Blessed to be a witness

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Wednesday, April 13th

"Crumbling shophouses"

The lovely Sino-colonial architecture of Georgetown that I mentioned before is most obviously characterised by the 19th century Chinese "shophouses", terraced street-facing buildings that comprise a single downstairs room for doing trade, then a stair area and kitchen at the back, and living quarters on the first floor. The upstairs room/s overhang the lower by about two metres, held up by pillars, over the pavement, which provides a welcome refuge for pedestrians from the blazing sun or the gushing rain. I'm not sure that the pavement is owned by the town or the shop, though the storeholders clearly regard this area as theirs, tiling the pavement outside in theme with the building, and providing an exciting obstacle course for people walking down the road, made up of whatever it is they're selling: motos, compressors, key fobs, hardware, or tables and chairs in the case of the food hawkers.

It was late on our last night in Georgetown when I set off on my own down one of the overhung pavements to buy a bottle of water. We had, in Batu Ferringhi, met a Thai waitress who had been living in Malaysia for a year and said she preferred it because of the lack of a sex trade. Imagine, then, my surprise, when a voice hissed out of the darkness: "Pssssssst!" I jumped. "Heyyyy, I wanna talk to you." Out of the shadows of one of the shophouse overhangs came a lady wearing skimpy clothing. On second inspection, I suspected that the chick was a dude. I muttered "not interested" and crossed the road. Another lady of the night appeared "Hellloooooo!" I sped up, and eventually arrived in the refuge of the 7-11, where a nice chaste looking Muslim lady served me. On my way out, another five or six women in varying degrees of undress appeared from an alleyway and beckoned to me. This was not the Georgetown I had experienced before, and was almost as though the tourism authorities had decided to go the whole hog in recreating the atmosphere of the seedy port town that it used to be.

Also on the subject of shophouses, earlier that evening we'd visited a beautifully restored one, done in what I have no reason to think wasn't the authentic 19th Century style, that had been turned into, of all things, a Swiss café, run by an Indian woman. A strange mélange of cultures, but my American-style BBQ ribs were delicious.

The next day we were picked up at a local café by the VIP bus that was to take us to Kuala Lumpur (that simply everyone here calls KL, and so I shall too). Very wide and comfortable seats, though with barely adequate air-con, it took us nearly 7 hours to get there, in what should have been a four-and-a-half hour trip, part of which was caused by our stopping several times on the way to pick up more passengers, including nearly an hour in Malaysia's third-largest city, Ipoh. But the motorway was good and smooth, the driver competent and the scenery spectacular, and the trip was not too bad at all. We located a substandard hostel near the bus station - which again I recognised from ten years ago - checked in, then headed into KL's Chinatown.

Our guidebook told us that Chinatown is full of "crumbling shophouses". How prescient. About a minute before we descended into the street, the roofs of two of them had collapsed spontaneously, and several tons of stone had indeed crumbled, then fallen onto the pedestrians below. As we arrived, we saw shop windows on the other side of the street that had been shattered by flying bricks, and two people were being dragged from the rubble. A middle-aged woman sat, dazed, while passers-by dabbed at her head with tissues, while an older Indian man lay prone on the pavement, his head gushing blood, also being tended to by helpful citizens. We learned from the paper this morning that neither of the people were in a life-threatening state, though the Indian man had head injuries and a broken leg. Given the volume and weight of the debris we saw, the casualties could have been far greater. The two roofs had just spontaneously collapsed. Some people are blaming the rain, though I suspect the recent earth tremors may have had some effect. Strange, with all the scary driving and flying we've been doing, that the most dangerous situation we've been near has been "walking down the pavement".

Also in the paper was the news that, across the Straits of Malacca, there has been another large earthquake and no less than three volcanoes in Indonesia (two on Sumatra, and one in the Sunda Straight where Krakatoa used to be), have woken up and started erupting within the past week. 20,000 people have been evacuated because of the vulcano-seismic dangers. Malaysia isn't affected by the clouds of ash, unless the wind changes. Vulcanologists and seismologists are predicting that the Sumatran subduction zone might soon produce something else Very Bad Indeed, of which the tsunami earthquake was merely a precursor. Elemental forces are at work.

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