Blessed to be a witness

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Thursday, April 14th

In praise of certain things

A brief hiatus here to big up a few things I like about travelling.

The BBC World Service

Though it might seem a little imperialist of me, I've learned that there's nothing better than being somewhere utterly remote and foreign, and being able to tune in to a weak signal to hear the strains of Lilibolero and the words "this is the BBC".

My enthusiasm for this began on a Vietnamese beach in 1995, when I bought a really cheap and nasty shortwave radio made by some famous electronics company such as 'Somy', 'Phillibs' or 'Bong and Alufsen'. There at Nha Trang I lay on a towel and spun the tuning wheel slowly through the hissing wavebands until suddenly, to my amazement and delight, I was listening to the former British ambassador to China recounting his experiences during the Tiananmen Square 'incident', and I was forever hooked. M bought me a dinky little analogue Sony travel clock/shortwave radio for Christmas a few years ago, and later I bought the digital version on eBay, with an external active antenna. This much-battered box the size of a cigarette packet, coupled with travel speakers (my former company's kind going-away present), can tune into the exact frequency given for the broadcast, and I can keep up with events most times of the day, anywhere in the world. When I get insomnia, which I am prone to, I can often tune it in, plug in an earphone, and lie awake with at least some mental stimulus, and more often than not, the voices eventually lull me to sleep. It's burbling on in the background as I type this.

M says my enthusiasm is incredibly geeky, and I suppose she has a point, since I am actually weighing myself down with both radios, as well as two external antennae, but to my mind the true geek would be obsessed with the technology rather than the end result. I just care about keeping up with world events and the other interesting output of the Beeb (with the exception the godawful soap opera "Westway" that they insist on playing), and I don't really care how it's derived, as long as I can pick it up. The technology I carry is merely the most expedient way of listening.

The Chinese

Yes, all 1.6 billion of them. Aren't they lovely? Cheeky little scamps.

Well, OK, what I really mean is not the population of China, that has been stamped on by communism for more than fifty years, but the members of the Chinese diaspora who inhabit large parts of south-east Asia. Nearly everywhere you go, there are Chinese communities, living mostly in harmony with their neighbours, many of which are hundreds of years old. Their communities thrive on trade and commerce, and not insignificantly, food.

In KL, as in most Malaysian towns and cities, the cheaper hotels are Chinese owned and Chinese run, mostly clean and mostly efficient, and are located in Chinatown, where there are shops galore, and good Chinese food is available at a reasonable price. As an aside, the fascinating Mr Tan who runs the Rain Forest Café in Georgetown also related that the British employed Chinese as chefs in the 19th century, and taught them to make various basic British meals: fish and chips, pork chops, shepherd's pie and, unusually "chicken chops". The chicken chop, according to Mr Tan, was a popular dish in Victorian Britain; a boneless chicken fillet, dipped in beaten egg, and then rolled in breadcrumbs and fried, served with curry sauce. The dish fell out of favour in Britain (until the arrival of KFC, I suppose), but persisted in Malaysia, and now, he was amused to tell us, Malaysian-Chinese hawkers who specialise in "western food" try to serve it up to foreigners who have never heard of it, thinking this is a classic western dish. I tried one yesterday in KL and it was really rather nice; a great loss to British junk food menus.

Anyway, it's no coincidence that the colonial British imported droves of Chinese people into Malaysia - the economy needed stimulus, and the Chinese were exactly the right people to provide it, in almost all spheres of commercial endeavour. In fact, in most places that are accessible to Chinese emigrants, as in the West, there is a bustling Chinese community. In Hong Kong I heard it said that the first two communities to arrive at any new geographic economic opportunity are the Chinese and the Jews, who exist in mutual trading harmony. I don't know how true this is, but I have since wondered if this accounts for the popularity of the game mah jongg in east-coast US Jewish communities.


No David Beckham am I, but I do have a sarong. A simple piece of thin cotton, about five feet by three, it's an amazingly useful object for travelling with. Indeed, at certain times I'd say it's essential.

My sarong allows me to travel without a bulky towel - it does a reasonable job of drying me, and itself dries exceptionally quickly. It is good for laying on the beach, but also doubles as a bag for washing, and in the hostels where bedding isn't provided, or is inadequate, it's my bed sheet. Or as a pillow on a long journey, or something to keep the sun off if one is sitting in the glare of a coach window.

And occasionally I do actually wear it as it's meant to be worn, on my way to or from the bathroom, though wearing it in public might be a little too offputting for the casual observer.

South-east Asian toilets

Readers of a sensitive disposition should cease reading now.

Sorry to bring this up, but I think they're brilliant. Not for the minimal hygiene standards they offer in many places they're found, but for two very concrete reasons:

Firstly, rather than toilet roll, in Thailand and Malaysia at least, there's a handy little hosepipe with a shower nozzle on it - your own, DIY bidet that leaves you clean as a whistle. You use your left hand in conjunction with this, and then wash your hands thoroughly afterwards. Given the warm climes, one dries very quickly, but a modicum of toilet roll can also be used for this purpose. For those who find the concept disgusting, here's an analogy for you: imagine you're strolling in the park, when you trip over and your hand goes into a pile of doggy doo. There's a stall in front of you selling toilet roll or water, for ten cents a piece, but you only have ten cents on you. Which are you going to choose? A thorough wash with water to remove the debris, or a few dry sheets of tissue paper to smear what's on your hand sort of off? I believe I know which one most people would choose, and I see a mild paradox in the disgust that many westerners express towards this particular method of hygiene.

Secondly, the position in which one does what one needs to do. Once the Asian squat (heels flat on the floor, not on tiptoe) has been practiced enough times that the requisite muscles in the front of the legs are strong enough, it's entirely functional. Not only does it mean that the only part of you to come into contact with anything nasty is the soles of your shoes, but - and I won't go into too many graphic details here - emptying a 'toothpaste tube' is easier when there's no kink in it: it's my belief that sitting down to function puts a kink in the 'toothpase tube', meaning extra squeezing is needed to get the 'toothpaste' out, whereas squatting unkinks it, and allows gravity to do its work.

Nuff said. They're great. Wherever we end up living, I want one in my house. M says I'm welcome to it.

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