Roti Milo

Roti Milo

It may not look as if the slightly sweet, mildly bitter “milo” powder was incorporated into this delightful concoction, but inside that fluffy exterior is a surprising, subtle addition to an otherwise standard-fare snack in Malaysia.

The man running this particular stall explained to me as I was preparing to leave that he had just given a training session to the boy standing there with him – whom I presume to be, his son.

It appeared he had, gathering from the little that I could understand as I watched him explain the steps to the boy while whipping the roti (generally, an Indian unleavened bread) onto the table, spreading dollops of butter across the flat dough, and finally, sprinkling milo powder evenly around.

“Milo”, by the way, is a chocolate and malt powder typically served mixed in with hot or cold water, and sometimes sugar, for extra sweetening. It holds a particularly special place in my own childhood as my chocolate drink of choice, growing up in the Philippines.

The man laughed when the boy seemed unsure of how much milo to put in, as if he were doing so too sparingly. Even I know that you can never use enough milo.

He then folded the roti to create a pocket that kept the butter and milo altogether before placing it carefully on the well-oiled, rounded skillet that looks like the kind you would use for a crepe.

Each side of the square piece of roti was perfectly cooked to a flaky crisp, while maintaining a slight fluffiness to the dough inside.

It was worth the wait – watching this man and this boy, carefully make this roti for me. Perhaps he was preparing the boy to the run the business for him in the future. After all, he did refer to this morning as a training.

Which leads me to wonder how many of these makeshift establishments here in Penang will survive another generation growing older, and perhaps, further removed from carrying on this kind of family business. While roti would, on average, cost the customer no more than two ringgit a piece (around 60 cents), the labor cost is significant.

From the preparation of the dough ahead of time, to the cooking of various sauces (in my experience, typically a curry and a tamarind “daal” for dipping), to the kneading, slapping, and frying creation of the ordered roti, all in all it is a labor-intensive process. Not to mention, the man working this particular roti stall said he’s open from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m.

After preparing mine, the boy immediately took a piece of dough and started pushing his palms into it, getting ready for the next customer’s order. As I was leaving, I told the man, the next time I come by, perhaps I’ll be buying my roti from his son, and not him. But after saying so, I realized that I wasn’t so sure.

Barber

For whatever reason, my barber had employed some new techniques with me today. Mostly with my shave.

I do not recall him having used a brush to foam my face with shaving cream before. I always assumed he had been using his hands. I am never sure because my eyes are closed every time.

This time around, he also decided to provide me with a gentle face massage, rather than pounding my neck and back with his palms after my haircut — which always served as a welcome sign that he was through.

The barber shop I go to is a nondescript room, adjacent to a residential property along Jalan Sungai Kelian. It is not right alongside the road, but rather, further inside the property, at the end of a driveway leading into a house.

There are two swivel chairs in the room – the kinds with built in head-rests designed precisely for holding your head back for a shave. There is only one barber, however, so customers sit on the same swivel chair furthest from the door when receiving their cut. I’ve never seen anyone sit on the other chair.

There is only enough room for about four customers to wait their turn for a cut and shave. When I arrive today, an old Chinese man was already seated before me, ready for a trim. There was another man waiting, presumably Indian, with whom the barber was conversing. Between the three of them, I hardly understood a thing. Most of the conversation was either held in Malay or in Tamil. Naturally, I took out my phone.

When the barber had finished trimming the Chinese man’s hair, the man then paid him a little extra, and the barber took out a DVD from one of the drawers. Perhaps it is a side business, I had thought. I couldn’t get a good look at what sort of film he had handed him, but I stopped myself from assuming.

It was my turn. The barber already knows me, by face anyway, and so he gave me a welcome smile. When I come by, he usually attempts to guess beforehand what sort of haircut I want, which isn’t that hard to guess, since it’s almost always the same – short on the sides, long on top. He gets it right, usually – I’m the one that can’t seem to make up my mind on what I was hoping for.

Today I told him I wanted something different. Short on the sides, but higher, I instructed him, but leaving the top uncut. I mumble another direction, something to do with getting it blended in, but I mutter it mostly to myself, thinking neither he, or I, might really know what that even means.

