Tag Archives: Kota Bharu

The Malay Experience

In 2008, after a short 4th year of medical school, I caught a flight to Kuala Lumpur. My first trip to Asia. Solo. I cannot remember how I came to choose Malaysia. I think I wanted to go to Asia, wanted an English speaking setting and importantly somewhere warm. Sri Lanka was another option but I didn’t know anyone there so Malaysia was the choice I made.

My mama as a human rights activist worked with an organisation with close links to Malaysia so she had been to visit many times and had made some good friends there. When I asked her for help, she was on it. She contacted her friends and asked whether any of them had medical connections in Malaysia. Fortuitously, one of her friend knew the health minister in Kelantan State. The only question was did I want to go to Kelantan, being the most conservative of states, quite ‘Muslim’ in its ways? Well, being a very modern Muslim I could see why some would question my willingness to be in a community that was rather more conservative than I chose to live my life. But I wanted an experience so I had no hesitation in saying yes.  Then I had to find somewhere to live for the month. Another one of my mama’s friends had a GP husband who was resident in Kota Bharu, the capital city of Kelantan state where the hospital was located. His home was too far to walk to and from the hospital so he organised for me to stay with his sister.

A few days before I was to fly out, he emailed to say that unfortunately his sister had a family emergency so she wouldn’t be in Kota Bharu (KB) for my arrival and he didn’t know when she would be back. Before I could panic, he went on to say I was welcome to stay at his and I would have to catch rides with his grandchildren to and from the hospital. So back to the beginning, I arrived in Kuala Lumpur on a warm afternoon. As I got off the plane after my 12-hour trip, I felt a queer tingle in my feet. I looked down and lo and behold my feet was swollen and my toes resembled little chipolatas. Remember I was only 22 years old so this was rather foreign. I wriggled my little sausage toes and poked both feet. Clearly, I should have mobilised more on the long flight. Noted. I made my way through baggage retrieval, immigration and customs and got to my hotel without incident. One of my sister’s uni friends generously came to find me later and took me out for dinner. The next day, after he kindly took me to get a phone and camera, we went to the Twin towers. What a sight! My jetlag was cured and I was suddenly filled with excitement. My first adult adventure in foreign country! The next day, my mama’s friend who had been instrumental in organising the whole trip took me to the famous Batu caves where we took in the impressive sights and also had one of the best Indian meals I have ever had.

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I think the sister in KB being away was a huge blessing in disguise. My new digs were rather luxurious compared to what I had been expecting. Dr R and his children were excellent hosts and made me feel at home. Bibi, their Indonesian housekeeper, was a godsend. She couldn’t speak a word of English and I couldn’t speak a word of Malay or Indonesian (a variant of Malay). It didn’t matter! She was a lovely lovely woman. She was short (average for the population) and portly for want of a better word. A little like Mrs Potts in Beauty and the Beast – very motherly figure. She always had a smile on her face and fed us beautifully. When I came home, there was always a jug of iced tea waiting to cool me down. It was very hot in the afternoons and the icy drink was like manna from heaven. I would change into my cotton Malay dress and throw myself down on the sofa in the upstairs living room which I made my own and down the cold fluid. That was all the activity I could manage until the sun went down and brought with it some refreshing breeze.42

The only cloud on the sunny Malay sky, apart from the relentless over 30-degree heat, were the mosquitoes. I was told soon after landing in KB that we were in the middle of a Dengue outbreak, spread by pesky mozzies. Now I am one of those who will get bitten wherever I go, regardless of covering or insect repellent. I like to say I have juicy blood. So what were my chances of contracting Dengue. Well, reassuringly (not!) I was informed the virus was only carried by the mosquito with the striped-back. I laughed about this – pray how was I supposed to tell whether a mosquito had stripes on its back? And if I had such keen senses, surely, I could just squash the little terrors before they bit me (whether they were the evil striped ones or not). Also I was helpfully informed that I was more at risk of catching Dengue Haemorrhagic fever in my first episode of the illness (I have since learnt that you are more likely to catch the severe strain on a second episode). Fabulous, I was at risk of catching a deadly disease (risk of death from the haemorrhagic disease was significant, 2-3 per 100). I got a few bites despite precautions but avoided Dengue fever thankfully.

The medical experience was quite opening. Based on the old British system, it was still quite paternalistic and the doctors knew best in most cases. A big population of KB was poorly-educated farmers and fishermen so many of the patients had no interest in being given hard choices. They wanted the doctors to diagnose them and tell them what was to be done. The nurses and healthcare assistants were also very much directed by the doctors and there was a noticeable hierarchy. The respect for doctors was palpable and that extended to us the medical students. To be fair, the doctors I came into contact with were respectful in return.

