I wake up alone for the first time in over a week, in the attic room that Robert kindly moved me to and charged me less for when I explained my mistake on dates. I sleep a long time and feel a bit empty. This will be a long day of just getting ready to leave.
Robert makes a tea for me and gets me a slice of sticky pink/white coconut cake, and I chat with him and his friend Mr Tan about the welfare state and cost of living.
I stroll to the internet cafe and print my boarding pass, then in the heat, make it to Simple Life (this time open) for a big lunch, which is similar to the one with Cyrus except for my main dish I have a medly of asian mushrooms, steamed luffa (not sure what this veg is) and beancurd sheet. i also have an apple/carrot/ginger/honey smoothie.
At the fountain there is a newly wed couple both in white having their photo taken. In fact everyone on this little square seems to be armed with some kind of camera, all of these being pointed at every conceivable view there.
I cross the bridge and spend a pleasant 15 minutes discussing Chinese birth signs and my personality type with the 2 ladies working there. One has a daughter married and living in Essex. I am told that my match should be a rabbit, horse or pig and that in times gone by when Chinese customs didn’t allow dating, a future spouse would be chosen according to their year of birth and their compatibility. These days there is more flexibility and people are allowed to adapt themselves and compromise to make themselves more suitable. That’s good news. Cyrus is a snake….
I question the description of my character, which funnily seems quite accurate. I’m told that I must be talented as I’m a teacher. That’s an interesting complement. I had already been told by the novice at Vientiane that I’m a good teacher and that I changed his life. Eyrique had said that he appreciated my conversation, and later when I say goodbye to Robert he tells me that I’m a great man and he has learnt a lot from me. Does this mean something? That I’m a a natural teacher? It’s given me food for thought.
I have one more cendol in the same place and at the same table, but no Cyrus. I find Robert watching the blacksmith hammering knife blades and we talk about the individuality of each blade. We have our photo taken together, looking like presidents posing at a summit meeting. Our goodbye is sincere and heartfelt.
The taxi to the bus station is a good idea (perversely costing more than a bus to KL), and gives me time to wander and spend my remaining ringett on some slices of fried tempeh and some sweet buns. I also bump into the Shropshire couple, which is nice, as it allows me to say goodbye.
It is raining a little as the bus pulls out and Cyrus and I speak, both missing each other. we speak again just as I enter Johor, then as I leave Malaysia and am on the Causeway. Our connection is cut as soon as I’m in Singapore. Separation becomes total…..
The bus drops me at City Plaza and from there I get the MRT, which is a block away, and this takes me all the way to the airport. Easy. It’s a big airport and I need to get a sky train to the right terminal. Having spent all my ringett, I then spend most of my remaining Singaporean Dollars on some duty free mango vodka (well, it’s kind of Asian). Back to reality with an email from UK about my video job with ALA. The brief has been radically changed without consultation and I need to give it some deep thought..
The flight on the Airbus (360 tons fully laden with 800 passengers) lasts 13.5 hours and is a bit arduous. Sleep isn’t easy, the movie choice is poor, and I give up on Cowboys and Aliens), though the CD selection does surprisingly contain Nils Peeter Moelvar. The food is stodgy and not well cooked.
I have a stopover at Frankfurt. It’s dawn. Asia and Cyrus feel far away. I feel a bit empty, a longing for belonging, and not feeling I belong back in UK. USA Today’s cover story is about the decline in deaths from lightning strikes. (compare 26 in 2011 with 432 in 1942). According to the paper I can expect 5 degrees in London. I have been used to 25-30 recently…..
The connecting flight is short and takes us over a wind farm before we cross the east coast of England and the rough geometric street patterns of villages and towns. And there is London as we circle waiting to land; the clear sky reveals a frosty early morning city. All the landmarks are visible, the soaring Shard, the dominant shape of the London Eye, Emirates stadium, Kew hothouse. I can even see troops of khaki clad recruits doing their morning jumps and exercises on the fields of Sandhurst.
