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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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What or Who Was I in My Past Lives?

I was reading a book this weekend just gone and the main character had hypnosis to remember her childhood. This reminded me of the popular BBC day time show which put celebrities through ‘regression’ and re-enacted their past memories to try and establish who these celebrities were in their past lives. Before I write down my thoughts, I have a disclaimer. I do not belief in reincarnation and living multiple lives. Sometimes I think it would be rather nice to have another chance to do it all over again but then again, if you come back into a worse situation what is the point? One life is long enough for me, thank you very much.

I figure the biggest clues to what or who I might have been comes from the things I love instinctively. So first of all, I love physical contact. As a child, I would literally drape myself all over my mama whenever she was seating down. I also loved to climb and sit in tree tops. I was light on my feet and despite many falls, never broke a bone. I have always loved hugs and being stroked particularly on my back. Remind you of anything? That’s right: a cat. I remember loving the Jungle Boy, the film adaptation of Disney’s Jungle Book and my favourite thing was when Mowgli came face to face with ‘Shere Khan’ the fierce tiger and stared him down. Since then, I have loved big cats as well as the domestic ones we kept and tried unsuccessfully to keep safe from our dogs. I loved seeing the white lions and tigers at The Safari Park and I know that if I could choose to return as an animal, my 2nd choice would be as a lioness.

My 1st choice animal would be a horse. My granddad has a farm and when my mama moved back to Yola, I was less than a year old. She was the farm manager in those days so being a baby, I naturally spent a lot of time on the farm with her. The stables were full to bursting with mostly polo horses in those days and my mum likes to recount that I learnt to ride before I could walk. What she means is that I loved the horses and whenever there was a stable hand with any spare time, I would be popped onto the back of a gentle mare and walked around. I never had proper lessons but I watched my uncles play polo and I always knew I wanted to ride horses. When I was old enough, it came as naturally as breathing for me to be on the back of a horse. Of course in those days, I couldn’t handle the frisky younger polo horses but there was 1 in particular called Sofia that I favoured and every chance I got, I rode her.

So why do I love horses so much? I think they are absolutely gorgeous creatures. I love their soft velvety noses especially when they brush it across your palm as they take sugar cubes from your hand. I love their large teeth and long lean faces. I love their beautiful manes especially when they are shaved and plaited before polo matches. I love the deep brown of their eyes and their ridiculously long eyelashes. When they look at me, I feel like they can see into my soul and read my thoughts. They whiney at exactly the right moments in a tale. I love their foals with their ungainly long legs and how they skip around and play as their mums graze. I love watching them breastfeed then lean contentedly into their mums’ flanks. I love watching the adults gallop and seeing their muscles ripple under their glossy warm coat. I love to brush them down after a ride and watch the shine on their coat. I love their smell which lingers on my jeans for days after I have had a ride. As I have got older then moved away to England, I don’t get as much opportunities but I still go back to the farm and ride when I visit.

Fulanis are cow people and nomadic in origin. Beef is in general loved universally by the Fulanis and the more, the merrier. There is nothing my granddad loves more than firing up the clay barbeque pit and roasting beef straight from the abattoir. My sister is also a big meat eater and could eat meat all day every day. I on the other hand, like my mama, prefer seafood. I would eat seafood all day every day. I love it all except slimy oysters and odd mussels. The other love that goes hand in hand with seafood is being by the sea. I cannot recall ever being stressed at the seaside. Not even when I thought I was going to drown once. Not even in a little speedboat in the middle of a turbulent ocean when I can barely float in the shallow end of a swimming pool. I honestly feel the happiest when I am by the sea, hearing the waves crash onto shore, having brine sprayed onto my face and burrowing my bare feet into fine sand. Maybe in another life, I was an islander.

There are some smells I love with an intensity I cannot explain. I love the smell of coffee and did so from a very early age despite hating the taste (my granddad was addicted to it so I naturally I stole a taste). I used to add a pinch to my black tea so that I could smell coffee without its taste. Every time I walk past a coffee shop, I want to go in and sit just so every breath I inhale, I am immersed in the smell of coffee. Yet I can go months without drinking a cup of coffee. I also love the smell of freshly baked bread, particularly baguette and tiger bread. In comparison to coffee, with bread, I cannot wait to tear into the loaf and devour the piece. I do not even need butter or jam. Just fresh bread is enough for me. This makes me think of Belle in the little market town street in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. That fact in addition to the relative ease with which I navigate French makes me think that perhaps in a former life, I might have been a French girl.

Lastly, I wonder about my love for certain tastes. Sweet and sour fruits are a particular love for me. I especially love tamarind which I started eating when I was about 4 years and over the years, that love has never waned. And since then, I have found many other fruits with the same sweet and sour nature. Sour sop (or guanabana), mangoes, chappulle and mboye (found in north-eastern Nigeria), agbalumo (found in Central to South-western Nigeria) and tsamiyan biri all over the north. When I couldn’t find something to satiate the hunger for sweet and sour, I would cut one lime into 2 halves and dip the top of each half into a plate of sugar, allowing it to soak up the sweetness then suck on it. I can feel my taste buds tingle now as I remember the sweetness giving way to sharp tanginess that made me tingle all over and screw up my face even as I revelled in the taste sensation. The other taste I love is chilli pepper. There is rarely a time when I feel that no chilli is a good idea. Sometimes I crave the heat of scotch bonnet peppers so badly that I get up and cook up a scotch bonnet chutney. This chutney is so fierce that just opening the jar I store it in makes my eyes water and draws an unexpected sneeze from me. I must have 5 or 6 different chilli containers in my spice shelf yet every time I see a different form of chilli, I am tempted to buy it. This all despite the fact that my gut has decided that it is rather sensitive to chilli and the older I get, the less tolerant it gets. However, I am so passionate about chilli that I could not live without them. That combination of loves to me brings in mind Thai food…which means I could have been Thai in another life.

Of course I have many other likes that make perfect sense. Like peppermint. My mama’s main craving whilst pregnant with me was Trebor peppermint so I think her blood had high levels which became the norm to me. As far back as I can remember I have always loved Trebor peppermints and buttermints which are still ever present in my home to this day. I love all small animals and people and for me, the smaller the better. But who can resist a small helpless creature with massive Irises and total innocence? I also love vanilla ice-cream but only in an ice-cream cone. Without a cone, the experience just isn’t the same. I think it is the contrast in texture between crunchy and soft creamy ice-cream and the contrast of room temp cone with freezing cold ice cream. I love pancakes, thick and fluffy as the Americans make them. I love pies with mash, mushy peas and gravy. I love the colour red. I love elephants and camels and riding them. What I am trying to say is, even with a long list of likes and dislikes, there are some irrational ones that make me think for a second: what if I like them now because I loved them in another life and it is the leftover memories making me feeling the love? I wonder…