August 5, 2006
[selection of emails from summer 06: in which i go to malaysia during the wait for my exam results, volunteering at bethany home, and visiting chefoo]
i got a reply from bethany home. long explanation: i have had this feeling for a while that i should be doing something useful this holiday. and christian and positive and worthwhile. because working here is useless because getting a job is very complicated because i’m a foreigner and i’m not here for long enough to get an interesting job. anyway. a random idea that struck me ages ago was that i go work at bethany home (website www.bethanyhome.org.my) which is a school (/home?) for disabled people in malaysia, which i know about because i visited it once when i was at chefoo. i did nothing about this idea and talked to no-one. until sometime in the middle of study leave i was reading either the bible or some book by philip yancey or something to that effect and suddenly decided that i should be doing my tiny bit to change the world. or something. and so i emailed bethany offering to come for a couple of weeks in the summer. and they emailed back with all the standard information for volunteers, like how to get there from kl airport, and forms to fill in, and extra information, and requests for references, and somewhere in all that was a line about people being recommended to come for at least three months to get to know the children. which multiplied my very substantial fears that this was a ridiculous idea. and so i did nothing at all for a couple of weeks. eventually, some time after the end of term while i was still at school, i actually got round to telling my parents. who said something along the lines of ‘ooh, it’s nice and encouraging that you want to do this, go ahead and get references’. i never got around to getting references. and arrived home, and ended up, thanks to the nagging persistence of my mother, emailing mr george and mrs dodds to ask them for references. and when they eventually replied, i wrote again to bethany apologising for the delays and saying if it was still possible i could come from the 1st august to the 16th. and now they have replied and said yes you can come. and i have been dragging this out and putting it off because the thought of working with disabled people terrifies me, and so i was sort of half-hoping it would be too late or something. telling myself that if god actually wanted me to go, he would make it happen in spite of my disorganisation. which is what has happened. so he must want me to go. so i shall be strong and courageous and trust in him and serve him. and i am terrified, but that too is okay because through my weaknesses he is glorified. please pray for me. one of the things i am worried about is just how useless is it to only go for two weeks, especially when they recommend three months at least. and i don’t really have a clue what exactly i’ll be doing. hmm. and i can’t stay any longer because i have to be back home when my results come out so i can beg cambridge to ignore my failed step exams or whatever, and sort out what i’m going to do in england for the weeks between anjali’s party and uni.
yes, i’ve made it this far.
i did, however, miss the stop at simpang empat, and had to pay RM 2 to get a bus back from tulok intan. last night i arrived at about six (by the time i’d missed the stop and come back) and for dinner i actually went out to a party, as it was one of the kid’s birthdays. and so there was paratha and nasi lemak and fried chicken and mee goreng and plenty to eat.
i am staying in a house with one other volunteer, a twenty-year old chinese malaysian called en chin (spelling - ?) who is very friendly and has been showing me around for the whole of today, and about five of the more independent people with disabilities, who also have a full-time female staff member to look after them. it’s actually two houses with the wall in the middle knocked through, and me and en chin stay on one side and the others on the other. so it’s basically like being a prefect. i have a room to myself, with two beds and a cupboard and plenty of space. they get up at 5 in the morning for exercise (which consists of a warm up, a very short jog, and a warm down) and i woke up this morning to do it with them! which i shall continue to do, as there is no point staying up in the evenings, really.
this morning i have been shown around bethany, and introduced to a few people, but basically how it works for volunteers is that you wonder around and help wherever you want to help. there are various classes for different levels of disability (and there is a massive range. most of them can do the standard “hello/hello/what’s your name/my name is …/how are you/i’m fine”, but seeing as that’s also the extent of my malay and i don’t speak sign language, there’s not much chance of me being able to have a deeper coversation with any of them even if they were capable of it). i was invited to go in the swimming pool with some of the most disabled, and so i went. and will probably go back to help after i have finished emailing you, as their teacher (who i talked to in the pool in between chucking plastic balls around) said i could come. and that’s better than wondering around looking like a lost tourist.
there are a few other foreign volunteers: a swedish couple and another woman (all late 20s?), and two australian women (one earlyish 20s?, one 50s?). and there must be less than ten male staff in this whole place.
everyone seems to think two weeks is a very short length of time to be here, but that was always going to be the case. everyone’s very friendly, and most of the kids can’t get enough of handshaking.
so, food. since arriving, i have had lunch at bethany three times, breakfast at the house three times, and supper once at the house, and once out. breakfast the first morning was oats, cold and mushy and drowned in an ocean of milk. my resolution to spend the rest of my life eating whatever was put on my plate failed at the first hurdle.
“full already? said eng chin
- yah, i replied making a mental note to buy bread to toast for breakfast”.
however, yesterday and today they have cooked noodles for breakfast, so the bread which I have actually bought, and which is sitting in the fridge with some kaya jam (which I also bought - Eng Chin doesn’t cook at all and uses the fridge for nothing but bottles of water and eats whatever they cook (oh, did I say that the [kids/adults/students/whatever the proper word is] cook their own food?) has not been used.
lunch at bethany is good. it is malay (or indian, let us say Local) and the other foreign volunteers don’t seem too excited by it, but there is always meat, and rice or noodles, and there has been chicken curry and fried fish and fried bee hoon, and for me it is perfect.
supper is a slightly different matter. the first night i went out with eng chin to a chinese food stall and he ordered in mandarin, and i ended up eating fried pork in sweet and sour sauce and rice. which was nice. “tomorrow we eat with them lah, he said. they cook themselves, you know.
- is their food good? i ask.
