Discovery in Melaka - days 17 to 28
Trip Start Apr 07, 2010
13Trip End Ongoing
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Where I stayed
Safely reaching the other side of the blind corner junction by the bridge, we decided to get out of the heat and get our bearings, and stepped under an awning. No sooner had we cracked open the Lonely Planet than a New Yorker accent boomed 'what're ya lookin' for?'. Having spun around, we were faced with the broad grin of an older Western man sat behind a round table, mug of beer half empty in front of him. We gave that we were okay, just arrived and heading for the ghetto of guesthouses in Chinatown, thanks; the curt response such was the cynicism for genuine offers of help, especially since the decor of antiquities in this cafe (including sports posters and a jukebox) suggested it had a Western, probably American, owner. 'Well, we've got places here,' - confirmed. 'No, it's alright, thanks. We've got a place in mind already'. The Lonely Planet was whipped from Ross' hand, open at the map of Melaka's centre. Holding it was a middle-aged Oriental man, who had been standing close by. He scolded the Western man and told him to leave us alone, and then proceeded to helpfully point out on the map where we were and where we could go. The next thing we knew, another guy, much younger and Indian-looking, had grabbed Ross' hand and was suggesting in exclaimed tones that he should be shown a room here. The guy was insistent but friendly, and with a glance from Lauren suggesting that she needed a breather, Ross agreed to follow him out the back and up some stairs; the guy, conspicuously named James, extolling the virtues of his rooms all the while. Ross hastily tried to get his wits about him, they having fallen apart in the previous few minutes with the trio; it had almost been a comedy sketch, but the characters were not clear.
After viewing a couple of rooms, and some enlightening questioning of James (he said it was his real name, but after later befriending him we found his name to be Madhav; a 20-year-old immigrant from Nepal, who last year had come to Malaysia to find work and help support his family back home), Ross decided that this might not be such a bad place to stay. It seemed okay, and we could always stay just the one night and move on if we didn't like it. Something about the 'live band every night' gave the place an edge. Bags were kindly taken to the room on the second floor of the old building comprising the Discovery Cafe & Guesthouse, and we were left sat with the older guy, whose name was given as Joe Castellano. He is in fact an Italian-American, born and bred in New Jersey (not New York!), now a healthy-looking 70-year-old and living locally with his family. He spends most days at Discovery with the company of his good friend, the Chinese man, who transpires to be the owner, called ('Bob') Teng. Before too long, a jug of beer and three glasses is ordered by Joe, and the rest of the afternoon is spent getting to know Joe, taking turns to get level with the number of rounds of beer.
We had a fascinating discussion with him about how the TV show 'The Sopranos' is largely based on real events of the past, knowledge seemingly coming from first-hand experience (close relation of Paul Castellano, allegedly assasinated on the orders of John Gotti in 1985 who succeeded Paul to become capo di tutti capi). We found out that Joe, a former nightclub owner and a divorcee, now has a second family here in Melaka having married a Malaysian lady who studied in the US, having two kids with her who now go to the local international school. Before the afternoon session had finished, we had been invited to be taken by him and Teng to a local dim sum restaurant for brunch the following morning.
In the evening we walked through the central part of Chinatown, Jonker Street, which comes alive on weekend evenings converting to a pedestrian zone with market stalls lining its entire (narrow and long) length. Real shoulder-to-shoulder progress, but with plenty of pleasant sights to prevent you becoming irate. We visited Jonker Street many times over the course of our stay. We were surprised to find that at any time other than the weekend, the place is dead and mostly closed.
We were up relatively early, getting ready for our date, and were pleased to find it had been no drunken proposition. We were taken in Joe's car somewhere a bit out of town with Teng following on his scooter. We sat down, with Joe's kids Dominic and Jocelyn helping us to lay our table correctly. Teng then showed-up with several others and we joined the tables. We passed on the chicken feet, but enjoyed the rest of the lovely parceled nibbles.
Upon returning to Discovery, we were properly introduced to two of the people who had gone with Teng; Kai & Yen from Taiwan had arrived in Melaka as one of their stops along a sponsored round-the-world cycling tour! They had only just started their epic journey (due to finish in 2012), having set off south from Bangkok the same day we had flown from Heathrow, due to make their way across to Australia within the next week or so. A morning a couple of days later and we found ourselves in the cafe, about to see them off. However, Teng and his brother had arranged for an interview by the local newspaper. Whilst the owners made sure that Discovery was mentioned, it was a very nice thing to see, the guests being made a fuss of. It was days later that we found out that the story was a main feature, and though we didn't see it, the photo contained our faces in the background!
