Monday 29 December 2014
When choosing from a wide range of objects, artifacts, books or whatever, to assemble a collection, it is generally assumed that there has to be a certain ‘rarity factor’ in that genre. Let’s disregard for a moment collectors of Rodin sculptures and van Gogh paintings; let us avoid Mills and Boon paperbacks, as well as those collections of matchboxes, Coca-Cola cans, barbed wire and car numberplates. They range from the sublime to the ridiculous – but to every man his own taste.
Since I am among bibliophiles (or you would not be reading this), I am quite certain that each one of you has at some time or other felt that quickening pulse, that tingle of excitement and that ‘Eureka Moment’ of discovering a rare and precious item to add to your collection. In our case it was most likely a book; something that was published either a very long time ago, maybe in a small print run, or the publication’s companion volumes might have had the misfortune to be stored in a warehouse which was set alight during the Mau Mau insurrection (as the lore of a rare golfing book I once handled, would have it) or got bombed in the Blitz.
Alternatively you can look towards the future. Like the art connoisseur who buys unknown, ragged artists’ weird collages or splashes or daubs on street corners for a few Rands, in the hope that they have just met another Gaugin in the making. You are speculating that one day they will be numbered and catalogued – as well as valuable and sought-after. In print terms, you might collect those hefty tomes that come in plastic bags and are thrown over your garden wall – I’m talking about the Yellow Pages – since I confidently predict that they will be as the dinosaurs in less than a generation from now. The people that use them now will go to the computer and find whatever they are looking for on Google. The era of the search engine is here, to assist you in obtaining all your needs, fancies and desires. So let’s explore that a little further, without going into the pro’s and cons of electronic media as a whole – and the demise of the printed word, as is being threatened in the same breath as global warming.
No, let us have a look at a truly endangered genre of books, which, if publishers have any business sense whatsoever, will die out in the immediate future. I am talking about cookery books. A strange choice perhaps, since you can walk into just about any type of bookshop (with the exception of those dealing exclusively with religious matters) and you will find hundreds of titles to choose from – covering every aspect and every cuisine; mostly beautifully illustrated with mouth-watering pictures of dishes gleaming with the ‘shine’ of butter, and almost fooling the senses to the degree where you can smell the aroma. So why are they endangered? This was brought home to me about a year ago as I watch food programmes on TV with great enjoyment. Eastern cuisine is among my favourites, so I learnt about a Korean dish named kimchi. This was described as a sort of sauerkraut-type, fermented cabbage preserve, with some very daring occasional additives like shrimps or fish – not normally the sort of food we would care to have standing round the kitchen unrefrigerated for a month or two.
My interest was piqued. As my sister was leaving for Singapore in the next few days, I asked her to find me a Korean recipe book, if she could locate one in that great Asian crossroad. But my thirst for knowledge demanded instant gratification. Suddenly a flash of inspiration – Google it ! I entered the word into the search form, breathless with anticipation, and in 0,29 seconds I had at my beck and call 229 000 odd recipes. I won’t bore you with the process and results, but for the rest of the summer, my kitchen and refrigerator exuded faint whiffs of sulphurous emanations from batches of kimchi in the ripening and eating stages of development. I got quite fond of the stuff.
A short while later an Irish friend, who has an Argentinian wife, introduced me to the concept of ceviche – a food made in heaven, according to him. It consisted of raw fish, citrus fruit, onions, garlic, chillies and suchlike forms of sustenance. I had no Peruvian or Chilean cookbooks, so once again I turned to the big G on the screen – and once more 114 000 entries were lined up for my perusal. Ceviche is now one of my favoured starter dishes with which I like to surprise unsuspecting dinner guests. I was hooked. Since then, I won’t say that I have entirely deserted my trusty shelf of cookery books, but I must confess that I regularly dive into the wealth of choices presented to me on the net. Not to say that I slavishly print out a copy every time I find something – but it is oh, so easy, to find inspiration and a bit of basic advice on techniques. The sheer number of dishes available boggles the mind. Just a few examples: Beef Rendang, a Malaysian dish – 174 000 hits, Apple Strudel – 277 000, Yorkshire pudding – 354 000. I have not established the dish that you can find the most recipes for – but the omnipresent curry must be among them with 2,88 million recipes on-line. In search of something a little more esoteric, I had a look at what was on offer if one wished to use the household pet, to whit Fido or Rover, as ingredients for Sunday lunch. Yes. I learnt among 295 000 snippets on the subject that though dog-meat was no longer used in Germany as it was in days of yore under the name of “Blockade Mutton”, the Swiss cantons of Appenzell and St Gallen (more generally renowned for their cheeses) have a tradition of producing fine smoked dog-hams and sausages to this day, and the Swiss government does not see its role as having to control their citizenry’s appetites. Despite popular legend and numerous TV programmes, China is on the verge of driving dog-eating underground due to unfavourable publicity. Not so the populace of Viet Nam, as also the great Kim Jong Un who has even fixed the price per kilo on this most necessary adjunct to the national cuisine of North Korea.
I am willing to bet that you can find even the most outlandish viands and their best methods of preparation – the most obscure I could think of was kumyss – Mongolian fermented mare’s milk – and even for that there were two methods of manufacture listed. So, would you think that I am correct in assuming that cookbooks are on their way out? Surely their appeal in this era of information revolution can only be visual. Huge sums are spent by publishers on dedicated food designers, photographers, layout artists and the like to make their offerings nearly as irresistible as the succulent repasts they promise. They must be doomed! For those of you who do not want to spend a fortune on your collecting habit, those who want to get some practical enjoyment out of your hobby, I would suggest that you start collecting cookery books, and not just any, but Southern African cookery books. The subject is so wide that one should specialise. There’s always time later to expand a collection.
Sub-Saharan Africa is not historically a culinary paradise. The food crops grown during precolonial times in the largest part of the continent, were poor in variety, and from my personal tasting of items such as millet, sorghum, plantain, yam, wild leaf vegetables and a form of peanut – they were rather bland and uninteresting in taste. Protein in the form of game, fish and fowl was available in large quantities and varieties and are equal to any other continent’s. Not until the advent of Asiatic and Arab traders being blown across the Indian Ocean by the Monsoon, and the Portuguese explorers with the riches of the orient in their sights, coming down the west coast, did Africa get a sprinkling of spice in their dishes. One writer who seems to have a different opinion of African cuisine, is Laurens van der Post. In his ode to food African, First Catch your Eland (Hogarth, 1977) he lauds everything from a hunk of venison thrown on the fire by his Bushman companions, to Palm Oil Chop from West Africa and as a crowning indignity the shoeleather and fire combination from the Horn of Africa, called injera and wat. A prized volume nowadays, but for no discernible reason, except the celebrity status of its author. Despite these negative things about African foodstuff, I admit that in the realm of beverages Ethiopia’s contribution of coffee ranks in the top three world drinks along with tea and beer.
So the search for African cooking science or art can be curtailed considerably – and one could well concentrate on Cape Cookery in its widest sense as a subject for collection. Before rushing out to buy in a vast stock of secondhand works by a number of very capable cooks, bakers and domestic goddesses, let’s have a look at our culinary history. A good book to start with is Renata Coetzee’s work, The South African Culinary Tradition or if you prefer the Afrikaans version Spys en Drank (both published by Struik in 1988). It gives a good overall view of the straits in which the Dutch colonists found themselves with regards to foodstuffs and chronicles the early developments of gardening as well as sketching the content and preparation of meals. Soon a fair approximation of Dutch cuisine could be found at the Cape, enhanced by the addition of some of the herbs that they grew themselves, as well as the spices that came from the east, along with the Malay slaves, who knew so well how to use them. Added to that was the French component – a nation which was already notable at the time for some famous chefs, like Escoffier, Careme and Montagne. The author also lists a few of the handwritten cookery books of the early Cape period, which are of course, unavailable to the collector, and then gives some background to early local cuisine which I have already covered, when I extolled the delights and quirks of cookery books from 1890 onwards in a previous chapter, so we can pass on to cookery after the great Louis Leipoldt.
I can not pretend that I know most of the books that have been published on the subject since then, but here is a selection of titles that a would-be collector could start off with. Let's get cooking with ‘Ouma’ Hendrie, who got herself into print with Ouma’s Cookery Book (Juta, 1940) but I find her hundreds of shorthand, collected recipes pretty uninteresting, if not repulsive – I mean, who wants to eat the likes of beefsteak cake, redolent with suet, cooked in dripping etc. The only recipe worthy of mention is her ‘Humorous recipe’ in which she sets out a sure-fire method of making a compliant husband! (page 64). An obviously Norwegian import by the resounding name of Aagot Stromsoe passes on some of her presumably inherited lore on the cooking of fish, with an early effort entitled Do you know how to cook Fish? (Juta, 194-), which should have had the rider added: Because I don’t. A horrible little book, utterly lacking in any flair – though it does tell you how to render inedible perfectly good dried fish by soaking and boiling it in a solution of slaked lime. This was followed up by the laconic Fish Book (Timmins, 1962) almost two decades later. Nothing wrong with that effort, since the lady obviously spent the time between authoring the two books in learning some more imaginative ways of preparing food.
