Thursday, June 28, 2012

Monkey Business in Malaysia

Travel Stories
Monkey Business in Langkawi, Malaysia, June 2012

My husband and I don’t get to travel together too often now that my elderly parents live with us. But we decided recently that we would brave a very quick holiday together on an island resort quite close (by air anyway) to Singapore, where we live.

So off we went for a “long weekend” (actually Monday-Wednesday) on the Malaysian island of Langkawi. We stayed in a lovely resort, where we were given a nice large room with a fabulous view of the bay below us. Green hills along two sides of the bay and rainforest just behind our room on the other side.

On the morning of our second day there, we went for a guided walk through the rainforest. Being Malaysia, it was nice and easy, along a proper path, but we did get to see langurs, limurs, grasshoppers and various kinds of birds. Incidentally, a langur in south-east Asia refers to a rather small monkey – in sharp contrast to India, where it’s a very large monkey with a red behind (it’s a distinguishing feature, ok?). I know these creatures quite well because my cousin and I were once chased through the streets of Ranikhet by one of them. In the long ago past, of course.

Anyway, to get back to our walk in Langkawi. We ended our walk by walking along the beach, beside the resort, where we saw quite a few of the larger Macaque monkeys. Some of the members of our group nodded sagely when our guide told us the monkeys sometimes enter the rooms.

Although this was meant as a warning to us to keep our windows and balcony doors closed, secretly I thought it would be kinda cool to be visited by a monkey.

The day wore on, with sea and sand and chatting on the beach and so on. The next morning, after some more vegging out in our beautiful surroundings, we got ready to leave the resort. I stepped onto the balcony to take in the sights and sounds of the sea one more time. I took a few last pictures with my phone. As I stepped back into the room, my finger must have hit some icon on the phone. Suddenly it started playing the one song I have so far managed to download – Allah hoo, a beautiful Sufi song sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. This song always transports me into another state. Pretty soon I had my eyes closed and was swaying to the familiar words and Nusrat’s beautiful voice.

Suddenly I heard a “chir-chir-chir” sound. I opened my eyes to see a monkey standing by our mini-fridge unwrapping a chocolate! For a brief moment I was torn between the urge to shoo him away from the fridge and clap my hands in glee. Not to mention switch from music to camera mode on the phone. The first instinct won and I literally yelled “shoo shoo” at the monkey. My husband came out of the bathroom where he had been packing up our toothbrushes and all, and added his voice to mine. The monkey quickly retreated through the balcony door.

My obsession with recording everything now took over. I closed the door, but started clicking. The monkey quickly moved off the balcony, but then, much to my delight, he came back again. He seemed wary of my husband and me, watching us intently from the other side of the door. But he wouldn’t go away.  Then, tentatively, he stretched out an arm and reached for something in a corner of the balcony. I realized he had dropped a small part of the chocolate, still in its wrapper, on the balcony. On his second try, he was more courageous, reaching all the way to the wrapper, picking it up and licking off the chocolate. Then he disappeared.

It was the perfect going-away gift, that visit from my monkey friend. I marvelled at how well trained and focused he was – he must have come in quietly, made straight for the fridge, opened it and grabbed the biggest of the chocolates. It was only the sound of the unwrapping that gave him away.

I forgot to tell Reception to charge us for one chocolate. I don’t think they did.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Srinagar, Part I - The Mountains

Srinagar, May-June 2012
PART I – The Mountains

The most striking thing about Srinagar is the constant companionship of the mountains. Wherever you look you see the Himalayas, majestic and still.

For 41 years, that was my strongest memory of Srinagar. Then, last month I went back to the land of my ancestors – and there were my old friends, the mountains. They must have seen so much trouble in the intervening four decades… But they did not seem to me to be looking down into the valley; they appeared to be more preoccupied with greeting the clouds every morning and reflecting the changing light of the sun through the day. Serene. Beautiful. Uplifting.

I’d wake up before dawn to the sound of the azaan and beautiful recitations, presumably from the Qoran, coming from somewhere nearby. I’d look out of the windows of my friends' house in the foothills of the Zabarwan “hills” – hills to Kashmiris, but mountains anywhere else in the world. The mountains would still be wearing the night like a dark shawl – perhaps a dark blue shawl rather than a black one, but still dark. I’d fall asleep again at some point listening to that beautiful recitation which, to my untrained ears, sounded rather like a Gita path. Having lived near mosques in Delhi, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta had in no way prepared me for this peacefully soul-stirring recitation.

I’d wake up again around six. I’d look out of the windows again at the mountains in the bright early morning light. Sleepily, I’d reach for my camera, hoping to take some sense of the beauty of the mountains with me when I left Kashmir.

The mountains were there with me for every moment of my six days in beautiful Srinagar. Even when I went to bed, I knew they were watching over me. On my first morning in Srinagar, my friend drove me to Pari Mahal, which today is a fabulous six-tiered garden on a hillside in the Zabarwan mountains, scattered about with old stone arches, walls, steps and other surviving structures from the 17th century. Originally a Buddhist monastery, Pari Mahal was rebuilt as a school for astrology by Dara Shikoh, Shah Jahan’s oldest son, in 1650.

The beauty and scent of the flowers was overwhelming. So were the views of Srinagar from the various terraces. On the top terrace, I sat awhile on a low wall and surveyed the beautiful city and the surrounding mountains.
As I looked at the mountains I thought fleetingly once again of the stories they could tell, but the thought passed as quickly as it arose. These mountains were above all those worldly goings-on, I thought, they were a link between the earth and the sky, but an upward link, there to help us rise above the mundane and the petty, towards a higher reality, a better way of being…