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I was with a group of female medical students, most of whom were indigenous Kelantanese girls coming home from KL for their elective. They were lovely girls. Very welcoming. They were my unofficial translators with the patients and did the job without minding how much of a drag it was.  They were all quite petite. I think the tallest was 2-3 inches shorter than I was. At 5 foot 6, I never thought of myself as tall but there I was being referred to as the tall foreigner. It felt rather nice. The girls all wore the hijab (hair covering with their traditional Malay dress) and were all shocked to learn that I was  Muslim as I wore the lightest formal clothes I could find and no head covering. However, they didn’t judge me. If anything, they seemed to be impressed by my independence. One of them, Nurul became quite close to me and I got to visit a more traditional Malay family and eat with them. Again, her family was so welcoming and humble that I wanted to adopt them all. Nurul had a small car which she generously used to take me and the girls to the markets, museums, cultural centre and even the seaside. Their culture was beautiful as was their food, music and natural environment.

Back in Dr R’s home, I made friends with the loveliest little girl called Ayin. His granddaughter, the youngest of his 3 grandchildren who I shared the school runs with. She was a tiny little thing. I think she was 4 or 5 years old and either she didn’t understand that I understood not a word of Malay or she didn’t care. She would come to my room after work and tell me all about her day (in Malay). She would share jokes and laugh. She would admire my little knick-knacks and tell me how much she loved my things. I would laugh with her, reply in English and invite her to look closer at my things and show her what new things did. She particularly loved my Malay silver butterfly earrings which I got there in KB and I would let her borrow them. One afternoon, me and my little friend were hanging out and chatting when Dr R came home early from his GP practice. As he walked past my room, he heard us conversing and was amazed. At dinner, he asked what it was we were talking about. It amused him to hear that I had no idea what Ayin was talking about but that we had these conversations. I was her ‘aunty’ and she was my little niece. Didn’t matter one bit that we spoke completely different languages but we were great friends which was all that mattered.

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The month in Malaysia flew by and although I was off on holiday to Thailand for 10 days, I was quite sad to leave my new family. I had an absolutely amazing elective in KB, met the most wonderful people and experienced healthcare with different levels of expectations and resources. I haven’t been back since then but I definitely want to take my husband and baby there so they can experience the great country that is Malaysia.

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The Magnificence of the Ocean

I love nature. The great outdoors (as long as it is not grey and miserable). Of the great outdoors, the ocean is my great love. Which is ironic because I cannot swim so really, I should stay away from ferociously powerful currents and the vastness of the ocean. But I can’t. I feel the draw like a moth to light. My heart beats stronger and happier when I am standing with my feet in wet sand, my ears full of the sound of waves crashing all around me, the spray of salty water on my face and very few people around me.

My earliest memories of the ocean are from holidays with my grandparents in Lagos which is on the Atlantic Ocean. Back then, Bar beach was still a place to go. Safe enough for children and I remember even then the huge waves which threatened to sweep me out into the ocean. My grandparents never came. My granddad was too busy for day time outings and I have no idea why Mammie, my grandmother never came. My mother would always prepare lots of sandwiches and an assortment of other snacks early in the morning and we would head out before noon and spend the whole day on the beach. My sister and I would build sandcastles, paddle in the water that foamed at our feet and watch the older children and adults swimming out into the deep waters to catch a wave back onto shore. I remember getting tired and having sand in every nook and cranny and sorely needing a shower by the time we were bundled into the car for home, all of the food eaten and all the excitement replaced by fatigue.

A few years later, Bar beach was destroyed by the power of the ocean so we found another beach. My mother discovered Takuwa Bay which involved catching a speedboat from a boatyard in Victoria Island. Takuwa Bay, because of its location off the mainland, was definitely much nicer. Cleaner water and sand, less crowded and the water less wild than Bar beach became. The speedboat was a new thrill and I loved the sensation of skimming across the water as the wind whipped past and we bobbed in our life vests, grinning like loons in pleasure. I remember one year we went when I was about 6 years old. My mum had just gone to London for work and came back with a beautiful swimming costume, a little swimming skirt and bandeau top in ivory silk. It was so pretty I couldn’t wait for our annual Lagos trip. Off we went to Takuwa Bay first weekend we got. I remember running around feeling rather grand. I think the headiness of my cool outfit went to my head and I forgot to pay attention to the ocean. Next thing I remembered was being engulfed by a huge wall of water. Knowing I couldn’t swim, I curled up into a ball, clasped my knees to my chest and held my breath. I don’t know how long I was under for but when the water washed back, there I was on the sand, eyes closed, breath held. My sister reports that she had seen me disappear in the water and thought I was a goner. Luckily for me, I was so young I didn’t let the fear overcome me. I was safe and unfazed. Within minutes, I was back playing the water whilst my sister stood guard.