The Department of Agriculture entered the fray in the postwar years as well, with a number of editions entitled Foods and Cookery – Housewife’s Guide (1946) and later variations thereof. These works were compiled with the health of the nation in mind; setting out balanced diets, good food hygiene and safe preservation practices, as well as guiding even the most inexperienced in the arcane arts of boiling an egg and other more trying tasks.
Hilda Gerber became something of a domestic goddess by popularising large numbers of Cape Malay dishes with a number of books, of which Cape Cookery – Old and New, (Timmins, ca 1950) and Traditional Cookery of the Cape Malays (Balkema, 1958) are just two examples. Reprints of these still appeared in the 1980’s, so they are relatively easy to find and inexpensive.
Just recently I came across the encyclopaedic Jess Davidtsz se Kookboek, published by herself in 1955, when she held a professorship in domestic science at a tertiary institution. This was probably the start of the ‘modern cookery book’ for Afrikaans speaking women. It is also available in English. This no-nonsense work is full of nourishing stuff, properly cooked and embellished with photo’s illustrating methods and final dishes. I seem to recall that an added bonus, was a ‘catering appendix’ where it tells you what quantities you need for 50 – or was it 500? - guests at a party.
Another I would like to mention is Judy Desmond, as I am a firm admirer of her work Traditional Cookery in South Africa (Books of Africa, ca 1960). Not only does she give a short history of the art in the subcontinent, but she also lists a number of interesting recipes, often using ingredients that are far from ordinary. I know of several modest little publications authored by ladies’ committees to aid the new bride or raw immigrant in the best utilization of local produce and amenities. These are often liberally laced with humour and stuffed with recipes from frying an egg to concocting your own insecticide. Indian dishes get their dues in Zuleika Mayat’s book entitled Indian Delights, which appeared in the early 1970’s and which went through numerous incarnations ever since. Another is R Makan’s South African Indian Cookbook and there are any number of books on Cape Malay cuisine that should be added to a collection. Finally I would round off with Vera Heard and Leslie Faull’s book Cookery in South Africa - Traditional and Today which is a wonderful book on the culinary lore of this vast subject and the many influences that shaped its present form.
That only just takes us up to the 1970’s, and there are another couple of decades’ worth of authors and books – just on the subject of ‘Local is Lekker’ – many of them by truly innovative, imaginative people who have enriched generations of South Africans’ experiences of the flavour, aroma and convivial enjoyment of that great unifier, food. As such it would be a great pity if all that knowledge were to disappear into that great electronic limbo that is the internet. Instead I urge you to give a thought to preserving those endangered, tatty, grease-stained, scribbled on and utterly used books because above all they are “The Ghosts of Banquets Past”.
Wednesday 24 December 2014
Do you know where you’re going to ? – Map Collecting
A map is a wondrous thing: one man’s attempt at describing where the viewer could go to, how there was access to the place, roads, rivers – perhaps even a habitation or settlement where he could find help if in need – or merely a depiction of how the artist or compiler imagined his physical environment. There are indications that even prehistoric man started using graphic means on the walls of caves, delineating points of reference and a sort of ‘x marks the spot’. That hot-spot of civilization, the Middle East, shows evidence of pottery and wall paintings that point to the early beginning of a view of the landscape from above, which meant that so much more detail could be seen than from a ground perspective. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Chinese made giant leaps in both the scientific basis of cartography, as well as the depiction of their world. During the early centuries of this era, the Arabs and Indians led the way, but after the Renaissance, Europeans slowly progressed beyond the roteiros of the Portuguese (which gave detailed verbal instructions on coastal features and bearings to guide the way) to the first maps printed on paper, which were carried as aids to exploration of the globe. It is said that the expansion of European power across the world can be attributed in part to late 15th Century advances in cartography. Especially early maps of the east coast of America, and depictions of the African continent (of which the general outline was known by the early 1500’s) must have aroused the cupidity of kings and adventurers alike. While any accuracy was confined to a few stretches of well-known coastline, the interior could be adorned with fanciful rivers, mountain ranges, lakes and fabulous cities of which legends abounded.
Every time I see a map of Africa or part thereof, in moderate dimensions, framed and displayed on an office or study wall, I have this twinge of regret. Why ? Well, because most likely some perfectly good volume dealing with the history, geography or exploration of the continent has been deprived of a vital part – if it hasn’t been entirely destroyed by some ‘breaker’ as these desecrators of books are called – people who remove illustrations and maps from antique volumes in the hope of being able to sell them singly at a higher price than the book in its entirety can achieve, all in pursuit of interior decoration and profit. These are the 18th and 19th Century maps one is most likely to run across. The works of great 16th Century mapmakers, such as Mercator or Ortelius, and even 17th Century notables like Blaeu, de Lille, Allard and the whole swathe of engravers who copied, decorated and generally muddied the pond insofar as exactitude of directions were concerned, have mostly already been snapped up and adorn the walls of museums, libraries, archives and corporate offices.
Still, it is possible to pick up the odd gem, but beware of forgeries. With the art of copying and printing at a truly remarkable stage of development, there exist facilities that can replicate old lithographs so faithfully, that it needs an expert to differentiate between a fake and the real thing. Quite frequently forgers use old paper – again, ripped from broken-up volumes, which makes it even more difficult to invest one’s money wisely. It is almost a certainty that somewhere out East there are already factories specialising in the manufacture of suitably aged, fine papers, complete down to the appropriate watermark. Some years back I was approached by a client who wanted to sell a framed map by Caroli Allard - Novissima et Perfectissima Africae Descriptio. A little bit of research gave me its date (1690), and everything about it seemed right: islands floating in an ocean where they had no right to be, a lavish cartouche with crocodiles, lions, pyramids and a black Venus, down to the oxidation of the green pigment and light browning of the paper. Even though I trusted my client (who said he’d bought it at an auction of an estate, and could give all the particulars ) I insisted on opening up the framed piece to inspect everything with a very large lens. So far I’m happy with my purchase; a moderately uncommon example of the cartographer’s skills of the period, which now hangs on the wall above this computer.
For any aspiring collector of African maps, two books on the subject are an absolute must – Tooley’s Collectors' Guide to Maps of the African Continent and Southern Africa and Oscar Norwich’s Maps of Southern Africa. Both are out of print, but copies are often available from antiquarian dealers. There are quite a few other books on the subject, but most of these also end with maps published up to the late 19th century, like the two volumes mentioned, which still give a fair amount of information on works by late Victorian publishers in the UK. Some fine illustrative and painstakingly correct maps were also made during this period between the late 18th and early 20th Century by the firm Justus Perthes in Germany. The latter have the advantage of being reasonably priced due to their abundance. The internet is a great help in tracing dates of publication, details of the engravers’ work and lives, as well as rarity and a rough guide to prices. There is, as far as I know, no work dealing with more modern, yet already very collectible maps.
For collectors in Southern Africa the boom in diamonds and gold, the Zulu War, the Boer War and its aftermath all created a thirst for knowledge about the subcontinent. Prospective immigrants, traders, prospectors and businessmen all needed to know more about the region, communications, towns, climate, geology and the like. Numerous firms at the Cape as well as in Britain obliged with handsome, large folding maps in hardcover or softcover, some on linen backing for hard wear. These were at great pains to convince the aspiring immigrant that our infrastructure was expanding apace, that there were roads and towns, yet there was plenty of elbow-room and vast open spaces in which to settle, hunt or do whatever one fancied. Ten or twenty years ago one could pick up arcane gems like Richards’ Postal Route Map of the Cape Colony and Adjacent Territories, Jeppe’s Map of the Transvaal or even an anonymously published Map No 3 of the Western Cape for a hundred rands or so. Nowadays they go at auction for prices in the thousands of rands – not bad even if you discount our rampant inflation.
Early geological maps are much prized, presumably by collectors with mining backgrounds or even the great mining houses, which would proudly display luridly coloured sheets of (to the layman) incomprehensibly named strata as the structure of gold-bearing reefs was delineated, or plans of claims to fabulously rich chunks of ‘blue ground’ which were allocated to eager prospectors. Of course, the real prize within this genre is the hand-drawn map. Either a famous geologist’s drawing of ‘work in progress’ or better still, a ‘treasure map’ such as I was fortunate to acquire and sold after much soul-searching since I coveted it for my own collection. This was one Ambrose Carroll’s little pet project. He was a notable treasure-hunter in the early 1900’s. He conceived a number of schemes to raise specie from sunken ships and to find diamonds on the Guano Islands off the Namibian coast and elsewhere. Included in his scrapbook of madcap ideas was a beautifully executed sketch-map, complete with the magic word ‘diamonds’ inserted here and there to whet the appetite. This fine map was the handiwork of one officer Pinnock of the 1st Cape Mounted Police, as the signature would have it, and I have often wondered at the story behind this partnership. Another great prospector-adventurer was Fred Cornell, and though he did not leave any hand-drawn maps among the effects I was asked to sell, there were a number of claim diagrams/maps, which, touched by the magic wand of his name, made a few collectors very happy.