It’s morning, but I feel I’ve lost a day. How can the train prices be this high? £24 from Victoria to Brighton. I could travel from Singapore to Bangkok for that price. By the time I get home its been 27 hours since I left Melaka.
What to do now?
This was to have been my last day, but actually it was just my last day with Cyrus. It’s a slow day with breakfast and cendol and souvenir hunting. We don’t buy anything beyond a massage comb which we try out later, leaving red lines on our backs! We planned to have lunch at Simple Life again, and excitedly walk the 20 minutes there only to find it closed….
I remember seeing an ad for a similar place nearby, but after a frustrating walk up and down the main drag looking for Melaka Raya 8, and discovering no numbering system in evidence, ask for help in a hotel, who even give me a map. It’s still no good, but we do find a pretty standard Chinese veggie buffet place…which is fine.
We have an emotional hour or so together before Cyrus’s departure. I go with him on the local bus to Melaka Sentral as I also need to buy my new ticket to Singapore. The bus takes us out of town in the wrong direction, turns around, goes out the other way then heads to the station, all in all taking around 45 minutes, for a journey I do in a taxi in 10 minutes the next day. The bus is crowded and most of the seats are broken.
Our goodbyes are made and we are both on our own again.
On getting back into town I wander around at dusk and visit the area of town near Discovery.
There is a small Chinese market where I have a cold drink, then hunt down an Indian restaurant. I find a very local one which is closing soon. No tourists inside, rough but friendly and the matriarch with her grey/blonde hair and red-dotted forehead rolling balls of sweetmeat. I want a masala dhosa, and to my joy they have this, and it turns out to be the best I’ve ever had with lashings of dhal for dipping. It costs about 30p!!!!! I spend a couple of hours updating my blog, then stroll back to China town.
I sit up with Robert and some other local hotel workers talking about racism, Top Gear and Mind Your Language. Amazing the TV shows they will watch here.
The complimentary breakfast at the cafe over the road is not inspiring. The staff are unfriendly and the service a bit rude. The cafe is soulless and the food mean: a miniscule sliver of melon, barely enough jam or butter for my toast, which is more like heated bread turned cold. The eggs are ok, but the next day I decide that the “local” breakfast of noodles might be a better bet (I was wrong!).
We rent some bikes which are a bit heavy to ride and are certainly not made for tackling any kind of gradient.
Our exploration of the outer lying areas of the city is quickly aborted as the busy roads with their open drainage ditches (a scary potential hazard) and the pushy drivers make the experience quite unrelaxing. We turn back to the water front and Cyrus takes me for a mille crepe cake, which is delicious, so too is the mango and basil seed smoothie. We cycle along the pedestrianised zone between the mall that looks like a mosque with its Islamic motifs and windows, and St Paul’s hill. The foot of the hill is ringed with museums, including a scruffy derelict “museum of enduring beauty”, and a fenced off display of planes and trains. The house where Independence was proclaimed can be found here, with its adjacent armoured vehicles from the state of emergency, and a Chevrolet limousine, along with the remains of the Dutch fortress. We climb the steps with the other tourists to the ruined shell of St Paul’s church. There are some buskers and a posse of Korean women wearing sun visors. We rest in the sun, which unexpectedly results in a little burning for both of us.
The trishaws come and go. A couple jump out of one to take a series of photos of each other posing before the ruined gateway, then jump back in and off they go. I don’t think they even looked at where they had been.
We return to the more sedate streets of the Chinese quarter where I buy a box of traditional pineapple tarts (look more like minature sausage rolls).
We take lunch/dinner at the gourmet veg restaurant we chanced upon on our bike ride over on Melaka Plaza. It looks expensive but is amazing value. The food is organic, unprocessed and without MSG etc. We both have set meals: mine a vege hotpot containing bitter gourd, okra and tofu, a soup with bamboo shoots, sesame/bean salad, mixed brown and wild rice…..it is spectacularly good, and Cyrus rates his mock fish curry too. A successful and satisfying meal.