This was a new cut for him, and me, and I figured to keep the expectations low. He started off with a bigger guide comb attached to the electric clipper and got it all even, all the way around the sides and back of my head. He switched down to a smaller guide comb to fade it in for a boxier look, and as I requested, he hardly touched the top. It was a quick cut, and reasonably good for the first time around. I felt relieved and satisfied, and he wore the look of something of a proud stylist, pleased with his own handiwork.

As is often the case with my visits, he assumed I wanted a shave. He was right — my facial hair had gotten scraggly and I was too lazy to give myself a close shave. I often am. It gets to be a messy, sweaty endeavor here in Malaysia.

I find shaving to be a rather intimate experience. When else is one examining his own face so closely. Is there not any sense of fear at the prospect of discovering features you hadn’t known existed? A mole here, a wrinkle there, a zit you forgot to pop until your razor brushes over it and the sharp pain of the blade scraping against your pimple feels like fire…

Shaving for me, is in large part, acceptance. It is the admission that my face continues to change in ways I cannot fully fathom, even though, in my mind, I feel as though I ought to be able to control. It is one of those activities that signal to me my own age – not simply the mere act of shaving as symbolic of adulthood, but rather, the residue of time, leaving behind its inevitable trail on my face.

Mainly, around my neck. Especially there. There I have all sorts of extra baggage, a true testament of time. I once had a jawline and I miss it dearly. I fear I may not ever see it again.

Only my wife caresses my face, and even with her, I feel a tinge of shame, for not having maintained the same sort of face she fell in love with years ago. My hope is that only I really think this, and she could really care less. The face she has before her is, close enough to the original thing.

But my barber – he gets special privileges. He’s the only other person who touches my face in ways no one else would. Today, he decided it best to pinch my cheeks repeatedly, after he had finished with the razor, as if they needed to be assuaged from the trauma of metal. That was a first, and a welcome surprise. It got my mind slightly distracted from the sting of the aftershave that would soon follow.

This is a man whose hands touch dozens of face shapes and head sizes throughout the course of the day. He is entrusted with a special task.

As his hands and fingers held my face and head, I sensed that, he too, has placed himself in a vulnerable position. His hands are exposed to our senses. We can smell what he might have had for lunch, as I did today – it was curry. We can see whether or not he had trimmed his fingernails before coming into work.

My barber gets to share time with me at my most exposed, and in turn, he too, exercises his own level of vulnerability. Perhaps, it’s all business for him, but I want to believe, that with time, he’d be just as willing to carry the burden of our secrets, as he would, cradle our heads.

I finally asked him for his name, which is a bad habit I have — always putting that exchange last.

He told me it was Jodhit, and how you see it is how I think I had heard him spell it. I had to ask him to. I learned that he’s been a barber for 24 years. In his current shop, he’s been cutting hair and shaving faces for 14 of them. The man has earned the right to be trusted. The least I could do is reward him with my loyalty – that he can trust I’d always keep coming back.

Fish Paste

Day 26, 500 words, 31 days.

It was a short list of things to get at the Lebuh Campbell wet market this morning – prawns, ‘Nian Gao’ – a chewy, glutinous rice cake, and fish paste. Shuli is preparing a meal to celebrate Chinese New Year, and chances are, getting these ingredients is going to be the bulk of my responsibility. I’m just going to take up precious real estate in the kitchen, so I took my job this morning quite seriously.

The first thing I realized upon arriving was that I had gotten there a little too late. It is after all a “morning market”, and 11:00 am is pushing it. I’ve never been to the market before so I wouldn’t really know what it looked like when it is actually busy. But when the market is half-empty and people are taking a nap inside, it’s not looking very promising.

I approached the man selling what looked like the closest thing to fish paste. He had these containers of different sauce-like ingredients. In my defense, they had a paste-y, spread-y sort of quality to them and it looked like my best bet, considering all the other options, which were none. I asked if he had fish paste and he pointed toward the street. I misread and thought he was pointing at his friend right behind him. I asked her, and as I should have known, she pointed toward the street.

Things weren’t looking good. I went over the shrimp guy, the only one still working in the market, and I didn’t even know how to order prawns. I couldn’t remember what measurement for weight they used here in Penang, and even if I did, I didn’t know how much I needed to get. He made things easy for me though, and said he was out of prawns.

Which threw me off, because I was looking at the prawns as I was standing there.

