31 March 2013


Every story begins sometime in the past, some point that is relevant to the conclusion of the story. I've been thinking all night about where this story begins, but I don't, as I sometimes do, feel a strong commitment one way or another. So I'll start in the rain in Paris in October of 2009: 
I am pushing a double pram with Naomi and Mei through the corral leading up to the Eiffel Tower. The width of the corral is almost exactly the width of the double pram and I keep getting caught, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, until we finally arrive at the lift to the top. We are soaked, Yoko and I, but the kids are dry and bored under the plastic rain cover and I am reciting Nietzsche to myself: the will to power. I remember recounting this story to my PhD supervisor who often listened to stories of me and my family with a kind of disbelief and wondered aloud about the wisdom of travelling with children. Will they even remember any of it?
Most of the stories that I've told so far about our adventures in Malaysia have included some appearance by 'Auntie and Uncle', the Malay family that live behind our terrace house in Taman Sri Minang. Auntie and Uncle both work for the Ministry of Tourism in difference capacities: upwardly mobile, middle-class Malays who, as far as I can tell, are relatively conservative, but have lived abroad and enjoy International company. The girls, Naomi and Mei, were on school holiday this last week, and somehow in talking to Auntie across the alley behind the house, we agreed to take a trip together. I was unclear for most of the last three weeks what this trip would entail precisely or where we would go (I thought mistakenly we were going to Tioman Island for most of last week), but on Friday morning at 7:30, we drove around the block to their house and followed their whole family--Auntie, Uncle, and their teenage kids--through KL and up out into the countryside, headed to Pangkor Island. Auntie wanted to buy anchovies: the anchovies are very good there.
Getting to Pangkor Island, or to Lumut, the town where we stayed on the mainland, included driving some 120 kilometers off the expressway in the countryside of West Malaysia, through palm oil plantation after palm oil plantation, the kids alternatively sleeping then laughing then screaming in the back of the car. The trip was supposed to take 3 hours and some change, but stretched to 5 after we stopped a couple of times, once at a wayside where monkeys were coming out of the palms to eat food that people were throwing at them, once to lay out a picnic brunch on plastic sheets in a parking lot, and once to get petrol. 
The hotel Uncle has chosen for us, negotiating some discount, overlooked the beach and was, from what I could tell, the nicest place in Lumut. This of course being Malaysia, is not necessarily saying much: we stayed in the nicest hotel in Kajang when we arrived and still struggled with basic amenities. The Orient Star, however, had the key amenity needed for a successful trip with three kids under five: a large, shallow pool which we spent most of the time in and around. Yoko remarked that the hotel felt very Muslim, which I agreed with, but immediately felt strange about saying. It's like things are in Malaysia: places feel Muslim or they feel Chinese. It's partially the people around, it's partially the architecture, it's partially what's being sold. Like a green Carlsburg sign gives it away: everyone's welcome, but that doesn't matter.

On Saturday after Auntie and Uncle left to attend a wedding and go back to Uncle's hometown, we took the ferry to Pangkor Island and swam in the ocean for the day. Not the sort of tropical paradise you imagine from a brochure, but very much Malaysia as I've come to expect it. The beach was dirty and there was broken glass in the sand. There was a public toilet that was completely locked up although the hours said 9AM-7PM. We went across the street to a mini-market to ask to use their toilet, but the woman told us to use the public toilet: there was a phone number. I called and was told to hold on, someone would come to open it up. After about ten minutes, I called again and the same person I talked to before told me that the man who opened the toilet was eating lunch and would be back at 1, in about 20 minutes. I got upset on the phone, but the man clearly didn't care: it's lunchtime. So Naomi and Mei both pee'd behind a palm tree at the gate: this is Malaysia, after all.

I'm always curious about the Western couples in places like this. There weren't many, but a few interesting stories to be sure: a young British guy without a shirt and a tattoo of a cross on his forearm with a partner, renting a motorbike. A mixed-race (Chinese-Malaysian and white) guy with a Western partner and his Chinese-Malaysian family, all having breakfast at the hotel. Two fat, sunburnt Americans lying on the beach on Pangkor, looking uncomfortable in the sun. How did we all get here, where does their story begin.

Nothing was easy for the three days: Mia clingy, Naomi complaining, Mei running into the street. I can hear my dad in my own voice, like I am threatening to turn this car around if everyone doesn't shut the hell up right now. But these holidays are amazing for the serendipity they afford. Like the broken down amusement park in Lumut, full of rides that look like they will kill you. There was a ferris wheel, all rusted out and about to fall over, but it was running. I bought tokens and got Mei and talked Naomi into riding with me. The sort of thing you should never do with your kids: we paid out RM8 and loaded into the third basket. And suddenly we were up above the city, the ocean and the setting sun--the sea breeze coming and Naomi on my lap, laughing after having been terrified. We went round and round, Yoko taking pictures as we came past. Daddy, when will it stop? Naomi asks, laughing. I don't know, I say, maybe it will never stop and we'll be here forever. Forever!? Naomi says, laughing: Really?! Forever?!
I don't know what they will remember about this: maybe they will remember me cross with everyone, passive-aggressively complaining to Yoko about the cost of another thing we're doing. Maybe they will remember crying and crying because I wouldn't buy another toy to play with in the pool ten minutes before we were going to leave. Still, the pictures tell a much happier story, the one that I hope endures. I remember Paris fondly, despite the rain: we ate so much chocolate. And so for Pangkor Island, let's forget the rubbish in the water and remember instead the swing under the tree, where you built sandcastles. We spent the day away from the city and all the frustration of the real world, together as a family, with the whole world underneath us.