My mind is probably not right for writing right now; I am extremely tired, but I believe I must write a few things down for the purpose of recollecting fresh memories so that I may better understand the progression of recent events. This weekend I finally left the luxurious nest of the Raja Chulan in KL and plunged into the more solitary, more challenging and more realistic life that I will be living in the next year. On Friday morning my cohorts and I loaded up a very cramped bus with all of our conceivable belongs and the 20 of us made the 4 hour trek across peninsular Malaysia to Kuantan, the capital of the State of Pahang and only 45 minutes from where I soon will be living and working.
It actually was a rather sad departure as I left some of the people I had gotten to know very well over the last couple of weeks. Tears were even shed as we all understood that this strange freshman-year-esc orientation was finished and we very well might not see each other again—one of those strange things in life where reality tears you away from people you like and have much in common with, and under other circumstances might be very close, life-long friends with. The overall mood on the bus though was high. We still had a very good batch of ETAs living in Pahang and we were excited to leave KL; we may have even felt as though we had worn out our welcome there. At the same time, there was a much greater sense of purpose in all of us after leaving; we all knew this is what we came here for and were eager for it, but also, it finally settled in that we were here for quite some time and through many unexpected events and challenges much would change in the next year. But as we climbed the forested mountains on a rickety bus I was off to new and different things—even strange things.
On one of the best highways in the country we cut through some really rural and developing areas, along with some absolutely beautiful and pristine rainforests. Pahang is the largest and one of the most rural States in Malaysia, but the city of Kuantan is a charming city situated right on the ocean and is known for its fishing and beaches. When we arrived our wonderful State coordinator met us with warm greetings; she is easily one of the most kind, and concerned stranger I have ever met. That being said, the people here in Kuantan that I have met have been some of the most welcoming and hospitable people I could hope to come across. We checked into our hotel (finally one for regular humans) and got some rest.
The next day we planned a pretty massive and extremely strange trip. We had heard that KL’s Thiapusam Hindu holiday at Batu Caves was one of the most unique, primeval and exotic religious holidays in the entire world. So we set up to have a bus take us back to KL for the festivities in which well over 2 million people would partake. Before heading out of town we stopped at one of Kuantan’s beaches: a stunning and obvious reminder that I am in a very marine centric country and culture. The smooth rolling rocks, clear blue ocean, and dusty, course sand held starch contrast to the deep jungle of green that rimmed the water; I have not been to a beach on a body of salt water since I was eight: chasing seagulls and crashing into the waves like a child. After dipping my feet into the South China Sea for the first time, studying a few of the thousands of sand crabs, and climbing on some rocks (I’m still a child) we boarded the bus and headed back out for Thiapusam.
Thiapusam is a very old and very different kind of religious festival held at Batu Caves. We all thought that we were pretty well oriented to Malaysia and KL after a three week period, but once we arrived at Batu Caves for Thiapusam we immediately became strangely disoriented. As literally over two million people descended upon the one square mile area we were taken aback by the scene we witnessed. Of the masses we were some of the very few foreign none-Indian people there, surprisingly. Almost 100% of those in attendance were Indian Malaysians who had gathered from across the country to Batu for this unique festival. Almost no native Malays were present (the vast majority of which are Muslim, thus the State religion) and almost no Chinese-Malaysians were present either. But as night fell thousands upon tens of thousands of people arrived, and suddenly, at around 1:00 AM I was sufficiently in the most crowed situation I had ever been, by far.
Thiapusam is an extremely hard event to try to describe; it’s sort of like an ancient , archaic religious happening meets the Minnesota State Fair, meets the Fourth of July. Needless to say, it was wild. I made my way around the festival I found myself taking pictures of the rituals, the food and merchant stalls, the musicians, the decorations, and the fireworks but I quickly became overwhelmed and wasn’t sure if I could really ever capture the moment. I don’t know of anyone else you has ever gone to or heard of the annual happenings at Batu Caves, but I don’t know if they could do any better either. Therefore, I eventually stopped taking pictures altogether: 1) because I thought some things might be too graphic 2) because I was literally so crowded that I couldn’t raise my arms to take pictures and 3) I thought for certain my camera would be stolen by the end of the night (nothing was stolen from anyone that night thankfully).