He must have meant that they were no good. Or that they were done selling – which maybe meant the ones before me didn’t make the cut. The reject pile of prawns. If so, then he was doing me a favor. He offered me a box of frozen prawns instead, but I politely declined.

I went out on the street, looking for whatever vendors were still selling. First vendor at the corner had some shrimp. 30 ringgit for a kilo, which looked a little too much for what Shuli needed them for (spring rolls), so I went for half the amount at half the price. One down.

Two stalls down, I found the “Nian Gao”. Three-fifty ringgit for one; they were quite large, so I got six. Two down.

The fish paste was another story. I went up and down the street looking for a little container with some grey, mushy-looking material inside. That’s all I had to go on. Unfortunately for me, however, no one on the street had any idea what I was asking for.

“Fish paste?”, I kept repeating, desperately. “Do you know if anyone has ‘fish paste’?”, like it was the end of the world and to survive, I needed some extra Omega-3 to go with a sandwich.

I got creative. “‘Ikan’…spread…? You know…” followed by the most ambiguous hand motions I could’ve come up with. My hand looked like I was in the middle of an impassioned speech, imploring these vendors for a most precious paste of fish.

No luck. I found a glimmer of hope at one stall that looked similar to the one inside the market, with the funky sauces. I asked again for fish paste, hoping they had a secret stash in the van, or something. To my delight, they said they did, and the vendor lady asked if I wanted it sour or Indian-style. Hoping not to be offensive, I asked for “sour” and the guy with her proceeded to scoop out a little bit of everything from each container. It dawned upon me quickly, that this wasn’t at all what I was looking for. Then she asked me if I knew how to cook it – though she smiled in a way to say she already knew the answer. She told me I needed to fry it, with oil.

That cost me 1 ringgit.

I felt defeated, so I spent another ringgit. On my favorite grass jelly drink some guy up the street was selling out of his cart. He served it to me in a glass – and I felt like a weary cowboy, seeking some shade from the hot sun and a cold drink at a bar. I figured it didn’t hurt to ask one more person if he knew where I could get fish paste, so I asked the grass jelly guy after I chugged the glass.

Of course, he hardly had any idea what I was asking, and naturally, I too, could barely make out what he was telling me. But I appreciated the effort, and I couldn’t blame him for at least trying.

But hey, two out of three ain’t bad. Shuli will just have to improvise, and I trust her more with that, than I do, myself getting fish paste.

Refreshed

Day 23, 500 words, 31 days.

Yesterday was my first full day back in Penang. I was absolutely exhausted from the long work days and the brutal red-eye flights to and from India. Not to mention the whole fiasco about our luggage, which sapped whatever remaining energy I might have had in reserve. Needless to say, it was an absolute joy to crash on my own bed and have a legitimate excuse not to get up.

I had a few hours to re-charge before my next booking – and thank God it wasn’t for work at all. This was purely because I genuinely love storytelling, and not merely because I love teaching how to tell them.

Despite still feeling drained, my wife and I made it over to the Tropfest Film Festival, which boasts itself as the largest short film festival in the world. To our absolute delight, the entire event was free, which, like the Georgetown Literary Festival we attended a month earlier, made it precisely up our alley.

I knew things were off to a terrific start when a funky, pop-jazz fusion band from Indonesia (that’s the best way I could describe it) took the stage before the film screenings. The band also had a terrific name – White Shoes and the Couples Company. They had a look and sound that harkened back to the 50s and 60s, falling somewhere in between swinging jazz and surfer rock, and somehow it worked.

Shuli and I had lain out our straw mat on the open field like most in attendance. It had a bit of a Woodstock-feel to it, on a much, much smaller scale. It was such a relaxing way to return to Malaysia, striking that fine balance of seeking out that which was both familiar – which for us, was venturing to this part of town – and unknown – which was camping out for an outdoor film screening, without having any expectations as to how good the films actually were.

I was pleasantly surprised. Not that I had such low expectations – the 12 films they selected were all the finalists, after all. I won’t go into describing the films here. They were all unique stories, weaving in both universal themes like love, loss, and family, while involving hyper-local elements to their stories – the dialects spoken, ethnicities represented, and of course, the food. In their case – rice, especially. “Rice” had anchored the overarching theme for the film itself, and submitting filmmakers were tasked to incorporate rice, however loosely, into their story.