- it’s okay. not too salty, not too spicy”
which, i suppose, is a nice way of saying it’s bland and not very interesting. it turned out to be rice with three different dishes of vegetables in soya sauce. “you don’t like vegetables?”eng chin asked, as he watched me put a half spoonful onto my plate, after he had covered his plate with multiple spoons of the stuff. although, to be fair, there was also fish ball soup, which was quite nice. but so much vegetable! and it was all cooked so that they were no longer crunchy but just soft and floppy.
tonight i think i will eat out on my own, as eng chin has gone to his home town for the weekend. i am going tomorrow morning, as he has invited me for his church’s jumble sale. and then we will be back to bethany in the afternoon, for there is a ceremony of some sort for which they were practising (but i couldn’t tell what exactly).
as for music, there is also much to tell. first thing in the morning, i have been given the enviable position, with eng chin, of leading the morning exercises. which basically means fifteen minutes of aerobics, to the sound of some dance track blasted out over the masses by a pair of speakers. it is hilarious. we do star jumps and stretches and sort of dance, and all is joyful chaos as the students try to copy us.
also hilarious, is listening to them sing. particularly negara ku. which they sing with great gusto and absolutely no sense of tune at all. ah, bliss.
then there is the SNU classroom, where they constantly have the most inane children’s songs playing. endlessly. if they weren’t already suffering from mental disabilities, they would be by the time they had heard that little voice sing ‘opeye the sailor man’ a hundred times.
i also have this urge to have a dance party in the house. or maybe i’m just suffering from withdrawal symptoms because i have no speakers with which to blast out my own music. the song that has been stuck in my head recently is crazy by gnarls barkley, which i just bought from hmv before coming here. and the chorus keeps on going through my head whenever i see one of the students doing something funny they’re not supposed to be doing, and the others, including the children, laughing at them:
“I think you’re Crazy
I think you’re Crazy
I think you’re Crazy
Just like me “.
which brings us to what i have been struggling with. political correctness. how to behave. whether it is okay to laugh. how to treat these people.
treat them as you would want to be treated, but if i was treated like these people are treated i would feel patronised. so treat them with love. smile always. laugh, because if you can’t laugh, what’s the point. “don’t focus on our disabilities, focus on our abilities” says a wall somewhere.
i have a thousand and one stories to tell and things to say. and i don’t have a clue where to start. hmm. perhaps i shall start at the [chronological] beginning and then see where that takes me. the last time i emailed was friday afternoon. sooooooo… saturday morning, i woke up at about 7:45 in the morning and suddenly realised that i must have slept through my alarm clock and needed to hurry because i was supposed to be going to kampor, which is eng chin’s home town where his church was having this jumble sale, (he had gone the night before), and to do that i needed to get the bus to intan, where i was supposed to be meeting (at 8) edmund and bella (who work here, she’s from the philippines) who were driving there, also for the jumble sale. so i grabbed my bag and ran out the door without having breakfast, and ran to the main road, and luckily there was a bus just going past which stopped when i waved my arm frantically at it, and i got to intan and bella found me at the bus station and i got in their car and we drove to kampor. which took maybe an hour.
so, the jumble sale. eng chin pushed a wad of coupons into my hand (like student council event money) and refused to accept cash in return even though i wanted to contribute to whatever good cause his church was raising money for, but anyway, and then he started going on about how wonderful it was that you could buy ugly second hand clothes for five dollars, and i smiled politely and wandered around in search of food instead. and had pasta swirls and chicken bolaignaise for breakfast. and then various fried things on sticks. and a doughnutty-thing dipped in chocolate, also on a stick, and a coconut to drink. and then i saw the books, which were all tied up into bundles of two or three depending on how thick they were, which was annoying because if you wanted three there was no chance they would be in the same bundle (although admittedly they were connected, most of the ones, to other books with which they shared a vague but evident connection), and i ended up buying a couple of piles, which i haven’t started reading yet, and will probably end up leaving here when i leave because otherwise if i take them home they will sit unread on my bookshelf forever until we move house and i get rid of them but anyway. and then i bought a hot dog for lunch, and edmund and bella and i left so they could get back for something that was happening in bethany home that afternoon, while eng chin stayed in kampor.
they dropped me off in intan, and i wandered the streets. in the town square there is, bizarrely, a tower that is very clearly leaning. i am not sure why. i went up. there is not much there. a few photos scattered around the walls. silent couples dividing the perimeter of each floor into thirds. a group of kids running up and down the stairs. i felt bemused.
and then went in search of an internet cafe. eventually i found a person who spoke english and gave me directions to the only one in town. which i went to, but didn’t email from (except rebecca, to whom i sent a one-sentence reply) as i’d emailed the afternoon before and had no burning thoughts to unload upon all listening. (although i did come back to intan on sunday afternoon, by which time i did have such burning thoughts. however, it’s closed on sunday, and it’s the only one in town, and there isn’t a bookshop in town either - not that that would have helped, but i ended up spending a considerable amount of time on sunday afternoon searching before finally asking someone).
