Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Jogja Jottings

I'm about two weeks away from a trip to Jogjakarta. Or Jogyakarta. Or Yogyakarta. Or Djokdjakarta, if you're a romantic rat. 

We'd settle for Jogja.

I'm veering away from the time-tested way of travel writing. Instead of writing after my travel, I'm writing before and after my travel. Why? For fun, and with a faint hope that my tactical shift would inspire our PM to dump GST.

We'll be going to Jogja and we'll be there for five days, from 5 to 9 December. When I said "we",  guess how many of us? Five? Nine? Wrong. Nineteen. Strange number. I read somewhere that odd numbers like nineteen are considered "masculine" or "male", like Awie, Ustaz Don and the rest.

Nineteen of us will be touring Jogja and the good news is we won't be joining any tour group. We've sworn off extortionate packaged tours and travel guides since Shenzhen and Felix the Cat in August last year. Travel is the only industry where you've to tip for bad service. This time around we decided to go indie. We booked flights, accommodation, transport, driver and insurance, all on our own.

You've read heart-warming stories about random FB friends and followers who travelled together and met for the first time at the departure hall. Well, we're not this intrepid type. We're all family and related and we've met more than two hundred times: wife, daughter, two brothers-in-laws and their wives and two daughters, five sisters-laws and three daughters and two sons. If you count 18, you've left me out. Our base is crammed and cosmopolitan Kg Pandan.

But if you're already in Kg Pandan, why fly to Indonesia? You ask. Good question. With plenty of Javanese craft and culture already on offer in Kg Pandan, it makes no sense to head for Jogja.

But the joy of travel is not just in getting to the place, but the simple thrill of getting off and getting lost. Shakespeare wrote many years ago " Journeys end in lovers meeting". For us, journeys are lovers meeting.

Day 1: Omah Lawas

KLIA 2 early morning looked and felt like wet market on steroids. People were rushing and crashing into each other. We joined the action at 7 am, well ahead of the AK 346 flight at 9.20. Self check-in and bag-drops for all nineteen of us required lots of shuffling and shouting to keep the total checked-in bags within the 75 kg we bought online. We tallied up 74 kg and jumped with joy. The last thing we'd want was to pay excess baggage and give more money to Tony and wife from Busan.

Finally the boarding announcement came on. It caught me cold. "Calling all passengers on flight AK 346 to Jogyakarta.........please proceed to Gate L4. Happy Journey". The repeat announcement again concluded with "Happy Journey". What's going on here?  I've heard of "ciao", "so long" and "hasta la vista, baby". But "Happy Journey"? Utterly unimaginative and absolutely annoying. Please, Malaysia Airports, if you want to be trendy and hippish just cut this "Happy Journey" crap, and use "Bye, 'wak".

We were seated all over, from row 8 all the way to 31. It's Tony's revenge on those who didn't pay and prebook seats. A brother-in-law and loving wife had to sit separately for the first time in their life. What's more cruel this.

Jogja's Adisucipto Airport had no jet bridges, so we'd to walk to the terminal building, quite a feat after prolonged sitting and prolonged age. As we emerged from the arrival hall, the taxi touts swooped in. Despite our best efforts to appear like locals from Batam, they somehow knew we were from Kg Pandan. We just kept our cool and staged a group discussion, while brother-in-law and loving wife were consoling each other, happily reunited after a long two hours away from each other. I bought taxi coupons at the counter for  three Avanzas, and we were good to go.

After a smooth, half an hour ride, we finally found ourselves lusciously looking at Omah Lawas. No, it's not our lunch. It's our homestay.

What a joy. I'd been at the wrong end on many online deals, falling for glossy write-ups and rave ratings of 3 or 4-star hotels only to find the reception staff speaking only Nepalese and the aircond purring like turbines. But not this time. Omah Lawas delivered beyond its promise. The space, set-up and settees reminded me of the wealthy family mansion in Sangam or Bobby. Spiral staircase, high ceiling and all.

Omah is Rumah, I'm sure. Lawas should mean spacious, which was a blatant understatement. The living area was bigger than a basketball court. It could easily fit in all nineteen of us, and nineteen more. A small prayer room inside was  a nice touch, and a subtle reminder. The kitchen was sufficiently stocked for quick cooking. And garden at the back, if you need to write poems.

Our location was slightly off-city centre, but closely bordering Jalan Prawirotaman, Jogja's major tourist artery. A bustling morning market, a mosque, a bakpia outlet and a nasi padang joint were only five minutes walk. The earlier apprehension about a homestay in Jogja turned out to be a brilliant idea.  The quaint dynamism of Omah Lawas should triumph over the humdrum predictability of a city hotel any day.

Day 2: Puro Mangkunegaran 

Breakfast was soto sapi, compliments of Omah Lawas. Rice soaked in beef soup was simply out of this world and reminded me of the riverside nasi air in Kota Bharu.

Our tour of Jogja started with a day out in Solo, also known as Surakarta. Solo wasn't part of Jogja. It was a separate city, about 70 km from Jogja. Jokowi was mayor of Solo before he went on to become President of Indonesia. But why go Solo? Probably the lure of that song.

The 20-seater mini bus was too small and it had about enough air for nineteen people to breath for two hours. Our driver or supir was one Pak Dakir, a dark, smallish local guy with standard Javanese looks and demeanour. Not exactly Zul Ariffin, but he knew the way to Solo.

Solo turned out to be as unremarkable as, say, Kota Bharu. There were no standout sights to whet  the wanderlust, no great wall or leaning tower to drool over. But if you were already in Solo, you've to drop by Pasar Klewer. The market was  busy and brimming with two major merchandise items: batik and batik. None of us had a strong partiality for batik stuff, but my wife and her five sisters somehow managed to draw on their female flair and instincts to still find something to splurge on. I suspect they loved the thrill of paying in 100,000 rupiah notes.

Next was Pasar Triwindu, a flea market, which was a complete disappointment. It lacked the chaotic and disorderly feel of a flea market. The antique items looked fresh and spic and span and available everyday at Tesco. But to be fair, if you'd expect it to be crowded and cluttered like Portobello, then don't come to Triwindu. Go to Portobello.

Our final stop was Puro Mangkunegaran. What? It was a Kraton. Ok, ok, it was a palace. Solo is, notionally, ruled by a Sultan. What's left of the sultan is his title (Sri Paduka Mangkunegara) and this sad Kraton cum museum. He still lived and cooked here. It was closing time but a kindly guide took us around for a very brief tour. This property certainly had seen better days and needed plenty of paint job.

We rounded off with quick stop at Universitas Surakarta and Universitas Sebelas Maret. The youngest sister-in-law wanted to shoot some photos for her FB and to compare them with UPM (her alma mater, her husband's alma mater, her daughter's future alma mater, and her current employer).

