Yesterday When I Was Young

Suspended umbrellas on Jonker Street, Chinese New year, Malacca town

Someone said that if Leonardo da Vinci had to tweet five times a day, people would still be riding bicycles. But modern living with all the technology has made us empty.  We are mostly half-present with the other foot in the digital world somewhere.  Modern life has created an urban dweller who is more isolated in the big city than his ancestors were in the kampong.  Today, modern living fail me.  My astro television subscription got cut off, my attempt at online payment  failed, my mobile phone had a flat battery, and my laptop went missing.  There was no television to watch my favourite Fox movies, no mobile phone to chat on, and no internet to browse or “google” (it seemed “google” is now accepted as a verb in modern English).

 

Suddenly I had plenty of time on my hands.  My mind began to wander back to the 1960s.  Just how did yesterday’s  9 year olds lived in the 1960s and 1970s, back in the then little town of Alor Setar, with almost no technology?  We watched black & white television, and listened to only one radio channel.  People took time to communicate with each other by having real conversations and not through whatsapp.  Young people back then  took time to read print books because print media was the only way they could get any information and bask in their imagination.  I used to read a lot of  books, the  Enid Blyton Famous Five series and as I grew older,  spy thrillers,  such as “The Day of the Jackal” by Frederick Forsyth, first published in 1967.  I doubt any of my children ever heard of the book.

 

In the evening I would  cycle  outside on  the dusty  laterite road on my father’s bicycle twice my height.  Riding an over-sized man’s bicycle was tricky.  It required children to contort and wrap their bodies underneath the horizontal crossbar in such a way that their legs could reach both pedals, their hands could steer the handle bar while  safely remaining in almost perpetual motion.  If only a machine of perpetual motion is possible. Regardless, I landed headlong, together with my over-sized bicycle, into the green slimy  ditch when the bicycle veered to the side and the brakes failed me.

 

But nothing beat the experience of catching fighting fish in the dark murky swamps behind my kampong house.  It never occurred to me then that there could be a python or water snake slithering in the dark mangroves.  Now I would squirm at the sight of a rattlesnake on National Geography television.  We would be so engrossed with catching the fighting fish that we almost always hardly noticed  the setting sun.  On weekends, we  would go out to play with the morning sun and head home with the setting sun.  On one occasion, I remember a second cousin being chased around the kampong by his 80 year-old grandmother because he came home late.  He was hoping to outrun her as the chase would probably tire her out.  But with a stick waving in the air just inches above his head, he was not about to take any chances.

 

Back then a household would have one bread winner present to take care of the home. Parents of that period practically allowed us children to be doing our own thing. I would like to think I was much happier than  children of nowadays living in a big city like Kuala Lumpur.   Modern mothers, hovering over their children about homework, or in anticipation of some danger lurking round the corner and fathers who never were quite home is the norm nowadays.

 

But my father was always home at magrib.  I recall my father was a man of few words and deeply, deeply religious.  He was a chief clerk in the land office in Alor Setar, and he cycled to office everyday.  I remember I was 5 or 6 years old running around in my skirts when I joined my father for magrib prayer.  He never uttered a word as he turned around to check the saf.  His gentleness and patience encouraged us all towards prayers. He hardly laid a hand on us or caned us as far as I could remember except for that one time.  Perhaps it was to teach us some much needed discipline.  My mother on the other hand, was illiterate and not able to read except for some jawi with a little rumi.  She loved to socialize, visiting friends for long hours.

 

Don’t get me wrong, we children of the 1960s had our fair share of responsibilities.  We washed, starched and ironed our own school uniforms especially during secondary school days.  During those days the girls uniforms had box pleats and ironing starched box pleats was no mean feat especially if you had only coal-fired metal irons to press clothes. Coal-fired metal irons were heavy and impossible for a child to handle. But washing  school shoes on weekends was a breeze. We helped our mothers sweep the floor or buy groceries from the nearby shop run by a Chinese family.

 

I walked to school when I was seven years old.  When it rained heavily, the river would swell, the fragile wooden bridge would be swept away by the strong currents and we had to skip school that day because there was no way of crossing the river to the other side. Sometimes I would take off my school  shoes if it rained, at the risk of my feet getting cut by broken glass buried in the mud, only so that my shoes would remain  sparkling white when I finally get to school that morning.

 

School of yesterday was not as burdensome as school of nowadays.  There was no tuition classes when we were 10 years old.  But punishment was considered necessary.  Wrong answers in class would mean a painful crack on the knuckles with the corner of a blackboard duster by the teacher.  Knuckles would get swollen but we never felt the need to report back to our parents as we took punishment as part of learning.  Perhaps we were tough kids back then.