i then came back home. and exulted in having the house to myself. and wondered around, feeling free to admire everything and see exactly what was where without anyone watching at all. and then i put my clothes in the washing machine and washed them. and realised that there was nowhere to hang them up to dry because the whole washing line was covered in the bethany guys’ clothes (they’d all gone home for the weekend). so i went to the local shop (there are a couple of shops and restaurants all in a line just beside the main road about a minute’s walk from our house) and bought a massive roll of blue string. and some noodles. and some eggs. and a few cans of 100plus. and some oyster sauce. and coffee. and a line-out cable for my zen, so that i could attach it to the hifi and blast glorious music through the house. however, the hifi, which i had seen sitting proudly in the living room of their side of the house, turns out to be basically worthless. it is ancient and only plays tapes anyway, but that’s okay because it has a line-in socket and so that wouldn’t have mattered. however the speakers are ruined and and only do bass and no treble. which doesn’t make for fantastic sound quality. however, there is also a tv, and so i connected it up to that and am using it as a glorified pair of speakers. anyway, so i came back to the house and hung up the washing and blasted out glorious music. have i said that? i will probably say it again. and then i went out and had roti canai and some chicken curry for supper. and bought matches, because i had realised that there i couldn’t light our stove (there may be some in the house, but i hadn’t been able to find them). and a bottle of carlsberg, because the idea of lying on the sofa in the house eating fried noodles and reading the writings of an existentialist philosopher and listening to jazz and drinking beer appealed. and so that’s exactly what i did, the philosopher being simone de beauvoir whose [second volume of a four part] autobiography i have now finished, and the jazz being played by miles davis. i then went to bed, although because i wasn’t sure if my alcoholism would shock and terrify all and sundry i actually still have the bottle hidden in my cupboard in my room waiting to be disposed of.
then i woke up on sunday morning and fried myself eggs. english church at bethany being in the evening. and i mulled over my future. the basic thought being that suddenly, “i know what i want to do at university!” and it’s philosophy not maths. because whenever someone says,
- so what do you want to do with maths?
- um, nothing, it’s just sort of interesting and i really like the idea of having the ability to write whatever computer programs i might feel like (because then, like hiro protagonist in snow crash by neal stephenson, (brilliant first hundred pages, gets a bit bogged down in the middle, but the only book that has ever lived up to the brilliance of what i sometimes believe science fiction should be, it’s probably on michael’s bookshelf if you ever pass by and want to read it) i would then have the power to be a cyberninja!), and at school maths is the only thing that ever feels challenging and worthwhile, and people who are good at maths are generally more interesting and intelligent, which is what i aspire to be. but i cannot for the life of me imagine ever actually using maths for anything useful. possibly to get a high-paying but very dull job which i will do for as short a period of time as it is possible in which to earn enough money to buy a motorbike and a lonely planet guide to the whole world so i can travel the world and eat at cheap road-side cafes and be a free-lance writer and earn enough to live on. because fundamentally eventually atthemostbasiclevel i am a writer. i think. but being a writer is terrifying because everytime you write you have to bare your soul and so much of the time it is impossible to express exactly what you want to say. primarily because you don’t know what you want to say. for example, writing essays (english or french, whatever) always takes me foreverandever because i sit there wondering what to write, whereas maths never takes me that long because it’s always obvious what to do. except with STEP, obviously. which is difficult. and i failed to rise to the challenge sufficiently. and i have been reading that book about Fermat’s Last Theorem from time to time recently (on the toilet, where I once also read Chaos and, according to my personal statement, decided to take maths) and I keep thinking that the life of a mathematician is so tedious. maybe it’s just that number theory doesn’t appeal to me. because honestly, chaos made all things mathematical seem vital and fascinating.
aargh. um. i was sort of hoping that with coming here i would have less time to think about such matters. just put my trust in god and serve him and his people and wait patiently to see where he takes me. but maybe this is what he wants to tell me! as i see it, i have three options. i can either do nothing and end up studying maths at edinburgh. or i can withdraw from ucas and take a gap year. or i can in the very immediate future write a new personal statement like letter to cambridge explaining how i’ve suddenly realised my true vocation in life. and then they will either politely say “um, no, it’s too late, you should have said something before, we haven’t even interviewed you!”, or they will say “yes, brilliant, your subjects are perfectly suited to philosophy, and for that you don’t need to be so good at maths so three A’s should do”. hmm.
oh, miss smith sent me my cie board results. i got them yesterday b for english. sigh. i am slightly gutted. because in the mock i did brilliantly. but not overly surprised, because in the final i did less brilliantly. and in the criticism paper i truly loved the second poem and as a result wrote a truly awful essay. my goodness.
i’m not sure i’m ready to go to university. but i think if i took a gap year i’d have to take two, because if i’m pulling out from ucas now because i don’t know what i want to do, then how will i know in the mere month or whatever that i will have to decide before i have to apply all over again. but i thought i said i’d decided i did know what i want to do (philosophy) and was just having all these doubts because at the moment i’m down to do maths. um, yeah. i really don’t like the idea of applying again. i really like the idea of a gap year. there’s so much i could do! i could spend six months in france doing whatever i can find to do (because i don’t mind and there must be something) so that i will be able to speak and read and write and understand french properly. because the idea of only being fluent in one language appals me. i could get a job in a record store or for a newspaper or doing anything at all in london or in edinburgh. and rent a dingy flat. and live off economy yoghurt and rice. and spend all my savings on a motorbike.
i am really enjoying the independence of being here. i feel like the world is mine to stroll around as i please. i have finished school! here is another reason why i should pull out from ucas and take a gap year and find a job and earn some money and live in the city and experience the real world: [the reason is] because it is my only chance to be a teenager. because i’ve spent the rest of my teenage life at hebron where you can’t do aaaaaaaanything and i have been mostly patient and uncomplaining and while i am deeply grateful for the foundation it has given me, i am also so glad to have at last left all those niggling and pathetically trivial rules.
enough of the thoughts that have been waltzing across the dance floor of my mind and back to the story of my life. but in the writing of all the disconnected thoughts that are in my mind i have lost all sense of chronological order. um.