And, finally, the river, Bengawan Solo. Apparently the best way to view the river was from a bridge that spanned it. We did just that: crossed the bridge and looked downward. How best to describe this living and flowing legend? Muddy and shabby. I guess the songwriter wasn't fully awake when he penned those lasting lines:

Mata airmu dari Solo
Terkurung gunung seribu
Air meluap sampai jauh
Akhirnya ke laut.

Day 3: Jurang Tembelan  

We had Nasi Gudeg for breakfast, again courtesy of the homestay. It's a Javanese cuisine made of rice with jackfruit, some spices, sugar and brown eggs. If your breakfast variety for the past 50 years consisted of only Roti Canai, you'd find this sweet stuff difficult to understand.

The day's itinerary read like a page out of Indiana Jones's playbook: a mountain, a cliff, and a forest. But we were always flexible and dynamic. If half the way we felt that we were not up to it, we could always come back to Omah Lawas and finish off Nasi Gudeg. If we were game for more, we'd add a cave or a desert into the agenda.

We'd to split into two mini buses, with all the above-50's in one bus, and the rest in the other. We had more space and air today. The two drivers, Zul and Heryo, looked younger and healthier than the Solo supir.

On the way to Gunung Merapi, we'd to make a snap stopover just outside Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) to (again) let the youngest sister-in-law (yes) take some shots for a UGM v UPM competition. If you, like me, were a history freak, this prestigious campus should remind you of Patih Gadjah Mada, the legendary Javanese warrior.  According to Hikayat Hang Tuah (my Form Six text), Gadjah Mada tried steal Keris Taming Sari from his arch-adversary Hang Tuah. He tricked Hang Tuah into drinking some spiked beverage to get him intoxicated. Hang Tuah somehow didn't fall off and could correctly count to ten. If anybody deserved to have a university in his name, it's Hang Tuah, not Lim Kok Wing. 

Merapi Lava Tour was a two-hour bone-breaking jeep ride on hilly and rugged terrain around Gunung Merapi. It was quite an experience, and panning the volcano from the highest vantage point was truly exhilarating. The sweeping scenery should make a stunning backdrop for low-budget movies, sinetron etc (see pic above). Everyone of us was just happy to come out in one piece, and the under-50's were already screaming for lunch.

With the mountain done, we were all set for the forest. Jurang Tembelan, Hutan Pinus and Kebun Buah Mangunan were clustered in Mangunan, about 40 km from Merapi. The road wasn't that long but winding, and nobody wanted to talk.

The view from Jurang Tembelan could, figuratively, blow you away, and literally (if you were not careful). I'd to catch my breath at the sight of a river cutting deep down the gorge. It brought back the fading memory my tour of the Grand Canyon in 1983, with wife and our (then) one-year old baby. The industrious Mangunan men had built a boat-shaped platform hanging and jutting out precariously into what looked like the outer space. I wasn't sure of the health and safety standards used here, but this thing could take only two people at one time for photos, selfies, photobombs etc. I dared not even look.

Kebun Buah Mangunan was quite similar to Jurang Tembelan but friendlier without that evil-hanging-boat-shaped-in-outer-space-structure.

Hutan Pinus was a pretty pine forest. I'm not sure how these pine trees got to be here. They were supposed to be in Sweden or somewhere. But here they were, dark and real, with barks and cones. The late afternoon sun seeping though the sharp foliage and tall conifers rendered a bit of colour and romance to the whole spectacle. We had a dandy time here. Even the quietest of the six sisters joined in this forest frolic. We would remember this place for a long time.

Day 4: Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X 

We'd purposely left Day 4 open. We'd decide what to do or where to go in the morning. During breakfast, we finally agreed to visit Kraton in the morning, and would decide again what to do or where to go after that. Like I said, we were dynamic.

How did we get to Kraton? We hailed Grab cars. Grab was so easy, fast and cheap here. Only 15,000  rupiah or RM5 for a six-seater Avanza to city centre.

This Kraton was different from the Kraton we saw in Solo, but it was still a Kraton. A Kraton is a Kraton is a Kraton. This one was much bigger, more elaborate and better-kept. It belonged to Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, who still lived here as a pseudo- Sultan and real Governor of Jogja.

According our guide, the Sultan was protected by 1,000 hulubalangs. I forgot to ask "protected" from what. These hulubalangs were unarmed and clad in batik sarong. You'd love these guys. They were a friendly and good-looking lot, unlike the villainous archetypes you saw in old Malay movies, played by Allahyarham Husein Abu Hasan. They not only worked for free but also on shift (No pay, no shift allowance). I wouldn't be surprised if some of them were probably Grab drivers when they were not performing these hulubalang gigs. I mean, people have to eat.

If I'm honest, this Kraton didn't overly excite me. The structure and architecture were old enough but nothing exceptional. Garden was patchy and half-hearted. On the way out, we regrouped and boldly decided to walk to nearby Jalan Malioboro, Jogja's main shopping strip. After about 10 metres, only five of us were left walking, the rest decided to take becaks. So dynamic.

Day 4: Borobudur

Not all of us made it to Borobudur. Only me, daughter Sarah, brother-in-law and daughter Irina, and niece Yasmin (daughter of the youngest sister-in-law and UPM alumnus). Just five of us. The rest were held up at Jalan Malioboro, with millions of rupiahs to burn.

Borobudur was in Magelang, about two hours from Jogja city. We reached the place at about 4.30 and were hit with a RM110 per head entrance fee. I thought this was borderline oppression. At this rate, this 1000-year old structure would remain Indonesia's number one cash cow for another 1000 years.

For all the good money, we had only one hour to explore and understand the whole temple and culture before its 5.30 closing. After a long walk around endless gardens and trees and tourists, I finally came face to face with Borobudur, and gasped. Man, what a sight. I was instantly struck by the symmetry and composure of this  exquisite work of art. The dark theme and stone structure was intriguing and uncannily immaculate. You'd run out of compliments for the early planners and engineers. The corrupt contractors who built the crumbling stadium, mosque and airport in Trengganu could learn a thing or two from these people.

As I was climbing up my way to the top, I could hear something creaking. I thought it was the floor. It was my knees. The topmost platform allowed me an expansive view of the surrounding, mostly farms and small villages with unmistakable mosques and minarets. It's hard not to reflect on how Islam in its full glory and intensity had made inroads into this former Buddhist bastion and completely overran it.

Day 5: Sampai Jumpa Lagi

We rode Grab cars to the airport for our return flight at 10.20 am. The flight was an hour late, and again we were seated everywhere. I'd prebooked inflight meal for everybody and they were very happy with my choice of Thai Green Curry. It was already late afternoon. They'd be happy to eat even black curry.

Goodbye, Jogja.

Final Word

It's been a most fulfilling five days.  Everyone has enjoyed their time in Jogja, and has found something to take home and to give away, from batik to bakpia. How do I know this? The checked-in luggage has increased from 75 kg to 125 kg, that's how. That's 50 kg of loot. We'll treasure the memory of this simple outing, until we decide to come again, you'll never know.

My only sense of misgiving is the limited time I had to explore Jalan Malioboro's high culture, especially in the evening, when it really beats and vibrates. I know I've not done enough because for the first time in my travel I didn't hear people behind me speak Kelantanese.