Over the coming week, we were taken out for lunch and dinner half a dozen times by the very hospitable Teng (including a bak kut teh (pork BBQ) banquet, as well as fishball soup), who explained that he enjoyed his guests' company and sought to create a family atmosphere. Afterall, the objective was in the name; a 'discovery' is what Teng wanted you to make; he wanted you to discover his beloved home town. We did, but moreso we ended up discovering many new acquaintances and friends.
We decided to get the history and sights of Melaka done as soon as we could, and took in the Stadhuys museum complex and the full-scale recreation of a Portuguese sailing ship. The Straits of Malacca are named after the city, which was a very prominent trading port and stop-off on voyages of discovery in SE Asia. The forming town was conquered and colonised by the Portuguese in the early 1500s, the Dutch in the 1600s, and was under British rule from the early 1800s until Malaysia was returned mid-Twentieth Century. The result is a place which reflects very much on its history, most evidently within its relatively cosmopolitan populous, including descendants of randy Western sailors and native women. There is even a designated settlement for those of Portuguese descent. We learnt much from Ivan, Discovery's cook, who served us with breakfast and chat each morning. He spoke excellent English; he had attended the Catholic school run by Western missionaries, since he is one of those descendants.
We enjoyed meeting a couple of Western people who are regulars of Melaka and Discovery, who also enjoy the familiarity and welcome. One of whom was Ken Sands, a charming 83-year-old Englishman who had spent the second half of his life living in Australia, and for many years had been a visitor to Melaka, every six months or so. His passion is flying, and like something out of a Ray Mears documentary we were transfixed as he regaled the story of how he had crashed his pride and joy a couple of years ago in the Australian Outback (with his great white beard and still with a sliver of Cockney, he really came across as Uncle Albert telling a tale; 'during the war...'). He severely injured his back, and had to crawl for hours to an isolated farmhouse he had spotted, its owner finding him only minutes before he was due to drive away for the weekend. Despite his ability to knock back mug after mug of strong lager, he was apparently feeling quite ill this time around, his daily 5am jogs around the local cemetery-cum-park being curtailed and he was also not eating (despite another friend's attempt to almost force-feed him pot noodles). Over the days it was sad to see him coming to the realisation that the long-distance travel, heat, and unfamiliar food were now getting the better of him, and this would likely be his last visit to Melaka, or anywhere overseas. By the time we left, he had managed to get a change to his flight so his return was not after four weeks, but reduced to the end of his second week. Ross was pleased to be able to let Ken listen to Chas 'n' Dave on his iPod one evening; one of Ken's old favourites brought a tear to his weary eye.
Alongside the regulars, we got talking to one of the long-term residents at Discovery, Nikki. A very confident girl in her thirties, who was temporarily living in Melaka for work. She was attached by her company to army barracks in the region, selling and maintaining an iPod-like device which, rather than storing music, was filled with an easily-accessible version of the Koran for every soldier. She was very bubbly, and very much enamoured with the attention received by a female on a male-only army base. We enjoyed Nikki's company, and she was helpful and insightful about Malay culture. Lauren, or moreso Ross, was worried, however, when we found out that she had been enquiring as to whether Lauren could get a job teaching English on one of those testosterone-filled army bases! Needless to say, a swift but polite order to desist was given!
A few days in and we found the heat in busy Melaka to be quite oppressive (in relation to which the open drains lining every road were all slightly blocked and stagnant with no rain; great for the lizards but the smell in the streets was disgusting, and in some places overpowering - why do they have to be open?). We therefore ventured out of the shade rarely (often whiling away time playing chess or reading), but on one afternoon we did make the jaunt through the small Indian community ('Little India') over to Bukit Cina (Chinese Hill). This is the aforementioned cemetery-cum-park, where hundreds of burial plots are located in the hillside, seemingly randomly dotted rather than in a uniform order. Many of the locals use the footpath around the undulating hillside as a jogging track in the evenings, as does Ken in the mornings, whilst it isn't too hot. We read from a monument that the graves were of Chinese people killed under the Japanese occupation during WWII, some brutally murdered. The narrative went so far as to chillingly describe how babies would be thrown in the air and then skewered by bayonets as they fell back to the ground.