Fittingly, the film actually entitled “Rice”, by a first-time director named Sothea Ines from Cambodia took home the grand prize. She was completely shocked and overwhelmed. It was so refreshing watching her look so stunned at winning, almost as though she had completely written off her own chances until proven otherwise. She couldn’t help but share again and again how it was her first time doing a project like the one she submitted, not to reinforce how incredible her work was for a beginner, but with the sort of humility that comes with someone not yet ready for praise.

That was one of the lasting impressions I had from the festival – seeing Ms. Ines win. And “Rice” really was a terrific short, shot as a black and white, silent film featuring local, non-professional actors. The backdrop of the film was the era of the Khmer Rouge, but the story actually revolved around some village boys and stolen rice.

The other thing I felt incredibly proud about was that out of the 12 films submitted, three of them were either shot in the Philippines or directed by Filipino filmmakers. A little disclaimer here, I didn’t care much for whether any of the three won the entire festival. I was just glad they even made the cut. The three films were all dramatically different from one another, too – one explored the hilarious dynamic between a niece and and auntie, one was a glorified music video using rice as an instrument, and another, which I thought could have won, revolved around an old lady preparing for her own death.

I wanted the best storyteller to win, yes – but I’m excited to see Filipino filmmakers that are creative enough and brave enough to try and leave their mark in international cinema.

Especially in a country like Malaysia, wherein the stereotypical idea about Filipinos has everything to do with us being servants. There’s no shame in that life, and yet, it isn’t the only life Filipinos yearn for, either. We are a proud people, and intimately aware of adversity. The endurance of such hardship produces a multitude of stories that Filipinos the world over can attest to, and tell themselves. These are the stories that define us, far better than what the average employers might have been bargaining for. So I’m glad there was a platform like Tropfest for some of those to be seen and heard.

Finally, I left the festival as though my own creative energy had been replenished. After the week I had working in India, I was noticing that my own writing was beginning to suffer – not just in the regularity with which I was doing it, but in the quality and freshness of what I had to say. I could only muster up so much material from traveling to and from the airport.

I needed the reminder that the journey is really the reward for creative people. It’s well worth getting started, and just staying on. Many of the filmmakers were just, genuinely, happy to be there. After it was all said and done, all the filmmakers gathered around in the center of the stage, flanked the three prize winners, and started jumping up and down like they had all equally won.

Just seeing how singularly-focused and committed they were to their stories, and then flying in from different parts of the world and having their little films projected on a big screen in front of thousands of people, it’s safe to assume, that they all, in fact, were winners.

The Rush

Day 16, (way more than) 500 words, 31 days.

I woke up this morning feeling inexplicably exhausted. Yes, I stayed up working well after midnight, but this isn’t uncommon for me. By 7am I’m usually up and about with my wife as she gets ready for school, debating whether or not I should go for a run, or have a cup of coffee.

Most days, coffee wins out, but today I opted for neither, choosing to prolong laying in bed as much as possible. Somehow I managed to roll out from the mattress and take Shuli to school, bed-head and all. Once I got back, I deliberated upon whether it would be another stay-at-home work day or if I would plan on doing something else with my “one, wild and precious life” as Shuli, quoting Mary Oliver, likes to remind me.

Today is Thaipusam here in Penang, one of the biggest Hindu festivals the Tamil community here celebrates. It commemorates the story of Parvati giving Murugan a spear to kill the demon Soorapadman. I won’t elaborate on the background here, and frankly, I still know very little about it. Going in, I just wondered, and worried, if the violent nature of what was being commemorated would play itself out in ways I wouldn’t be prepared for, should I decide to go anyway.

Truth be told, I had some skepticism about attending this event and witnessing the procession of its participants from one temple to the next. I was under the impression that I’d see men walking in trance-like states, with their bodies and faces pierced by rusty hooks and small spears. I imagined blood gushing out of their skin and shrieks from the crowd that I wouldn’t be able to differentiate as screams of horror or shouts of worship. I was expecting that it would too overwhelming a spiritual experience and too foreign for me an outsider like me.

I also expected the traffic would be horrendous – so I opted for the bus.