Jogja's diverse and colourful sights and scenes have truly fired up our senses.  But, for me, just hanging around the dining table at Omah Lawas waiting for everybody else to come out for breakfast was equally rewarding. Travel is lovers meeting.

Scroll down for more photos, and a vlog by Yasmin at the end. Her raspy vocals and American accent are real.

Happy Journey,  ha ha ha !

If You Can Survive Kg Pandatn, You Can Survive Merapi

We Were Happy Before We Broke Our Bones
Ha ha ha Tadi Kata Berani. Tak Payah Pegang la !

 Solo: Looks And Feels Like Kota Bharu.   

 This Hulubalang Looks Like Zul Ariffin

Hang Tuah Had Been Here

 Marvellous Malioboro

Six Sisters And Their Trademark Gimmick

Do I Look Like Cewek Jogja? 


                                                                Yasmin's Vlog








Sunday, August 20, 2017

Interview: Mankind's Greatest Invention?

Today is a big day for my daughter Aida. She'll be attending a job interview.

Interviews are nothing to shout about nowadays. The way job market is heading, a fresh graduate going for interviews is as commonplace as a retiree tweaking his sugar strategy.

But this interview is a milestone for Aida because it'll go down as her first ever job interview. She was already up and about at 5 am, five hours ahead of showdown. I could feel her jitters and nerves snapping. She'd be 22 in December, and her first day at kindergarten felt like yesterday.

I drove her to the interview location at Selangor Dredging Building near Petronas Twin Towers, together with her mom and sister, as a show of solidarity. Or just to be around in case she broke down. An interview could swing from nice to nasty in no time.

On the way we were caught in the Sg Besi snarl-up, so there's plenty of void for me to carp and gripe. I wasn't too happy with Aida's joyless and cynical choice of a black tudung for this momentous occasion. The odds were already stacked against her, why make it worse. "It's blue black, not black" her mom chimed in with a defensive maneuver.  I hate technicalities.   

I'm sure there are hundreds of other interviews being held in KL today and every working day. Half a million fresh and frustrated graduates are looking for paying jobs now. Every job requires at least one interview. The rule of thumb is, the higher the position, the longer the interview hours. A CEO position might require one whole day or two and even include an eleven-course Chinese dinner. An interview for a lowly Malay movie extra or AF contestant may take all of five minutes, no food.

Interview as a concept isn't new. More than one thousand years ago Hannibal and Hammurabi had to run interviews to select soldiers from thousands of army aspirants. Their interview procedure looked a lot like modern medical procedures (blood etc). Ugly and uninspiring, I know, but it was an interview nonetheless.

I read somewhere that interview in its modern form and style was invented by the prolific inventor Thomas Edison, along with his one thousand other inventions. He mechanized the interview process with a structured test to winnow out the non-starters. I supposed it worked very well because even now most interviews employ Edison's early template, where job applicants are subjected to a battery of tests, tricks and simulations. Sometimes live battery is used for effect. Some of today's interview techniques can actually be more cruel than the one pioneered by Hannibal.

My first ever interview was in 1975.  I was just starting my undergraduate study at UKM. I'd applied for a scholarship from Bank Pertanian (now Agro Bank, for effect) to finance my study, and they thought I was good enough for a look-over. My hair was long and unruly, but the interview panel didn't seem to mind it because they didn't expect university students to be good-looking. The interviewers were a happy lot. They did their best to calm me down, beginning with what game I played in school. I thought it was a trick question, so it took me all of ten seconds to say football. As it turned out, they asked only straight questions. And that was it, no personality quiz or mensa madness.

I got the scholarship, along with another guy, also from Kelantan. (Those days half of university students were from Kelantan because the entire state was classified as very rural).  I remember him because he was majoring in animal husbandry at UPM, and was very proud of it. I'd no slightest idea what or how animal husbandry was at that time.

Scholarship interviews now are, of course, more elaborate. No more "What game did you play in school" stuff. Those who apply for JPA scholarships to study medicine now have to pass seven rounds of grueling interview. I can't quite understand the need for two rounds, let alone seven. To me, if they're all qualified academically, then give them all. One interview is enough, and the purpose is nothing more than to make sure that they're real, breathing persons, not cyber or virtual sort. If funds or places are limited, then use quicker criteria, like names. An applicant with complex and conflicting names like Aaron Putra Tabayyun is out.  Ibrahim is fine.

Petronas scholarships are among the most coveted in the country even with crude oil price at only $40. So no surprise that the interview borders on the dark arts. The short-listed applicants, mostly straight A+ students from Kolej Melayu Kuala Kangsar, are whisked away to a boot camp in agricultural Tronoh for a series of suspicious mind games, sing-alongs and role-plays. The idea was to size up the leadership potential of these 18-year olds and identify Petronas CEO for 2051. Half of those who fail have to carry on with their lives dispirited and badly broken, while the other half continue their studies in UPM.    

If scholarship interviews are that difficult, imagine job interviews. But why are interviews becoming more complicated and cold blooded? I think it all boils down to the classic interplay of supply and demand. Jobs are scarce while applicants with 3.85 cgpa are a dime a dozen. The objective is no longer to separate the wheat from the chaff, but to pick out the sexiest wheat. Academic grades or Ivy League are no longer a good predictor of workplace success. Companies are under pressure to spot the right talent at the entry point rather than risk the eventual unfolding of a Jeff Skilling or Jho Lo.

And there's always this belief that a modern, ground-breaking company must use the latest and the most sophisticated interview routine. Words would get around. The wisdom is, the harder the interview, the higher the pay. This is purportedly good for company image, brand and HR chief. This is also delusional.

To their credit, the job applicants are not taking all this sitting down. The market is now rife with interview self-helps (Dummies, Idiot's etc), online material and apps. An applicant with a mind can now arm himself to the teeth. He can game even the most difficult interview. He can conceivably answer before you ask. He can complete any test thrown at him in ten minutes.  He can mock and provoke the interviewer. Companies would shudder at the thought of landing a candidate whose talent lies not in money-making, but in money-laundering. The only way for a company to win this dogfight with the interviewee is to use a killer interview. (Or,  better still,  kill the interviewee).

It makes us wonder, if interviews are so critical, why are some plum positions being filled with no semblance of an interview? Like what? Like presidents, prime ministers, ministers, mursyidul am. I don't think Robert Mugabe was ever interviewed for president or for anything. Donald Trump has interviewed (and groped) lots of ladies, but not the other way round. Ahmad Maslan came with 3.85 cgpa, but without interview. They were chosen by default, not by interviews. I'm sure many rogue and rampant "leaders" would get found out early enough had they been subjected to a reasonably robust interview, with some personality software and IQ tests, don't forget.

Oh, yes, Aida. She aced the interview, got the job and will start next week.  Hard to believe this slice of good fortune. Must be that black tudung. Blue black, sorry.




