Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Sungai Petani Chronicles

I am in Sungai Petani now. After a night of no sleep (mosquitoes, what can you do?) I took off at six in the morning and arrived here at about 10.30am. Then I followed the signs, made my way to the middle of town, and called my friend Mary, to come meet me. She did. I've been staying with her ever since.

Today I'm having my second glass of jeera water (or water boiled with cumin seeds). I think it's having a very positive effect on my system. Also, despite the heavy traffic passing right in front of the house 24/7 (and I do mean 24/7 because I can walk up at 3 or 4 or 5 in the morning and the traffic outside is just as loud and heavy) my body has slowed down and I'm having a peaceful time.

Mary's mom is delightful. She had been very deaf for a while (a case of misdiagnosis and her eardrums soaking in fluid for six months before the third audiologist found out what was wrong and gave her the required operation) but her hearing has improved marvelously (with Mary here full-time) and we have all these chats where she tells me about the old days and what things were like, in Kerala, in Malaya). As a sort of history buff (I don't care about politics so much, but more about the homely details of everyday life), I lap it all up.

On my second day here we went out to town, for a shop. I parked my car in SP Plaza, stuffed my car keys in my pocket and we walked all over town (stopping at the stationery shop for my Lamy refills, the pork lady for the Sungai Petani Chinese roast pork specialty) and from thence, to the open air market where we proceeded to get kilos and kilos of fruit (mangosteens, rambutans and durians). We left it with Mary's boy:

Boy: Just call me Mi...

Mary: Is that short for Suhaimi?

Boy: Also can?

Mary: Also can? What's your actual name?

Boy: Helmi.

Anyways, then we made our way back to SP Plaza to pick up my car so we could swing by and pick up our things...too heavy to carry and I was already drooping from the heat, which Mary assured me was mild compared to what it could be in SP. When we got back to SP Plaza, and Mary had done some light shopping at the supermarket, we encountered our first reverse. I stuffed my hand in my pocket and realised...there was no car key there.

Things went rapidly downhill from there. We had wandered all over creation that day. It would be next to impossible, firstly to retrace our actual steps, secondly, that even if we succeeded in doing that, that someone else would not have picked it up. We wandered in front of the median swatch of grass in front of the clock tower, and as we dragged our feet I saw the police station. I suggested we go to the police station and see if anyone had found the key and dropped it off there.

After all, that's what I would do if I found a set of car keys. It was a faint hope at best, and I didn't like police stations from various negative experiences in Selangor, where I would go to report something and instead of helping the police would bully me.

First we had to locate the entrance. The actual entrance was locked. The second entrance had something built in front of it. We had to go round the back. When we finally located the entrance and got into the place that would take our report, there was this young Indian girl there talking to the police officer on duty, who glanced at Mary and me (hot, dishevelled and worried-looking) and asked us what the problem was. I thought she was there to make a report as well, and thought, wow, for someone who has just been robbed or whatever, she does not look distressed.

OK, the long and short of it, was that this 24-year-old was not a member of the public but a police detective. And while I was making the police report (which the officer on duty actually did for me), she made some phone calls, and signalled for Mary and I to follow her.

Apparently, she had called the locksmith, was going to drive us there. Which was very kind (I had dreaded walking any further in this heat). But Milani's kindness did not stop there. She drove us to the locksmith, hopped out of the car to get the locksmith in question who could not leave his shop unattended to get on the phone and contact someone from the network of locksmiths in SP to come to SP Plaza, then drove us back to the car and waited and when she found out that we had left food at the market and needed to pick it up, drove us to the market to pick up the stuff, drove back to SP Plaza, waited until the guy had opened the car, disabled the alarmed, fiddled with the keyhole until he had made the necessary measurements, started the car, so I could follow him to his shop, where he made the key, and did not leave until she had seen us safely on our way home.

It was all a little surreal. I had never met any stranger who would be as kind and who would go so much out of her way. It was lunchtime and she was hungry but she refused to leave us to our own devices, or allow us to buy her lunch.

It's my job, she said, every time we tried to thank her or invite her out for a meal or tea or anything.

After a profusion of thanks (she kindly but firmly asked us to stop thanking her) she left and we exchanged a few text messages. We discovered in our talks with her than helping people was just what she loved to do.

She had joined the police force at 18. And while she was doing a diploma in IT at night, it was not because she wanted to get a job outside. She loved being on the force.

Milani was unusual. But everyone at the Sungai Petani police station was courteous, helpful and all said, don't worry, she will take care of you, she will help you. They handheld us every step of the way and what started off as a potentially horrible experience had turned into something really positive. Our hearts overflowed with gratitude and we were carried along, as it were, on the waves of all this collective kindness.

It's been a few days here. What I've learned in this short time is that Mary is a superstar.

Everywhere we go, we have taxi drivers honking hello to Mary (one of them even goes as far as taking his hands off the wheel to bring them together in a namaste), shopkeepers chatting happily and giving discounts without being asked, and of course, our fruit boy Helmi who willingly keeps all Mary's shopping for as long as he's there.

She bought him two Snickers bars.

He grinned and immediately gave one away to one of his friends at the fruit stall (he's a durian man and the three durians he picked for us were so good as to render us speechless).

I've also been feasting on the mangosteens and rambutans. Mary's cooking is superb. She made fried rice yesterday and she is making her famous bihun today. Tomorrow I'm making chicken vindaloo, herbed broccoli and mint and coriander rice. Mary says it will be a treat because they eat very simply here.

She has lost a lot of weight as she walks everywhere here and lives of fruit, vegetables and rice.

We have been downing jeera water like there is no tomrrow.

Yesterday we watched the Middle Earth Paradigm episode of Big Bang Theory. She loves Leonard. I adore Sheldon.

I brought a whole bunch of books to read but am reading her Pickwick Papers instead which I find addictive and I love Sam Weller and Sam Weller's daddy.

So there you are.


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