By Gary Barbour
From Kuala Lumpur to the primarily Chinese fishing village of Bagan Panchor in the state of Perak, we rode on the second floor of a double decker, air-conditioned bus on the first leg of the trip. Vibrant, maintained plantations and brilliant gold minarets flashed by as John slept wrapped in a jacket and I read. In Taiping, we hopped off the bus with our backpacks, a new blazer, and no sense of direction.
I surveyed the highway in both directions, trying to keep my shoes clean on the side of the muddy highway. I shifted my backpack from shoulder to shoulder and did my best to blend in (Hint: Not so well) while Jonathan spoke hurriedly on the phone in Hokkien. He hung up the phone and frowned, the corners of his lips turning into a pout.
The next mode of transport, the number 75 bus that runs from God-knows-where in one direction to God-knows-where in another, rattled down the highway until John stuck a hand out to signal our need. It juddered to a stop in front of a gas station, and the driver pulled the doors open with a shriek of metal and a gust of flaking rust. I paid the driver the equivalent of three dollars to ride the Assache Express to another stop next to one abandoned building and several men sipping tea outside of another.
John’s parents picked us up on motorcycles.
The houses in the village were built on stilts above mud flats. Jonathan assured me that the water was once clear. You could see the bottom of the river from the docks, but floating plastic and waste clouded the now-filmy water. We pulled off the main road onto a concrete pathway that formed a narrow avenue for the houses on the river. The pathway was wide enough for a motorcycle, a walker, or a bicycle, but never more than one at a time.
John pulled the bike off in front of his parents’ house. The house faced river but was built on the mud flat side of the path. The boards that made up the gangway to the front door clattered under our feet. Inside, the house was the same aged-wood as most of the other houses in the area. My expectations of what makes a house have radically changed in six months. Jonathan said that his mother’s house wasn’t clean, and I guess in the first-world sense, it wasn’t, but the floors were swept and there were no obvious roaches, so there’s a step.
Most of the villagers, if not all, are of Hokkien descent, brought to the state of Perak and the coast by fertile fishing grounds. The lifeblood of the village is found on the banana-yellow fishing boats that dock along the homes, and every house I stepped in had various marine animals drying on screens. The smallest of the fish were too low-quality to eat, so they were sold to the people in nearby towns such as Pantai Remis and Sitiawan.
Jonathan’s mother instructed me to follow her around the village while John showered. She plucked her infant grandson from his bed and, propping him on her hip, she led me down the wooden gangplank and back onto the tiny, paved platform. The houses on either side of the “road” rose only one or two stories, but they blocked the sun and created an arch. Deeper into the village felt like a warren or like someone had taken the houses, divided them down the middle and added a lane. Walking between the different houses showed a cross section of small village life. The buildings overlooking the river seemed to be restaurants.
Auntie, as I was instructed to call John’s mother, led the way into a shop lined with tables. On a deck where a fishing boat was docked, the men of the village sipped iced beer. Around a central table, the dealer had a small saucer with four dice that had pictures of crabs, fish, birds, and others on them. He would cover the dice with a small bowl, raise it a few inches, and give it one good shake. He would set the saucer back on the table without removing the cover. The men would then place ringgit and chips with pictures on the table. After all bets were placed, the dealer would raise the bowl up amid laughter from the winners and good-natured cries from the losers.
I didn’t realize how quickly I had readjusted to life as “just another foreigner” in Kuala Lumpur. In Bagan Panchor, I was not only an oddity, but a very obvious topic of conversation. I hadn’t learned the word for white person, ang moh, but I’m sure it was said again and again. We attempted rudimentary conversation, but they spoke as much English and I did Hokkien so our communication ended with apologetic shrugs from me and loud laughter from the men and Auntie.
When we returned to the house, Jonathan was just toweling his hair off. He pointed at the bathroom.
“Go take a shower.” I quickly learned that requests are rarely formed as questions.