Monday, June 12, 2017

A Royal Tour Of England: Imperial College, Royal Albert Hall, Crystal Palace and Raja Petra

I was travelling in England the whole first week of May. On paper it was a gallant end of spring. But on the ground, it was brutal winter. The temperature was tolerable single digits, but the wind wreaked vengeance. The weathermen were blaming an Arctic blow-over or Carbon Effect or Corbyn Effect or something scientific. The wind could well be from North Korea. But who wants to offend Supreme Leader these days?

Our tour troop had grown bigger since my last trip here in March 2010 with the addition of three grand daughters and two daughters-in-law. Time just flew. Those who were loudly complaining about our PM's wife's long luggage on her trip to Turkey last year should see ours. Strollers, car seats, car seat boosters, Peppa Pigs, you name it. If not for the airline industry's extortionate luggage rules, my two boys would've brought along their washing machines.

I've promised myself to depart from my usual verbose and alliterative writing style, at least for this entry. Readers nowadays are readers but in name. They don't read Wuthering Heights. All they do all day is reading half-English messages and watching anything that jumps off the phone screen. So I'll write less and have more pictures instead. If you think that's not exactly a change in writing style, it's fine with me. But let's start.

1. Imperial College London

Of all the famous and familiar sights in London, why this sad structure? We came here to attend my eldest boy's graduation here, that's why. For some unknown reason he'd found enough energy and intrigue to study while working and pandering to his bosses. And even managed to graduate.

The first time I heard of Imperial College was in early 1990's. I had lots of Tiger Lane classmates who left for England after Form Five in early 70's. But all of them went to Brighton. Well, not all. But almost all. It's hard not to confuse Brighton with Britain and Briton. Just remember this: Britons live in Britain, Malays study in Brighton. Repeat this jingle ten times and you'll get this minor mess off your head.

I'd thought Imperial College was an A Level College like the one near Tg Malim. Only quite recently I discovered that it's a full-blown and no-nonsense university with students at all levels except A Level. Its engineering school is purported to be among the world's top and toughest, up there with MIT and Caltech, with half of the students speaking only in numbers and Chinese.

Physically there was nothing to wonder and marvel here. No period landmark or architectural masterwork. The buildings were mostly of contemporary design, huddled tightly with hardly enough space in between for the creative mind to stand, stare, write poems etc. The male toilet can take only five normal-size students at any one time. What came to mind was the sprawling UPM and UTP campuses with lakes and trees and professors and cows roaming freely. To be fair Imperial sits on a princely piece of real estate and, please, don't compare it with Balakong or Tronoh.
Imperial also has a graduate business school as its cash cow preying on unsuspecting corporate warriors seeking the elevated Imperial brand. In truth, the business program here is only slightly more complicated than the one at UPM. But who wants to go to Serdang? My eldest was graduating from from the business school. You guessed it, I know.

Before I forget, Imperial College is in the South Kensington area, in the heart of London, close to Royal Albert Hall, Natural History Museum and  Harrods. Imperial College is an unofficial supporter of Fulham Football Club. Yes, this is funny.

2. Royal Albert Hall

Somehow lots of Malays are familiar with this hall, made famous by our legendary singer-actor-lawyer, the late Sudirman. He performed and won the Asian Music Awards here in 1989. Siti Nurhaliza went one better with a solo concert here in 2005 amidst controversies, like why was it not held at the more iconic Panggung Aniversari in KL Lake Gardens.

Don't ask me how people get to hold concerts at Albert Hall. I'm equally curious. Do they get invited or vetted by the Queen? Do they have to pay a rental? Who pays? The husband? And how much? How old is the husband?  Where are they going to get the audience? Ferried all the way from Pahang? Or Brighton?

My eldest's graduation ceremony was held at Albert Hall. What a place to receive your degree. You need no other motivation to attend. It bothered me somehow that Imperial College called it "Graduation" ceremony, while back in Malaysia we were stuck with "Convocation" or, worse,"Konvokesyen". So where did we get this word "Convocation" from? Shakespeare? As a full-time retiree, I get to worry about urgent things like this.

It was a glittering and glitzy occasion, colourful and steeped in tradition, complete with a string ensemble. The oval and opulent hall was filled to the brim, and the atmosphere just blew me away. The pace and timing were pitch perfect, no hitches or glitches, nothing over the top, just right. And, of course, the music. I almost choked when my name was called (hahaha).

I'll remember this one for a long time.

3.  Peak District

Not Peek District. This is a highland area and a national park bordering Manchester and Derby known for its scenic lakes, streams, farms, villages, sheep (scenic sheep?). We spent a good half-day traipsing round the area, savouring the splendid landscape and gorgeous geography. It's an exhilarating experience, which is really a pity because most Malaysians would rather visit the nearby Old Trafford and waste good money on Pogba shirts.

Peak District might not be as famous as Lake District, but equally enjoyable. No romantic poets and writers have chosen to live and die here though. The closest I could think of would probably be RPK, the refugee blogger now mired down in Manchester. Read his prolific tales of trysts and machinations and you'll understand why he's a romantic writer.

4. Manchester City FC

The 50 year-old dream came true. I finally got to watch Manchester City in the flesh at the Etihad, right before my very eyes. I'd been having these visions ever since I followed the team in 1969.  The feeling was simply unbelievable, shouting and swearing with 55,000 City freaks, watching David Silva waltzing and Yaya Toure bursting out, just twenty feet away.

But there was a downside to all this. Every time Aguero had the ball in the box with only half-decent chance of a goal, the whole stadium would stand up and cheer on. While this spontaneous act ramped up the atmosphere, it totally blocked my view since I'm physically challenged (political for short). Anyway, City ran out 5-0 winners against a hapless Crystal Palace. I completely missed the first four goals.

5. Hotel New Inn, Gloucester.

Gloucester was our last stop before our return flight to KL. Nothing special about this town, except that it was a medieval city only two hours away from Heathrow Terminal 4. It's cheaper and more convenient to stop here than going back to London (with all our bags and Peppa Pigs, remember?). It was Sunday and the town was deserted and it took us some time to find our hotel, the New Inn, although it was smack in the town centre.

The New Inn Hotel wasn't new. It was built in 1450. Just like Gloucester, there was nothing extraordinary about the hotel, except for a footnote in Wikipedia "The New Inn is supposedly haunted with at least one unexplained event captured on CCTV in 2010". It was too late to change our plans.

Stepping into the hotel you'd notice the intricate 500-year old timber and masonry. The toilet came with modern soap and flushing system. It took us some time to really settle in. We hardly talked.

Nothing happened. Sorry.        

6. Breathless Bread

What's more boring than bread? I love bread, and England is a bread heaven. Walk into any supermarket you'll see one big section with bread brands and varieties in full cry, from Allison's rustic white to Hovis wholemeal and all the way to Worburton's superseed. I had to catch my breath. And it's bloody cheap. A 600 gm of high quality multi-seed variety sells for only 79 p (RM 4.30). A plain white is RM 7.90 at Isetan KLCC Sun Moulin bakery. Gardenia or Massimo is RM 2.50 for 400gm of mind-fogging gluten and yeast.      

