Thursday, 20 December 2007

Gnat Bites

I've received some emails and comments recently from people who read the Star articles and checked out the blog. They have indeed been very encouraging and heartwarming.

It seems the gnat bites have had some result.

Here are a sampling of them, and in some cases, my replies.

Velayudhan left a new comment on the introduction:
"I was touched by your words and impressed by your actions. Thank you for lighting a candle to dispel the darkness of despair."

If you recall, when I wrote to Bill McDannell to tell him of my plans, he said in his blog on August 7 that he felt good about lighting a fire halfway around the world. And yes, I felt good about it too. Not for myself you know, but because the magic of this is how sharing the light of a candle doesn't diminish what you already have. Instead, the overall brightness increases.

So I say, 'Spread the light!'

My neighbour in PJ, Shoba, wrote:
"hey john
congrats on finishing r what will i do at work when i am suppose to be working?
anyway i told my friend about r blog and she has decided to buy a bike and learn how to the age of 68! see, you never know who you inspire."

Exactly! You just never know. That's why cynicism is so dangerous, Just as you can exert a positive influence, so too can you drag someone backwards into inaction. And the natural predisposition for most of us is to do nothing. But talk.

I say change your life, and whether you then consciously attempt to influence someone else or not doesn't really matter. By your very own personal change you undoubtedly will create change in someone else.

I feel great about a 68 year old woman making a positive change in her life - I just hope she heeds my advice to be properly attired and to ride safe!

I received an email from Shalini who wrote:
"I read about your noble endeavor in THE STAR yesterday.
It was truly heartwarming to know that you too feel that we are losing touch with our Asian values and care for the wellbeing of our society albeit having lived a good 18 yrs. Away from home.
It’s tough to find people who cherish virtues like honesty, kindness and love for all irrespective of race, religion or creed.
Speaking alone is not enough, we need to put it into practice & I applaud u for taking the first step in trying to do something POSITIVE.
We need to stand together as a nation & call a spade a spade & fight against selfish attitudes, rising crimes, misuse of power, etc that threatens the stability of the nation & mother earth."
She continued by asking if there was a movement I was setting up and if so, could she join.

Well, no movement, Shalini, except what is in your own heart. Groups have a way of diminishing and diluting the value of their original purpose over time. So I say, work on yourself. Life is hard enough nowadays that we perhaps do well enough just taking care of ourselves. Be another gnat. One day, perhaps if enough gnats take a bite at the national issues, we will indeed have some sort of gnational movement.

Thanks for your emails and comments - send more! Share the light!

Let me sign off this holiday season post with the lyric of one of my favourite Christmas songs: Happy X'Mas (War is Over) by John Lennon as a reminder:

So this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun

And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young

A very merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Christmas
For weak and for strong
For rich and the poor ones
The world is so wrong

And so happy Christmas
For black and for white
For yellow and red ones
Let's stop all the fight

A very merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun

And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young

A very merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear

Monday, 17 December 2007

The Star: Celebrate Malaysia! Part 2: The North

The second article appeared in The Star today (18 December 2007). Here is the unabridged version.
Back on the road again
After a break of a few days in PJ, I returned by car to Pulau Carey to set off from Kampung Sg Judah, an Orang Asli kampung. After setting up the bike, I had a cup of Teh-O at a stall by a school. The Malay Lady who ran the stall was busy but we chatted as she worked, watched by her 3 kids.

Her modest stall served the usual menu of gerai fare but I noted with surprise an XBox connected to large speakers and a TV. 'The kids like to play on it in the evenings' she smiled. I made a mental note not to presume that kampungs are bereft of such modernities. When I eventually got up to pay she refused to accept money, saying it was a small thing - she'd obviously enjoyed our little chat.

The same thing happened when I was later caught in a heavy squall and had to shelter in another gerai. Despite enjoying yet another Teh-O and some exquisite thinly sliced Goreng Pisang, the owner refused to accept my money. What's with these Pulau Carey people? Their generosity and kindness was indeed heartwarming.