i have only managed to get up at 5 once (apart from the first day). that was yesterday. all the other days i’ve slept through the alarm clock.
it is beautiful here. palm trees along the side of the road and our house is right next to this little square (ie there’s about thirty houses around it) of grass across which you see the sun set each night. and i’m often conscious of both sunrise and sunset. and the sky goes vivid colours of indigo and light blue and orange, and the sun and the moon look like bizarrely big ping pong balls.
yesterday afternoon i played ping pong with asmee. he is the p.e. teacher and is deaf but otherwise perfectly able. however, i beat him! and then, because we were waiting for eng chin who had gone off somewhere, we had a conversation. which meant writing sentences on a piece of paper. and waiting while the other read them. because my sign language is limited to a thumbs up and a smile and a shrug.
this weekend i am going to the cameron highlands. and i will see chefoo and i don’t know what it will feel like. i think i will stay for saturday night. for RM 40, thanks to bethany’s contacts, i could actually stay at chefoo itself. otherwise i’d have to find somewhere to stay in tanah rata or brinchang. i have to decide by tomorrow. if you reply immediately telling me what you think i may be able to read your opinion before i make my decision. on saturday morning there is a group going up from here because of the camp on the 20-22nd, so i’ll get a ride in their bus.
i am being incredibly well looked after. chandra, who i think is mr jayasingh’s wife (but i wouldn’t bet my life on it because how can you tell? i also think edmund and bella are married, basically i know nothing about anyone here, i’ve only been here a week you can’t blame me); this is irrelevant but the point is she has an office and seems genuinely interested in my wellbeing. without being overbearing. i mentioned i was considering going to the cameron highlands (because i’m practically there, i may as well, and i don’t know if i could spend a whole weekend with eng chin and no-one else because he’s nice and all but we have nothing in common. at all) and she has suggested people to talk to, and talked to mr koh (who also works here, i think it’s his church that owns the site) about staying at chefoo itself. i wouldn’t actually have noticed any of this, because i like to think i am independant and capable of surviving anywhere on my own, but i had a short conversation with tamara (stress on the first syllable) who just arrived on sunday and is staying for three months and is eighteen and looks more out of place than i do (grinning relief!), and she said one of the reasons she decided to come here was (in a voice just like ruth and lydia used to speak in, it must be a particular australian accent) “the support network’s really good”.
actually, me and eng chin do have something in common. an appreciation of chinese food. when we go out together he orders and i eat and it is a very satisfactory arrangement. after the church service on sunday we went out (me and him, and ruth who is chinese but can’t speak it and works here, and the other foreign volunteers: tamara who had just got here, and janice (spelling?) and sheila – the swedish couple have left) and i was reminded how useless white people are at eating. okay, possibly just at eating chinese food. possibly.
oh, and now i have the ability to be able to play my music out loud to the rest of the world, i have had the chance to see the members of my household dance to both ‘crazy’ and various michael jackson songs. bliss.
and eng chin at the weekend brought his motorbike up from kampor. a little automatic, but a motorbike nonetheless (ie not a scooter). and i have sat on the back a couple of times while he drives around. however, sitting on the back of a motorbike sort of sucks. i want my own! and when he started offering to come back to take me to bethany this morning on the bike after taking sheila (who is in another bethany home house just next to ours), i thought “Heck No, this bike thing is going to his head”, and politely declined and said it was fine, i could bicycle.
in the last two days i have started and finished The Catcher In The Rye. It took me about fifty pages before i stopped being repulsed by the style of writing, but after that i loved it.
that’s about all. i’m not sure what i’m expecting in reply. a detailed psychological analysis? trite words of comfort? advice based on the wisdom of age’s experience? a publishing deal? other:__________________________?
i’m baa(baablacksheephaveyouanywool?)aack i’m back and i’m ready to play whatever part in this life of mine that god may choose. i have everything to tell you, and all the time in the world to tell you. it is half past midnight and i will stay up all night until i have told you every thought that i graffitied in red spray paint across the grey stone wall of my mind. although i may well decide that some of the thoughts can wait until tomorrow in which case i will send you this masterpiece of personal revelation in its incompletefirstdraft form so that you may admire it in it’s flawed spontaneity.
enough with the introductory blither. i have a life to tell you about! pick a day of the week and i will tell you about it.
-pick a day!
-(because friday’s the start of the weekend!)
-right you are. friday it is then.
on friday i was invited by beulah, who works at bethany home, to come to the sixtieth birthday party of one of the members of her tamil church. i think all the other volunteers were invited as well. (and jesus told a parable where a king invited everyone to his banquet but everyone refused so he ended up inviting all the beggars from the streets instead. this was what bella, another teacher at bethany, shared in one of the morning devotions. however, this is tangential information.) however, all the rest of them had excuses. eng chin was helping organise games, tamara was sick, lisa was in teluk intan meeting a friend, sheila had disappeared. so it was just me. and so i tagged along with beulah while she asked random people where exactly the house she was looking for was. eventually we found it. the celebration had already begun. the pastor was preaching in tamil. i stood just outside the door. and was offered a seat. and then gave beulah my seat and sat cross-legged on the floor just inside the door. “an english person!” they all exclaimed, and leapt to their feet, and bustled me into a seat at someone else’s expense, and the pastor began to translate into english as he went. all before i could say, nononoit’sokayicansitonthefloor. and i heard the second half of a passionately delivered sermon on the importance of honouring your parents. and would feel nervous whenever the pastor paused after delivering the english translation for my benefit. and i would put on an expression of thoughtful agreement and nod and mouth “Amen” to anyone lipreading. and he would continue. and when he had finished, all the women of the household had their picture taken as they put a slice of cake into the [sixtyyearold] birthday boy’s mouth. and then we ate! and i could do nothing but eat because my tamil is limited to ‘nandri’ (although when i walked into the shop by our house and bought milk and then said ‘nandri’ because the shopkeeper was indian, he was stunned at my linguistic ability) and so i was not able to have a very deep conversation. i was however able to serve myself rice and chicken and chappathi and more chicken (veryvery nice, spicy and flavoursome) and these things the name of which i can’t remember but which looked like what you would get if you tried to make a frame for a poori out of bee hoon noodles. and then beulah said it was time time to go, and i had a brief conversation with the pastor in which he extolled the virtues of honouring your parents, and i was wondering whether i should continue to nod mutely or try and make intelligent response, but just as i was about to point out that jesus had said that if anyone wanted to follow him they must hate their father and their mother, i was dragged away. probably a good thing. i don’t mean to be rude, just thoughtprovoking.
