(Story of how I met my street-photography spirit in the crowd)
I have a confession to make- When the Malaysia immigration officer at Kuala Lampur International Airport asked me if I am here for business or pleasure? I lied- business. Well, not really. I was actually there for business for a whole month. But, may be tourism is in the air and you can smell it right under your nose once you land at Kuala Lampur Airport. So beginning as a professional and ending as a tourist (a traveller) is what this blog is all about.
So, my encounter with Malaysia happened last April 2017 when I was part of the team selected for electrical audit work in Melakka, a historical district/ state in Malaysia where we were supposed to be working for a month and present the findings of the audit to the state government. My work involved travelling to 4 cities including Melakka and audit the infrastructure and this involved travelling day and night to these places. Gosh ! I love travelling, and could hardly contain myself looking at the atmosphere there. So, this blog is about how I managed to steal time out of the air-tight schedule to taste Melakka. (I know am taking this name “Melakka” too many times. There will be a formal introduction to this place shortly)
This was the first time I was flying out of country and thankfully I made my passport in time for the assignment. Malaysian government ensures hassle-free online VISA process. Once entering into Melakka, after initial briefing, each one of us was assigned a team of local contractors. So my team included a SUV (oh, not exaggerating, Mitsubishi Triton), a technician and an assistant. We were to be tied together for the whole month. Bamm ! I know I have to be friends with them if I want to have best of time here WORKING.
Now, time to introduce Melakka!
Probably you have seen this place in many of Shahrukh Khan’s movies. Last seen in Don 2, the prison scene with hundreds of saffron uniformed prisoners was shot in actual prison in Melaka. Then there are scenes from movie Roy where Ranbir Kapoor is seen riding on a bike on a road covered both sides in green. Enough Bollywood reference.
Melakka is a port town in Malaysia on the western cost, some 400 km from Kuala Lampur. It is capital city of Melaka state as well as district headquarter. This place has a unique identity. Malaysia is predominantly a Muslim country, the population known as Malays (living in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore) with equally large Chinese population and a considerable Indian population. The same reflects in Melakka as well i.e. a good blend of Malayu population with unique and beautiful mosques, equally attractive Chinese temples and yes, commonly seen Indian origin people with its very own “Little India” lane. I was surprised to see a Shirdi Sai Baba Pratishthan here.
In addition to these ethnicity, there has been many interracial marriages since ancient times giving rise to a unique Baba Nyonya community which has a unique blend of Malayu and Chinese culture and its own special cuisine developed over last 300-400 years.
To top it all, this has been a historical port town with heavy Portugal influence hence add a Christian spirit to this already complex cocktail. So, let me quickly take you through the typical Melaka tour itinerary.
It has huge and beautiful mosques spread across the city.
Then it also has beautiful Chinese temples
And typical South Indian temples
Oh yes ! and a Gurudwara too.
And some Churches
Keep this church’s image in mind for a later reference.
Moving further it has a beautiful river flowing right through its heart winding like a snake during its passage through city. Melaka government has developed a quite beautiful waterfront along the river which definitely boosts tourism throughout the year.
Along this riverfront there are very beautiful Portugal style eateries which European travellers make their home for the evening. Here we see many travellers leisurely sitting beside the riverfront and enjoying light music with beer. Occasionally, you will find some Reggae café as well typically having Bob Marley and Hashish leaf pictures prominently displayed on their walls.
Some part of the river-front also has this beautiful graffiti on the adjoining buildings that speak of confluence of cultures in this city.
Coming back to the church image shown above, this place, known as Church Square is the beginning of the place that gives Melakka its unique identity- Jonker Walk
As you start walking on Jonker Walk, you realize you are witnessing the liberal awesomeness of this place- Melaka. Jonker Walk is nothing but a flea-market some 300-400 m long in the Portugal area of the city. But this flea market has everything that a tourist will want to take home as souvenir.
Yes, you can bargain here, a lot, but then you are at the end of your wits as to what to buy and what not to leave back. That happens to every tourist who enters here.
Further, you can also rent bicycles in the area to travel around the city leisurely.
And then there are few more places which can be attributed as tourist attraction, like the A Famosa Fort.
As a traveller (not tourist), I was more influenced by this blend of unique cultures which have managed to keep their identity intact even after centuries and in this collage, each culture has its own bold pallet which kept striking me from time to time. So, while in Melaka, I decided to chase these unique cultures. From thereon, I travelled down the streets of Melaka to get some unique pictures which are not ‘touristy’ but made more sense about the identity that is Melaka.
There is a secret key to open up people of Melakka (or Malaysia). Tell them you are from Mumbai and they will exclaim- SHAHRUKH KHAN !