Not just a lot of hot air
I stayed a night in Kelang and another in the Nature Park in Kuala Selangor. Leaving very early that morning, I elected to avoid the mosquitoes and made the mistake of not checking the tyres. A heavy bike, insufficient air in the rear and a few kilometres from Sungai Besar, on the way to Sabak Bernam, the sidewall tore and the rear tyre blew. I had spare tubes and patches but no replacement tyre so pushed the bike to a motorcycle bengkel up the road where I met two very kind souls who made a tremendous impression on me.

Supriani is a simple man who has been through some tough times. A failed partnership in a motor workshop left him bankrupt. He worked for someone else while paying off his debts, and honing his skills, then eventually set up his little workshop beside his house. He kindly drove me around to find new tyres and I was touched by his patience and selflessness.

His brother in law, Hamzah, turned out to be one of the most profound people I've had the pleasure to meet. We spoke for hours - by the time the bike was fixed, it was too hot to ride so I hung around for awhile. Hamzah has an honest outlook on life. In his trade he has turned down work when he felt he didn't have the skills or experience to complete the job satisfactorily. He feels that if he is paid to do something, he should do it well.

He spoke evenly of how he feels the values in kampungs are slowly being supplanted by less honourable ones. 'When kampungs become pekans and pekans become bandars, the people change too'. I agreed totally with his idea that in kampungs, there is a sense of 'Us' which slowly mutates into a self-serving sense of 'Me' in larger towns.

We both lamented the gradual loss of that easy going togetherness which underpins kampung life. His stories filled me with hope - here, away from the 'me first' mentality of the towns and cities was a moral, principled way of life we would do well to revive.

Sabak Bernam was the last town in Selangor and I had the pleasure of meeting yet another principled character: Ridzwan who played club football for PKNS. He once played for a state team, stayed 3 months then left when he realised some of his teammates were not chosen just on merit. After retiring through injury, he now worked at his father's gerai where I met him.

And so I left Selangor, my home state, bedazzling in its modernity, yet almost rotting at the core through disrepair and poor maintenance. Still, I discovered there is much to admire in the people. Just perhaps not so much in the cities.

Teluk Intan is one of my favourite towns in Malaysia and my 3 days there were pleasurable ones. The Anson Hotel was cheap, clean and cheerful. And I met Amir who ran a bike shop. I was lucky to meet him on Friday when he normally shut the shop and he opened it specially for me after his Friday prayers. I got proper tyres fitted (the ones we found in Sg Besar being a temporary measure) and felt more confident about the tyres lasting the rest of the journey.

I like the easy pace of Teluk Intan. A town almost bypassed by progress with the construction of the highway, it has since found some resurgence in tourism. Not too much to spoil it though.

Malaysia's Tourism Ambassador
In Parit Buntar I met David Munusamy who wold get my vote as Tourism Ambassador if there were such a post. I'd come across David on the internet. Near retirement age, he now hosts cyclists and backpackers from all around the world. A kind, affable character, it would seem he knew anyone and everyone in the area. And what an area! We visited prawn farms, fishing villages, dried fish factories, toddy plantations, shipyards, even a herbal sauna set in a padi field! And through it all, the kind hospitality of a genial host. Oh did I mention his wife's food is delicious too?

Penang, Buttwerworth, Sungai Petani, Alor Setar all passed quickly. I'd spent a few days with my wife, Mei, in Penang (she'd flown up to join me as we attended a friend's wedding in Batu Feringghi) then continued relentlessly up north. I stopped at the Lembah Bujang Archeological Museum and marvelled at how an empire was here as much as 1500 years before. I survived the steep hills around Gunung Jerai and was constantly wowed by the beauty of morning light playing on verdant green padi fields.

And in the end...
Then, finally, Kangar. And a day trip out to Padang Besar. On the way, I stopped at a yet another gerai, this one opposite the Pusat Serenti Bukit Chabang, a drug rehab centre. The stall owner lamented the fact we have more of these than we do universities and that insightful remark once again reinforced my marvelling at the wisdom I was encountering.

A 14-hour bus ride home from Kangar allowed me time to ponder what I'd seen in the previous 5 weeks. I'd seen some stunning scenery of course. But more importantly, I'd met some stunning people too. Honest in their philosophies. Wise in their observations. Thought provoking in their insights.

