Time Stands Still in Terengganu

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October 5th 2008
Published: November 2nd 2008
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Ever since he pounced on me saying Orang Putih! and knocked a Ringgit off the price, he's become my regular fish vendor. The lady in front of me seems surprised (presumably by my buying fresh fish), and he explains something of which I only caught "Duyong". Yup, I stay in Pulau Duyong I explain in English, pointing across the river to the little kampung island (as LP would describe it). She smiles to reassure me. My fish-walla asks his usual "two kilos?" to which I reply with my usual istinggo kilo which he repeats in English: half kilo? That's enough to last me three dinners, even with my voracious appetite. These are Ikan Kembong, meaning "fat fish", 9-10cm long grey-and-black scale-less fish: I daub them in a mixture of salt and turmeric before frying them. That seems to be the standard way of cooking anything, and goreng is inevitably the answer to all my inquiries, whether of fish or vegetables.

I carry my bagsfull of proceeds to the yellow canoe: tomatoes, lemon grass, bananas, eggs, fish, raw peanuts, onions and garlic, and red chili peppers. I don my meter-wide sombrero and take up the paddles, turning on the audiobook of Thoreau's Walden as I slowly propel myself the 3km or so upstream to the guesthouse jetty.

I normally present a much different spectacle, zooming around on a child-sized BMX, but I'm avoiding the same after my ill-conceived attempts to raise the seat to a reasonable height resulted in the whole thing being bent at right angles.

Waking up at 6, a habit leftover from Ramadan, I sat on the little deck by the river to watch the sun rise as the sky went through its ever-new variations of blue gray white pink yellow orange and the little birds flew upriver in swarms and the occasional monitor lizard swam across from the little sand island beyond. My bungalow is a good sized room with a mosquito net covering a queen-sized bed, a desk, a chair a (never-used) fan and two doors and three windows which are never closed, a thatched roof, the river directly beneath and visible through the gaps between the floorboards. Then there's the fully functional kitchen, the many "sitting areas" (wooden tables and benches in the shade), the shower/toilet with the rather unceremonious hole cut out of the floorboards, emptying sometimes on mud, at other times on the river as the tide rises or falls. And my first sunrise I watched from the comfort of my bed my first night here. The only other inhabitant is the English-raised Greek Cypriot Yorgo who incidentally has been here on and off for two years and apparently the longest-running resident was a now-ejected alcoholic who remained for a grand 14 years. I have been here a modest 3 weeks (or so), but see no reason to move on.

Brushing aside all criticisms denying me the title of "traveler" (which I have no use for and would gladly relinquish), I will attempt to answer the obvious question of "what do you do for 3 weeks in a small village on a small island in a river in a small town in a small state in a small country?"

I must begin by pointing out that I have never yet been in a place so relaxed and comfortable in my many months of traveling (and even my many years of existence). There are no guesthouse owners, restaurants, tuk-tuk or otherwise transportation touts, basically not a single soul trying to make money off of you (and even the guesthouse owner on his own initiative gave me a further 20%!d(MISSING)iscount after my first week). So all those factors that conspire to poison the most beautiful of paradise settings are far away across the river and further downstream. Due to our seclusion (presumably) we don't even get the usual crowd of day-trippers on their way to the tourist mecca of the Perhentian Islands.

It's wonderful to finally experience what a calming and fulfilling event it can be to cook your own food. To slowly make your way to the kitchen an hour before sunset with your bagful of dry goods and SW radio, to leisurely cut onions and crush garlic, to chop up vegetables for stir-fry, to deliberate over whether you are "eating well" or taking the path of gluttony, to see the direct effect of your choice in spices or ingredients reflected in the flavor of your food, to then clean up and sit reading over a cup of warm water and perhaps some music on the trusty ipod... how much more fulfilling is this 2-hour process than the instant-gratification of ordering off a menu, divorced and cut off from the many stages of effort required to bring it to your table. And the fun doesn't end there either: I am not a camera-toting visitor, an outside observer at the marketplace; rather, an active player in its life, aware of the prices, abundance, popularity, and even fluctuations thereof, of nearly all foodstuffs.