 

I would like to believe that the punishment paid off, turning many of  us into upstanding citizens.  We became decorated naval admiral, school teachers, scientists, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers.  If there was anything to be proud of,  two prime ministers of Malaysia called Alor Setar home, one even returning to serve for the second time at 93 years of age.  Alor Setar was also home to the first woman deputy prime minister of Malaysia, an achievement for kampong boys and girls like us, many with parents who were unschooled and illiterate.

 

Yesterday when I was young
The taste of life was sweet as rain upon my tongue
I teased at life as if it were a foolish game
The way the evening breeze may tease a candle flame

The thousand dreams I dreamed, the splendid things I planned
I always built, alas, on weak and shifting sand………………………Charles Asnavour

TO SPAIN BY TRAIN

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“For many hours, I used to stand by the window of the K3 coach, trying to catch glimpses of village life as the train snaked its way across the Gobi Desert and the steppes.  The steppes, populated mainly by horses and camels, were huge rolling grasslands sometimes dotted by one or two white felt yurts or gers, a symbol of nomadic lifestyle still predominant in Mongolia today.  After a total of 26,000 kilometres of changing landscapes crossing China, Mongolia, Siberia, the Baltic and the Balkan states, I was convinced that the most comfortable way of travelling long distances is by train……this, despite having to spend six straight days in a cubicle 1.5 meters wide, squeezing between oversized luggage bags, tight bunk beds and often, caught in the cross-fire of contentious travel mates…..” (adapted from my first book “A Train To Catch”, 2016, Husna Kassim)

 

Train travel, as Paul Theroux would have it, is:

“…a far cry from the anxious seats of doom aeroplanes inspire, or the nauseating gas-sickness of the long-distance bus, or the paralysis that afflicts the car passenger…”

(The Great Railway Bazaar)

 

Travelling on a train around Europe is far more complicated than crossing the Siberian.  Even though crossing borders of most European countries was simplified by the Schengen Agreement allowing a passport-free movement, getting from one place to another can be a headache if you are unfamiliar with the local ways or don’t speak the local language.  Carefully-laid plans get derailed.  Our first class Eurail tickets got downgraded due to ineffective communication at the chaotic ticket office at Lyon train station.

 

Despite everything, the train is still the most delightful and generally pleasant way of travelling around Europe.  We took the train about seventy percent of the time.  With air travel, the checking-in at airports (especially now with the phobia of Islamist terrorism), are long and gruelling.  The bus is probably the second most convenient travel option for journeys which take three hours or less because it is almost hassle-free.  You get to see miles and miles of rolling hills with rows of olive and rapeseed trees carefully tended.  The downside is the limited leg-room and the long hours.

 

High speed trains travel through Europe covering large distances quickly.  As these trains offer more comfort & service than regional trains, they are more in demand and reservation is necessary to ensure seat availability. Both raileurope-asean.com and eurail.com, recommended making seat reservations as far back as three months before travel but a traveller has to be vigilant about fine print, in case things don’t go as planned.

 

Renfe-SNCF en cooperation is one of the international high-speed trains that connects Spain and France.  It allows you to travel quickly and comfortably between cities like Madrid and Barcelona in Spain to cities like Paris, Marseille, Lyon in France at speeds as high as 240 to 255 kilometres per hour.  Some trains have facilities to charge-up your mobile phones which comes in useful.  Depending on the train, a wifi-facility can also be available. Some train stations provide lockers for your luggage.  I paid €5 for the storage facility for 5 kg bags.

 

But that afternoon, there seemed to be a lot more happening than lugging bags and boarding the trains.  Ten minutes after leaving the Valence train station, 100 kilometers from Lyon, I heard a thud as if the coach hit a wood stump across the track.  The train stopped immediately to investigate.  After what seemed like eternity, I heard the sound of a police patrol siren some distance away and I knew there was an accident on the track.  Immediately afterwards, an announcement in French came on the air. The passenger seated in front of me (a “couple”) kindly interpreted that there was an accident.  As we sat waiting, I was apprehensive.  If the accident did not clear in time, we would all miss our train connections.  An hour later, we were informed that it was a suicide.

 

It was another two hours before the train moved again.  It seemed that suicides on the train track was not uncommon.  In 2012, 12 people committed suicides on French railways between Saturdays and Mondays (according to amp.france4.com).  In France there are 11,000 suicides each year according to suicidesinfrance.tumblr.com.   Figures from Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development or OECD, indicated that France has one of the highest suicide rates in Western Europe.

 

In France it seemed suicides tend to be public in nature than anywhere else, as if symbolic, making a statement or delivering a message to the society at large.  It made me wonder what the push was to complete the “final act”.  Throwing oneself in the path of a train travelling over 300 km per hour, takes a lot of ultimate desperation, hopelessness and despair for that final step into the realm of darkness, a ghastly escape from reality…….