If you haven’t heard of Thiapusam like I hadn’t you should probably Google it, but the uniquely Malaysian festival at Batu Caves and only at Batu Caves basically consists of both man and women parading to the temples in the caves to worship Murugala, pay homage and give thanks. But the manner in which they make this pilgrimage is what is so curious. Most undergo some kind of self-mutilation through the blocked off city streets, up the 270 plus stairs and the entire way into the caves. Some are holding burning objects, some step on nails, some are whipped repeatedly, but most have a wide variety of hooks running their backs and spears through their mouths and tongues. A great many, men, women and children alike carried or pulled large objects to the caves most by the hooks through their backs. Many also carried jars of milk to the top of the steps to be poured out as a blessing for the youth it seemed.
The sight on the whole was one which I have never seen anything like before, and one that I know I will never see again. It was unreal. We made our way a couple of Kilometers down the main road to a river where we watched the piercings being placed in the flesh of entranced men to the sound of deafening drums. Each cohort of pilgrims had at least one circle of drummers and usually a younger man chanting to accompany them. I will never forget those drum cadences pulsing through my body for hours. After talking to a very kind Hindu man I learned that many of the participants believe that they can only endure such pain and make it to the top of the caves if they are possessed by the spirit of God, and thus, many were not mere humans on a journey but were transcended to a different state of mind as they walked., And as the pilgrims reached the caves they were met by a Guru who would remove the piercings from their bodies and they would return to their normal state and descend from the caves.
I did have some confused moments at Thiapusam and obviously some inquiries with the method in which God was being worshiped, but it is not my place to judge or lobby for reason in such situations; it is impossible issue inquiries if you understand nothing about the other side, but rather I asked as many questions as I could about the event to try to learn what I could and was greeted very hospitably by everyone there. It was a major learning experience to be sure, and all in all I had a great experience.
At about 5:30 AM we left Batu Caves and made our way back to Kuantan for the last few days of orientation. Our expectation was to sleep hard on the bus all the way back– a trip of about three and half hours on the highway. After achieving my goal of falling asleep on the bus for a couple of minutes (something I rarely do) I awoke to the smell of smoke: burning rubber. As I opened my eyes I found that the bus was clouded in a dark black puff; not the most soothing way to wake up on a bus in a developing country. But we all promptly got off the bus and waited by the roadside while our bus driver who spoke very little English tried to figure out what to do. We were midway up a major hill and in a rural area– pretty solidly in the jungle. Once it was discovered that the bus wasn’t going to make it we made some calls and arranged for another bus from a nearby town (about one and a half hours away) to come take us the rest of the way. It was not a welcome disruption of plans, but it was pretty funny. While we waited the three hours it took to finally leave most of us were so tired that we slept on a patch of grass in-between the jungle and the highway. I don’t know whether I should be proud of falling asleep on the side of the road or embarrassed, but it happened. We were there long enough to watch the morning sun rise but then the other bus arrived and we finally completed our journey.
The rest of orientation in Kuantan was a truly great time. It was a short orientation but it was extremely helpful. I found the people in Kuantan to be some of the most welcoming and friendly that I have ever come across, even more so than in KL. The MOE staff there especially were helpful as we were very well taken care of and finally felt prepared for the undertaking of teaching English in Malaysia. I’m not sure if it has been the wait or the preparation that has made me eager to finally teach, but I do feel as though I really need to get into it soon.
Our last day in Kuantan we met our mentors, (teachers that will be helping us teach and work with staff in the schools) had an Explorace around the city, (which my roommate and I won) and got invited to dinner and a display of traditional Malay dance and song at a State official’s house. My mentor is a great guy who truly loves English, teaching students, and American culture. He is very savvy and energetic; almost comically so, and I am so glad that I will be working with him for the next year. We have already built up a positive relationship, and as he drove me out to Maran and my new apartment for the first time I knew that I already had an ally, and that means all the world to me.
I have just spent one day in Maran so fare and there is much to describe and this blog post is already FAR too long so I will add it to another post later in the week. My first impressions though have been extremely positive though. I have never felt so welcomed anywhere ( it just seems to get better like that). But for now expect more to come as I undergo my first weekend and week here in Maran.
All things being said, strange things are happening to me—all good things, but strange– and more are to come as the world around me changes. This song has been running through my mind all week.
P.S. Sorry this blog post is so late. My internet situation has been struggling at the moment.