But too much of a good thing can make you sick, so I'm glad Ramadan intervened to force me to find other meaning than the preparation and consumption of food.

I have taken to writing good old-fashioned paper letters to all and sundry, and if you haven't received one yet your turn will surely come too. There is so much to share and explain and ask... and I personally prefer to gather my thoughts on the deck by the river watching the occasional otters and monitor lizard swimming around than staring at a white text input field at a crowded and distracting internet cafe.

I stomp around barefoot and naked apart from the orange-and-white checkered sarong I have grown so fond of. I attempt to reproduce from memory Kufi-style calligraphy as seen on the walls and minarets in Ardabil and Esfahan. I practice my Arabic skills comparing texts in the hope that the re-phrasing of a fact will make it clearer. I (admittedly occasionally) write in my diary. Yorgo and I speak to exercise our vocal cords. I roast peanuts in the toaster oven or try to discover the secret of making pancakes (it's eggs) and make vague plans to attempt chapatis soon. And then I read.

I'm carrying 9 books with me: books that I have chanced upon after many futile visits to bookshops (speaking of which, "Junk Books" in KL is excellent) and am hoarding to my detriment. The usual selection is unimpressive: Clancy or Ludlum, detective or spy novels, romantic "chick books" or poorly-written thrillers. I want a book to leave me with a thought that hadn't occurred to me and which inspires. And thus I have Kierkegaard's Either/Or which I am so sacredly reserving for a rainy day that I have lugged it around for months without even attempting to read it. On a recommendation I've looked into some Chesterton (ebooks) and have been fascinated. It's too bad there's a limit of 1000 ipod Notes. Other paper books in my possession include "For Whom the Bell Tolls", "Catch-22", "The Pilgrim's Regress", The Qoran, The Bible, LP SEA, and I'm too lazy to go check what else.

I've heard some variant of "God? Doesn't exist. Have you read The God Delusion by Dawkins?" from so many people that I was excited when Yorgo lent me his copy. Expecting great revelations and anticipating the need to make copious notes I sat down to read.... And I realize that my literary criticisms and book reviews are not of general interest so I will spare you (my dearest of readers) the agony and include the said review at the end as an optional footnote. I'll retain this sentence, however: "Despite my nausea I pushed on till the end".

So yes, I read books. And I slowly go insane, dreaming up impossible scenarios and visions of bliss with little curly-haired kids running around the yard and afternoons spent in a hammock in the shade of a coconut tree in front of a wooden house on stilts at the edge of the beach with chickens clucking and a woman wearing a batik sarong and going fishing and of course cooking and all the domestic chores that make life so pleasant. And I make frantic phone calls and insist they can't be categorized as drunk dialing since I haven't touched wine or strong drink for months. I wash clothes, tidy my room, take trips across the bridge to the big supermarkets for discounted dates. And last but not least I while away many hours at the internet, generously enriching all vendors of technology without discrimination. I might nap in the afternoon. Now that I have (only very recently) discovered the joy of audiobooks that obviously opens my vistas to long walks with my sombrero.

So: is this the "boring domestic life" many western women throw themselves into the stress and bondage of wage-earning capitalism in order to escape?

