HRH’s sister takes us to her regular coffee shop, a place like countless other coffee shops throughout Malaysia. There are blue Terrazzo tiles on the floor, large framed mirrors facing each other on walls for good feng shui, old marble tables with 4 or so fragile-looking wooden chairs each.
The sign that greets me before I enter says, “Beware of snatch thieves.” I ask HRH to take a commemorative shot, my face oozing enough oil to fry Indian roti.
We take a seat at one of the square tables.
“What is this place?” asks Amanda, her eyes as wide as they can be for small peepers.
“A coffee shop,” answers HRH. “Your mum and I grew up visiting places like this.”
Our coffee shops in Oz sell Continental cakes and babycinos. This place, according to a board on the opposing wall, advertising specials, sells wanton mee with soup or tossed in black sauce, all sorts of roti, nasi lemak to be sure, and to my amazement Roti Babi.
Roti Babi is a Nyonya dish. My mother says it’s made by stuffing a thick slice of bread with a mixture of cooked onions, pork meat (hence the name, “Babi”), crab meat and spices, dunking that bread into egg wash and then frying it.
Since I’m on holiday I ignore her admonishments to stay away from it because it’s unhealthy, and order myself a serve from the Cantonese-speaking Malay waiter. I discover that even the other Malay waiter understands Cantonese; phrases pertaining to food anyway. HRH, now eating less post-surgery, has a wanton mee to share with Amanda, HRH’s sister 2 half boil eggs with coconut jam on toast. We order an assortment of local beverages.
Returning to HRH sister’s car, I notice a rojak stall directly behind the restaurant. Closer inspection reveals a whole back lane full of hawkers. How delightful! I must have some rojak! So even though already full, I order a portion to go along with HRH’s order of sliced jackfruit and watermelon. HRH has suddenly become very health conscious, constantly insisting on fruit.
The stall holder, a granny with surprisingly good teeth (or could they be dentures?) asks us to take a seat at one of the tables while her husband, an old man with gnarly hands to match hers, whips up my sweet, sour, hot and spicy Malaysian fruit salad.
Perched at the table, we have an uninterrupted view of the kitchen to the restaurant we frequented previously, plus their wet, squatting loo. A swarm of fat house flies hover around us as the granny brings us our fruit and Rojak.
“Eeewwww…this place is disgusting,” announces Amanda, sitting on HRH’s lap.
I tuck into my Rojak, unperturbed by the flies or Amanda comments, as long-forgotten conditioning takes over. I want to point out to Amanda the mee seller in the corner, frying up plates of noodles without lighting or running water, but am caught up in the realization of being home, even if I am in a back alley teeming with vermin and a view of a wet, squatting loo.
Upon hearing that we’re back from Oz, the granny, who will never visit such parts in her life, banters with us as though we are her most loyal of customers. She waves to us later, as we drive off to head back to the Intercontinental Hotel.
On our walk to the car, Amanda stops her father with another wrinkled-nose look of disgust and says, “Why is there so much rubbish there?”
She points to a row of derelict single storey houses strewn with rubbish-filled plastic bags and empty drink bottles. In my Malaysian mode, I had not noticed any of this, alighting from the car. Now I can see it as clearly as she can.
“People are not as civic-minded in Malaysia,” HRH explains to her. “Almost everyone has to earn a living, many have hard lives. When people have hard lives, they don’t have the chance to think about things like public cleanliness or the impact their lifestyles have on the environment. Here, the rich are very, very rich and the poor are very, very poor.”
He left out the pretend rich and the pretend poor. I’ve been accused by HRH numerous times of trying to pass off for the latter.
“What about in the middle?” asks Amanda.
I’m glad that they teach her to question in school. We were encouraged to be quiet when I was growing up in Malaysia. From what I hear, little has changed.
“There is very little middle here, Amanda,” I say. “You can either be very, very rich or very, very poor. Those are your 2 options living here.”
“That’s why you must study hard,” says HRH.
“Mummy and daddy studied hard, that’s why you have the life you have. Nothing comes without sacrifice, Amanda,” I say. “Nothing.”
Reaching the hotel, we choose to sample the couches nearest to the hotel gardens. Thanks to a huge glass wall, we can see man-made waterfall, sculptured gardens and all, in air-conditioned, mosquito-free comfort. A hotel staff comes up to ask us if we’d like any drinks. Juice is priced at RM17 per glass. At the coffee shop we were at, it was only RM2.50. As before, I’m referred to as ma’am.