Tell them, “Yes, I live some just 20 km from his place” and their eyebrows go up with an ‘O’ of the lips. This trick worked at 90% of places. Shaharukh is to them what Rajnikanth is to many of South Indians. My partner (yes, by now, the local technician had become my partner in all small excursions) was a big fan of Shahrukh. I felt at home in his car listening and singing to Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Baazigar and other playlists. So, we travelled all the places that we can during this time.
My first encounter with the Chinese culture was when I noticed loud rinignig of bells right across the street from my hotel. I ventured towards the sound with my camera and was treated with a unique sight. A bright red colored temple with wooden doors having intricate carvings and pictures of some monks welcomed inside the temple.
Inside, the priests were doing some kind of ceremonial procession and smoke formed a dense curtain in between the visitor and the idols.
With due permission, I entered the temple and was amazed to see so many idols of gods yet none matching the other lined up on the deck.
The number of idols only reflected the complexity of spirituality of this culture.
During the stay I noticed, one of the key businesses that thrive on the streets of Malaysia are the street food vendors. They present you with many delicacies and you can never eat enough during your walks into the market area. The street-food vendors are very engaging and like to interact with everyone.
The street food in Melaka is equally famous with locals. On many occasions I heard the locals rarely cook at home and generally thrive on the local street food.
They have so much of variety in food and desserts. Check this innovative ice-cream technology here. Freezing the fruit salad with fresh nitrogen supply.
On one occasion, my partner took me to his friend’s shack. Here, I liked the typical temporary canopy they put outside their kitchen which I couldn’t resist from recording in the camera.
He even did some tricks with the bread for us.
Once on the road on the outskirts, I noted a sizeable crowd in front of a house in a commune along the roads. We initially thought it to be a wedding but, it was something else. My partner told me its called Aqueekah, the Islamic version of baby shower in Malaysia.
During Aqueekah, the family invites near and dear ones. On this occasion, there is lot of singing and dancing and the most special thing is essentially feasting on a sheep meat slaughtered and prepared by the commune and cooked together.
Here is a short video where professionals were called in for singing and dancing.
By now I was sure, the humidity does make people take off their cloth often. Be it market
or lonely roads.
The other thing that I noted in Melakka was, it is full of street artists who perform daily on these sidewalks. These are not beggars but artists earning through their performance.
There was yet another type of artists here- the backpackers. They perform on the streets, earn money and when they have enough money, they head for their next destination. We enjoyed even their performances during the walks.
These artists were a usual scenes at the Jonker Walk and man, did they play well?
Like I mentioned earlier, there is heavy Portugese influence on Melaka. It is evident from the European styled building structures and open bars. This part of the region is surprisingly liberal than other parts.
This was one typical block of European styled buildings
On other occasion, we got to visit a Portugal influenced bar.
And this famous Geogropher Café that attracts huge crowd.
Here there are glamorous bartenders who attend to you with modest gesture so don’t be fooled.
Lastly, in the bylanes of Melaka, I noticed an unusual place, a ‘store’ if I can call, of unusual art. I noticed, there was anelderly person sitting across the store and painting some wooden sandal. A look at the walls of store and one could not avoid noticing the beautiful father-daughter relationships portrayed in very simple caricatures.
The artist’s name is Gee. He makes awesome paintings and caricatures on daily life and Melaka. I made a good bond with this guy and had atleast an hour long chat.
One peculiarity I noticed about his pictures was in all those pictures he was wearing a vest with a yellow smiley on it. To my amusement, he was wearing the same vest at that moment. He was like the live version of his caricatures.
You can check more of his work here.
On one occasion, I noticed some sort of exercise going on at a Chinese temple on the outskirts of city. On inquiry, I was told that they are preparing for a festival where the boys are performing dragon dance. The dance step they were trying to improvise was not an easy one.
It required the two boys (later to be dressed as dragon head and torso) to stand on a narrow bench. Later, the ‘head boy’ jumps from the bench onto the ground in a dragon-like motion while the ‘torso boy’ holds him by the waist.
I was just intrigued by their consistency. The boys fell off the bench at least 7 to 8 times, in all just to achieve that movement perfectly.
During my stay here, I could not help but notice that Melaka is equally populated by elder people, elders sitting, sleeping, working with a calm expression on their face. Here I tried to capture some of the faces that interested me.
While these were some elders, there were also the ones who enjoyed at the Jonker Walk every evening. It offers a place for Karaoke singing. It is difficult to separate Malaysian people from Karaoke.
The last evening in Melaka I spent listening to these oldies. Didn’t understand a word but metaphorically, I ended the tour on a musical note !