after friday, saturday. saturday! my voyage of rediscovery to the mountains of my youth. a journey back in time. there was a group going up from bethany for the day, so i got a lift in their bus at seven in the morning, and they dropped me just outside brinchang. which is the tiny little town nearest to chefoo. i came walking in along the road not knowing what to expect. not quite remembering anything. then suddenly i passed the fire station. on my left. i visited this place! and went down the fireman’s pole. and heard the fireman’s speech about how not to throw water on an electric fire. and went for a ride in the fire engine. (which is what all kids do in primary school at their local fire station, right?) and the firemen were playing sepak takraw, which is that volleyball game they play with their feet and a small rattan ball. and it was just like it used to be! and i carried on walking, and suddenly recognised everything. everything! there was synathambi’s, where we used to buy little hotwheels cars at the weekend. and there was parkland’s hotel, where you might go for ice cream as a treat. and where was shal’s curry house, where we used to have roti canai for breakfast on saturdays, with sticky milk, and banana roti, and strawberry jam roti. but it was gone, and he had said he was leaving to australia when i came back for the chefoo reunion at the end of std 8 when chefoo closed. sigh, time passes. and i traipsed along a few random back alleys until i rediscovered the way we used to go. the rosa pasadena just There, and we would walk from Here to There. i sort of felt that i was supposed to cry. the sudden return to a place that was such an integral part of my life, that i hadn’t thought about for so long, without any of the people who had made it what it was. i blinked a few times, wondering if i was going to burst into tears. i didn’t, so i carried on walking. over this river, Here, and across this road Here. and Look!, a sign saying Chefoo! i have about five different photos of signs saying Chefoo. it always felt strange and incongruous. in the real world!, because chefoo is somewhere mystical and mythical and it doesn’t exist anymore. walked past the place with the land slide and the broken down cars. same smell of mud and oil. different cars. same state of complete disrepair. how many times have i walked along that road? however, that question was less in my thoughts than “how should i enter chefoo?”. i didn’t want to go through the front gate. i wanted to drop out of the sky and land in the middle of the football pitch (which is not rectangular because the road curves around and cuts off one of the corners, and also you can play up the hill on one side instead of it going out). i wanted to explore all the jungle paths. i wanted to play commandoes. i remembered the path just before the gate to K[inabalu]K[limbing]K[orner]. but the path was no longer a path, and so i waded through dense vegetation and hanging vines and devil plants in the direction i wanted. and KKK was gone. no sign that it had ever been there. not a single plank, not a piece of corrugated iron. ah, well. through the trees i could see the adventure playground. i tumbled out onto the grass. those swings, There, those pipes that no-one ever played in, There, the swimming pool, There. Look!, the football pitch! people playing on it. grrr, how dare they play on My football pitch with no idea of what chefoo was and is and will be forever to those who were there but will never be again to those who were not. i sat on a swing and considered my next course of action. two dogs came and barked at me. new dogs. they got bored and went elsewhere. a bell rang for lunch. the people disappeared. the school was mine. i stepped across the stream to a swimming pool. emerging from the wrong side of an Out Of Bounds sign. the swimming pool was now a fish pond. i walked up the steps towards the back of kinabalu, past the faded chefoo sign which faith ayling had painted before i ever went to chefoo. to the front of the school. when i first visited with my dad, the first person we met was mr large, Here. the basketball hoops were now full-sized, instead of the tiny kids’ ones we used to have. when i came back for the reunion i tried to slam dunk and broke one of them. the classrooms were strange and deserted. the steps up to the flying fox had collapsed. the tennis court was just like it used to be. the football goalposts looked ancient and decrepit. and the little cottages where the principal and the teachers used to stay seemed beautiful. and i resolved to buy the whole place when i become a millionaire. and people started to reemerge from lunch, and so i hid behind a building and thought “they shall not find me!” and i was going to go around the back up to erau dorm, but there was a tree blocking the way. so i crept under it. and then realised that i could still not get anywhere without coming out from my hiding place. there were people who would see me if i went a step further! i considered climbing along the roof. i pulled myself up, but realised they would be able to see me there too. i stood hidden by the corner, considering my next course of action. finally i stepped out boldly, hoping i wouldn’t be noticed. and i wasn’t. so i went up the steps to where erau dorm used to be. and to where the laundry used to be. and then up into the jungle, up towards primaeval, which i used to spell ‘prime evil’ whenever i wrote home about it, it being a clearing in the jungle where we would have sword fights and make huts and everything and me not having been told how to spell it. and there’s this strawberry farm that you can see from there, and once we shouted random phrases in malay (“kereta bomba!”, “selamat malam!”) and they gave us strawberries for it. and i had seen everything, and everything was Alright!, and i felt like peter pan coming back to neverland. and i felt like shouting. and i wondered about shouting “i’m back”, and the pretentiousness of it was too much for me, and i started laughing. and i laughed at the beauty of my life, and i laughed at the sound of my laugh, and i laughed with joy at the alrightness of everything. i laughed like donnie darko at the end of donnie darko. “when the world comes to an end, I can breathe a sigh of relief, because there will be so much to look forward to” except in a more positive and beautiful way. and as i walked down the hill, my stomach started desperately twisting and turning in strange directions and i hurried to the toilet and ended up sitting there reading jeremiah 29. and was filled with joy and ready to face the world. with conversation filled with grace and seasoned with salt, so that i might know how to answer everyone.