I bought plenty of bread and enjoyed every slice. Fabulous stuff. As to why it's so much cheaper in England, I don't have a ready explanation. Maybe the market there is bigger, while I am the only bread market in Malaysia.

7. Ah, Malaysia Airlines 

I flew Malaysia Airlines this time. I'd not flown long-haul on Malaysia Airlines for almost twenty years. Air Asia or some Arab airlines were always 50% cheaper. This was also my first flight on the A380. It was certainly big, with more space and air to breath, but nothing beyond my expectation.  

With plenty of empty seats, it was hard not to notice the flight attendants (male and female). They all had the real knack of appearing busy at all times. Those in the idle oil and gas industry can learn a thing or two from these guys. But I must say that they were a bit of a let-down. I mean, the aircraft was all fresh and spanking, but the attendants looked older than Gloucester. A couple of them even had reading glasses. I thought it was an exception and I should be seeing something different and more inspiring on the return flight. It was different set, but from the same period.

I suspect these people were highly-paid holdovers from the platonic Malaysia-Singapore Airlines. They were nice and pleasant enough, but I'm sure there are eager and younger ones among the 120,000 Malaysia Airline staff with more energy and better eyesight to take over the job.

Sorry for this Trumpesque turn, but I'm sure most of you are with me on this.


8. A Final Word

It's been a brief and productive family outing, a mishmash of business, fun and ghosts. I guess my three granddaughters also enjoyed it. They didn't complain about the cold wintry air. They didn't complain about anything. Either their benchmark was low or their tolerance threshold was high. Maybe both, who knew. I'm not sure what they think of Peak District.

England is easy. The locals drive on the left and speak good English or good Indian, unlike the Italians who drive on the right and speak only loud Italian. And food is friendly.  Manchester has more halal restaurants than Subang Jaya on per Muslim basis. What immediately comes to mind is an old and intrepid friend named Yusof Hashim. He travels only to strange and difficult places, like Antarctica, Patagonia and Atlas Mountains, where locals don't drive. He's 70 now. I'm not sure how he copes. I don't think there's a halal restaurant in Antarctica.

Did I promise you plenty of pictures? Here's two more, shot in York. Spreading out on the steps like that, what a clever improvisation.    


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

My Johor Journal


I drove to Johor Bahru last week with wife, daughters Aida and Sarah and two granddaughters in tow. We were attending a nephew's wedding.

I've not been driving long-distance for quite a while now. Two reasons for this. One, I tend to get bored, grow older and fall asleep after only 10 km at the wheel. Two, I'd  normally get my son to tag along. It's safer for him to drive because he's free of prostate and sugar issues. He drives and swerves and swears.

But this time around, he and his hardworking wife could only join me later. Their two girls, Diana and Hanan, were just happy that at last they could follow us without their parents attempting, or pretending to attempt, to pull them away. Children all over the world are notorious for this delicate partiality. Maybe it's part of their defence mechanism or Blue Ocean strategy, we'll never know. 

The journey was smooth enough. Not too many speeding Singaporeans on the road. We reached JB in four hours. I know some people did it under two hours, which I don't quite understand. I mean it's only Johor Bahru, and not Mount Everest or Las Vegas where you've to be there as fast as you can. JB in two hours and JB in four hours, I can't see the difference.


I've always been impressed with JB. The city looks well-planned, clean and contemporary, with old and new structures coexisting easily. Road network is excellent with sharp flyovers and ramps to cope with the burgeoning traffic. The highway system leading to the city and proximity is world-class, with many exits and interchanges leading to yet more highways that open up to more exits and interchanges, and this repeats until you reach your destination. Now with Waze it's easy to navigate. In the past I always ended up in Toa Payoh. 

My first trip to JB was in 1972 when I was in Form Six. It's the trip of a lifetime, and the whole class were on-board. We hit the road in our school bus, from Ipoh town via the old trunk road, with one-night lay-overs in KL and Seremban. It was a slow but splendid journey with plenty of action and adventure. We sang our school song to beat the heat, and somehow it worked. We reached JB after three days, toasted and drenched in our school uniform. That was the last time I travelled in white shirt, white pants and white shoes. And a badge. And school song, don't forget.

JB at the time was just another sleepy town in Johor. All towns in Johor at that time were sleepy. For history freaks, JB was declared state capital by a Temenggong (I forgot his name) in 1855 after the other two candidates, Benut and Yong Peng, were disqualified on technicality. JB's advantage was that it was close to Singapore. In fact Singapore had always been part of Johor before it was donated away in a British-sponsored scam. But that's another story.

I remember my Johor classmates Sheikh Yahya and Ibrahim Mohammad bragging away in class about crossing over to the other side to buy duty-free lychees and underwear, which were very cheap because of the good exchange rate. Now the Singaporeans are crossing over to JB, normally at 230 km/hr, to buy lychees and underwear because of the good exchange rate. But that's another story.

What struck me at that time was that JB wasn't that much bigger than Kota Bharu, the capital of my home state (you know this). I was in a way deflated and felt let down the first time I saw JB. I'd expected it to be much bigger, I mean, the way those Johor guys had touted and sold it. Maybe they were high on spiked lychees and got things all mixed up.

But today it's as clear as daylight. No contest here. JB is bigger and prettier, hands down. It would've been much, much bigger if you include Singapore (joke, sorry). JB has developed so much and so fast, while KB has been lagging and lapsing. JB is now officially a city. KB is still a town, pretty much the same way that Benut or Yong Peng is a town. I wonder how our (bn) government decides because Alor Setar and Kuala Terengganu are both certified cities although they are actually fish markets. KB fought this little injustice by unilaterally proclaiming itself Islamic City and strictly enforcing female-only queues at all Mydin supermarkets. This stroke of genius had effectively rendered other cities, including JB, unIslamic, non-halal, Mossad agents and all the sinister stuff.  

A day hardly passes now without some juicy bits of news breaking out of JB. And JB folks are not taking this new-found style and stardom sitting down either. They're already rubbing more salt by rebranding themselves as Bangsa Johor (although some of them, like Sheikh Yahya, are Bangsa Arab). This subtle act of grandstanding is necessary to differentiate themselves from the people of non-developed states like Terengganu, non-Sultan states like Melaka, and non-Malaysian states like Bangladesh. Rumour has it that Johor was planning to secede and rename itself Negara JDT FC. This would've gone down in history as the first state or country named after its football team. All this proved to be completely unfounded as JDT is still in the Malaysia Super League, winning all trophies with ten Brazilian players.

The simplest proxy for a city size in Malaysia is the number of flyovers. Don't laugh. The Economist newspaper uses the price of Big Macs to measure fair value of currencies across countries. There are so many flyovers in JB today that I've stopped counting. I'm fully retired, so I've all the time to count flyovers. There are no less than four highways with different names and different tollbooths leading into and out of JB. Let's compare that with KB. KB now has a grand total of one flyover under construction and no highway.