Any type of war memorabilia has a wide appeal to collectors. Diaries and maps are no exception, and depending on the rank of the soldier, regiment and actions described or mapped, they can be exceedingly valuable. Hand-drawn sketch maps in this sort of situation are prime collectibles, but one needs to have some supporting documents to support their provenance. During the early stages of the Anglo-Boer War, almost hysterical patriotism reigned in Britain and the Cape, so numerous maps were published to inform the patriots of the situation of ‘The Seat of War’ and ‘The Boer Republics’ and similar titles. None of these maps showed much that was new, but the public lapped them up and they have become a genre in themselves. Much more interesting, were the little pocket maps issued by J Wood for the Field Intelligence Department in ‘a scale of 3.94 miles to the inch’. Many early editions of these maps, from 1899 onwards to 1902, bear the rather endearing legend ‘This map is not to be considered absolutely accurate’ – not many surprises then, as features like horse troughs, windmills, springs and gates, feature among the buildings and kopjes that littered the empty paper plains of Namaqualand and Bushmanland. As intelligence improved, new and revised maps were issued – some so fresh that some of the information was hand-written instead of typeset. There are 57 maps in the grid covering the Northern, Western and Southern Cape, and though I have collected a number of them, the outlay is just too much for my Namaqualand Collection, which focuses primarily on written material, so I have a full set of electronic images on file instead, which I could have printed out quite reasonably, if desired. These maps are often inscribed with the owner’s names, regimental data, and even stains from hard wear in the field – and in one instance a sinister brown splash of blood marred the back of one that passed through my hands..
Only thirteen years after the end of that conflict, Germany and Britain went to war, and since Gen. Botha had decided to stand behind his erstwhile victors, South Africa invaded South West, but not before a few anxious moments as the 1914 Rebellion set brother against brother in the Northern Cape. Once again the region came under the spotlight, and an almost identical set of revised maps was commissioned to reflect the salient features of the country from where the assault would be launched by government forces. In this war the set of maps extended into German South West, but the progress of the war soon outran the mapping division’s efforts when the Germans capitulated in 1915. Both of these sets of maps in their various editions come up for sale quite regularly, and either or both would make a suitable subject for an intensive collection without being ruinously expensive. Having said that, their prices have risen dramatically over the past decade or two. World War I in East Africa must also have produced its rash of maps, but these seem much less common, and I have only come across a few, mostly of German origin, from that campaign.
As technology forged ahead, motor cars and planes became the order of the day. The rutted tracks of the ox-wagon were replaced with first gravel roads and drifts and ponts, then bridges and tarred roads made their debut. Those much beloved maps issued by the petrol companies, automobile clubs and fledgling tourism organisations are steadily rising in the appreciation of collectors of maps. Areas of interest to lovers of nature, such as National Parks, were mapped. Even folders of route maps from the Cape to Cairo, or from Beira to Bagamoyo for those with a hankering for crossing the Dark Continent, were available. Just tracing a route and reading the warnings are enough to conjure up the romance of the road. ‘Danger – Elephants’; ‘No petrol for 450 miles’; ‘Impassable in the Wet’; ‘Beware of Crocodiles’. Not that these routes have become much safer in modern times. All the abovementioned hazards are still present with the added peril of ‘War-zone’ added for good measure
Lastly a short mention needs to be made of hand-drawn and painted maps. They should never be ignored by the collector, as they are often labours of love, or part of a vocation. My first map was one of these; drawn by some nameless forestry official tasked with looking after a huge stretch of Maputaland in Northern Natal. The date was somewhere in the early 1950’s, and it had neat hand-lettering of the names of even the meanest kraal, pan, rivulet and hill, while delicate watercolour washes had been used to denote plantations, bodies of water, dune forests and scrubland. After a sojourn of almost fifty years in my care, I willingly passed it on to a client who thought he recognised his grandfather’s hand in the making. It meant more to him than to me.
An allied genre would be town and city plans and maps. These are actually quite common, since they generally owe their presence in the market to the previously mentioned scavengers who dismember books, but they are not the sort of thing I can get enthused about. Still - they are all part of getting you to ‘know where you’re going to’.
Wednesday 29 May 2013
AFRIKABURN – THE HAPPENING
Three weeks ago, about this time of the morning, my companion and I were sitting in a seemingly endless desert landscape. Just a few, faint shadowy outlines of an escarpment to the east of me; the pink walls of the Cederberg in the far west. To the north the plain reached away into the horizon, just meagrely tufted with the odd, dry, scrubby plant-life. However, we were not alone. From a few hundred metres behind us came the pervasive thump and fragmented phrases of music, waxing and waning on the light breeze. We were at a strange place indeed – AfrikaBurn.
Each year for the past seven years, this alternative art community gathering has assembled at this place, well over a hundred kilometers along a very dusty road from any town, to create transient sculptures, effects, appearances, costumes, noises, music and alter egos. A sprawling settlement of Bedouin tents, caravans, and any other imaginable shelter springs up on the circumference of the inner circle, the ‘Binnekring’ which is about a kilometer across, and open-ended at the southern end, where monumental constructs fade into the distance. At its height, over six thousand revellers, artists and participators, as well as some inevitable spectators, are crammed into the campsite. There are no facilities besides the most basic of pit latrines, screened discreetly with shade cloth above waist height, but open to the desert beyond - the ‘loo with the view’. You bring your own water, food, shelter, and spirituous refreshment for six days – or you go thirsty, hungry, sleepless, cold and sober. But follow a few common-sense precepts, and you are in for a whacky mixture of mediaeval fair, New Age fete, circus, art exhibition, outrageous fashion show, fancy dress party and an overload of other sensory input.
|A Gypsey encampment - ours|
We didn’t quite know what to expect, but had prepared for it anyway. Several sets of costumes had been sewn, glued, wired and cobbled together, for the theme was to be “Archetypes”, which allowed for great latitude in interpretation. An ad hoc chariot had been re-engineered out of various unlikely materials, to be drawn behind a bicycle. The hired camping trailer provided half the storage, kitchen and accommodation, while a tent and gazebo completed our windswept home. After setting up camp in the swirls of a dust-laden stiff breeze, we took our first walk, down to the Binnekring, to see what was on offer. Everywhere a frenzy of action, preparation and completion was on the go. At this stage only a sprinkling of people wore costumes for the occasion, but already you were invited to participate in adding your daubs to a painting, making a prayer flag, having a cup of very good coffee at the Stasie Kafee or possibly to provide the motive power to a dynamic display which spat a continuous stream of bubbles into the desert air. The aim is to partake and take part – as the fancy takes you. You are free to be as exhibitionistic as you dare, and to partake of as much as you deem to be prudent, to play to your heart’s content, whether you are three or
eighty-three. There is an easy amiability among ‘burners’, a readiness to
engage in conversation, a generosity in word, refreshment and deed. You find an
interesting setup, you start a conversation, sit down, exchange names, enquire
about their creations and get-up and depart after a while in mutual goodwill.
It’s all very relaxing and non-threatening. If the crush of people becomes too
much, why, then you wander out into the desert, the Binnekring or Playa,
for a couple of hundred metres and admire the montages and enormous statuary
that have been created by gifted artists, craftsmen and backyard engineers,
while you are fascinated by ‘Mutant Vehicles’ testing their, sometimes
precariously rehashed wheels, superstructures and motive power. The human
imagination boggles at the mobile versions of teapots, scooter flamingoes,
ships, a stationary bicycle whose peddlers provided their breakfast
smoothie, various animals from camels and bats to eagles and snails, from a
porcupine to T Rex, to name but a few. At night brightly illuminated versions
of these as well as partygoers, draped in metres of LED lights and glowsticks,
streak through the darkness, or blink like a myriad of fireflies.
|And on the vast desert expanse...|
The distances over which the display stretches is daunting and for fitter, younger people than ourselves, bicycles are definitely the method of transport. Never mind, even senior citizens can get around easily, but a shooting stick is a valuable accessory for leaning on as well as taking a few minutes rest every now and then. Wheelchairs, both manual and powered, are not uncommon on this level landscape. The map you are given is a mere approximation of what is where. The otherwise featureless plain is short of landmarks, and it is deceptively simple to lose one’s sense of direction in daylight – not to speak of the middle of the inky night.
As more and ever more people arrive, the camping places get more cheek to jowl. There is a constant stream of cars arriving, each raising a cloud of dust. To complicate matters, innumerable children on bikes are whizzing about, and though we see a few narrow squeaks, there seem to be no fatalities – but I would hate to be the parent of five lively sprouts, as our neighbours are. They have had a long drive, it would seem. After getting their camp in order, the rotund would-be reveller needs a little afternoon sleep. His snores are loud enough to make us want to leave him to his snooze and head out into the melee once more. This among a growing crescendo of five or six different discos blaring out their particular brand of music across the desolation. Soft, silicone earplugs are the ONLY solution to getting a modicum of sleep. At night we have a fire to sit around, as well as a barbecue, but this is a little fraught with danger, as the wind blows in strong gusts, and sparks could so easily cause a catastrophe. We have several fire extinguishers on hand – just in case.