And always, warm and kind. The heart of Malaysia still beats strongly and proudly. But it's not in the centre, it's in the edges, the periphery. In the kampungs and villages. And it had been my pleasure and honour to feel that pulse.

My mum who often greets my misadventures and transgressions with the exclamation 'You're mad!' was right not to question my mental state when I turned up in PJ. This ride wasn't mad. It was necessary. And the results were spectacular.

(Celebrate Malaysia! is not quite done. More is being planned to give fellow Malaysians a chance to feel that pulse for themselves. Log in to John's blog at to ride along.)


One of my favourite folk singers was Harry Chapin who campaigned tirelessly against hunger in America long before anyone even heard of Bob Geldof, much less Live Aid.

Harry had a number of hits, the biggest of which was Cats in the Cradle. A close second was Taxi, a firm favourite of mine. Like many of his songs, Taxi was written in the first-person and told the story of Harry, a taxi driver who once had dreams of flying. He had a girlfriend, Sue, who dreamt of being an actress. They eventually split up and Harry ended up driving a taxi, getting high on substances that relieved him of his own sense of loss.

One day, he picks up a fare, none other than Sue who was indeed acting - but by putting on an act in her own lonely, unhappy life. Taxi was a beautiful song which tugged at your heartstrings in the way only Harry Chapin songs could. Some have said it was because his songs were really about ordinary people, dealing with real issues that could happen to anyone. Probably because of this quality, many have spoken of a certain connect with his songs.

Taxi's come back to me in a way, because the most extraordinary thing happened a few days ago.

I received an email which read:
'I Know puteri suzanna...if you would like to get in touch with her I may help...'

Despite my request, this person remained anonymous, but did give me her mobile number and so it was that on Saturday morning, I called the number and spoke with Puteri Suzanna for the first time in almost 25 years.

Unlike in Chapin's song, this Sue and I never had more than a friendship, but the idea of connecting again after a quarter of a decade, and through a blog extolling personal change, is remarkable. Our journeys are vastly different from the song's protagonists and thankfully so - in the song Harry drops her off and they don't see each other again.

Both Sue and I, on the other hand, are looking forward to filling the gap of the intervening years.


Saturday, 15 December 2007

Hawksbill Turtles

The World Wide Fund for Nature Hawksbill Turtle programme office in Pantai Kemunting is housed in the Fisheries Department office. They have a large concrete tank in which a few turtles swim. To be honest, I reckon the tank is awful and Arvind agrees. Still, it allows some people, including you now, to see the turtles in water.

Video of Melaka wind and rain

Here is a short video I took while cycling out of Melaka to Pantai Kemunting. As you can see, the wind was quite strong and made cycling that little bit more uhm...exciting.

Muar Video 1

Here's a short video taken while resting at a bus stop on the way to Muar. The yellow things are rain covers on the panniers - I gave up using them later on as they were too fussy to put on and my stuff was all in plastic bags inside the panniers anyway.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The Star: Celebrate Malaysia! Part 1: The South

The first article was published today (11 Dec 2007) in an edited form. Here is the unabridged version.

"You're mad!"

My mother was a schoolteacher who was rather used to the antics of little boys, and hence understood perfectly what her 5 sons could get up to. As such, a short length of rotan was occasionally employed to keep us in check. With drastic bottom-numbing effect.

As we, and she, got older, her manner softened and when we had committed some transgression or other, we were no longer subject to her blood-suffused visage and the short silence that preceded violent physical punishment. Instead she would just shrug her shoulders and mutter two words "You're mad!"

Had my ears pierced? "You're mad!"
Wore a Baju Melayu on Friday and got called up to the headmaster's office? "You're mad!"
Borrowed a friend's motorbike and crashed it with painful personal injury? "You're mad!"
And so on.

In time, well last year in fact, I married a woman who shared one important thing with my mother: I love her dearly. And when after just 8 months of marriage, I mentioned I was thinking of cycling from one end of the peninsular to the other, she said to her friends "He's mad!" Some things go around in circles it would seem...