When I went to secondary school, the tradition of Takuwa Bay beach days with my mum continued. The only thing that changed was the food we took. In the late 90s, we discovered the best chicken in the world. It was made on one of the street corners not far from Musa Yar’adua Street in VI. It was a small stall, very unassuming but damn! That guy could make chicken. We found out that he marinated it overnight and then grilled it to perfection on the day and on our beach days; we would often have to wait for the chicken to be done because he was aiming for the lunchtime crowd whilst we were trying to beat the lunchtime traffic and get to the beach before lunch. It was the juiciest, most tender delicious chicken ever. I have eaten a lot of chicken in a lot of countries since then and I swear that chicken would win a taste contest hands down. Makes my mouth water even today, over 15 years since I last one. I have no doubt that the chicken guy has moved on but the memory will remain with me forever and I often wonder where did he go? I do hope he is still making his amazing chicken and spreading that joy somewhere.

There was an annual ‘house’ trip in Queen’s College, my secondary school, to the beach where hundreds of girls packed into several buses and headed to the beach at Lekki. We all had to wear our Sunday wear out over whatever else we had with us that was more beach appropriate. There was always happy singing as we were liberated from within the walls of our school. We would save up our pocket money for the trip and gorge on suya, fresh coconuts and sweets. Despite the frustrations of the slowness of getting to and from the beach, it was a day we all loved and cherished and although I cannot remember much detail about any of the trips, I know it was a highlight and suya, sand and sea definitely had much to do with it.

Until this year, I loved my lie ins and there was no worse idea for me than to get up at the crack of dawn during holidays. I thought anyone that did that was rather balmy. That is until I went to Malaysia and was lucky enough to spend the night in a rented log cabin on the beaches of Kota Bharu. I think I was awoken by the first rays of light and whereas normally I would roll over and pull the covers over my head to block out the signs of morning, I was drawn out of bed by the gentle sound of waves crashing onto shore. I found myself heading out of the cabin and towards the vast ocean. I was all alone on the beach as the sky gradually lightened and the sun rose to greet the dawn. The fine mist of salty sea water coated my face and my heart raced in exhilaration as I stood with my feet in the warm water surging to and fro. I felt in that moment how small I was in this place we all call home. On earth. The ocean’s might and power was all around me and I felt like I belonged. Like I was part of this huge family of creation that did its function regardless of what we humans were doing. As we slept, the ocean’s currents were in constant motion, waves in continuous motion, forming and crashing. I savoured the moment of aloneness and silence. I felt my heart synchronise its beat to that of the ocean. I listened to the music of life and I wanted to be frozen in that moment forever. Eventually, after more than an hour of sitting and not thinking of anything but the now, another guest rose from their bed and took a morning stroll along the beach. The moment was over but in my memories, it will live forever.

Earlier this year, my husband and I went on Honeymoon to Mauritius. Mauritius is a destination I would recommend with all my heart. The Indian ocean is the best I have ever experienced. The water is so gorgeous, that beautiful turquoise colour that is neither blue nor green. And clean as can be. Despite not being able to swim, there was no way I was going to pass up being in the middle of the ocean swimming with dolphins. Off I went with George at dawn in the speedboat to Tamarind Bay where the unsuspecting wild dolphins lay asleep. I strapped on my life vest, stuck on the snorkelling gear and jumped in when it was my turn. And I got to be in the ocean with the lithe creatures we call dolphins. To be honest, being short-sighted with no glasses and being hampered by my inability to swim, I didn’t really ‘swim with dolphins’ but I was in the same strip of water as them and that was good enough for me.

When I got back on the speed boat, I was able to see them properly and even got a baby dolphin give us a little show – incredibly this show-boater of a dolphin did a series of leaps and spins as if he knew exactly what we were all hoping for. How lucky were the guys who took us out to swim with dolphins that day…what an amazing job it is to be able to jump into the ocean and cavort with dolphins. Le sigh. To round off the day, when we got back towards shore, we did a bit of snorkelling which even through my myopic gaze was the most incredible sight. The richness of the colours and the exotic fish blew my little mind. None of the images I have seen captured on camera compare to the real thing.

For me absolutely one of the reasons to believe in a higher power than in an evolution that happened completely by chance. The complexity of the ocean, its currents and shifts and rhythms. All part of an intelligent design for me but this blog is not about that. So yeah, the ocean. Amazeballs!!! If I could be anything or anyone, I would be a mermaid because as Sebastien says to Ariel in Little Mermaid ‘under the sea’ is where it’s at!