The JB-KB gap is getting wider on daily basis. A high-speed-high-cost-high-fare-unfair train will be built to connect KL with JB. This will make it conceivable for me to wake up in USJ and have my breakfast in JB. As to why I'd want to have breakfast in JB is another story. A China's Chinese company is building a massive Forest City or something offshore, not far from JB. Offshore forest? Typical Chinese ingenuity. This is not another story, because the new city will be populated by 700,000 (or is it 700 million, I can't recall) Chinese coming all the way from, you guess it, China. It's (bn) government's way of neutralizing the dap Chinese with more Chinese. So clever.

There's no stopping JB as it is all poised to become another Shenzhen. Apparently one Shenzhen is not enough. At this rate, there's no way KB can ever catch up with JB. Unless Donald Trump finally decides enough is enough and takes the Chinese by the horn and builds a Trumpcity in KB.


Nephew's wedding was an absolute riot with all of us deep in purple. I don't know whether it was (bn) government who actually started this, but it's quite a fashion nowadays for close family members to carry a colour. Our side was purple. I don't know what to make of this, but for the first time I relented and played along in my new purple baju melayu. What a sight it was, a sweeping sea of purple people. A brother-in-law came by and hit me with the old reliable "you looked gorgeous" . I knew him long enough not to get too carried away. He was hopping from table to table, complimenting everybody, including his glorious wife. Sorry, I can't recall the colour on the bride's side. But I can find out if you're interested.

It was a truly joyous occasion. Everyone talked and ate non-stop, all at the same time. And why not, we'd come all the way and pay all the tolls. The venue, a memorial hall in the historical part of the city, was an impeccable choice. It was a Chinese New Year holiday, so I could hear firecrackers outside, which added more clatter and colour to the whole festive atmosphere.

Ah, what a day.

I'm sure Hafiz and Amirah will remember this day and remain faithful and productive husband and wife for ever.


While in JB, I decided to look up a close friend and campus gang who was unwell. When I phoned him, he just screamed my name. It was so loud that his wife mistook it for a JDT goal.

In less than five minutes he was right at the door of my homestay at Kampung Melayu. On the way to his house in the same neighbourhood we passed by a warong named "Singgang Mek". He touched my arm and ribbed me "Ok ke kedai tu?"

He'd not lost his sense of humour. Kelantan and anything Kelantanese had been the staple of our jokes since we first met and hit it off way back in 1975 (sexy pic above).

He was so happy to see me and I could feel the warmth. Visiting friends in these golden years remains high on any retiree's agenda, and I can tell you it's worth every minute. Looking at him, I'd to really contain myself. Physically he was but a brief shadow of what he used to be, sharp, swaggering, athletic and all. The only mitigation was that I myself wasn't exactly a pretty sight. But he remained bullish and upbeat just like he was forty years ago. You've to admire the unmistakable fortitude and forebearance in trying times.

We settled down for a lengthy exchange that he easily dominated, as always. He was highly engaging throughout as we rolled back and forth, from campus days to his time with Johor Corp to football to his ongoing treatment, Umrah trips, back to campus, and finally his hero, Tok Guru Nik Aziz (a Kelantanese, no less), alluding to him in the most glowing terms. Apparently he'd been making regular trips to KB by train just to meet and listen to the late teacher.

After a quick dinner, he drove me back, very slowly, to the homestay. It was only a short distance but long enough for parting wits. He promised to come to KL to see me and others after his full recovery. I reminded him of his "favourite" Kelantanese colourful jelly called "belda". He laughed generously, but quickly added that he could no longer enjoy eating. Everything seemed tasteless. I quickly pounced "Maybe you should try Singgang Mek!" We roared.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Inspired By Isymam: A Talaqqi Story

Six years after I'd retired, I received two academic certificates.

One conferred by Masjid Sultan Salahudin Abdul Aziz Shah in Shah Alam for completing its one-year Talaqqi/Tajwid Course. The other one for attending a four-month Tajwid class at Rehal Islamic Studies Centre.

No, no, these are not fake PhD's. Hahaha.

The Shah Alam certificate was a sheer beauty. It's inscribed 100% in Jawi calligraphy, including my name. When was the last time I'd my name written in Jawi? Standard Six, 1965. That long ago. So I'll keep this certificate for the rest of my natural life, for both its intrinsic and extrinsic value.

Everybody knows the blue-hue Masjid Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah. But not many have heard of Rehal. It's a small, privately-run Talaqqi centre in Kota Damansara. The owner and teacher-in-chief is one Dr Surur Shihabudin, a two-time PhD who also lectures at UIA. Dr Surur has written a widely read text entitled  "Ilmu Tajwid" (pink hard cover, 342 pages). The book is about, hold your breath, Tajwid. What do you expect?

Religious gurus are never known for marketing craft and guile. Their books all look drab and dreary. And the titles leave very little to imagination. They should take a leaf out of literary frauds with funky titles like Blue Ocean or Freakonomics that have sold millions. "Talk Tajwid And Get A Second Wife In Two Weeks" would have been a runaway bestseller. Anyway I'd been using Dr Surur's "Ilmu Tajwid" for some time now and I've to admit that I was motivated to attend the course on the weight of this book and its author. Nothing beats the horse's mouth.

Frankly I'm proud to receive these certificates, even at the tender age of 62. I've lost count of all the certificates I'd received for all kinds of courses I attended when I was with Petronas. Lateral Thinking, High-Impact Speaking, Finance For Finance Haters, Business Leadership, 7 Habits, 5 Asses, you name it. But none really compares with these two humble certificates.
I'm writing this not to show off my religious fixation and credentials. I'm in fact exposing my failure and frailty. Children as young as six now learn the Quran and know all the finer points of Tajwid.  At my age, I'm supposed to teach.

So what's the point? In short, I want to share my late-life learning joys and trials. And if I can get  one more person to just think about learning Tajwid, I'd consider this blog entry a major triumph.

Tajwid is, admittedly, a very dry subject matter. Think theoretical Physics. Or Cost Accounting. It's highly technical and more potent than sleeping pills. Some of the charts and pictographs used are suspiciously similar to the periodic table.  You can't compare Tajwid with, say, Sirah, where you get to learn and turned on by our Prophet's love life with wife Aisyah, or marvel at the bravery of Khalid Al Walid and awe at the exploits of my favourite all-conquering warrior-archer-wanderer Saad Abi Waqqas.

One of my friends knows an awful lot about Syiah and Wahabbi, which, I think, are both juicier than Tajwid. He can expound on Nikah Mutaah, or temporary marriage, in the way that E Channel explains the premise behind the much-celebrated gender migration from Bruce to Caitlyn.