Our first night walk. Our young companions go to a disco and pub. We opt for playing blind man’s buff in the inner circle. Although we both have headlamps, these are only necessary when spotting approaching wheeled traffic, and then to let them know that you are there. The surface is so flat that one can step with confidence into complete darkness, and head for a point of light (where you trust your destination to be) but you might just as easily land up serendipitously at something in between that you did not even know existed. So it is that we try various experiences, mostly involving light and motion, and we are drawn to the flickering flames of a small anonymous funeral pyre of a montage we had not even viewed before the fire. Yes, the idea behind this assembly of artworks, is to burn the majority of them during the festivities. Unfortunately, to the uninitiated, it is not always clear as to what will be incinerated next, nor where it is to be found. Instead, we learn to watch the route of the fire tender, the drift of the crowds at night, as well as the appearances of the aptly named ‘Sawdust Cannon’ which lights up the desert with great billows of flame as it travels around. After an hour or two, we are exhausted and opt for bed atop the camping trailer, where we are rocked to sleep by fitful tugs of the aspirant gale that flaps the attached tent and canopies.
|Boadicea, her chariot and trusty Zebricorn|
The event gathers momentum and the actors – including ourselves – get into gear. Walkabout in costume (or the lack thereof, as one very scantily clad sprite does) is the thing to do. If you have a Mutant Vehicle, take it for a spin; pick up crowds of children young and old alike and negotiate your way carefully through the crowds of cyclists, pedestrians and motorists. Smile, chat, look about you, get photographed and point your own gadget of choice at whatever sight tickles your visual fancy. There is a large battered truck, bearing the sign ‘Free Wine’. As long as you bring your own mug/glass, you can contribute towards the effort of making the load a little lighter. Sure, it’s not the best Sauv blanc, but who cares in that dry as dust arena? The accent was on ‘giving’. The only commodity for sale on site was ice. That was trucked in daily at great cost and dispensed to the thirsty and hot masses. Further, everything on offer was yours free, gratis, with a smile. The spirit of mutual generosity welled up in all but a few who came only to take. Yes, there
were some who staggered noticeably and slurred their speech, others wandered about vacantly staring into a space uniquely of their own chemical manufacture, a lot of raucous laughter was heard and presumably there was a whole lot of lovin’ going on – but with the exception of a few small groups of youths ranging about, loudly proclaiming their self-importance in speech liberally larded with fexpletives, there was very little to offend any reasonable person. I do believe there was an argument within a few metres of me, but it was so short, I missed it entirely and was only told about it afterwards.
It was advisable for us, who lacked the stamina to partake of the party spirit for the entire morning, afternoon, or evening at one go, to return to camp for a little r&r, not to speak of a comfort break at the outlying toilets, every couple of hours. The impact on the senses was just too great to be able to assimilate everything. Inevitably we missed many once-off events, which may have been advertised on the programme, or on a notice board somewhere, but which went unnoticed among the many distractions. When all else failed, one sat in one’s ‘lounge’ under the gazebo, sipped a cool drink and watched the passing parade. It was a pastime that never failed to entertain. Feathers, veils, outrageous attire made from improbable materials, rehashed footwear, clanking metal accoutrements or large expanses of bare skin– the display of different peoples’ views and opinions of what was fitting, stylish or just plain shocking, fascinated endlessly. If you sat in your chair for long enough, why, it was almost certain everything mobile or ambulant would pass in front of your ringside seat sooner or later. If someone looked as if they just had to be immortalized in electronic form, you jumped up and asked permission to photograph the person – just good manners.
We attend the major burn of the whole event that night, that of the ‘Arch Clan’, a huge, circular construct, towering about twenty metres high over a platform on which it had been built of wood and rush-mats. The crowds were restrained in a circle round the massive sculpture at a distance of about fifty metres by the marshals. Then, after a preliminary firedance by a troupe, without further fanfare, the flame was kindled, and within a few minutes the entire huge wheel was ablaze and the surrounding crowd ‘melted’ further back into the darkness to escape the searing heat. A brief, spectacular and sobering reminder that on our human scale, organic life is short.
A mass purple wedding has been planned, we had heard. Being thusly inclined, my companion and I duly queue up clad in purple (myself in blonde wig and in drag) and we are honoured to be the first to have our vows read to the assembled masses by the bogus bishop, in which we promise each other full participation in each other’s aching bones and wobbly bits. All courtesy of a pushy, inebriated partygoer who has insinuated himself as our ring-bearer and who whispered arcane blandishments (or threats?) into the bishop’s ear. Our wedding ‘song’ is blasted out by the bish’s backing disco, while we indulge in a suitably triumphal dance. The rest of the crowd gets ‘married’ en masse. Our camp neighbour, a dour-looking lady from somewhere on the Platteland, tells us later, that she thought our ceremony was ‘touching’.
We stumble on an ear-bending heavy metal disco in the dark of night, which consisted of a whole armament of heavy artillery and fireworks mounted on a truck, while four DJ/musicians disported themselves on another contraption in front of the vehicle, using anything from an anvil to a angle-grinder and trumpet to give a dazzling, deafening, but most enjoyable performance. Many of the major burns had an accompaniment in the shape of a psychedelically illuminated, topless bus, complete with disco and a rocking crowd of spectators clinging to the top and sides to give a musical send-off to the immolation of another work of art.
|The Grateful Heart Burn|
By accident, we landed up in one of the far-flung corners of the arena, as a towering structure of a giant cheese-grater and its cheesey heart (Grateful Heart) were being toasted. The introductory firedancers were a class act by themselves, but then the fire shaman, the father of all archetypes, created the magic flame by friction and set the huge construction ablaze. It took a while to catch alight, but once the huge plywood edifice was enveloped in the conflagration, it became so torrid that the crowds almost caused a stampede to get out of reach of that fiery breath. Out of the inferno a number of small, raging tornadoes emerged in an eerie procession, like spirits of the departed, and danced towards the spectators, before they evaporated within a few seconds – an infernal phantasmagoria.
At 1 am the Department of Public Works’ camp kitchen, twenty metres behind us, explodes. We are woken by the bang of the gasbottles spewing metal fragments into the night - but go back to sleep, as bangs are an everyday occurrence. Then we are roused by our young companions who tell us that the camp must be evacuated immediately. We hastily pull on some clothes, and I make my way through the huddle of tents towards the glow of the fire. It is across a roadway and there are crowds gathering. The works team has already contained it into one large blazing heap. Not a breath of wind. Unthinkable what could have happened if there had been a storm, as was the case during previous nights. We go back to bed. The whole thing is downplayed, and the event goes on as before, but revellers are asked for donations, as the works team are without food and water supplies. All they have left is a pile of empty fire extinguishers. When we leave a couple of days later, without intending any sarcasm, I offer them my two extinguishers, and they are accepted gratefully.
As kaleidoscopic, hot days follow luridly firelit, starry, cold nights, we find ourselves amused, entertained, amazed in turn, but also emotionally and intellectually involved. Though the incessant noise assaulted our senses, at times we chose to ‘sit in’ on one of the roving disco experiences, and sway and stamp along to the beat with crowds of youngsters the age of our grandchildren. In between venues, animated conversations would start up with complete strangers in the semi-dark; experiences would be exchanged and pointers given to future events. These new acquaintances might at times switch on their headlights and then find out that we were of a quite different generation from themselves – and they would be unexpectedly delighted by our age-difference – as we were; to find communication so easy in that environment. There was a definite sprinkling of mature hippies among the crowds, not to speak of downright old fogeys like us, but we were far in the minority.
On the last day, the wine truck was still doing its rounds. Among the many offerings, the Stasie Kafee had run dry of their thousands of litres of coffee; the screenprinter had run out of paint; our little contribution of free, elderly sci-fi books had been looted; many of the man-powered contraptions had lost their chains or drive-belts and stretches of desert were empty of monumental sculpture, and the sawdust buckets at the pit latrines were empty. There were huge gaps in the camp-site, and deserted Bedouin tents flapped in the breeze. The Binnekring still sported a number of non-incendiary sculptures dotted about, but already teams of volunteers were collecting the inevitable debris left by the masses as they were trying to eradicate all ‘Matter Out Of Place’ to leave the desert as they found it. We had been part of a Happening, in the true sense of the word, and as we left, we feel we have gained so much - yet why are we as desolated as the landscape that surrounds us?
For this leg of the journey, I had booked ahead to stay a few days in a ‘homestay’ in Penang, touted as being a great cultural experience, as well as within walking distance of the city centre. I was genuinely excited and looking forward to a few days on this small island, part of Malaysia, which was a notable hub of the spice trade and reputed to be a foodie destination of note.
