Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Chimes of freedom

Some of you will have observed that I haven't updated this blog since December 26th (incidentally the fourth anniversary of the terrible Sumatran tsunami that wiped out nearly 300,000 human lives). Not to worry, I'm alive and well, but I was in Penang for a couple of days and I didn't get anywhere near a computer. When I finally got home on December 29th, visitors began turning up in an endless stream - and they were sufficiently charming to distract me from blogging.

I was in Penang to "officiate" at the opening of Penang-based Mexican artist Ricardo Chavez Tovar's latest installation in his series, The Muse Is Not Available. Ricardo had asked me to be guest of honor at his exhibition in Kuala Lumpur in June 2007 - but I was forced to cancel out at the last minute, so I couldn't possibly refuse this time.

Getting there took a couple of hours longer than expected on account of the holiday season. Bus tickets were all sold out and I had to wait more than two hours in Ipoh to continue my journey to Penang. Once there, of course, it was really sweet to catch up with my old friend Askandar Unglehrt, surrealist artist and owner of the Armenian Street studio gallery where Ricardo's installation was being set up. Askandar met his wife Tengku Idaura (a Kelantanese princess) in Paris in the late 1960s when they were both studying French and she has since become my friend too. I enjoy discussing art with Askandar and politics with Tengku Idaura who diligently keeps up with the blogs.

Meeting a few blogger friends in Penang was an unexpected bonus and a real treat. At Ricardo's opening I bumped into the très chic Estrelita Soliano Grosse, her affable husband Stephen, and their delectable nieces, Shakunthala and Vayshnavee.

A little later, Walski and his wife showed up and drove me to Paula Khoo's residence off Green Lane where other friends (mostly bloggers) had gathered with a delicious potluck dinner to belatedly celebrate Paula's birthday.

Standing (L-R): Peng, Yew See, Walski, Philip, Daniel, Paula, Antares, Jong; Kensan (seated)

In real life, Paula Khoo is a personable powerhouse of a multi-tasker with a truly generous heart - someone I'm genuinely glad to call a friend. Walski, like his blog, is instantly befriendable and ever so smart. Daniel YKL lost his voice to laryngeal cancer a few years ago but remains irrepressibly cheerful and expressive, a most lovable guy indeed. Kensan offered me a lift back to Askandar's house and we ended up chatting till past 4.30AM. Discovered Kensan was a former banker with the most adventurous past anyone can possibly imagine!


As to be expected I slept right through my cellphone alarm and by the time I was ready to catch the bus home, it was past 3PM. When I got to the Sungai Nibong bus terminal I was told no tickets to Ipoh were available until 4:45PM, so I sat around drinking coffee with Askandar (right) till it was time to board the bus. The traffic was dense as hordes of holidaymakers were heading home. Shortly after Butterworth the blue sky gave way to a torrential rainstorm which made progress even slower.

The fat guy seated beside me busied himself with a portable video game and, I suspect, let out gas several times - the silent but deadly type. I began to feel claustrophobic and yearned for the good old days before airconditioning when bus windows could be opened to let out fetid air.

To compound my discomfort, the cold, wet weather took its toll on my bladder. After 20 minutes of trying to focus on other matters, the need to urinate turned into an intense preoccupation and blotted out all other considerations. I politely asked the bus driver to pull up at the next petrol station and he reassured me that the bus would be stopping just up ahead. That "up ahead" went on another ten minutes or so with no stop in sight...

I told the driver the situation was becoming urgent and he again insisted the restroom stop was mere minutes away. Rather than create a commotion by grabbing the wheel and forcing the driver to stop, I decided to unload at least part of the contents of my bursting bladder into the half-bottle of drinking water I had on hand. The fat guy beside me was fast asleep and the passenger across the aisle was looking blankly ahead. Furtively I unzipped my fly and inserted the tip of my willy into the bottle... aaaaaahhh.... blessed relief! The bottle was too small to hold the entire contents of my distended bladder but enough had been discharged to minimize the discomfort. I screwed the bottle cap back on and zipped up discreetly. Long time since I've lived so dangerously - boy, it felt really good!

The rain was still pissing down when we got to Ipoh around 8PM - too late to catch a connecting bus to Tanjong Malim where I had parked my van. "Try the train," the bus driver had suggested, so I walked ten minutes in the heavy drizzle to the Ipoh train station. There I was told the next train south would depart at 1:12AM, but only 3rd class tickets were available. No problem - but now I had a 5-hour wait ahead of me. Next to the station the century-old Majestic Hotel was advertising rooms at RM73 nett, RM40 for 4 hours. I figured I owed it to myself to spend the next few hours in relative comfort and booked a room for 4 hours.

Only problem was, there were no food outlets at the Majestic Hotel. The nearest eating place was a Mamak restaurant 15 minutes' walk in the steady drizzle away. Finally at 12:30AM I checked out and made my way to the station where I discovered a landslide near Taiping had blocked the tracks.

Nobody could say when the southbound train would arrive. I attempted to take a nap in a corner of the station but a raucous group of backpacking youths generated enough noise to wake up an entire cemetery. Each time I enquired at the office I was told something different. One KTM employee nonchalantly suggested I catch the early commuter to KL at 5AM. Then the signboard on the platform began flashing the ominous announcement that the next train to KL would depart at 9AM...

By this time the entire journey home had acquired a distinctly surreal atmosphere. I felt like I was trapped in a labyrinth in some interminable bad dream where the moment you think you've reached your destination the place transforms into some other location. Who could possibly have expected that a simple bus journey from Penang to Tanjong Malim could stretch out beyond 14 hours... which is ultimately how long it took me to get home (the southbound train eventually left Ipoh just before 4AM)!

The overwhelming joy I felt when I reached my van and found it safe and sound... it was at that moment I knew what my resolution for 2009 was going to be. Like Dorothy after her adventures in the Land of Oz, I resolved that in 2009 I will not leave home just to be sociable and obliging. The only inducements that might tempt me to venture beyond KL would be the offer of a substantial amount of cash (nothing less than 50k!)... or a weekend of uninhibited, uncomplicated, unprecedented sex.

View from my veranda

[Additional photography by Estrelita Soliano Grosse and Paula's husband, Khor]