I entered the bathroom and looked for the water heater. Curiously absent. Then I looked for the shower nozzle. Also MIA. Then I looked for plumbing. Worryingly absent. Except for a large barrel of water, there seemed to be no actual shower attachment. I poked my head out of the bathroom where John was engaged in conversation but sounded like an argument. Turns out, not an argument, just Chinese.
“Jonathan…” I called, a creeping realization inching up my spine. The talk-shouting stopped. “Where’s the faucet?”
“There’s no faucet.”
“Oh. Okay then.” I started to close the door. “Wait a minute. What?”
He crossed his skinny arms over each other and walked over to the bathroom. He pointed at the barrel with a pail bobbing hopefully on the water. “Use the bucket.”
His smile faltered, and I thought I insulted him. “Sure! So hurry up. I’m hungry.”
So began my first bucket shower. Washing off the dust and sweat of all day travel felt fine, but I would change my mind in the morning when the icy water washed over my head and trickled down my spine. Second bucket shower is less of a novelty than the first.
After I dried the chilly water off myself, Jonathan led the way out the back door of the house in a quest for lunch or pre-dinner. The back of the house led to a short deck and a platform of aged boards that went to another house and the shared bathroom between them.
We entered the living room of the other house where gravity and the pitfalls of building on mud became painfully obvious. The house canted to one side, creating the feeling of being drunk without the fun of a bender. Outside the fun house, the road was raised several feet above the driveway and was accessed by an unsteady set of steps.
While we walked, John explained that the roadway had been freshly gravelled, and in ten years, would need to be filled in again. The town was too connected to the fishing industry to be anywhere else, so the people built over the sinking remains of prior construction. All around us, the river attempted to reclaim the land. Many buildings sunk into the mire. Across from where we ate spicy and fishy laksa, a building sagged on the verge of collapse. A motorcycle was parked beside it, and I wondered if we would be witness to a collapse. But it didn’t. The village soldiered on though the very land wanted its claim back.
At the end of the road, several platforms created a small road to the end of the fishery. Mostof the fishermen had unloaded their catch and hauled it in wheelbarrows to the different houses where it would be dried or prepared for market. Jonathan took pictures at the end of the dock.
He pointed far out to a distant white line of sand. “See that beach?”
I nodded an affirmative.
“We used to swim out there, but now there are crocodiles so it’s not safe.” His finger swung out to the horizon. “When the boats go out far enough, you can see Indonesia.”
We stopped at one of the few unsinkable buildings in Bagan Panchor, a yellow and gold Chinese temple. A group of children road their bikes around outside. As we entered, they loitered at the gates, shifting from foot to foot and daring each other to say “Hello” or “My name is?” The heady scent of burning incense filled the temple’s courtyard while a woman prayed inside. Jonathan urged me inside the temple with an impatient wave. I loitered a bit, never entirely comfortable with the motions of someone else’s religion. I do the same thing when I enter traditional churches.
In front of the altar, my motions lagged behind John’s by a second. I watched him the corner of my eye for cues. Finally, he shook his hands in front of his face, a silent amen and a request for answered prayer. I knew better than to ask what he’d wished for.
We returned to the house with the children tailing us. They attempted the few English words and phrases they knew. They dissipated as we entered the house, turning their bikes around on the narrow path and pedaling away.
Auntie called from the kitchen, and we walked the length of the house to her. She stood at the doorway, holding a bowl of otak-otak, curry and fish wrapped in banana leaf. I could smell hot oil from other dishes on the stove.
“Chya pung?” she demanded in Hokkien.
I shook my head.
“Chya pung?” She switched to Malay. “Makan? Makan?”
Jonathan nudged me in the side. “Eat,” he said.
That conversation defined the time I stayed in Bagan Panchor. A multitude of languages was spoken by the people there, and not once did it intersect with mine except for the Thai woman who laughed and wai-ed when Jonathan told her I lived in Thailand.
Gary teaches English to Middle Eastern students at an American school in Malaysia. Read about the convergence of this cultural mishmash on his blog, Collecting Sparrows.