At the Phuket airport lounge I was accosted by an elderly Chinese from Penang, and we engaged in a serious discussion on the evils of governments, especially when it came to the rights of minority groups. Obviously his people don’t feel safe in Malaysia; jobs are reserved for the Malaysians, money is pumped into their education, health and pensions, while lesser groups’ needs are ignored to a large extent. Nepotism and corruption are rife, and the rulers are as corrupt as can be since all criticism is stifled. So what’s different from Africa? He reckons that Malaysia is also suffering a huge brain drain from all the educated, and more especially the Chinese leaving. We wasted a mutually informative hour and then boarded another of these little turboprops that we had first encountered in Vietnam. There were only between 20–30 passengers, and I wondered how long Firefly Airlines (cute name) could possibly keep aflight at that rate of occupancy. All along the route, while there was no cloud cover, there was land in sight. Either the sea was dotted with islands, minute to respectable chucks of crust, or the Malaysian coast lurked in the shadows and waxed and waned. The approach confused me entirely, as we approached from the south of the island, crossed the third-longest road bridge in the world, and then came to another under construction, of a similar design.
Immigration was pretty laid-back again and with one or two exceptions who encountered difficulties, the passengers were all let loose on Malaysia. We queued for tickets, then we queued for taxis, but instead of my age and Buddha-like figure being the decider, the family before me and the single guy behind me got the Mercedes, and I got a clunker with a bad gearbox, juddering clutch, bad brakes and poor driver. We landed in the Friday afternoon rush-hour and my man weaved, ducked, jumped lanes, got lost and referred the problem back to me. I refused to help; he being supposed to know how his town was assembled. So phone for help brother, you have a cell phone! With directions relayed to me, I succeeded in locating the landmark which we were meant to find in Pengkalan Weld, the promenade along the bay, as he attended to the traffic, but he overshot the mark and had to get back to where I’d asked him to stop in the first instance. This was where I was decanted as his car could obviously not ride on a walkway a few feet wide. There was no signage, so I had to take it on trust that we had arrived at the correct place. I promised him dire curses would be laid on his head if he just deserted me in what would turn out to be just a warren of old Chinatown. Bag slung over my shoulder, I dived into the seething melee, and was soon on some sort of a jetty, which a few friendly elders, sitting smoking in front of a technicoloured temple in their underclothes, affirmed indeed to be Chew Jetty.
This was a culture shock of some proportion. We had seen a sea-gypsy village in Halong Bay, where a few dozen boats were moored together, but nothing like this modern-day perpetuation of an ancient Chinese way of life. Instead of wooden stakes being rammed into the lagoon bottom they had taken a stack of 25-litre paint tins, knocked out the bottoms and filled them with concrete and perching these on top of each other to obtain a forest of tottering, rusting piles. This is obviously a more permanent solution than wooden pillars which could be attacked by marine borers. However, even the platforms and walkway showed many signs of repairs and additions, which testified to the age of this place. The houses were built cheek by jowl on these with a narrow frontage, often with a flat platform verandah, on which you might find the sleeping forms of elderly or otherwise idle people. The houses extended the entire length of the jetty, leaving a precarious four-plank walkway, bicycle and motorbike lane, with odd open spaces on the opposite side where fishing skiffs are moored, just the place for hordes of tourists, playground for toddlers, kids, teens doing tricks on their bikes and mommies with perambulators.
This is after all a UNESCO World Heritage site and Chinese from the world over have come to view part of their diasporan history. Even they were overawed and muted by this microcosm of Chinese early life that had been preserved for touristiority. Whole groups were being photographed at key points of the jetty, which seemed to include the porch of my destination, as it had a large poster proclaiming its ancestry, on the wall. However, the security gate was firmly locked and there was no reply to my ‘hallo’ from the interior. A kind, if surly, lady from across the jetty took mercy upon me and made a call to someone. Obviously with some success, as she motioned me to take a seat on a bench on her porch and commanded me in an unknown tongue to wait. With some trepidation, I have to admit, I sat on the kerb, in a strange city, in a strange country, without anyone round me even speaking a smattering of the same language. This certainly looked as if it might be an adventure of sorts, so I made the best of it – smiled at everyone going past, waved at the kids, and consented to be photographed by the tourists. The shoe was certainly on the other foot, and I had become a noteworthy sight on this historic jetty. Time passed; then a middle-aged lady came bustling up and greeted me – in Hokkien, I presume, since I didn’t understand a word. She led me to the closed security gate, opened it and beckoned me inside. It was a fully functional home; no frills, nothing special. My room was about two by four metres, lined with clapboard, one fluorescent on the ceiling and a fan as well as an air conditoner (which roared horribly at intervals). The mattress had a sheet over it, and two covered pillows; towels in the wardrobe – that seemed to be it. She led me along through the house to the kitchen, pointed out kettle, teabags, instant coffee and a bowl of fruit. The rest was obviously up to me. I heard some vague gurgling sounds from nearby, which reminded me that my last visit to the toilet had been a while back. I mimed flushing a toilet, and she pointed at a corner screened off by some corrugated asbestos sheets. The door was closed, so I knocked and was answered by a male voice. Mrs Chew explained something unintelligible and we wandered on through the house. A few moments later we were joined by a burly man clad in a towel. Obviously Mr Chew; so I introduced myself, he grunted and departed elsewhere, while his spouse pointed to a child in a family photo on the wall, saying ‘daughter’ and pointing at the wall clock’s face, miming that she would be here at 9 p.m. Before leaving me to it, she pulled out her cell phone, dialed said daughter and handed it over to me. A slightly incoherent conversation followed, during which unseen daughter tried to interpret all the features of her home to me, while leaving out all the important bits. But she would be home later and we would meet face to face, she ended breathlessly. I told her that I was looking forward to that.
Mrs Chew departed; Mr Chew had stretched himself out on the planks of an attached deck at the rear of the house and was snoring loudly, so I could do whatever I wanted to do. Nature called and I returned to the recently vacated cubicle in the kitchen. The sanitary arrangements in the house consisted of a slightly bigger than a metre square concrete slab with a squat-toilet bowl sunk flush into it, a cold shower head, and a plastic pipe with a faucet, lying handy in case one should not wish to use the nonexistent toilet paper. Through the porcelain’s hole one had a fine view of the somewhat murky green sea below. Ah well, as I was in Georgetown, I did as the Georgians did. There was no room for a washbasin, which was in the kitchen, next to the sink; neither was there a mirror. That made some sense, since Chinese people don’t shave much.
|Chew Jetty Eatery|
I was parched, so decided to prospect for some local brew. There were a number of shops along the jetty, selling snacks, tourist geegaws and foodstuff labeled in Chinese. At the first fridge I saw, I made enquiries and for a change spoke to a young lady with a reasonable command of English, who was bouncing a fat baby on her hip. No, beer she did not have. What? Didn’t Chinese drink beer? I asked. She explained that she liked to keep alcohol off the premises as far as she was able, but that I could get it on terra firma a hundred metres further along. We had a short chat about why I was there, where I was staying and what I was paying for my accommodation (a query repeated by everyone I chatted with). In no time I found a tavern which dispensed a couple of cans of the local brew, and as I had noticed a flourishing food market as we drove in along the promenade, so I decided to dip in there for supper. A very attractive-looking stall with a large crowd immediately caught my eye, but apparently they were getting their sustenance in a raw form, which meant they then had to do a sort of fondue-style cook-out. It was a sultry evening, and the idea of standing next to a roaring gas burner seemed just a little too close to purgatory to appeal much, so I wandered off until I found me a Hokkien Mee stall selling a noodle concoction with shrimps, pork and bean sprouts. I needed somewhere to sit and drink my beer as well as eat, so I wisely invested a tad more than a dollar and had me a fair portion of eminently edible stuff, while downing some cold lager at the same time. A lad came over with a drinks menu, and I waved him away, but I had obviously transgressed the rules of the place as he pointedly left the menu, which stated quite clearly in many languages that patrons of the food-stalls were to buy at least one drink per table, at a minimum – so he must have been the landlord or clan chief or something. As I wanted some real coffee to take home for the next morning, I hastened to comply with house rules, and got a double takeaway in a plastic bag with a straw in it. Neat solution.
Well, that was the inner man taken care of, so I wended my way back along the jetty, nodding to the neighbours, so to speak, and looking into the shrines as well as the front doors of every house, which were left open to let some of the heat escape. My abode was deserted except for the still form on the planks at the rear, so I took my remaining beer to a lounger on another part of the precarious deck which surrounded the house, and watched the passing parade. One of the reasons for wanting to get off the jetty for supper had been the pervasive, gentle, putrid perfume of sewage that enveloped the entire historical site. Not unnaturally so, since everything emanating from a few hundred people living there, went down the drain, straight into the sea. Since this was a quiet backwater of the bay, there was hardly any wave motion, and I doubt there was much by way of a current. A romantic picture it might make, but pixels don’t pong. The reality is somewhat more unpalatable. Maybe the evening air had something to do with it, but I finished my beer as quickly as possible and went to my air conditioned room, which while it did not smell any better, at least the miasma was cooler.
