I’m keen to get to Thailand but I need a few days to relax and get used to the heat so decide to move onto Malaysia [by bus from Singapore] in the morning and prepare for another 12 months of travel. Did I really only get a passport when I was 40-something – I’m really playing catch-up now.
At the bus stop in Malacca I hire a man and a bike to take me to a hotel. My bag is only 14 kilos but Mr Ong, with his skin and bone legs, finds it difficult to get the bike moving. When we reach a small rise I offer to walk but he declines with vigour. He tells me he has been a cyclo for 50 years, he’s now 80 and has postcards from all over the world and will I send him one from New Zealand? (I did)
For over a week I explore, keep out of air-conditioned places and I’m now enjoying the heat; I’ve even stopped my arthritis medication – I’m sure I was meant to be born in a hot climate.
‘Selamat. Hari Raya Aidilfitri.’ I’d not expected to be welcomed with these words at the home of a Malaysian Cabinet Minister. Hari Raya, the celebration at the end of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, is a time of reflection and thanks for the past year, gaining merits for the next life.
Over the past 10 days I’ve been reading, in the newspapers, the exact time of the beginning and end of each day’s fast that is governed by the time of sunrise and sunset. Yesterday was the last day of fasting and was announced in the newspapers and television by the keeper of the Ruler’s Seal, Engku Datuk Ibrahim Engku Ngah.
The days leading up to Hari Raya have been festive: special songs are blaring from giant speakers; houses are cleaned ready for visits from friends and family; new clothes are worn; festive fare prepared; and advertisements and banners in the streets proclaim ‘Our differences keep us together. Hari Raya Aidilfitri.’
During Hari Raya, Muslims give charity money (zakat fitrah, a moral tax or tithe, usually 2.5% of a person’s income) to the mosque for distribution to the poor and for building and maintaining mosques. ‘What happens if people don’t pay?’ I ask.
‘They will have problems when they die,’ James, the manager of the budget hotel tells me. His Chinese employer will not give him time off work to attend prayers today. ‘I will have a bad year.’
I wonder at the actual depth of the racial harmony that’s proclaimed daily in newspapers and on posters – although I am impressed by the apparent tolerance the different races and religions show each other. I meet Muslims who are Indian, Indonesian, Malay and Chinese. Conversely I also meet the same cultures practising many other religions in this country of numerous races and religions: Muslim is predominant, about 52% and television programmes are interrupted each evening for prayers.
Over the past two days huge crowds have swamped bus and train stations as people return home to celebrate with their family. James tells me to go to an ‘open house.’ ‘Of course you are allowed to go’ he says. ‘Everyone is welcome.’
Catching a bus, to follow his advice, I’m surrounded by brightly dressed people many carrying gaily-wrapped gift hampers. I’m on my way to the home of Deputy Health Minister, Dr Mohammed Ali Rustam even though my western mind is not totally convinced that I, a non-Muslim stranger, can attend the celebration.
Under a huge canvas roof beside the house I meet the Doctor and his wife, who welcome me, saying they enjoyed their trip to New Zealand: I sit opposite Janet and her mother who doesn’t speak English. Janet, an elegant Chinese woman, tells me, ‘I went to New Zealand. I was at Rotorua with the Hash Hound Harriers – the boiling mud and geysers were amazing.’ She’s not Muslim and is one of the few people dressed in western-style clothes.
A delightful young girl willingly tells me about the various foods. It seems the little cookies and cakes are made especially for Hari Raya while redang is a dish of meat cooked slowly in coconut milk, chillies, onions and a mixture of spices and served with lemang – a glutinous rice dish cooked with coconut milk and inside a bamboo stalk. Dozens of dishes are served and Janet’s mother encourages me. ‘Eat, eat,’ she says, giving me delicacies off her plate and to be polite, my usual vegetarian diet goes.
The bright yellows, greens, reds and other multicoloured robes and scarves make me feel dowdy in my casual back-packer clothes. I’m wearing a T-shirt and fish-covered long cotton pants I’d made two days before I left home. However, with all the laughter, greetings and smiles I feel part of the dozens of guests and I’m asked to pose for many photos – reversing the usual as the traveller becomes the focus. (pages 152-154)
NOTE: my ‘few days’ in Malaysia becomes three months!
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