After getting kopi and some bao at one of the neighborhood cafes on the corner, I caught the 101 bus heading toward Georgetown. I planned the night before to try and catch the procession where it began from Lorong Kulit temple near the heart of the city. But I read they started at 3 in the morning!. By the time I was actually leaving, which was closer to 10, most must have made their way towards the Waterfall temple, their final destination.

But really, it was the bus driver who unintentionally made it easy for me to decide where to go. I asked him where I could see Thaipusam, and he prepared to give me a receipt for RM1.40. I kept talking and mentioned if I should go to Georgetown. Then he said, “Georgetown, two ringgit.” I thought he must not have heard me correctly – I wanted him to tell me where I should get off. Now he was holding two receipt stubs and of course, I opted to pay more, because I’m silly. I paid the two ringgit, but figuring I’d get off earlier. It still doesn’t make any sense, but at least I figured out I probably didn’t need to go as far as the city to see the procession. It’s not his fault that I mumble.

I should’ve have known that a good portion of the people on the bus were heading to the festival. Without meaning to sound insensitive, I really should have just followed the Tamil to where they were going. In fact, once I decided this was my best course of action, after getting off the bus, I started following this older Indian couple, not so discretely, listening in on the questions they were asking the officers around about how to take the bus back from the festival. It occurred to me that it was probably weird how I was just listening in over their shoulders.

Once I got on Jalan Bagan Jermal, however, it wasn’t going to be hard getting lost. Droves of people from the Indian community here in Penang were headed towards the procession route, with a handful of Chinese locals and a sprinkling of foreigners going the same way. I was surrounded by families whose wives and daughters were dressed in such beautifully vibrant, flowing saris that I told myself I had to just start taking pictures and capture all of this color.

It’s been a while since I’ve shot with the old Canon DSLR camera I inherited from my wife last year – and an even longer while since I’ve gone on a photo-trip to shoot a festival of this scale. I remember covering occasions like this before back in New York – whenever there was some kind of cultural parade down 5th avenue, I’d make sure I was there with my Nikon, two lenses, and hopefully, a fully charged battery. It just got me reminiscing.

Camera in hand, I started snapping away, rather indiscriminately, though as discretely as possible. The aperture priority setting on my camera was helpful, partially because the lighting conditions were sunny enough, nothing was moving too quickly, and I hadn’t fully learned how to use the manual features of my wife’s camera – which is my fault entirely. I also found myself shooting from the waist at times, taking a chance on whether my subject would be in the frame, without them knowing I was shooting.

I was pulling out all the old tricks, and in a way, it felt kind of fun again – shooting out on the street without quite getting noticed. Of course, I started committing the same mistakes again too. My settings, at times, were off. But more than the technical aspects – it was that feeling of voyeurism that began to creep over me again – the intrusive, outsider-looking-in angle I always settle for that discourages me from having to get too close. I work with a photographer now, his name is Matt Brandon, and my guess is, he would have little problem politely, but directly, asking people if he could shoot their photograph. From that would have come, perhaps, a single shot that could capture the essence, the beauty, and humanity of the celebration.

And that’s precisely what I didn’t do.

I settled for the shots from a distance, the interesting angles, the creative framing. But never the portrait. It was frustrating to realize I still couldn’t do the portrait, in public.

My interest for shooting the event started to wane, once I saw the “photogs” and their big telephoto lenses straddling their chests. I watched them shoot, shot after shot, just like I did, and I started to wonder how much this event actually, really, meant, to any of us that came for the purpose of leaving with that “decisive moment”.

Honestly, I was hoping to see what those spears and hooks really looked like, in person – and whether the image I had in my head matched what I would see up close.

It did, and it didn’t. I was preparing for witnessing something so graphic that I took for granted how much this whole occasion was actually quite the family affair. Little kids were here, running around and pointing innocently at the colorful offerings on display along the side of the road. There was free food and refreshments being distributed along the procession route that made it easy to forget how some men were actually walking by next to us whose whole bodies were pierced with metal. They were actually here for a different reason – one that I still don’t quite understand.

Eventually, I arrived at the end of a long line, where people stood with brown, compostable paper trays in hand, waiting to be served with helpings of rice, vegetables, and curry. I was probably one of a handful of non-Tamil people there, so, suffice it to say, I was a little embarrassed. It didn’t help that there was a young, beautiful woman handing out the paper trays, politely, yet not-so-subtly rolling her eyes at the people in line, as if she wondered why those of us who were “not like the other” were taking their people’s food. That’s how I read it anyway, and I didn’t want to keep staring, so I smiled with an over-the-top genuineness, and proceeded to look at my empty plate.