and i walked around, and the people who had been playing football were outside again. and they asked me, “are you one of us”. and i said, “no, i am a tourist”. and they said, “we’re going to a tea plantation, do you want to come?”. and i said “okay”. and they turned out to be a group of christians between 15 and 25 from the us and the uk, and singapore and malaysia, and “have you heard of the navigators?”, and they were really nice, and i followed them around for the afternoon.
and there is more to tell, but i am going to sleep now.
‘tis terrifying, watching the sun rise when you know you are to be hanged once it is full in the sky. or at least that is what this feels like, knowing that my results are going to come out today, not knowing exactly when, knowing i haven’t managed the conditions i need, not knowing whether i might be accepted anyway. i have resolved to go wherever god takes me. so if i don’t get into cambridge, i will go to edinburgh. and sit on my own in the highest room of the tallest tower of edinburgh castle and sing beatles songs to myself. “yesterday, all my troubles seemed so faraway…” but edinburgh is beautiful and i really really like the idea of going there! at yf camp chad asked what i wanted to do with my life, and i said i wanted to study maths at cambridge and run in the olympics. and like sarah sitting in a tent in the desert, i laugh to myself at the idea of this, and tell myself that such things are impossible. what is going to happen in my life? i don’t know. maybe i will go to edinburgh and do fantastically in the maths course i have applied for and then do a post-grad at cambridge. maybe i will go to edinburgh and end up changing courses and being terribly glad for the places my life took me. everything will be alright.
i have just been called away by my dad to lug someone’s suitcases up the stairs “for storage”. massively heavy. they must be smuggling lead. and the person came in and said, “oh, hi, have you been to the uk?, you’re going to cambridge right?”, and i said “hi, no, i don’t know” and left before the intricacies of the situation could be explained.
i am in the middle of telling you the story of my adventurous life. i shall continue. saturday afternoon. “we’re going to a tea plantation, do you want to come?” and i stood in the sandpit, now overgrown with grass, by the paterson playground by the chain ladder. and watched as suddenly people started rolling down the side.
- come on, roll down!
- head over heels?
- no, on my side.
thus went the first hill-roller. the second went head first. as did the third. i just shrugged and walked down. and started talking to whoever was beside me. it changed haphazardly as we walked. “hi//where are you from//what are you doing here//so what are you going to do at uni”, and the only question that i could answer in a simple and uncomplicated way was the “hi”. but unphased by the confusion that my life is wrapped in (“hi//i was born in the philippines, live in singapore, went to school in india, am british//i’m just visiting chefoo for the weekend, i used to go to school here, i’m just in malaysia for two weeks…//i have offers from cambridge and edinburgh to do maths but am completely unsure about whether i actually want to do maths and whether i’m going to meet the conditions, and what i should do”), i answered whoever was asking, and they listened and tried to give sound christian advice and sympathetic listening ears. which was probably exactly what i needed.
we did not, however, go to a tea plantation. instead we went to cactus valley. i have been there before, many many years ago. they sell cacti. many different varieties of cacti. (cacti not cactuses, syllabuses not syllabi???, what did we conclude about syllables?) and then after everyone had admired all the spikèd plants, we continued on our way. where were we going? i did not know. we walked along a road. we got a lift in a car. we ended up at a strawberry farm in the middle of nowhere. strawberries with cream - RM 7. and very much worth the expenditure. sweet and red and juicy and creamy and white and strawberries and cream and yyyhmmmhmm.
i had dinner with them, and then i went to the night market on my own. and these days you get sooo many foreign tourists in the cameron highlands! when i was there i saw practically not a single foreigner who wasn’t a chefusian. i bought seven cameron highlands t-shirts, six for the guys in the bethany house i was staying at, and one for me. “cameron highlands international”, which sums up my childhood. sort of.
the next morning i went out to eat roti breakfast as close to where shal’s used to be as possible. and they did not do nearly as exciting a variety of roti. so i had egg roti and a couple of plain roti. and i tried to find a cybercafé, because having discussed the matter with all and sundry i had the feeling that i should write to cambridge expressing my wish to study philosophy rather than maths, and accept the consequences. but i couldn’t find one that was open. instead i found a bus going to tanah rata (brinchang being more of a village, tanah rata being more the town, with more tourists, but a few kilometres from chefoo) and so i got on. asked about buses to teluk intan, as i would have to be leaving in the afternoon. there wasn’t a direct bus, i would have to go through tapah. buses every hour. okay, no problem. internet café wouldn’t be open until two. decided that i would come back for two so that i could write whatever i needed to cambridge and whoever, and still have plenty of time to get back to intan. walked back to brinchang. met a man on the way who asked me if i could help him find jungle walk 4.