At the peak of the hill, we were stopped by an old Chinese man who asked us if we were lost or needed the exit. He was surprised that we were just curious. We questioned him why the graves seemed to be positioned randomly and all of differing grandeur; he explained that families, having recovered their relatives' remains from temporary mass graves, had located the plots facing their homes or for other auspicious feng shui reasons. The more wealthy could afford bigger plots with bigger and grander masonry. After the 'where are you from?' and other customary questions, we somehow got into a half hour of local politics. We were soon realising this is a hot topic, particularly for the non-Malays. We had learnt from speaking with many different people that the Malay Muslim-dominated government ostensibly facilitates harmony between the Malays and the Chinese and other minority communities, and tolerance of other religions, but in reality there is much preference given to the Malays, even in law (for example, non-Malays can only own a company if they have a controlling Malay partner). This is partnered with plenty of national and local corruption under the mainly Malay police and administration. The irony we could see, though, from the few places we had visited in Malaysia, was that the commerce supporting the country is clearly generated by the hard-working Chinese.
It was in Melaka that we both called home for the first time, using an international phonecard and a public payphone, rather than joining-in with the prevalence of Skype. It was also in Melaka that Lauren managed to find anti-histamine cream and tablets to combat the madness-inducing itching of the insect bites, putting an end to her misery. And Ross decided to complete his final TEFL assessment, spending twelve hours over three days in an Internet cafe as an unwilling captive of the idiosyncrasies of English grammar. (He fortunately passed.)
We also spent some time considering what our shorter-term route might consist of, utilising the cafe's extensive travel library (Ross was particularly taken with a book about the temples of Angkor Wat). We decided that southern Thailand would likely prove to be little more than an expensive beach holiday, whereas we needed to keep focused on exploring landscapes and cultures, on a budget. This decision had been reinforced from speaking with a couple of different passers-through, who said little we wanted to hear about the region, it being just a hedonistic partyland which is rough and overpriced (compared to the haven it was five or more years ago). We still want to be stunned by the beauty of the islands, though, and thought that perhaps we will do so as more of a holiday if we have any money left the other side of Borneo, or in years to come, particularly if we stay to work and live in SE Asia.
In the shorter-term, we were becoming quite worn by the heat. One of the more obvious options for onward travel, it being widely-advertised by guesthouses and tour agents, was the Cameron Highlands. A region in the heart of the country, it is a series of small towns in the mountains, where the climate is cool enough to cultivate tea. After ten days we realised that we were spending money on living in Melaka when we had seen all it had to offer and it was just our indulgent wish to stay in familiarity and comfort amongst friends that was keeping us here, and realised our budget should be better spent in a new place. So, on Monday 3rd May we worked out our exit to the Cameron Highlands, and were to leave on the Wednesday morning.
The Tuesday was spent saying our farewells to all those we had become so familiar with in such a short space of time. Joe and Teng took us for dim sum for a second time, and in the evening we drank with Teng and Ken and a few others. After everyone but the staff had gone, photos of us and them were taken, before finally the lights went out in the bar, and on our time in Melaka.
We must mention a couple of amusements which quickly became a cause to cringe. One was the trishaws; a development on the rickshaw, whereby a tricycle with two-seater carriage was used to ferry tourists around the historic streets. The annoyance was two-fold: there are far too many of them for such a small area, and the owners would constantly call out to see if you wanted a ride; there was no escaping them. The other thing was that some idiot had decided to stick a portable stereo and fairy lights to the carriage and all the others under 50 years of age had followed suit; cheesey pop blaring and bright lights flashing really detracted from the peace and serenity of the crumbling historic streets! The other thing which amused us was closer to home. The nightly 'live band' turned out to be a man and wife with bass guitar, keyboard and karaoke computer. Despite their great voices (even if many of the lyrics had been lost in translation), the repetition of the same line-up of songs every night became farcical! The pair were sweet and charming, though.
We spent a long time in Melaka, partly through one lazy hot day melting into the next, partly to complete TEFL, but mostly owing to the good company and comfort. Melaka itself can be taken in within just a few days, but we stayed twelve. We wholeheartedly recommend a stay at Discovery, though be sure you don't mind washing on a balcony in the open air!
So, what did we discover during our time at Discovery? Great hospitality; Malaysian politics; non-Westernised Chinese food; friends.