To my surprise, I received a really generous portion, of everything. I was also served by people who I’m sure, were Chinese, and then I thought, I totally had every right to be there. I also thought, that my time for picture-taking was up. With a plate of food waiting to spill over the edges in one hand and my camera in the other, I had to make a choice.

I put away the DSLR and took out my “work phone” for some quick, one-handed shooting, as I briskly walked back the opposite way. I managed just a handful of “keepers”, but at this point, my attention had shifted from finding those “decisive moments”, to avoiding eye contact, to preventing my food from falling, to nudging my way through the people traffic and getting on a bus back home.

I walked, a lot.

Blocks upon blocks, just like the New York days again, and at a blistering pace. I stopped once or twice, just to get my bearings and ask the security officers which way it was to the bus back to Tanjung Bungah. I got several different answers that didn’t make me trust any one of them, so I walked further and faster. At this point, I just wanted to go home and eat my plate of food.

The farther I went down the road, the closer I was getting to what was familiar. Soon enough, after several blocks of brisk-walking, I arrived at the intersection near Gurney Drive, and I knew I had figured out my way home. The bus stop was just around the corner and God-forbid any route changes, I was set.

Everything about the trip to witness Thaipusam today actually went a lot more smoothly than I had anticipated. All the sights I imagined in my head were, I guess, proven true, and yet the feeling I was expecting they would evoke in me wasn’t what I actually experienced, either. Witnessing a celebration that had been so foreign to me didn’t make me any more less foreign. If anything, I was both inside of it, and yet, apart.

And that’s a feeling I’m all too familiar with, by now.

But the rush – the thrill of chasing after those rare, fleeting moments, the wonder of being in the midst of something so strange yet so welcoming, the rootedness of traveling about on foot – the rush that came with all of those things…that, I had truly missed.

P.S. Pictures to come, promise.

P.P.S. Pictures here.

The “Go-To” Meal

Day 13, 500 words, 31 days.

Not a typical entry, but I appreciated the prompt from Jeff Goins. I live in Penang – it’s only fitting food makes it on here ever so often.

Ten minutes away from our apartment is the local supermarket, Tesco. It is surprisingly large, incredibly well-stocked, and offers enough Asian and Western choices for groceries to make it a one-stop shop for most of what we need on any given week. As far as I know, there are two of these, Wal-mart like establishments on the island and lucky for us, this one is so easily accessible.

It also happens to offer a decent food court that locals tend to flock to. Mostly Malaysian fare – offering “steamboat”, which here, refers to hotpot cooking, Chinese porridge, Noodle dishes, and the varied combinations of chicken and rice.

Tesco also “boasts” a McDonalds and KFC, but unless my wife has an intense craving for fries, we usually avoid either and opt for the local fare.

The food court offerings aren’t especially spectacular, but here in Malaysia, and Penang especially, that just means the food is still pretty good. And I’ve found my go-to dish every time we find ourselves looking for a quick, cheap meal to hold us over.

“Ayam Panggang”.

It is a roast chicken meal, and in this particular Tesco stall, served complete with yellow saffron rice, a bowl of curry, and a side of “sambal belacan” – a paste or sauce with roasted chilli peppers and belacan, a type of fish. The set costs me RM8.80, which is a little under $3.

I’ll be the first to say I’m no foodie, so I haven’t toured the island in search of the “Ayam Panggang” Penang has to offer. There are many other more popular Penang dishes worth the adventure and comparison. Laksa, Char Kuey Teow, Hainanese Chicken Rice, Mee Goreng, Hokkien Mee – the list can get extensive.

There’s just something about the chicken and rice combination that wins me over every time. This particular set manages to offer an array of taste preferences seemingly tailored to my liking.

For starters, the roast chicken itself is almost perfectly roasted every time. I’m not sure how they manage to do this. They leave the skin on so there’s a slight crispyness with just a hint of burnt taste for those that like a little bit of char on their chicken.

Secondly, the bowl of curry and the “sambal belacan” both offer a slightly spicy, mildly fishy kick to the meal, and are terrific for dipping in the chicken or pouring over the rice.

