Monday, May 29, 2006

Restless in Kuching

Barely 12 days before the end of the SEAPA journalism fellowship, the sun rising and setting below Kuching, I've been wrestling with my demons as I tried to befriend words to tell the story. What words? What stories?
In Kuala Lumpur, words escaped me as I grappled with the memories of strange sounds and strange phrases, rolling Masjid Jamek at the tip of my tongue as I inserted ringgits and pulled out cards at the Putra train station, only to lose the phrase just a few steps away, my mind playing tricks on me, rendering me helpless, powerless.
But in Kuching, a benign feeling stayed with me since the day I arrived on a cab driven by a Chinese Malaysian driver. As if there was a benign spirit blowing a warm wind to my face. The city had a charming and welcoming air.
I walked over the whole stretch of its cobbled waterfront to watch the river cruises in the distance or gawk at the white men who looked like the white rajahs of old. I liked to listen to Rudyard Kipling's accent spoken on the streets.
How could I write a story as complicated as Malaysia? How could I put this strange country on the palm of my hand?
The cab driver who brought me from the airport was a Chinese guy who scarcely spoke English but even his presence was rather comforting to a stranger like me. He took me straight to the acacia-shaded yard of the Anglican St. Thomas Guesthouse, a very cozy wooden building over a hundred years old, its floors made of ancient wood.
Elsie, the woman who showed me to my room was a Bidayuh who told me that the guesthouse where I was staying used to be a dormitory in 1950s and the 1960s for girls studying at the Anglican school nearby!
Built by Anglican missionaries in 1848, the whole place did not have the spookiness of Kuala Lumpor's Selesa Hotel where I stayed a few days before I arrived in Kuching. A half-opened door just across my room revealed the outlines of a Dutch woman agitatedly talking on her phone. On the dark, ancient stairs as I rushed out to go, were a couple of cheerful Black Americans to stay the night at the inn.
Kuching simply felt homey and warm. Here, you can walk the sidewalks and feel you've been living here all your life. Even the streets had no sharp bends! They flowed out so smoothly, as if those who built the roads really knew the balance of the yin and yang. Most of the shops that I've seen so far have Chinese characters. Lots of Chinese live in Kuching.
Just a walking distance from the Anglican Church, just across a Chinese temple, is the Medan Pelita building (which looks like a mall), which also houses a seven-eleven and an internet cafe!
The Anglican St. Thomas Inn sat close to everything in downtown Kuching. Room at the guesthouse was only 18 ringgits a day, a lot cheaper than the 80 ringgits I paid the YMCA hostel and that spooky Selesa in KL!
Elsie would have given me quite a big room fit for the whole family (with three beds) and a huge bathroom for only 30 ringgits but I declined because I'm just a very simple person with simple needs.
Besides, I was already missing my Sean and Karl and did not want to heighten the emptiness.

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