Book review: The God Delusion -- Proceed at your own risk

My first misgiving came when I noticed how much time he devoted to the views of Einstein (no less an illustrious and universally-known household name of a scientist than), an attention later extended to Jefferson and other well-known names. In fact I recognized nearly all of the names: Darwin, Watson and Crick, Schrodinger.. You see, although I resented it at the time I was forced to take a course called "Logic and Rhetoric" my first semester at university, where we made a study of "literary devices", and which thus perhaps stands out as the one class worth attending university for: it taught me to analyze the methods an author will use to convince his reader without using outright arguments. Flattery is one very easy-to-spot technique. The shameless degree of flattery -- from his restricting his list of scientists and literary personages to the most famous and best-known (thus convincing the reader of his own level of scientific knowledge and sophistication) to the labeling of his antagonists as "vicious" and "irrational" etc and those who agree with him as "thoughtful", "delightful", etc -- is in fact insulting. For a book that claims to debunk myth and superstition and to shine forth the light of truth and reason there's a remarkable amount of appealing (without proof) to the authority of "experts" and an implicit demand of submission to the opinions and world views of others (in this case that of scientists), and a shocking degree of irrational assertions. Why should I necessarily care about Einstein's or Jefferson's or in fact any other person's religious beliefs, especially if they have not been lucidly explained? Is the assumption that we should conclude "what's good for these intelligent people must surely be good for me"? The term "Darwinism" is repeated over and over until it acquires a religious significance (fancy one thus speaking of "Von Neumann-ism", "Turing-ism", "Newton-ism", "Kepler-ism", etc) and "Natural Selection" as an article of faith: yet neither concept is even summarized, if only for the benefit of us (very few) ignorant and unenlightened souls who have never yet read "On the Origin of Species" (it's on my audiobook list). None of the above criticism is in any way conclusive, obviously. One can flatter and yet be speaking truly and/or logically.

The big shock came when he delivers his punchline in the form of the "Ultimate 747" (my readers will forgive me if I insult their level of culture by restating the argument): "If you claim that you can't shake together the contents of a junkyard and come up with a 747, how can you explain the existence of God, who (by definition, if he exists at all) must be so much more vastly complex than these things we think miraculous?" ie, God is the "Ultimate 747", the absolute logical absurdity. Being a scientist at heart, he outlines his arguments in logical steps at the end of the chapter:

• Everything we see around us is brilliantly fine-tuned, to the point of perfection (the earth, the environment, plants animals, all organisms and systems) and extremely complex.

• If these had been designed by a God he would have to (by definition) be more complex and superior to what he created (all that exists).

• But according to Darwinism and Natural Selection (those unquestionable and fundamental tenets of the faith), complex life forms evolve from lower life forms, not vice versa.

• Thus something more complex than what now exists must necessarily evolve later -- ie, cannot have come before what we now see; if God were to exist he must exist at the end, not at the beginning of evolution.

• Thus, God cannot exist.

I can only assume that it is all the flattery and hoodwinking (and, perhaps, the fact that for the most part he is preaching to the choir and using Mystery and Authority to cow into submission an ignorant and superstitious population) that enables people to read through that progression and not see the glaring lack of logic. (See? I can use intimidation as a literary device too 😉)

Furthermore, his explanation for "how did life begin?" is to state that it is unlikely in the extreme that life would begin spontaneously, but the very fact that there is life proves this unlikely event must have taken place. This becomes a sufficient explanation if we call it The Anthropic Principle and don't think about it.

Despite my nausea I pushed on till the end.

And, having recently read Chesterton's The Ball and the Cross, I can say that I respect an honest opponent, someone who is sincerely convinced and with whom we can debate an issue, disagreeing violently if necessary, as long as it's genuinely. I have no regard for someone who fills hundreds of pages with nice-sounding cliches, attempting to prove his point through dishonesty, flattery, and bullying. And in fact, I only wasted time to write this very superficial criticism because I am too outraged at the insult to my intellect to acknowledge its futility.

And not surprisingly, this "book review" turned out to not be nearly as well-written or forceful as it seemed when I wrote it down. But I'm keeping it in hopes that some lively discussions might ensue in the comments.