Thirdly, I really, really like rice. I especially enjoy flavorful rice. Whenever it is cooked in garlic, or fried, or stirred with herbs or in this case, saffron, I will likely finish whatever is on my plate and take whatever is left on my wife’s.

I enjoy this meal for the same reasons I tend to order Wan Than Mee if I can’t decide what I want – for the variety of flavors and textures. Wan Than Mee, by the way, is precisely what it says it is – won ton and noodles, with bits of roasted pork garnished on top and often served with a side of hot soup.

“Ayam Panggang” always leaves me feeling incredibly satisfied without feeling overly full. It has earned its place among the other comfort food dishes I like to indulge in on this island. Perhaps some of those will warrant their own blog entries in the future, but I’m no serious foodie – only perpetually hungry – so, maybe they won’t. But the locals – they will always have something to say.

Just Passing Through

Day 7, 500 words, 31 days.

This morning we found ourselves taking another visiting friend to see the Clan Jetties. These historic waterfront settlements are literally water villages built on stilts. To this day they are still occupied by Chinese residents representing the familial clans from which they are named.

We frequent the Chew Jetty when we have guests – as it is the most populated strip of houses along the water, many of which have converted part of their properties into little shopfronts selling a variety of tourist-friendly knick-knacks.

As much as possible, I try to walk quietly and carefully on the rickety wooden planks of the walkway. Less so because I fear losing my footing, but mostly to be respectful. I just don’t want to cause a scene. There are plenty of other obnoxious tourists brandishing their big cameras and long lenses and shooting everything that is moving along the jetty.

I don’t need to be another one of those people, taking tourist-type pictures inconspicuously, with no sense of shame or discreteness whatsoever.

Most the time, I snap a photo here and there, almost never of any of the residents, and if I would – they’re sure to be candid pictures. I don’t have the gall to ask someone’s permission for a portrait. Everything I witness, and capture, happens in a few seconds – a woman washing her clothes by hand in the corner, a mother carrying her son while tending the store, an old man sitting on his balcony, bare-chested and smoking a cigarette.

I don’t take pictures of any of these things. I just keep a mental log of what real life is like here, and move on to the edge by the water and take that typical, sweeping, panoramic shot of the sea. Best not to bother the locals here, so I do my best to be the least intrusive as I can be.

The appeal of these settlements makes sense. These families still choose to live by the water, or rather, on top of it. Every sunset, they boast a a magnificent view of the water and the ferry terminal nearby. These jetties have been around for what feels like ages – and the “clans” are still here – working, living, and dealing with constant visitors invading their home.

There’s something unsettling about the whole thing for me. Perhaps this same quality prevents me from ever becoming a bold photographer, but I simply cannot muster up the courage to document the way they live without regarding their privacy. Everything I do shoot, I shoot quickly, and as secretly as possible.

We are the voyeurs in their village. We, the visitor, on one hand, are a source of revenue for their makeshift businesses. However, we come in droves, we make noise, we shoot pictures indiscriminately, and we take up their rightful space. I can’t imagine how frustrating we must be.

I assume they want our money. Equally, I assume they want us out of their hair. Maybe they just want us to make it quick – this “transaction” of sorts – the experience of their unique living quarters for an increase in public attention, which in turn, may mean more money put into preserving their homes.

It’s a trade-off I’d never wish I’d have to make, if I were in their shoes. If it were up to me, I’d just want to be left alone. Or maybe, ban cameras altogether. At least the big ones. No one needs to bring a telescope into these places.

What we ought to bring, is grace. Respect. An appreciation for how these families have lived on with very little. As well as an admiration for their tolerance for some unique smells. I prefer not to imagine what could be in the water after all these years, and it’s best that I reserve my judgments.

At the very least, I’m just thankful that we, the visitors, are afforded even more grace than we give. Yes, perhaps, they look at us suspiciously, and rightfully so. The least we can do is tread lightly, shoot sparingly, and be on our way. A donation would be even better.

Maybe there is simply no dancing around this delicate interaction between locals that have developed a business by “selling history”, and the visitors willing to pay to take it all in. Maybe there isn’t anything wrong with it at all.

All I know is, it’s never that comfortable. Not for me. I can only imagine what they must be feeling about us.