I've lived away from Malaysia the last 18 years. In that time, my links have become a little tenuous. Still, my trips up for family gatherings, my getogethers with old friends, my correspondence with fellow alumni of SM La Salle PJ and simple reading of the news online give me a perspective of Malaysian life that often saddens me.

Let's not kid ourselves - we know there's rising crime, corruption, questionable use of public funds and so on. Hearing all this from afar, I feel more than a little helpless and impotent.

When I was growing up, I had friends of all racial and religious backgrounds. In many ways we failed to see the differences, but instead revelled in the similarities. We played football, hockey and badminton, flew kites, made catapults and used them devastatingly on the local bird population, played marbles... We were kids doing kid things, and we didn't care too much what our surnames were.

Things don't look quite so rosy now. I see us losing touch with the values our founding fathers envisioned. And this simple bloke with a great love for his country of birth feels helpless. The conundrum is that I have as much influence as a gnat on an elephant's back, and yet to do nothing in unconscionable.

And so the idea took shape. Like that little gnat on an elephant's back, I planned to ride a bicycle from the south to the north, meeting and interacting with ordinary Malaysians, scratching at the surface of this country. A micro-observer I would be, recording my encounters in my blog and searching for the values Malaysia was founded upon: warmth, kindness, honesty, a moral sense of right and wrong and a brotherhood that cuts right through the bigotry and racism we now read about all too often.

I declared that the heart of Malaysia must surely beat strong and healthy and I wanted to feel that pulse.

From Melaka to Melbourne, Singapore to Stuttgart, my idea was warmly received by friends and family. All voiced their support and a number generously made the ride financially possible. And so on October 15th, 2007, I set off from Tanjung Piai at the southernmost point of the peninsular. My target: Padang Besar in the far north. My journey would take me along the west coast road, through kampungs and villages and the towns that dot the 'old road'.

This article covering my ride up to PJ, and a second covering PJ to Padang Besar, recount some of the people I met along the way, and how I managed eventually to ride over 1200kms and see a side of the country that is both heartwarming and inspiring.

Off I go!
It was the height of the Hari Raya festivities. As I cycled past kampungs on the first few days, people in their Raya best turned and waved at me. Kids ran out to give me high-fives, men in coffeeshops and gerais looked up and smiled: I could not have asked for a more encouraging start.

I could have asked for a little more common sense though and it took a few days to learn a couple of basic lessons: start early and ride at noon at your peril. That was to come though.

My first night, after a deliberately very short ride, was in Kukup and I stayed at Oliver Lee's Floating Chalet. 'Gemuk' is undeserving a nickname for Oliver, unless chubby equals happy, for Oliver is a contented and easy-going man indeed. He confidently gave me the keys to the house on stilts I would stay in and declared Kukup to be very safe. When I wandered around, I did note that many houses remained unlocked. A far cry from the remote-controlled gates and multiple locks I'm used to in PJ.

Habits die hard, and despite Oliver's assurances and my own observations, I kept my bike locked - my planning and training would be ultimately futile should my bike be stolen on the very first day...

Oliver told me about growing up in nearby Pekan Nenas, spending 5 years in KL during the late 60s, and coming to Kukup when he got married to a local girl. He's lived here ever since, and loves the peaceful, honest nature of the place. He told me the various races, even the Orang Laut, all mixed freely and my observations did not dispel that.

Kukup is popular with visitors from Singapore and many southern Malaysian towns and it's easy to see why. The lure of seafood, the novel spectacle of a town on stilts and the generally slow pace all give the place a genial and welcoming air.

Sunburn Country
Travelling on the trunk road to Pontian and then to Batu Pahat, I continued to get a warm reception. People on the roadside would wave, and truck drivers going in the opposite direction would toot their horns in encouragement too. I needed it...

I learnt the hard way that riding at 1pm is not recommended and got sunburnt as a reminder. As a salve of sorts, everywhere I stopped, I was greeted with warm smiles and a sincere friendliness I rarely find nowadays. My arrival at the numerous gerais I would visit over the next 5 weeks were almost always greeted with smiles and a warm 'Dari mana?' - a prelude to a cordial conversation.