A little later some people entered the house. I investigated, and found to my surprise that I was sharing the house not only with the Chews, but also with three youngsters from Ghuangzhou. This was going to get really chummy, especially considering the dearth of plumbing. Nothing I could do about anything at this stage, but wait for the daughter to arrive. This did not happen, as far as I could discern, so finally I went to sleep. In the middle of the night, there was suddenly a huge racket. Doors banged, people talked loudly and stomped up and down outside the room, which, since the whole place was built on planks, made the bed rock violently. For a while I tried to ignore it, hoping it would stop and I could go back to my slumbers. As the racket carried on unabated, my ire overflowed and I had a look at the time; 1.22 a.m. – I shot out of bed and out into the house to confront two girls in their nighties (me in my boxer shorts). They looked suitably abashed by my sharpish query as to what the hell they thought they were up to in the middle of the night, and stuttered something about only brushing their teeth. I snarled at them to keep quiet and let senior citizens have their sleep, and retired once more. For some reason the talk continued, as did the shifting of furniture and thudding of feet. By 2.30 I was ready to commit murder, so I banged on the wall and shouted ‘shut up’. This did seem to have some effect, but once I wake up in those small hours, it takes me a while to go back to sleep. Instead I spent some of my waking hour(s) trawling the internet for alternative accommodation – which seemed uncommonly scarce – but then, it was the weekend and Georgetown was obviously a popular destination. By 6.30 the kids were at it again, this time at the front gate – leaving. They were sped on their way by my thunderous looks and disappeared out of my life.
I managed my ablutions under trying conditions, which I will leave to the readers’ imagination, but they included a shave under the cold shower – by touch. As I came out of the ‘bathroom’ I was accosted by a very attractive young lady on her way out, whom I naturally assumed to be the missing Miss Chew. She was, but not the right one, instead she was the Singapore sister on a visit. I asked after the whereabouts of her sibling, and she assured me she would be meeting her for breakfast – which I hoped I would also be able to do, since I had a few choice words I wished to communicate. There were obviously Chinese girls hidden in all sorts of unsuspected corners of the house, since a little later Siew Pheng, the queen pin of this whole scheme, appeared. A lovely lass, actually, full of apologies for my night of misery, and quite willing to refund me all monies paid, call me a taxi, get me fixed up somewhere else, and so on. How could I not mellow under this charm offensive? I explained that I just couldn’t stay under these conditions, took back the money for the nights not yet used, as such and she even helped to carry my luggage to the taxi she had summoned. We parted on excellent terms and I was in the hands of a driver who demonstrated some impressive local knowledge. He suggested that my possible choice of destination, which I had made during the night via the internet, might be a little rowdy, since it was a popular hangout with Aussie and Kiwi backpackers. In fact the whole street suffered from the same problem, while the next street was a lot more laid back, quieter and populated by older patrons. I was only too glad to agree to this, but the first half dozen places were already full and unable to accommodate me. Finally we arrived at the 75 Travellers’ Lodge, where a dour Chinese elder, who went by the name of Feng, inducted me into the mysteries of a fairly unprepossessing room with the tiniest skylight admitting a dim semblance of daylight – but it had a toilet, a basin and a shower all crammed in one cubicle, as well as a bed and air conditioning – what more could a man want. It was near the centre of town, which made walking about a possibility, and eateries abounded on every street, according to Feng. I found out about the three mosques within earshot the next morning at about 5 a.m.
I moved in and almost immediately left again to seek sustenance. Within a block I came to an Indian place. Not overcrowded, but some patrons. The first dish I chose was not available, the second, a rawa thosi, was. This was absolutely delicious, and while the coffee wasn’t really to my taste, I couldn’t complain. Siew had written down a couple of streets for me where she thought I might find antique books, so I set off. Almost immediately I was sidetracked into Chowrasta market, which I didn’t even know existed. Stalls, mostly offering fresh fruit, vegetables, prepared foods and drinks, lined the alleys, while inside the cavernous building meat, poultry and fish occupied one side while the other held displays of haberdashery and dry foodstuff. I was delighted to come across produce that was unfamiliar once more. There was a pickled green tuber, shun-tshe, which unfortunately was too large to buy for a sample; then a pink flower bud, Rosella, which is eaten as a vegetable, a type of ginger I had never tasted before, a number of new gourds and squashes, which I was not about to sample, and as a first prize, they also had water-chestnuts, something I had been looking for since Hanoi. I also bought some jackfruit and sabodille, which looked rather like dusky sheep’s testicles, but taste gorgeous. It was hot work, going up and down tiny alleys, but I managed to criss-cross the entire place and finally set off well supplied on the antiques search once more.
There were a couple of secondhand bookshops, from one of which I managed to get a fairly current guide to Myanmar, but I was less successful with older material. Only one shop owner confessed to having had Burmese laquerwork books in the past, like the one I refused in Phuket, but his supply had dried up. My hip and back were murderously sore, so I kept on having to try to find places where I could rest for a few minutes. Suddenly I spotted a roadside eatery selling the familiar Chinese steamed bun. The language problem arose once more and I couldn’t establish whether they were sweet or savoury, but the lady beckoned me inside and to my delight, showed me a trolley full of steaming dim sum that had chunks of prawn sticking out of the little darlings. Now I had been looking for such an establishment ever since we arrived in the east, and I was delighted to make my choice of four types, three apiece, with a pot of tea thrown into the bargain. I was not disappointed. This was absolutely delicious stuff, but for the first time in my life, I had a problem eating my food with chopsticks, since being steamed pasta, they were as slippery as greaseballs. Well-satisfied, I plodded back through the streets, with only one task to fulfill, i.e. the purchase of a small pocket knife which I could use to peel my water chestnuts, as I had to leave my key-ring sized Swiss Army job in Singapore since I might have bene suspected of hijacking intentions on the flights. Finding one was quite difficult, as Chinese cooks and Tong members are both known for their liking of huge cleavers, but at last I was successful at a small hole-in-the-wall general dealer and, exhausted, I dragged myself back to the lodge to try and catch up on a bit of sleep.
|Dim sum banquet|
That evening I sallied forth once more to a place nearby, which my landlord had recommended. The Red Garden was touted as a night market and the biggest assembly of seafood in town. Yes well, we would see. It was only a few blocks distant, so I made my way there and found a large courtyard populated with the inevitable plastic chairs and tables, and very little else, since the hour was early. Nonetheless, the stalls around the periphery promised a huge choice, at very reasonable prices. After doing a round of window-shopping, I was seduced by the sushi stall – something clean and simple to start with, I thought. I ordered a modest platter and a large beer, which arrived in a wine bucket filled with ice – a most sensible idea in this heat. It was also a big mistake; it was the worst sushi I have ever eaten. The fish was dry, tough, leathery and the rice was awful too. Obviously the genre has not translated well into the tropics. To make up for the disappointment, next was an oyster omelette that I had been wanting to sample since Hanoi, where instead, we had been presented with an omelette sprinkled with tiny clams. This one was excellent, and I felt a lot happier still, when I saw another stall opening up and hanging out a sign proclaiming that they would be selling dim sum. But sufficient unto the day; I went home to a slightly less noisy night’s rest.
The morning was grey and misty – or smoggy, when I stuck my head out of the door, but there were things to do. It was Sunday, 9 a.m., and the streets were eerily quiet in this nation of Moslems and Chinese. The shutters were down over the shop fronts, there were almost no cars on the roads – this did not bode well. The place I had earmarked for breakfast was lifeless. So were the next half dozen eateries. This was a calamity. I moved over to a cyclo rank where a dozen men were sprawled in a half comatose state over their vehicles and the pavement. I asked if they were in business, and if so, what the rate would be. The head man answered that it was the expected ten ringits (US$3) an hour, so the cyclo mafia had penetrated here as well. I stated that I wanted someone to take me to Little India and the head man detailed one of his scrawny minions to take me.
I first felt his muscles to see whether he could shift my hefty frame, then I had a mate take a photo of me reclining in my conveyance, and we were off. My pedal pusher managed quite well, but I did feel somewhat insecure, as he went through stop streets, turned without looking into intersections, with a blithe disregard for the safety of my legs, which after all, would be the first to impact any oncoming traffic. Still, this lord of the roads proclaimed proudly that he had delivered me at my destination after no more than five to ten minutes of leisurely exertion along level roads. He held out his hand and said ‘ten ringits’.
‘Not on your nelly, you haven’t earned your cash yet, so drive me round the place’, I replied. A heated argument ensued in which he reiterated that he had delivered me to my destination and I could expect nothing more, while I said I wanted my sixty minutes for that extortionate amount which his boss man had quoted me anyway. I can’t recall the exact words we exchanged, but in the end I threw the money at him and he left it lying in the street and rode off into the sunrise, shouting uncomplimentary terms over his shoulder. I picked up my ringits and looked round. Little India at this stage consisted of several tables at the roadside, with some work in progress, but no produce to be seen. Obviously its existence was pretty erratic. Across the road was a garish temple, mainly in pink, with clashing shades of purple, turquoise and gold. That was it, nothing further. I consulted my tourist guide and decided that probably the ferry to the mainland was my best option for something to do in this defunct town. It was quite a long walk, since I entered the terminal from the wrong side, but I made it onto the double decker ferry just in time as the gates closed. I shrugged aside the ridiculous return fare of the equivalent of forty cents US for two twenty-minute ferry rides and boarded. At that stage I had no idea whatsoever what to do on the mainland, so I looked once more at the map, and to my delight, found an arrow leading off into the hinterland, which proclaimed ‘St Anne’s Church, Bukit Martajam, is the site of an annual pilgrimage, and which houses the Cherun Tokun stone with a 5th century Buddhist inscription in the Pali script.’ What serendipity! This was surely a worthy place to visit, and possibly to photograph.