THE BEDOUIN

Women pilgrims leaving the Masjid Nabawi after prayers
Three lorry drivers stop at R&R on Highway 15 between Makkah & Madinah

Going down the road towards Madinah, reminded me of one particular  taxi driver, who drove us from the Hajj terminal to Madinah on one of those soul cleansing trips.  Since most passengers were flying into Jeddah  for umrah,  we were brought to the Hajj terminal instead.  Despite the crowd, the immigration processed the passengers fairly quickly that evening  and we were soon out of the terminal.

 

Once out of the terminal, we went looking for a taxi.  Finding a taxi to take us to Madinah proved rather  troublesome since there were very few private taxis at the Hajj terminal.  One taxi runner quoted SAR1500 just to take us the distance of 250 kilometers away. We thought it was rather steep.  We were then directed to a private taxi presumably an arrangement of mutual benefit for both runner and taxi driver.  After the SAR1500 shocker, any lesser offer was deemed reasonable.  Later we found an even cheaper fare of SAR500, but only if taken from the international terminal.   It was already late in the night and we settled for the only taxi-driver to drive us to Madinah in his Toyota sedan for SAR1000.

 

The taxi-man, Muhamad, was a Bedou, for the Anglicised term “Bedouin”.  The word Bedouin comes from the Arabic word Badawi which means “desert dweller”.  Badawi are nomadic Arab people who have historically inhabited the deserts of North Africa, Arabic peninsula, Iraq and the Levant.  The Arabic term Bedouin was traditionally used to differentiate between nomads, who made a living  by raising livestock and those who worked on farms or lived sedentary lives in towns.

 

Bedouins tend to be small and thin.  One reason for this is that food is scarce in the desert.  But Bedouins love freedom thus the appeal for nomadic life. The number of true nomadic Bedouins however  is dwindling.  There may be less than 3% nomads left in Iraq, Libya or Saudi Arabia.  According to Wikipedia (https://en.m.wikipedia.org), there are over 10 million in Sudan, about 2 million in Algeria, some in Egypt, Iraq, UAE, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya etc.

 

Calmness and patience are valued traits. But the one thing that struck me that particular evening was Mohamad’s Bedouin hospitality.  Bedouins, it seemed are well known for gestures like breaking bread with a stranger.  Since we wanted to reach Madinah before 2 am, we didn’t stop to have a bite to eat before boarding the taxi.  Needless to say we were grateful when Muhamad stopped along the highway and bought us cups of good strong coffee with a pinch of cardamon added. Bedouin kahwa is a strong aromatic coffee made with cardamon powder, saffron and rosewater.  Later on along the journey he again bought us bananas and juice.

 

Arab drivers in Saudi were not much different from Malaysian drivers.  They both have little  patience when it comes to driving.   I have seen similar mercurial drivers on highways and roads in Malaysia.  Muhamad, small built, his face brown and drawn, probably in his forties (though he did look older, maybe because of the dry desert winds), was blowing his horn ever so often when he wanted to overtake other vehicles.  He seemed like a dangerous driver, keeping to the fast lane and weaving in and out between trucks and buses while overtaking.  Even though we were exhausted from the flight and the journey, I couldn’t sleep a wink.  I was  rather anxious watching the way Muhamad drove.  I thought 75% of road accidents were caused by young Arab drivers but Muhamad was in his forties.  One driver had his headlights on and kept pressing the pedal as if saying “Get out of my way”.

 

It was close to midnight and Muhamad was probably very sleepy. He found many innovative ways of keeping awake while driving on the highway.  He sometimes turned on the radio way up playing traditional Bedouin music, singing and clapping loudly.  And as if he suddenly remembered we were seated behind, he would  turn down the music.  Then he would unwound his head-cloth, put on his keffiyeh and silence returned as he drove quietly on.  Sometimes he would smoke and this routine he would repeat every now and then throughout the 250 kilometers  journey.

 

We arrived in Madinah in the wee hours of the morning.   We had little exchanges with Muhamad since he knew absolutely no English and we do not speak Arabic.  He had no use for the GPS to locate the hotel.  All he did was stop  fellow drivers along the way. After doing this for a number of times, one driver relented to show us the way.  What a colorful character Muhamad was, reminding me of Lawrence of Arabia movie…. a Bedouin with a curved sword in a scabbard ornamented with silver, laid across his knees, or the Arab-speaking nomads  in Hugh Kennedy’s “The Great Arab Conquests ”, who rode their horses over 200 miles a day to spread Islam. It seemed the Bedouins possess the same endurance, strength and loyalty as the Arabian horses they rode.