It is dusk as we cycle over the bridge where hundreds of shrieking little birds are settling down to roost. We zip along the water front that I had walked the night before. The city is strangely reminiscent of Bristol: a floating harbour, a big sailing ship (the museum), modern apartment developments by the water, brightly lit bars.
After returning the bikes we take a rest then later walk the waterfront and find a row of houses with some great street art depicting the history of the city.
We toy with drinking at the reggae bar, which we guess has gay clientele, and Cyrus thinks I’m being eyed up as we pass. Instead we go back to Discovery Guesthouse, where we rented the bikes and have a jug of beer. The place is quite bohemian and has a lazy colonial feel to it.
A more restrained Chinese buffet breakfast, then Cyrus and I go to Puda Central to get tickets to Melaka. But, we discover that it’s the wrong station and I need to get the sky train to the edge of town from Plaza Rakyat. Cyrus comes part of the way then gets off to head back to Ampang. I get the bus to Melaka which takes around 2 hours and costs less than £2. Cyrus will catch a later bus.
First impressions: Melaka Sentral is a confusing sprawling bus station-cum-shopping mall and it’s not clear where anything is. I manage to book my onward ticket to Singapore after carefully checking the dates and confirming with Cyrus. This all turns out to be flawed as 2 days later when I’m mentally set for leaving and picking through my folder of documents looking for Cyrus’s id card, I discover that my dates are wrong and that I’m leaving a day later. This messes up my budget a little and necessitates some more cash withdrawals and another ticket (which fortunately only costs £4 anyway). Bus 17 into town doesn’t materialize but the tourist panorama bus is going that way anyway and I get a ride for 1 ringett. I get off at the Stadhuys, which is the red Dutch townhall building, positioned on a pretty little square containing a fountain and a lot of trishaws, the yellow-shirted drivers accosting new arrivals and offering a tour of the sights on their spectacularly decorated vehicles: each is individually and artistically wrapped with flowers and ribbons. Some even have (too) loud sound systems playing anything from techno to thrash. This is a serious bone of contention for local residents, as I find out from the ladies working in the charm shop I go to on my last day.
I cross to the little roundabout with its display of animal statues then over a small bridge which takes me over a small canal to the bottom of Jonker Street with its colonial and Chinese shop houses which tastefully house antique and souvenir shops, eateries and local food stores. I follow the canal then turn up a little street which contains numerous guesthouses and hostels. After a couple of ups and downs of this and 2 adjacent streets and having looked at 3 or 4 rooms I settle on a place called Harmony Lodge which a Glaswegian guest in reception raves about. He then goes on to compare the cities he has been to then switches to telling me about his success in finding prostitutes in all places bar Melaka. When he finds out I’m gay he even wants to recommend a place in Thailand to me…I just let him talk. This guesthouse does actually turn out to be a good find. Low key, well located with very friendly welcoming staff and cool clean rooms in an old heritage wooden floored building. Opposite the 2 surviving blacksmith shops, on this “Blacksmith Street”.
Cyrus calls: his interview has been postponed and he will be here soon. Actually he is slow to get here and messes up on the town bus, meaning he has to walk a little way into the town. When he has settled we explore the little streets in China town: lantern-strewn streets with mosques, temples, a whole range of local speciality food places. Cyrus takes me for a Cendol: a Malaysian dessert made from saved ice and fresh fruit syrups, often with beans or coloured glute strands added. The whole thing on melting ressembling a delicious chilled fruit soup.
Cyrus has a durian cendol. Durian being very big in Melaka, and being one of the smells on these streets. I have a taster, but in spite of my love for fruits, don’t really take to it. The pastries filled with durian we have the next day leave a sweet cheese and onion-like aftertaste on my breath. I have a mango cendol, which for some unnecessary reason contains sweetcorn too. The eating shop is in one of the traditional heritage Chinese houses which open onto an exposed courtyard, where we sit. The place is littered with curios and junk (a wall of Mao photos, old fans and typewriters, displays of banknotes on the walls).