“See, this is how the rich live,” I tell Amanda, waving the hotel staff away. “When you are rich in this country (actually any country in Asia), people treat you like a king.”
Unless your surname is Packer or Rinehart, your riches won’t buy you the sort of life you can have in Asia down under. Sure, your life will be comfortable, but only in select 5 star hotels will you ever be called “ma’am” or “sir.” The average Aussie establishment is too egalitarian to accord you any special titles or treatment. We’re all mates, loves and darlings, in Oz.
At the prompting of HRH, I go to check on our room. Front desk staff, different from that which greeted me at 6 am, claim to not have our booking. While polite, the man delivering the news has a decidedly frosty demeanour. I go to fetch HRH who irons out the matter. When I next see the man to get out key-cards, he is all warm and welcoming.
“Oh I’m sorry. It was our mistake,” he coos. “You will find the new rooms utterly lovely. The bed sleeps 4, the bathroom has a view of the bedroom.”
Suddenly we are best friends, eh? HRH, his sister, Amanda and I take the lifts up to find a uniformed hotel staff outside our door.
“I brought you your bag,” he says in Malay.
I open my wallet to fish out a RM5 note. Passing it to him, I instruct him to bring my bag inside.
He brings it in and places it on the platform for luggage so that I have easy access to it. He thanks me and takes his leave.
Amanda marvels at the room, perhaps not expecting to see anything like it outside of Oz. The tub is huge, the toilet has a bum-washing function, all surfaces gleam so brightly I think I might go blind from the light reflecting off surfaces. Minutes later, house keeping comes by to check if I have adequate bottles of water. Unlike Oz, we can’t drink from the taps.
Housekeeping passes me 3 bottles to add to the 3 we already have, thanks me and leaves. While HRH and his sister catch up, I give Amanda and myself a shower.
“We’ll try out the bath tonight,” I promise her.
When I come out, the door bell rings. It’s a different man from housekeeping. Without me inviting him in, he comes to fold up the excess bedding and places that in the wardrobe. Then he proceeds to pick up my discarded towels. Without any explanation, he zips out of my room with them and returns with 3 new fluffy towels.
Holding the door open for him to leave, I can see him giving me a once-over (actually many times over) with his eyes, as his hands go about hanging up the new towels. After what feels like forever, he comes out and standing before me asks, “You Malay?”
“No,” I say, wishing he’d just leave me alone. I have been on a very long flight, am dog tired. What I am is tired.
“What are you?”
“Oooh…you lawa,” he says. Lawa is Malay for beautiful. Then he looks me up and down again.
I feel ill.
“Thank you. I’d like to rest now,” I say, excusing him.
“Do you have enough water?”
“Yes, thank you.”
He steps out of the room and I close the door. Minutes later, my door bell rings yet again. The same house keeper returns bearing 3 bottles of water and several small packets.
“For you,” he says with a sheepish smile, handing me small packets containing cotton pads and nail files. “This,” he says pointing to the nail file, “will make you more lawa.” Then he disappears into my bathroom.
Oh? What now? I am left holding the door open, waiting for this person who clearly doesn’t know a guest is a guest is a guest, to leave.
When he returns from an extended tour of my bathroom he holds out his hand. Unable to comprehend what this is about, since his Malay is broken at best, and I can’t speak whatever he speaks, I hold out his small packets to him.
“Shake hands,” he says, looking at his extended hand.
I reluctantly shake his hand. He looks like he is about to die of rapture.
“I have to rest now,” I insist.
He steps out of my room and I close the door. I settle between HRH and Amanda on our super-sized King bed and recount to HRH what just happened. HRH’s sister has long left. HRH is mildly amused. I am on my way to beddy bye land with thoughts of all the delicious food yet to come when our door bell rings again.
I look up at HRH. No words are necessarily. He gets up to answer the door. He returns bearing another 2 bottles of water, grumbling about “my new admirer.”
I am once more off to beddy bye land when the door bell rings yet again. HRH looks annoyed, gets up to check it and returns with yet 2 more bottles of water.
“Same guy?” I say to him with sleep-heavy eyes.
“Yes,” fumes HRH. “He better not bother you or I will speak to management downstairs.”
I fall into a deep sleep to the sounds of our wall-mounted 40 inch flat screen TV.