3rd November 2008

Perhaps the lively debate will come after this comment...
All I wanted to say was that I enjoyed another one of your well-written and thought-engaging blogs. My gran used to live in Malaysia, and remembers it just as you describe, without KL's skyscrapers and Westernisation. It's great to read about places like Terengganu. J.
3rd November 2008

i'll bite
Two comments. First, "So: is this the "boring domestic life" many western women throw themselves into the stress and bondage of wage-earning capitalism in order to escape?" Ha, ha, this is so funny! But you have an excuse :) you do not get enough nutrition. I see it more like ["a collection of tens of factors" + stay at home woman for lifetime -> unhappiness], where you think that ["stay at some exotic place for 3 weeks on your own" -> happiness] is equivalent to the above and you say, I am happy, so women must be wrong!!! If I list all the factors that will take a lot of time, so I will not bother. But please consider that conditions probably involve serving other people, serving sex to your husband, giving birth to kids, with bellow minimum wage allowances, where you probably do not have a chance to get an ipod, surf the web, travel or buy books. So yes, I prefer capitalizm: it pays better, you do not have to serve other people, you do not have to serve sex, you can chose whom to live with, and you can chose whether to have kids or not. [There is another issue too: many women in developing countries have not seen anything different, and the upbringing prepares them for such marriages and for a stay-at-home life. I can think that they may not be as unhappy as their western counterpart. The success bar is also different: I cannot imagine a western woman not haivng the same dreams as a western man, but I can see a non-western women's goal in life being mother of many, great wife, serving everybody well.] The second: your book review. Trying to disprove God was my past time in highschool and early college years. I'd say I wisen up (it is hard to beat a belief with logic; belief is a belief: it was planted long time ago and even years of proofs/education may not displace it, it stays), but I do not view such attempts as useless. If people were at the comfort and intellectual level where they would think for themselves what religion and/or God is, and whether the whole thing about God made sense, they would probably abandon their belives in the first place. But, lets face it, most of the human population on earth is not, thus reading a book like this will not leave them in disgust. If 1 in 100 find it useful so be it. Maybe better books will be born out of this too. It is hard to compete with a 2000 year long status quo, you have to start somewhere. Your travel stories are very interesting, enjoy and keep sharing! But for the answers of the questions above you need not spend years in travelling. A couple of books, a couple of classes would be enough bringing you a good perspective on the issues.
3rd November 2008

It's an amazing thing that you're able to publish this electronic blog all of the way from the pages of your notebook. Self-righteous. You so badly want to be Thoreau. Perhaps some more education could help!
4th November 2008

I would say kant (pronounces as cunt not kent) what do you think?
4th November 2008

how did you know?? oh no, now i've been caught out! yes, i admit i travel with a laptop and digital camera and gps and pda and i only refuse to upload pictures out of a sense of false humility and perverseness...
4th November 2008

anon is the man
anon, your reply is spot on, saved me a lot of typin' :] i know bedreddin's pastoral views very much :] he is a dreamer who has never experienced living in poverty _without_ a bank account and/or working for one's own food 24/7 (as opposed to BUYing, what he does all the time). his views are distorted by the pile of cash he made in an unnamed high tech silicon valley company (dying now for years) before he started travelling... he is suffering from the standard post-cubible illusion of total and absolute freedom (for years now). he will have to come back to society at one point again and then blood will flow... as i have discussed with him his review in mail/chat somewhat longer than presented here (for the record, i enjoyed the dawkins book, i was one of the first who told him to read it ;-) i want to clarify an important point he failed to make: his dissing the book doesn't implicitly mean that [Gg]od exists. i.e. he just thinks the book is really bad and not a scientific proof at all. now go all ye with peace :]
13th December 2008

Your so cool..... your a proper 'Traveller', you have a beard and everything !
17th December 2008

By the way, I was being sarcastic
9th January 2009

leisurely cut onions.
Well I've completed another entry and yet again I must say that I really like your writing, your thoughts, your impressions. I had to cook for myself this past semester and although I used far more frozen vegetables than I'd like to admit, I really enjoyed the experience and loved your reflection on the process of making a meal vs. a restaurant. Who would think we'd actually have commonalities after all these years. Hah. Well it's the 4th quarter of the college bowl championship (I'm watching with the Sjogren boys) and it's getting quite exciting so I better start paying attention. Grace and peace.

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