One particularly inspiring morning was spent in Pekan Seri Menanti between Batu Pahat and Muar in Johor where I had breakfast with a Chinese DAP and an UMNO man. The exact nature of their party affiliation was not told to me, but they certainly had a good laugh about the fact that despite their differences, they considered each other a good, old friend and often met up for breakfast or a coffee. Our conversation came around to the current state of the country and it became apparent both had similar concerns - increasing racial polarisation among them.

They bade me look around the shop. I swept my eyes around this modest single-storey establishment and I saw another couple of men just like my two companions - a Chinese and a Malay man having their breakfast and chatting like old friends. I saw new arrivals greeted warmly with a call and a handshake - my own hand was taken in a warm clasp many times. All around, there were Chinese men sitting with Malay men sitting with Indian men, sipping their Kopi-Os, eating their rotis, talking, laughing... comfortable in the way old friends are.

My companions asked if this was a likely scene in the big cities and I shrugged a 'probably not'. But here, in this little coffeeshop in the middle of nowhere, and in just the first few days of my ride, were the ideals I had come searching for.

Learnings in an old place
I dropped by to see old friends in Melaka and found more. I've always liked Melaka but never really figured out why. Perhaps it was because the old was not cast callously aside in the name of development, but existed side-by-side with the new. Or perhaps it was that many religions did so too. Temples near mosques near churches.

As my friend Singam and I roamed around the town and the nearby environs, it slowly dawned on me that I rarely see this proximity of faiths anywhere else in the peninsular.

Or perhaps it's the casualness about Melaka that I do enjoy. In the Baba House where I typically stay, I don't get a 5-star vacation. Instead, I get a warm welcome, a charmingly comfortable room that is a good substitute for home for a few days, and people who remember me by name and greet me like an old friend.

In nearby Pantai Kemunting, I discovered another reason to like the state. I spent an afternoon with 3 of the 4 WWF people working hard to save the Hawksbill Turtle. Young and passionate, Min Min, Arvind, Grace and Hafiz work hard against the odds, educating the local fishermen and kampung folk while collecting eggs and managing the hatchery, beside the myriad of administrative tasks that come with a conservation project of this nature.

The outlook is bleak indeed - out of 14000 eggs collected last year, only 7 are expected to reach adulthood. But they battle on, and even have to deal with threats of physical harm from poachers. Arvind did say he wished they had more resources so they could also help the Painted Terrapin, a critically endangered species.

The team apply themselves with passion and a sincere desire to do good despite the odds. Certainly a great deal to admire. I was told they will introduce a one- or two-week volunteer programme so I am looking forward to the possibility of contributing more than just a few words in a newspaper to their very honourable cause.

The little cyclist who could. Just.
I have never cycled long distances before this ride. And I've never been very good at climbing hills. I'd planned this route so that I would avoid most of the hilly areas (inland areas of Perak for example) while going through as many kampung areas as possible.

One thing I learnt is that many road maps don't mark hills properly and so it was that on only my third day, I had to contend with having nowhere to stay and thus had to ride further than I'd planned and I had to deal with a few steep hills near the end of a 75km ride too. The hills around Batu Pahat cemented my belief that the higher powers (no, not JKR) have a sense of humour - there I was struggling, pushing my bike up a hill I'd conceded defeat to when I looked to my left and saw a Chinese cemetery...

Having 20 kgs on your bike adds to the effort considerably and although I got fitter as the ride progressed, the Batu Pahat hills were just an introduction to the rigours of travelling by bicycle.

They taught me a couple of other things too - that Malaysians who travel the trunk roads are warm, friendly people who are ever ready to offer a shout or toot of encouragement. Once a passenger in a car passing me frantically wound down his window just so he could clap his hands in encouragement. I grew to like truck drivers too - almost without exception, they gave me plenty of room as they passed, and often with a friendly toot of the horn as well.

The next time you pass a cyclist laden down with bags, give him some encouragement - it helps!

The other thing I learnt is that many placenames are misnomers. Can someone change Bukit Pelandok near PD to Gunung Pelandok please? I huffed, puffed, panted and swore my way up to one curve after another along that windy road, running the 'Yes I can' mantra over and over in my head, hoping that around each curve would be the end of the hill, only to find a further climb up to the next bend. For what seemed like many kilometres...

