Saturday, September 29, 2007

Fighting for Burma

Sitting on the steps leading to Wheeler Hall, waiting for our Political Science class to begin, Min Zin started telling me the story of how he had spent most of his teenaged years on the run from the Burmese junta. From age 14 onwards, he had hidden in temples and underneath floor boards in the homes of sympathetic villagers, keeping still for hours on end, afraid not only for his own personal safety, but for the fate of his protectors, who had nothing much to begin with, but were putting all that they had at stake for a belief.

He was a student who turned to activism and journalism (The Irrawaddy) when his world came crashing down with the arrest of his older siblings in the 1988 crackdown on Burmese university undergrads. He was already in his late 20s when we spent nine months trudging from lecture hall to lecture hall in 2001/02. Yet, being older and having had his formal education prematurely halted had not dimmed his desire for learning.

Since then, Min Zin's story has become fairly well known. He continues to work as a journalist for Radio Free Asia, and when I see the shocking images of monks and ordinary Burmese being gunned down by soldiers, I think of Min Zin feverishly trying to get the story out to a world already weary of war, destruction and killing.

Picture credit: Copyright USIP

Monday, September 24, 2007

Going crabbin'

A scene from one of the many small wooden bridges on Pulau Ketam.

One of our favourite excursions is a day trip to a fishing island just off Port Klang, about 40 km west of Kuala Lumpur. Pulau Ketam, or Crab Island, is home to a community that has lived off the sea for over a hundred years, and continues to do so. Life seems slower and one catches a glimpse of 1950s Malaysia as one strolls through the homes built on stilts.

According to an “official” website, a “long time ago” Pulau Ketam was a deserted island full of mangrove swamps, before three fishermen, who went crabbing on the island, found the day-long journey back to the mainland too taxing, and built homes on the island, sometime in the mid-19th century.

Thankfully, nowadays it only takes about 30 minutes to get there from the mainland jetty, using a speedboat (above). This is a long craft usually packed with locals bringing provisions from or catch to the mainland. The bustle inside the enclosed boat is heightened by the Mandarin or Hokkien karaoke blaring away from the front. Plonk yourself on the wrong seat – under an aircon vent – and you’ll be blasted with an Arctic chill. Both the karaoke volume and the air-conditioning seemed stuck on Maximum!

On a trip to Pulau Ketam in the 1990s, the journey to the island took well over an hour, on an open wooden boat that chugged along serenely. We could then sit on benches at the back, hang out with the pilot, or perch ourselves at the bow, feeling the breeze on our faces and taking in the picturesque sea and mangrove swamp views. This time, we were cooped inside, and could only look out through small round windows that were either frosted, scratched or dirty. The price of progress! Thankfully, once the boat slowed down and was hopping from jetty to jetty along the island, the boatmen opened the doors, and claustrophobic locals and eager tourists crammed the small openings to breathe in fresh air or to take pictures.

The houses on Pulau Ketam are built close together, and are connected by a warren of raised, narrow wooden (and, increasingly, cement) paths, on which pedestrians, bicycles and motorbikes jostle for space. The population is mainly Chinese Malaysians, although there are a growing number of Indonesians working alongside the local fishermen.

Right off the jetty is the main town, with its administrative offices, market, food stalls, homestays, tourist offices and places of worship (above, the Hock Leng Keng temple). The social life of the Chinese inhabitants revolve around the temples, and in this tightly knit community, the temples sit cheek by jowl (below) with the congregation they serve.

At the time of our visit, the temple folks were busily preparing for a big Hungry Ghost celebration. It wasn’t just the two-legged creatures who were enjoying the whole fuss – the temple’s resident tortoises were in on the act as well…

However, it is the eight-legged delicacy, which gives its name to the island, that is often the highlight of any trip to Pulau Ketam. One cannot wander by the restaurants without being drawn to a colourful pail containing freshly caught crabs.


... and after! Yummmmmm.

Our meal for the four of us that day, at the restaurant just next to the jetty, also included…

… bamboo clams (above), home-made fish ball soup (below; we had two orders!!) stir-fried kangkong (water spinach), and curried large prawns.

The ceiling fans and ice-cold beer kept us cool as we ate our lunch on the large restaurant verandah. The meal finished, we sat back and took in the panoramic vista.

Another of Ketam’s well-known products is dried shrimp, small in size but packing a wallop in flavours, and a favourite of Malaysian cooks. All the stores in the town sell them (below right)…

… but if one is more adventurous, one can walk through the village and stop by any fisherman’s home and buy it off him. However, on that particular day, there were no dried shrimp in view, and we walked a fair bit before finally spotting some laid out and baking under the sun. See the many decks below jutting out from the homes? They’re all usually filled with sun-tanning shrimp, but on that day, only one deck was golden hued.

We walked towards the deck for a closer look.

A lady came out from the nearby house and explained to us that the fishermen were not having much success catching shrimp those past few weeks. (Was it because of the Hungry Ghost month, we silently thought?)

She grumbled something about the unpredictably of depending on the sea for one’s livelihood, while giving us a quick socio-historical slice of the island community. As for the shrimp, well, her husband was having better luck than most; he and his crew had left that morning at around 2 am and had returned just after lunch. They had cleaned and cooked the shrimp and had just laid them out in the sun, so that day’s catch was not quite ready for the market yet.

Instead, she arranged to have her neighbour’s previous day’s catch brought out and, without much persuasion, we took a good chunk home. It doesn’t get fresher than this!