By Sandy Grisham
Ben and his brother, Leong, both graduated from the University of Mississippi and have remained in touch with us over the past 20 years. When we planned our trip, they decided to “divide us up” – with each one of them taking a week. And, they each took us to a World Heritage City.
We headed for Ben and Leong’s hometown, Melaka, a World Heritage City in Malaysia that looks back not only at native histories, but also Portuguese, Dutch, English and Japanese occupations of the town. Today, it hosts a diverse society, made up of the native Malays, Chinese and East Indians. The call to prayer is heard five times a day, Buddhist temples bring the smell of incense to the streets, and a few Christian churches dot the scenery. Street vendors sell foods from all the cultures, and Muslim women wear head-to-toe attire.
There is a brisk tourist trade in the old part of the city. Shoppers abound in the streets. A riverboat floats the tourists among the mural-decorated high rises and the originally designed Malay houses made of wood and set on stilts. It is a very interesting city in a very interesting country – one that I never really dreamed I would see.
Visiting the boys’ Mom was a real treat. We were in the home of a native family, and eating her homemade Chinese version of a burrito – it was great. We were learning firsthand what it meant to be raising a family here – she did not work outside the home, just spent the day cutting up endless vegetable types for the meals cooked on a two-burner stove.
We had a wonderful time in Melaka. And as Ben was negotiating with the rickshaw driver for the next day’s appointment, I took a picture of a fellow with an original rickshaw – the kind you pulled behind you like a cart. As I watched, I realized the man had a business – don’t you just love the entrepreneurial spirit? – and that was to pose his python snake with anyone who had enough ringgits (local currency). He put the yellow one around a fellow’s neck, and brought the head around to look at the guy in the eye. In the rickshaw, curled up and bulging with what one hoped was only a rat and nothing bigger, was a huge, camouflage-colored reptile. And there was no glass between it and me. In spite of the sign that said “no photos,” I found myself fascinated and filmed the handler as he moved the snake all around, in different poses. Then he let go of the snake, and took the guy’s picture. He has more nerve than I would.
Next it was Leong’s turn to share a World Heritage City with us, and the following weekend found us in an absolute tropical paradise: Penang Island. Off shore in the northern part of the country, this vacation Mecca was full of beautiful new condos, old colonial architecture from the British, and beaches that rival any I’ve ever seen. We even dipped our toes in the Straits of Malacca. It is more relaxed than K-L, and even more cosmopolitan. Being a destination for many Europeans as well as Japanese and Australians, there was a more “western” feel to the place. The culture left over from the English occupation is visible on all the buildings, but none more than the Eastern and Orient Hotel. Having hosted the likes of Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Noel Conrad, Orson Wells, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and a host of other notables, the hotel takes you right back to the early 20th century. The night market was indescribably beautiful, with its play of lights shining from each kiosk, a multitude of languages being shouted from the stalls, and the rainbow of colors that assaulted your eyes with their intensity.
I thought I had somehow dropped into a 1950s movie about the South Pacific as we drove up there. Rounded mountains rose on both sides of the highway, covered, as always, with the palm oil plantations and with banana trees growing like weeds. Words like lush, verdant and luxuriant come to mind as your head swivels from side to side.
Full of promise
What a beautiful country this is, and how happy we are to have been here with our “boys.” They proudly showed us their world, a place of both history and modernity, of many cultures and of much promise.
Getting serious for a moment, one has to recognize the rapid pace at which these Asian nations are closing the gap on Western countries. They are as full of promise as the U.S. was in the early to middle part of the 20th century. Their cities show the brashness of new wealth, and the excitement of what they can be. They are simply fun to be in, and be a part of … if only for a brief moment in time. Thanks, Ben and Leong.
Sandy Grisham and her husband, Vaughn, live in Oxford. She is filing a weekly report from their around-the-world trip. The Grishams are retired educators.