Cyrus buys some mangosteens on the street. They are nicknamed the “queen of fruits” (durian is king) and have the most exquisite and succulent sweet flesh inside their dark red skin.
We pay a visit to the oldest temple in Malaysia (the temple of mercy) where people are lighting pink lotus-shaped candles.
After passing the Indian style mosque we encounter a convoy of trishaws on a tour of the city. After they have temporarily deposited their passengers at the temple I get chatting with Ramli and his friend who has a spider motif in the decor theme of his vehicle. He tells me he does the decorating himself and did it that morning, getting the ideas from the internet. I’m really impressed with the skill involved. Ramli’s is decoarted with a dragon in preparation for the Chinese New Year. They tell me there is an on-going competition between the drivers for the best decoration. When they learn I am from UK they are really keen to show me their cycles: they are made in England, by Raleigh, and they tell me about the reliability and strength of the build.
We come across a shoe-maker’s shop with a difference: here they make copies of the shoes made for the Malaysian princesses and queens: these are tiny and designed to restrict the growth of the feet, meaning these unfortunate ladies could actually barely walk with their deformities. The shop also exhibits some of the genuine items from the 1920’s. The shoemaker tells me the story of the shoes and his father tells me that they have had this business for 3 generations.
Cyrus tends to hang back when I have these conversations: I’m not sure if he is annoyed with my interaction and engagement or he is just shy.
Cyrus is hungry (me too, but he more) and we walk past a myriad of museums (one is housed in a replica of a Dutch sailing ship, another has a WW2 motorboat outside it) apparently in the wrong direction, and Cyrus is beginning to get annoyed with me. We end up back in China town at a westerner-centred cafe with an English menu, but with a waitress unable to speak either English, Chinese or Malay. This results in me ordering a dish I cant eat (tofu stuffed with….fish), and the spicy eggplant and rice doesn’t suffice. The lime and plum juice is delicious, but I’m a bit fed up with this failed effort to find a good meal in this town of culinary delights. I don’t feel like moaning. I feel like I’m a bit selfish imposing my dietary requirements on Cyrus and we sit in a silence which becomes quite uncomfortable. I ask him to suggest what to do next but nothing is forthcoming.
I want to buy some beer. A hustler from a hostel I looked at earlier in the day had pointed out the house of an elderly Chinese guy who sells (illicitly) the cheapest beer in town. I think I recognise the house and I see someone who fits the description through the unglazed window, but have that British reserve and do not feel confident knocking on the window to first find out that I’ve got the right place before then asking for beer. I dither. Cyrus disapproves and doesn’t want to hang around, and says he will see me back at the hotel. I’m exasperated with his lack of adventure. I circle the streets, and encounter masses of pink flesh being carved up in the streetsat the open front of a butcher under the eerie glow of neon. It seems quite incongrouous in this magical city. I pass the house a couple of times, then see a local woman engaged in a transaction with this man at the window of the house. She tells me she is buying meat from him. He then sells me some beer from his fridge!
Back at the hotel, Cyrus is distant and withdrawn. Neither of us want to speak. I write my diary and he falls asleep. I slip out with my beer and spend a reflective hour by the canal, wishing he was with me, but also not being able to understand what had happened (it later turns out he didn’t either. We had a complete breakdown in understanding the other). When I get back to the hotel I hang out in reception chatting with Robert, the well-spoken Chinese manager, who is keen to learn about UK, and inform me about colonialism, the Malaysians’ admiration of the British. He shares a big bowl of longan (a fruit with a rough green skin, a bit like a lychee but less syrupy). I also meet the couple from Shropshire who have had many adventures, including a hospitalisation in Cambodia with dengue fever….
Sleep is weird and lonely. I feel Cyrus wake me up, he seems worried about me and wants me to put on my green hooded top. He asks me if I’m OK. I’m not sure if I am.