- excuse me, maybe you could help me… i like to go for a little walk in ze mornings
- do you know where jungle walk 4 is? could you explain this tourist map to me?
- um, no; and um, no.
- ah well, thankyou.
and as he walked away i wished him bonne chance, and he replied in french. and i felt like someone who has travelled the world hundreds of time and is capable of talking fluently to whoever he meets.
by the time i’d walked a slightly roundabout route to brinchang, so i could pass strawberry park and the omf bungalow, and the overgrown shortcut from the bungalow to chefoo i had decided to climb mount brinchang. the highest point of the cameron highlands. jungle walk 1. and through the jungle i climbed. real lush green tropical vegetation! beautiful blue skies. i prefer the camerons to the nilgiris. but do i have to compare everything? can i not just accept everything for what it is? maybe.
i got to the top of gunung brinchang and walked down by the road, not wanting to go down the same path, and not having a clue how long the road was. not until i saw a sign that informed me it was ten kilometres to brinchang, the town. however, as i was walking a man in an army beret on a motorcycle pulled up beside me. as i considered which of my crimes were worthy of courtmartial, he told me to get on. and so i rode through tea hills on the back of his motorcycle. expecting him to take me all the way into brinchang. he dropped me off beside a butterfly farm. jesus said that if a soldier asks you to carry his pack for a mile, you should take it for two. this wasn’t quite the same situation, so i got out and bought a ticket for the butterfly farm. where i have also been before, in the distant past. (i have done Everything there is to do in the camerons!) and i admired the butterflies, and the scorpions, and the snakes, and everything, and then i came out and walked back to brinchang. and suddenly a bus pulled up beside me and a cacophany of voices called my name so i got inside, and it was the group staying at chefoo who had just been to a tea plantation. i had lunch with them.
and then got packed and paid and ready to leave, and walked past them sitting in a circle sharing thoughts, and they said “oh so you’re going now”, and i said “yes”, and they said “if you stand in the middle of the circle you can have the biggest group hug you’ve ever had” and i didn’t do anything, and they said “we’re serious”, so i stood in the middle and they sort of scrummed around me. it was quite strange. and then they said, do you want to share anything with us, and so i strung a few sentences together, and concluded with verses from jeremiah 29. that being on my mind.
and then i left. walking to tanah rata. i passed all souls church, where we used to go to church. it was a slightly roundabout route, and just before i got into tanah rata a bus drew up beside me and voices shouted my name and so i stood inside and appreciated that no farewell is permanent and then wished them goodbye again and headed towards an internet cafe. and found my dad online. who, after some research, had discovered that this year cambridge’s philosophy department has specifically told the cambridge colleges that they have too many philosophy applications and so cannot go letting in extra people. and so instead of rushing off my planned letter to cambridge about my desire to change courses, i chatted to my dad for an hour and decided to wait and see what happens.
by the time i got to the bus station it was five. next bus to tapah, fivethirty. last bus from tapah to teluk intan, six. uh-oh. the lady selling the tickets said i might possibly be able to get a bus to intan if i went to ipoh instead of tapah. which is further, but seemed my only option. i got on the bus and left. and then realised that i was screwed, i would end up in ipoh with nowhere to stay for the night. as i arrived in ipoh, ‘like a rolling stone’ by bob dylan was playing on my zen. “so how does it feel//to be on your home//a complete unknown//with no direction home”. and i felt like i’d just done something really stupid and could only smile ironically at myself. sort of like the time i hit that guy over the head with a hockey stick at the muna conference in delhi. thinking to myself, “aargh, what the heck did i just do?, What the Heck did just Do!”. at last i am a real traveller, i thought to myself.
“ i will sleep on a street corner somewhere, like a proper hobo.
i shall not take a taxi to teluk intan, that would be cheating.
i don’t actually have enough money to afford to take a taxi and get back to singapore.
i shall find the bus station i have to leave from in the morning.
i don’t have a clue where i am.
i will give up.”
a taxi asked me if i wanted a ride anywhere, and i said yes, and asked to go to this hotel mentioned in the rough guide to malaysia, which luckily i had as i’d borrowed it from bethany, which said it was ‘mid-range’ (but why don’t they give actual prices!) and right next to the local bus station, from which i could get a bus to intan. i got to the hotel, right above the train station. and saw the price and thought, “aarrgh! i can’t afford that!”. but was tired and lost and went up to reception anyway.
- i’d like a room.
- standard or deluxe?
- how much are they?
- (he told me)
- (he started filling in forms)
- no, deluxe.
- okay, here’s your key.
i went to the room. a double bed and a single bed. a tv in the corner. an oppresive smell of stagnant musty perfume. dim lighting. i sat on the bed and wondered about curling up and going to sleep and hoping everything would be alright in the morning. i decided i wouldn’t be able to sleep with the smell. i stopped to wonder how much money i actually had. “aargh! i have hardly anything!” and i still needed to get back to teluk intan, and pay bethany home for staying there, and buy a bus ticket back to singapore. i picked up my bags, went out the room, gave the key back to reception, asked reception for my money back, explaining my dire situation. he looked slightly disappointed (but in the sort of sly and slimy manner of a man with slickly combed thinning hair, who works at night in a slightly decrepit hotel), but gave the money back. “i’d love to stay, but i just can’t afford it”, i lied.