When I completed early Quran reading classes in standard six, I thought I'd mastered Quran reading. Mom could just pick any page and I'd read it loud and clear. I had this mistaken belief that Tajwid was just an option, something for those who want to win the international Quran reading competition. So it was left on the back burner for fifty years. When I began to learn Tajwid,  I  rudely discovered that, for fifty years, I hadn't been reading the Quran the right way. I'd been reading the Quran not in Arabic, but in Kelantanese.

How did I "discover" Tajwid? It wasn't exactly Fleming and penicillin, but it was similarly fortuitous. Or serendipitous, if you don't mind. The story is screenplay stuff and wrote itself.

It was in 2002 when about 20 of us, close classmates who went to Tiger Lane in 1966, descended for a reunion and Iftar. We had a brief tazkirah, where, by default, the most qualified of us led the session. He reminded us of the intrigues and intricacies of Quran reading, and, to prove his point, he picked out Isymam, a Tajwid rule applied at Ayat 11 Surah Yusuf. We've to purse (muncung) our lips when we recite ta'- man-n-na.  Man, this is something, I thought. I'd been missing lots of fun !

From then on, I began to sniff around for basic Tajwid books. "For my son" I told the bookseller. He'd heard this routine before, so he just nodded. Reading the books was uphill. Tolstoy's two-volume War and Peace was easier and faster.

I finally retired in 2009, but it wasn't until two years later that I made some inroads after a chance encounter with a Tajwid teacher. I attended his weekly classes with a few other like-minded "late bloomers" I met at the local masjid. The teacher was a godsend. He turned a good part of his house into a private college. Every Tajwid lesson he delivered was a sobering self-discovery. Our learning curve was slow and painful, but he took it all in his stride and rewarded us with home-made pastry and free-flowing coffee after every class. In my book people like this will go straight to heaven when they die.

We completed the syllabus after two years, but there was still plenty of fire in my belly. I was so inspired by what I'd learned that I decided to enrol in a one-year Talaqqi/Tajwid program at Masjid Sultan Abd Aziz in Shah Alam, and a four-month Tajwid classes at Rehal the following year.  At the same time, my Tiger Lane group were having our monthly usrah, led by, yes, the Isymam imam. The half-day session would include Quran reading with friendly Tajwid tips. So effectively I was learning not from one, but four, different teachers. Had I been this serious in Form Five, I would've aced Biology and Chemistry and become a famous brain surgeon.

I found out that learning at my age is extremely challenging for three reasons. One, I'd lost most of my thinking skills (not a lot to begin with). So it took me longer than forever to get the hang of the strange concepts and to memorize new names. Two, I was among the oldest, if not the oldest, in class. My Shah Alam and Rehal classmates were mostly half my age, mentally sharper and, worst, they all had more hair. Three, most Tajwid teachers had very little talent in the complex art of teaching. The Rehal program, in particular, was stressful not only because the classroom felt like a Cambodian sweatshop but also because the teacher (Dr Surur) used a teaching technique made popular by the Japanese army during their brief occupation of the old Malaya. He didn't believe in soft sell. He'd drill and grill, regardless of your age. If you're the sensitive sort, you'd drop out and become a "syahid" before the third week.

But after the initial scares and jitters, I began to enjoy the Tajwid classes. Even Dr Surur's hard-hitting military style didn't scare me. With age advantage, I could ask any question I like, like why huruf "Dhod" is Rokhowah and not Syiddah? I always believe everything has its soft and sweet side. In a class of 20 students, you'll listen to 20 different ways of reading. High notes, low notes, poor pitch, terrible tone. I can tell you it's more fun than Akademi Fantasia audition.

We learned from our teachers and from each other, driven by one common and singular ambition: to read the Quran the way our beloved Prophet read it 1400 years ago. What's not to like?

The test of Tajwid is not in the terms and theories, but in putting it to practice. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, remember? Not the prettiest of parallels, but you get my point. Mastering the Makhraj, Mad and the stuff is only the starting point. It's how I apply it when I get down to actually doing it. It was mentally and physically draining, tougher than treadmill. But once I get in the groove, it's hard to stop. You could even get high. Try the graceful Surah Maryam, and you'd soon find yourself doped and drowned in the rhyming verses. Reading the Quran would never be the same.

So I've mastered Tajwid. No, no, no. Not even close. Never. There's still a lot left to learn. Dr Surur kept reminding us "Bergurulah walaupun kita seorang guru".  It's not possible to unlearn and relearn 50 years of work in six short years. The trick is to train. Serena Williams has won 23 Grand Slams and she still trains with a coach, six hours a day. Now you're excited.

The best way to train is to read in groups, Tadarus style. The Kenyans run and pace in groups, and they break all world marathon records. Our group of "late bloomers" meet five days a week to read and pace each other. Every one of us leads, learns and motivates, all at the same time. We are not world champions, but we are better today than we were yesterday. You're welcome to join us. No annual fee, and loads of fun.

There's no stopping this. I'll keep on learning: twisting and turning my tongue, tweaking my speed and breath, and even trying out a new tune. The divine virtues and rewards of reading the Quran are never in question. But I can promise you one immediate payoff when you read the Quran the right way: your wife loves you a lot more.  

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Shenzhen, Caution

The landing was faultless. But the moment I stepped into the airport and looked around, my stomach dropped. Everyone here except us was a Chinese. I'd nothing against the Chinese as a people or a concept, it's just that I'd never seen so many Chinese in my entire life. My wife sensed my abeyance and pressed my shoulder. "Come on, this is China. Not Italy". I knew, but, I mean, all these Chinese and so many. "China, Chinese la" She reasoned out. This line of logic left me with very little to argue.

Last month I was in Shenzhen and nearby Guangzhou. Nearby was actually 150 km away. These two cities are now China's boom towns, growing at breakneck rates, and home to 23 million people, all Chinese (What do you expect? 23 million Italians?).

It's hard to find another place more sanguine than Shenzhen. And so devoid of character and charisma. If you love museums, castles and art houses, don't go down to Shenzhen. Go to Leuven. Or Leiden. Nobody here has time for contemplation. Culture and theatre are a waste of space. This is the soulless motherland of finance, factories and fakes feeding off world's rapacious greed and relentless consumption. Only 50 years ago the mantra was fish, farm and fight for the country. Now? Let's make more money.

I was part of a touring party of 17 fine-looking people, all my family members, including wife and daughter Aida. The youngest was nephew Umar, 10 years old. We'd been travelling around together quite a bit to whet the wanderlust. Well, not to Las Vegas or Las Palmas, but mostly the more affordable local and regional hotspots. This time we broke our long-held tradition of self-styled backpacking and bespoke itinerary by taking a guided tour. Backpacking with a guide? Now that's embarrassing. Why? Because this is China, that's why.

In case you've forgotten, China is officially a communist state, you know, Marxist-Leninist, Mao Zedong, Falun Gong, Gang of Four, Shaolin Temple, and all the scary stuff. We heard that government officials in China are summarily shot even for corruption, which, in our country, isn't really a crime. So quite naturally, we were worried. Who knew, we could get jail term in China for laughing or reading. We'd to agree with Ronald Reagan's pearl of wisdom: Why take chances?