My home state and the state of my home
PD was nice, but Morib less so. A general air of disrepair was the mood of my homecoming to my home state. From cracked and sunken concrete steps to pavilions sitting in pools of stagnant water, from shelters missing roof tiles to two-storey wooden lookouts with broken steps and railings, Morib did its best to dampen the good feelings I'd picked up thus far.

I had not told my mother about my trip and when she realised I'd come by bike she surprised me not with her usual 'You're mad!' but instead offered a happy 'Oh!'. Some things had changed it seemed.

What had not was the mood I picked up in Morib. In PJ, I found less affability than I had become used to: it seemed that friendliness and cities were mutually exclusive. I was reminded sorely of the question the two Pekan Seri Menanti gentlemen had posed - and it pained me to realise my answer was spot on.

Despite a happy reunion with some of the La Sallians who'd voiced their support for the ride, I found a few days later that I was glad to be leaving the dust, pollution, curtness, hustle and bustle of PJ to get back on the road again. I longed for the more open spaces, the fresher air of the coast and the warm smiles that always greeted me when I stopped at a gerai for a Teh-O.

Things would indeed greatly improve, but when I set out along the roads of Pulau Carey at the end of October, I was not yet to know that.

(John encounters kindness and warmth in abundance in part 2 of this account. You can also read his exploits in greater detail on his blog at

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Video of Kukup 2

Here's another video of Kukup, taken from the verandah of Oliver's chalet early one morning.

Video of Kukup 1

Well, here is a short video of Kukup. Just trying out the video functions in Blogger. I will upload a few more over the next week or so. Tell me what you think of this format - YouTube is an alternative I can explore if this format is not too good.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

The Star rises...

Just a quick note to say that the first of my articles in The Star should appear next week. If all goes well, it should be in Tuesday's papers. Do keep a look out for it. I will!

Meanwhile, I got on my bike last Saturday - for the first time since coming back. I decided to do about 20 or 30 km from my home in Bedok to Pasir Ris Park. I'd never done this, but you're supposed to be able to and they even paint distance markers on the wide sidewalks.

Well, I gave up. Cycling in Singapore is both boring and dangerous. The roads are extremely unfriendly towards cyclists. The left lanes are invariably too narrow, and drivers hate to give way so if a driver on the left lane tries to edge out a bit to go around a cyclist, he's likely to get a blast from the horn of the car on his right whose driver will try his best not to give way.

As if that's not enough, there are few dedicated cycling lanes. No, make that none on the roads. You're not allowed to cycle on sidewalks, and yet, you are confusingly encouraged to do just that, for example with the distance markers to various parks painted on them.

So, most casual cyclists are left to cycle in parks where pedestrians, often walking a few abreast, can't be bothered to give way and your speed is supposedly limited to some 15 km/h. The longest park around, East Coast Park where Mei and I used to cycle on Saturday mornings is particularly hazardous. People walk on the cycling paths, absolutely refuse to give way and even abuse you if you so much as ring your bell at them. I even once had an expressive chap swing his arm as he talked to his friends and hit me square in the face as I tried to get past them.

In Bedok Reservoir Park, cyclists are even asked to give way to pedestrians, despite the fact the path is clearly marked for cyclists and roller bladers. Absurd.

I gave up for another reason. Heck if I survived the ride in to Pulau Indah in Kelang, I reckon I could survive the roads here.

No, the reason I gave up is it's dead boring around Bedok/Tampines. Short distances punctuated by traffic lights. And again. And again. After the 6th or 7th junction, I got so thoroughly fed up I took a long loop back. Fewer lights, but very narrow lanes.

Mei is open to the idea of me packing the bike in the car and going off for short 2 or 3 day rides somewhere, so if anyone wants to do that, tell me and let's plan something. There are some nice roads around the west coast I know of...

Forever Falls - a day trip to Selama in Perak

Fishing in Oil Palm Estates It seems this part of Perak is all about waterfalls. We’d seen signboards for so many in our recent travel...