Fortunately the first taxi drivers I accosted on the other side of a twenty minute ferry ride, both knew about the church, and one even knew of Cherun Tokun. We struck a deal and set off into mainland Malaysia in a very ramshackle Toyota with collapsed seats, blown exhaust and a variety of other ailments and deficiencies which would make it unroadworthy in most countries. Still, the steed and the driver were willing. On this side of the straits the country was much more third world. The roads were still good, but buildings looked much shabbier, rustier and neglected; there was rubbish strewn all over and the traffic was wilder and more erratic than in well-ordered Penang. There were numerous factories, but most were elderly, obviously producing goods for local consumption, unlike the gleaming industrial giants of branded world products that I had observed on the island. We drove for what seemed like an hour, which made me a bit apprehensive about the low rate quoted for the trip, but my man said he knew where it was. Finally we came up against crowds of people and a road block manned by police. My man turned off and parked. He turned round apologetically and gestured that I should get out and walk; St Anne’s was thataway. It turned out that I had just chosen the good saint’s day, of all days, to come here, and the road was blocked by a throng of pilgrims, worshippers and sightseers as well as stalls selling food, drink, garments, religious mementoes and votive offerings. Rather reluctantly I set off on foot, after a burly parking attendant with no English, assured me that it was the way to go. Most of the pilgrims seemed to be of Indian descent, with a sprinkling of Chinese and a few Malays, which, coupled with a Catholic saint’s festival, seemed quite odd in a Moslem country. Every few hundred metres I asked for reassurance that I was still on the right path. No spire was to be seen anywhere, but then there were a lot of trees in the way. My last informant, who was selling ingenious two-metre long votive candles, obviously for megasinners – no thicker than a centimetre, but cunningly taped to a sturdy stick to keep them from drooping in the heat, waved me to the left round the next clump of trees, and sure enough, there was the church.
A really interesting style of architecture, reminiscent of the layered roofs of Thai temples, but without the upswept ends. At the front, an open, arched portico with slanting walls sheltered a statue of the saint, the focal point for the crowds, and quite ethereal, beautiful choral singing, not at all Christian-sounding to my ears, washed over the surrounding countryside. Thousands of pilgrims bearing lit candles, surged inexorably towards the saint, while other streams of humanity flowed away again. An impressive and ordered scene. But my taxi was waiting, and I had to find my stone. Again, it proved to be something of a task, given the crowds, the language barrier, coupled to the fact that it was a pagan monument. Nonetheless, with a lot of goodwill and help from bystanders, I finally arrived at a massive boulder, larger than an elephant, inside a fenced enclosure, under a roof. To my disappointment, there was very little to see, except, very plainly the date, 1840, chiseled into the top, and various graffiti from thence onwards, culminating with ‘David loves Mary’ in quite fresh chalk. I could hardly make out the Pali script, but took photos nonetheless. I hope to be able to find out from other sources whether this is an ancestral form of the Balinese, a thousand years later.
A sweaty half hour later, I rejoin my patient cabby and we drive back to port. In appreciation for his good services and reasonable fare, I overpay him – something I have not been noted for in Asia. Again, I manage to sprint on board the ferry as the gates are closing. By the time I get back on dry land, I am parched, starving and dead tired. I need a rest, so decide to lash out and enrich the taxi industry some more. A drive to Penang Hill is indicated. At the taxi rank a burly Indian chappie with a smattering of known language is located and he quotes me a fairly hefty price for the trip, but as I have no map on me which indicates exactly where this hillock is to be found, I agree. He’s a chatty lad and I finally find out why Penang has died this Sunday morning. According to cabby, the Moslems wanted Friday as their day of rest, which is only fair, since they are in the majority; however the Chinese had the most economic clout, and they wanted to work seven days a week to satisfy their admirable work ethic, whereupon the Indians joined with the rest of the minority groups in protesting that man shall not live by work at all times, and the previous government apparently bowed to the might of the supposedly Christian West, declared Sunday as an optional workday in deference to the mighty dollar, and now nobody is satisfied. At least that’s how his story went. On the last stretch of road leading up the hill to the station, there is one almighty big Chinese temple. Over the top doesn’t begin to describe it. I tried a photograph on the way down, but it’s so big there’s no way to fit it into a frame from across the street.
At the funicular I pay my dues (about the same as the Table Mountain cable car’s) and wait in the supposed queue as half a hundred Indians managed to insinuate themselves in front of me inside of ten minutes waiting time. It’s one of their national virtues and pastimes, I believe. The train arrived, suitably slanted at about thirty degrees, and as soon as it is gorged with passengers, departs at a breathtaking speed up the hill, actually much too fast to let anybody get much of a view of anything except dense jungle, the odd house and a few cuttings and tunnels rushing past. The good company was not going to waste time, which was money, on a day when they could cram 120 people into the caboose every five minutes at $10 a pop, were they? The station at the crest was actually nothing of the sort. From it you could spend a further tidy sum of money and take a golf-cart buggy-ride to a ‘ginger garden’ and aviary at the summit. A winding road led there, which had the health warning sign up, saying it would take 15 minutes to walk the distance. I was tempted, as I might have enjoyed the gingers, but given the touristy locale, I decided it probably wasn’t worth it, so opted for a much-needed snack and drink at the overpriced food court to rest my wearies. Admittedly it was a touch cooler here than in the muggy city, which I thought might be due to the fact that we were up in the pea soup which could be described as light cloud cover (you certainly could see almost nothing of the city below), but then I discovered that the roofed-over, but open-sided food court, was actually air-conditioned by a bunch of oversized units causing global warming elsewhere, and dropping condensation on all the inmates.
There was nothing more to do, so I decided to quit, and queued, coincidentally with the same fifty Indians who again proceeded to push past me, until the train arrived. As the rush commenced, I decided to repay in the same coin, and Asiatics were shouldered aside ruthlessly, toes were trampled and my meaty arm barred passage to many a Tamil. I didn’t get quite to the front of the carriage, since there was a burly Brahmin in a white robe, a good foot taller, and a foot bigger round the waist than I, whom I just couldn’t shift. But I snuck in close to him so that at least by cricking my neck, I could see our descent, and I certainly spoilt everyone’s photos by being in them. The ascent had been fast; the descent was quite hair-raising, especially at one point where the line suddenly dipped to at least 50 degrees and it felt as if we were falling over the edge of the hill. Most impressive and entertaining. I toyed with the idea of taking a bus back to the city, but as I had a vague idea that the terminus was a goodly footslog from the inn, I gave in to temptation and found yet another taxi, who charged me 40% less than the robber who had brought me out here. This elderly gent and I had almost no conversational skills in common, but he very ably deposited me where I hoped to get a real meal. To my disgust, the establishment was also closed for the non-Sabbath. So I cast about and finally found me a working class Tamil establishment, which dished up a good, solid dosa dish, and a most enjoyable vegetarian vermicelli noodle mush, washed down with iced coffee since they didn’t serve beer – all for less than the price of a cup of coffee in Cape Town. At last a bit of economy along with all this reckless expense of the day!
My afternoon rest was disturbed by frenzied bouts of drumming, seemingly from the next room at the inn. It started, rose to a crescendo, dropped to a few rolls, then the odd tap, then silence; then it would recommence. Problem was, one never knew when the drumming was going to start up, and it did, for some hours. I was minded to give this hippie maniac who was relieving his stresses, a good solid piece of my mind, when I realised that the noise was actually coming from another building behind ours. On enquiring at the front desk, Feng’s stand-in led me to understand that it was either a martial arts group or dancing troupe that was giving a performance in a clan temple. I returned to my
room and practiced meditation. Whatever it was, it finally ended as night fell. To compensate I went to indulge on some divine dim sum, sampled dried, toasted calamari chips, and even ventured into the field of what I thought were sausages, but later came to the conclusion that they were actually crisp, fried lengths of intestine, without the stuffing that normally makes a sausage. No matter, it all tasted good.
My night was yet another uneasy one as a Nordic berserker couple discovered a good WiFi signal in the ablution block right next to my door. They set up their computer a scant two metres from me and proceeded to bellow out messages of goodwill to their family members in far-flung countries. As midnight loomed, my composure deserted me completely and I once more entered the fray clad suitably in boxer shorts and a bad attitude. I bellowed at them that it was the middle of the night and to kindly shut up and keep their folks awake in the morning and let me go to sleep. They ducked their heads apologetically, lowered their voice by half a decibel and shut down the Skype within a few minutes, thus avoiding murder and possible compound computer fracture. Again, getting annoyed at that time of night doesn’t help in getting to sleep, but at least I slept through the muezzins’ early throat clearings at first sparrow belch.