Our Chinese tour guide, named Felix, could speak English and a smattering of Malay. He was a native Shenzhenian or Shenzhenese or simply Chinese and very proud of his city. According to him,  the average age of the Shenzhen population was only 31 years. I knew I was the oldest person in my group. Now I was also the oldest person in the whole city of Shenzhen. I quickly told wife that she was technically the second oldest person in Shenzhen. She dismissed it offhand, accusing me of conspiracy, hangover, late-life lapses and so on. All too familiar, if you know what I mean.

After five days and four nights in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, we came away mixed. Well, no place in the world has all pluses. Not even Paris. And certainly not Ottawa. (One of my brothers-in-law still thinks Ottawa is in Japan). You'd always end up with a bone or two to pick. So there's this nagging and uneasy feeling that we might not have seen and done enough. Or, in Obama's language, we weren't getting the biggest bang for the buck. Guangzhou especially deserves more time. The jury is still out, so to speak and I hate this phrase. We've to really sit back and think hard before passing a verdict.

In the meantime, I've put together some takeaways from our tour, if you're interested. If you're not, then just scroll ahead for some Android-quality photos. This list is strictly my opinion.  The 10-year old nephew may have other ideas. PM him if you want to know. 

1. A Guided Tour Is A Time-Waster.

A guided tour of any part of China requires that you visit a number of state-sponsored "craft or cultural centres". The Shenzhen jade factory that we were taken to had the uncanny feel and atmosphere of Hotel California. Yes, that part "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave..." and the searing guitar licks.  Lucky thing a sister-in-law bought something. That probably was enough to save us and let us live to fight another day. Hahaha.

What's worse than one jade factory? Two jade factories. We'd to visit another jade factory, in Guangzhou. Same bloody scripts and tricks. But this time around we were all prepared to fight back, communist or not. It all ended peacefully though, with nobody buying anything. 

Then there was this Chinese herbal medicine centre or clinic in Guangzhou, where they had a professor from Beijing touch our hands and size up our state of health. Apparently everybody seemed to be down with at least one chronic condition. A sister-in-law seemed to be critically short of oxygen. Hahaha, thanks prof, finally we knew why she was what she was. But no worry, because the kind professor, as expected, would prescribe the necessary (and expensive) concoction. I know a scam when I see one.

We'd easily wasted precious eight hours on these state tours, which we could have easily spent exploring Guangzhou's Muslim quarter, fruit markets, the subway, and the old city with its narrow alleys and quaint shops. Both Shenzhen and Guangzhou were safer than Subang Jaya and taxi drivers eat and live by their meters. We would survive on our own.

Felix the tour guide was a part-time bait-and-switch artist. He was so good at his trade that he managed to lure us into buying bags of nuts, Longchamp purses, and watches from him.

Hwang He, the Chinese River of Sorrow, shall be my witness as I promised myself to never ever again take guided tours and go near tour guides.

2. Muslim Meals Are Marvellous

Chinese Halal food or Halal Chinese food? Doesn't matter. Heaps of horror stories about this. Bland, tasteless, sticky and so on. Don't listen. The food was glorious and out of this world. It was vegetable based, with superb soy and only touches of meat and fish. Very healthful. My weight and pulse rate fell after two days.

3. Fakes Are Fine

Shenzhen and Guangzhou are full of fake stuff, with miles of malls plying the bogus high styles. I'm all for this counterfeiting and bootlegging. I think for far too long the much celebrated European haute couture are getting away with exploiting unsuspecting Asians through clever marketing and subtle branding. Those designer labels are never worth their extortionate prices. They are the real fakes, not the fakes. A fat girl flagging a 100,000 dollar Hermes bag is still a fat girl.

Louhu Mall near Shenzheng railway station was a five-storey affair choked with fakes and knock-offs. The action here was thick and fast. The goods were excellent value, at less than 5% of the "real" thing. The Chinese "designers" have really come a long way. The stitching and sewing was splendid and it'd tough to separate the wheat from the chaff. If your friends can still tell it's not Chanel, you're the problem. Not the bag.

Bargaining here was more intense than watching Lee Chong Wei. Price of anything starts at 850 Yuan (RM 500). You must poke back with only 50 Yuan and then watch the sales girl feigning (or actually going into) fits or short comatose. You must hold your ground and walk away. She'd bolt after you and this fast furious sequence should last for ten minutes before you and the girl finally settle for 100 Yuan, a discount of 80%. The process takes plenty of energy. But well worth it. You get a fake bag and lose 400 calories of real fat. What's not to love.

4. The Magnificent Mosque Of Saad Abi Waqqas

The name alone conjures up the mystique. You simply have to see this old mosque in Guangzhou, a shoo-in in traveller's bucket list. The blatant collision of Arabic and Chinese architecture, set among lush gardens, will just blow you away. The dark red panels and pillars were bold, defiant but delightful.

Saad was Nabi Muhammad's close companion and relative, warrior, archer, traveller and diplomat extraordinaire, all in one. He purportedly travelled all the way to China with his kabilah in the 7th century to propagate the Islamic faith, 700 years before Marco Polo and his gay brothers.

Climbing up the steps, I hesitated. I was overcome by the poignant thought of the old mosque of Kg Laut, where I grew up. It's  not as old, but the warmth and welcome were strikingly similar. I could still picture the mosque standing triumphantly where it was 50 years ago, just like this very mosque in Guangzhou.

5. Beijing Street, Dongmen Market, Baima Wholesale Market, Mangrove Park (or Whatever).

A standard tour will happily drop you off at these (in)famous places. These are duds and dreadful and should be officially certified as state tourist traps. My lawn is bigger than the Mangrove Park, and more birds. Skip if you can. That jade racket was more fun. Go to Sungai Wang instead, when you come back.

6. Finally, Oh My English!

The Chinese love the English language. They've a long way to go. But, believe me, pretty soon they'll speak English better than our public university graduates. Notices and signs everywhere carry the English translations. The intention is noble enough, but you'll almost always end up bemused and amused. You've probably read and heard loads of cruel jokes about this. I can confirm they are all real, not a joke. Here's a selection. Enjoy !      

Whatever It Is, Just Don't Do It.

Warm Prompt? Heat Spout? Mirror Burst? Be Afraid.

So Profound. Haha
If You Don't Brush, The Door Won't Open

Take Your Time To Rise.  Man, Never Thought Of This. Thanks. 

Kg Pandan Backpackers In Action (Plus A Tour Guide)

 The Great Warrior Was Here

Tiap Hari Sayur Dan Air Kosong. Tak Ada Milo Ke? Aparaa.

This Big Guy Is Blocking My View. Wait I'll Tell My Husband.

The Girls Were Laughing At Jade Jokes
"You've Too Little Oxygen, But Too Many WhatsApp Groups" 
Feels Like Taiping. Please Take Us To Jade Factory.

Just In Case You Don't Believe We were In Shenzhen

The Oldest Couple In Shenzhen