is a lively night market along Jonker Walk where old Chinese people sang Karaoke style on a podium, applauded by other old people. The day after that the podium was filled with Chinese kids playing Chinese chess. What do I know of Chinese chess? Nothing.

Malacca_street_art

Chinese street art in Malacca. Horses galore…

Next: Singapore