At last Monday and normality came to all of us. I hobbled out of the inn as fast as I could and scouted for calories. I passed by a few Eurocentric eateries offering eggs, toast and marmalade and opted instead for one of the ubiquitous ‘Mee’ stands on a corner. His menu was all Hokkinese to me, so he pointed out heaps of ingredients, like three sorts of noodles, assorted chopped veg, shrimps, chips of meat – that sort of thing. I chose several innominate ingredients and asked him to do his cheffy thing and sat down, ordering iced coffee as an afterthought. This came from the other side of the stand, where another man was offering similar fare, but based on a staple of rice. It seems a fairly common practice in Penang for food hawkers to combine forces; one holds the lease on the premises, but sublets a corner to another competitor, in the hope that the greater spread of dishes will attract more custom, some of which will rub off onto him. An eminently sensible idea, especially so when most foodsellers specialise in one type of dish only. My man quickly stoked up his hibernating charcoal embers in an oil-drum which was cut in half, by turning a crank on an air-pump and plonking his wok on the resultant white heat. A handful of this and that, a sprinkle of the other, frantic stirring and in less than two minutes I had my steaming, tasty dish in front of me.
|Street Eatery Basics|
The inner man replete, a taxi was next on my list since I couldn’t face a whole morning’s walk. First the cabby was requested to show me the architectural highlights of the early 19th century city hall, law courts, St George’s Church, etc, which were most impressive. The magnificent Eastern and Oriental Hotel also, was on a scale I had not seen before. Large and grand enough to compete with Buckingham Palace, it looked; all gleaming white pillars, domes and porticoes where your chauffeur would whoosh you up to the pearly gates in your Rolls. No, I did not peep inside. They would in all likelihood have hoofed me out, dressed modishly in crumpled shorts and shirt with $5 sandals. Fort Cornwallis came next; a square and much smaller copy of the castle at the Cape, complete with pentagonal bastions. In the armaments department they had us beat though, since their Big Boy peeking over the edge is at least a thirty-two pounder – though apparently the cannons were never used in combat. Then onwards to the museum, which I had been keen to see since my arrival, but which had been shut over the weekend. The displays were quite good, mostly well-labelled in several languages, but the items on display were very local in nature, and limited to the period from 1785 until the present, focussing on the different population groups that made up the mix, although as an afterthought, the art gallery provided a water colour painted by an artist before that date, which showed a Malay fishing boat, ‘suggesting’ that there may have been a village in pre-European times! Of greater interest to me were a number of different versions of the Koran, some splendidly illuminated, most handwritten, which illustrated the varied character of the calligraphy, depending on the period and place of origin. In the art gallery I was delighted to find a large collection of prints on Penang by my old acquaintance William Daniels, who had done some lovely work on South Africa in the early 1800s.
|32 pounder Cannon at Fort|
Some considerately-placed chairs enabled me to rest up for the next leg of the morning’s walk. This was into the centre of the old town, where I hoped to find a carver of signboards, who would hopefully be able to enlighten me into the intricacies of Chinese ideographs. Along the way the oldest temple in town caught my attention for a few moments, but it was completely encircled by Indian stallholders selling all manner of items, which didn’t really seem to fit in with Buddhism/Taoism. I couldn’t get an intelligible explanation from anyone, so I took a photo and moved on. Next was a very splendid modern edifice, the Kapitan Keling Mosque, which though most photogenic, unfortunately had a large banner proclaiming some restoration work, spoiling the best aspect. I found my wood carver in a little side street; a skinny little elder, fast asleep in a wheelbarrow in the middle of his workshop. He was surrounded by untouched planks, and there were no more than half a dozen finished items standing about – none particularly impressive. The elder awoke and pointed me in the direction of some pamphlets that the Historical Trust had printed, which outlined the elements of his craft. He then tried to sell me a six inch square of red-painted timber with the symbol for luck on it – for the princely sum of 30 Euros (if I understood him correctly). I thanked him kindly but told him I couldn’t afford the excess luggage, and wandered on.
Since I dislike wandering about with bottles of lukewarm water clutched in my sweaty paw, I land up in the alternative situation of suddenly having a raging thirst because I’m dripping buckets of sweat. Thank goodness in Penang this was rarely a protracted problem. Somebody was always selling water; you just had to find a place with a fridge. I’d mapped out a rough campaign of route so that I would land up in a street known for its eateries at roughly the right time. I don’t carry a watch, but usually my innards will give me a hint when it’s lunchtime. I chose an establishment run by a harried looking old warrior, more for the comfort of his chairs than the menu or the name, which inappropriately was ‘Mona Lisa’. He advertised a special soup filled with vegetables, which I thought might be the thing for this thirsty work I was doing. Mostly soups contain a certain amount of noodle as well, so I assumed I would be replenished. To my surprise this was not the case. It consisted of nothing but a fine assortment of vegetables in a delicious broth made from pork bones, as far as I could taste, and it was just spicy and salty enough for my taste buds.
I wandered on along a street which had specially been mentioned as containing antique shops, but not a single one could I find. As I turned the corner, I was back near the market which had so interested me on Saturday. I invested in a few samoosas, which gave me a chance to sit in the broiling sun while they were cooked, and then I reckoned Ihad done enough – time for a bit of rest.
I had to pass one of the mosques from which originated the calls to prayer, that had become part of my days and nights, and I saw a number of men lounging near the front door. This was my chance. I walked into the courtyard and asked if the imam was available. Someone understood and called him for me. A tall, youngish man, clad in a white robe, with a Malay turban on his head, came to meet me with a smile. I introduced myself and he replied in excellent English, asking whether I was a Muslim. This I denied, but trotted out my ‘borrowed’ son-in-law again, and explained that I was looking to find a copy of the Koran in Bahasa, the local language, with a parallel Arabic text, which I would like to bring back as a present to South Africa, as I had already managed in Vietnam and Thailand. He was charmed by the idea. He summoned one of his brothers from inside the building, and dispatched the old man to bring me a choice of Korans to choose from, from the latter’s establishment. Within a few minutes I had a splendid copy (definitely in the excess baggage department) and I departed from the mosque with many ‘trimah kassies’ and bearing the blessings of the imam. Such nice people.
To sum Georgetown up – it’s a charming little city. The old, central part oozes history and has a grand old dame of 19th century East about it, while the seedier parts are reminiscent of what Fordsburg was to Joahnnesburg back in the sixties. Flophouses, motor repair shops (often quaintly labeled as doing ‘car knocking and spray painting’), tourist junkshops, haberdasheries and clothing shops rub shoulders with a few remaining craftsmen, hundreds of eateries, street markets and the like. In between are genuine cultural sites, temples, institutions of learning, guilds and associations and other places that could interest a traveller. The overall look is shabby, in need of more than a coat of paint. On both sides of the road are open channels with water flowing in them. In part they are covered over with cement slabs, but these are often broken or missing. In the absence of continuous sidewalks, walking the streets after dark would be risky, especially since the street lighting is mostly confined to emanating from passing traffic. Certainly not the ideal place for an inebriated pilgrim to stumble home along in the dark of night. Let us also acknowledge that the liquid travelling along these channels often consists of more solid matter than last night’s dishwashing water – as can be deduced from the stench that emanates from them at intervals. While I didn’t see any rats, they must flourish in that environment. A skip filled with waste, which I passed in the evening, had been thoroughly looted and spread over the road surface by the next morning. Obviously cats, rats or dogs, or all three would be the culprits.
Penang prides itself as being the food centre of Asia. That may be an exaggeration, but for sheer variety and value for money, I would certainly agree. It is an absolute wonder to me that all Penangians are not complete tubs of lard, given the abundance, quality and cheapness of their food. I have no idea of what rentals or house prices would run at, but judging by the accommodation available to the backpacker, it should be fairly reasonable. Transport too, is almost ridiculously cheap as long as it is of the public variety. A return trip on the ferry to the mainland costs a mere US$ 0,40, which is about a cent a minute. The public transport offers modern, air-conditioned rides, which won’t cost you an arm and a leg; and there are even a few free bus routes within the city. But tourist beware, the shoe is on the other foot if you look for other means of getting from place to place. Taxis often have a sign on the door ‘Do not haggle, as prices are fixed’. These are the guys to avoid, since they always seem to add an extra $10–15 just for the hell of it. Rather pick an elderly car with a white-haired gent driving it – ask him what the fare is to where you want to go, and if you don’t argue with him, why, he might even stop a couple of times for you to scramble out, take some photos and buy a bite to eat or something to drink, without wanting to raise the ante because you are infringing on his day. I’ve said my piece on cyclos – they’re highwaymen and thieves – let them starve, I say. For the rest of the businessmen in town, yes, they’re all scratching a living, but I didn’t come across any downright larcenous types. If you don’t fancy the price, shake your head regretfully and walk on. I didn’t find anybody running after me with a sudden ‘better offer’ because he liked my face. I returned to Singapore, well-satisfied with an interesting interlude!