and then went outside. relief! i had enough money to eventually get back home, now. for the sake of that i could be a hobo for the night. i tried to lie down on the grass behind a hedge in the [nicely maintained] garden, and get to sleep there. after lying there for an hour being bitten by ants, i gave up. i went to sit on the steps. a man came up to me and started asking me various questions. i answered politely, honestly, unafraid, but not quite sure what he was doing there. he warned me that men might come and ask me for a massage and invite me to their rooms. “do you like massage?” i couldn’t tell if he was making a proposition, or whether he was there for kinky and disturbing reasons, or whether he was just a righteous man out for a walk at night because he couldn’t get to sleep. the latter seems unlikely. he asked me if i liked teh tarik. i said, yes. he asked me if i wanted some. he said he’d pay. i said okay. he said we’d go to a restaurant in his car. i said no. i wasn’t sure if i was going to be kidnapped, but didn’t see quite what i could do. i said we could walk. he said he’d take the car while i walked. i said okay. and got to the restaurant and he ordered us each teh tarik and roti canai. i watched to make sure he wasn’t about to spike my drink. we made conversation about my study plans and his work. it was better than sitting alone on the steps of the garden of a railway station. actually i quite enjoyed it. i’m a real traveller! i was just slightly nervous something terrible might suddenly happen. he asked, on my behalf, when the first bus to teluk intan was. seven o’clock. five hours to wait. we finished our food and drink, and he left me. i dozed off for a couple of hours. and woke up about five, and sat there for a while, and then made my way to the bus station, and sat there for a while, and then bought a bus ticket, and sat there for a while, and then departed to teluk intan. i had survived! i was only slightly worried that eng chin, who had been expecting me to come back on sunday night, would have got bethany to send out search parties across malaysia for me. i got back and no such thing had happened. had he even thought about where i was? i don’t know. all’s well that ends well.
i’ve been writing this email intermittently all day. i am sick of writing. i can tell you other things if you like. i may never do so. soonish my results will be made apparent to me, and i will have other things to talk about. will you be online tonight? hmm.
okay, breaking news. i have a’s for further maths and french. i don’t know what i have for gs, which might well not be an a, because i got utterly disillusioned with the uselessness of general studies in the middle of the exam, but that doesn’t really matter. anyway, the school didn’t mention it. for my step papers, i have “no result”. which means that there is no evidence of my ever having done them. the school has written to the exam board to say i did do them. i have written to cambridge an email composed by my dad to ask what on earth is going on. i feel light and free, and yippee!, i might not have passed my step papers but at least i haven’t failed them. what on earth will happen? i have utterly no idea. can they let me in without proof that i can indeed do difficult mathematics. can they reject me without proof that i can’t? i have no idea. “all this was done so that i would not be able to boast of my own strength”. god is in control. lalalala!
it’s my life, it’s now or never, i ain’t gonna live forever. i just wanna live while i’m alive.
i want to travel from singapore to england by train. it is possible to take a train from singapore, up through malaysia, through thailand, into laos. i think you may have to then do part of the journey by bus. then into china, and from china to moscow, either through mongolia or manchuria. trans-siberian railway! and then through eastern europe into the eu. maybe i would stop in paris and get a job. i got an a in french, i am qualified to be a make-believe frenchman! perhaps.
anyway, this turn of events has not done much for my parents’ peace of mind i don’t think. but i think it’s quite brilliant.
further news, churchill college camridge have now emailed me to say that they have discovered the result of my STEP II. i got a 2. they say they should be able to find the result for STEP III by next week. but as i need a 1 and a 2 to get in, and cambridge specifically says that anyone with less than a 1 and a 3 or a 2 and a 2 should not be let in because they will not be able to handle the course, and as i did far far worse in step III than step II, there is no chance of me being offered a place. i’m fairly certain i will have got a U in step III.
just as i was thinking how amusing it would be to get in for maths at cambridge with neither an interview, nor step results. and i would say “i am here by god’s grace!”. and now my flight to england is booked and i shall almost utterly certainly be going to edinburgh. hmm. what is god doing with me!
he appears to have carefully manipulated me into going to edinburgh. because i had phoned churchill and they said they didn’t know what was happening, and the admissions person would be gone until tuesday. but i had to decide about the flight (ie whether or not to suddenly drop out and take a gap year) before that. so i decided. and if i hadn’t already decided and now suddenly had to decide i would probably impulsively say, “ach, leave it all, let me go to france and be a babysitter for a year, and secretly paint graffiti on the eiffel tower on my days off”. but i will still trust Him.
but if i only knew exactly what was happening i could accept it and start persuading myself that whatever is happening is the best possible thing that could happen, because of this and that and this and that. whereas this way i must accept it on faith without rationalisation. peut-être, that is the point.
anyway, just so you know.
my step III result has emerged! i have got a 2, somehow. and in spite of not quite meeting the conditions of my offer, churchill have given me a place!!!
watch me as i read the email telling me this, and my heart starts beating faster at the sight of the word “acceptance”, before my brain has caught up and realised what is happening. watch me as i run to my parents sleeping in their bed to wake them up. watch my mother and father, as they take credit for my inherited intelligence, or good fortune, or part in God’s plan, or whatever it is. watch me turn the volume up so that i can have art brut soundtrack this moment of my life with their natural enthusiasm. watch me as i remember that i don’t actually know how to do cartwheels. watch me as i drop to my knees and repeat happily shell-shocked sentences to the god in heaven who has taken his time arranging the details of the future of my life, but has finally let me in on the next part of what’s happening. watch me as i sit and want to email everyone in the world with an email address to tell them that somehow i got in, and end up writing to you first.
haha! yippee! hallelujah! praise the lord!
(pause while my parents decide that they are unable to go back to sleep and discuss random details with me).
“and in this moment i am happy, i’m happeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeyeah”