Thursday, June 22, 2006

in the moment

i read this today:

"Of the two of us, Sonia had the gift for photography, but she'd just stand there, arms on the guardrail, and gaze at the landscape like it didn't matter what her memory lost."

i read this and felt something; so often, i feel as though i am working hard to preserve memories and then relaxing in the satisfaction that i have archived them for later. i wonder what it would be like to truly just soak in an experience without feeling the need for journalling or photography or documentation. to know that i can gain more from something by just experiencing it than i can by saving it for later.

when we travel, i never take photos anymore. this is due in part to taher's love of photography; i can rest easy knowing that he is in charge of photos and will take gorgeous ones, and i don't have to think about it. but ever since i came upon that quote in toni morrison's "tar baby", i have another motive to refrain from photographs. although refraining from journalling is much more difficult for me.

here is the quote. i have published it on this blog at least twice, but i love it and so here goes:

at some point in life the world's beauty becomes enough.
you don't need to photograph it, paint it or even remember it.
it is enough.
no record of it needs to be kept and
you don't need someone to share it with or tell it to.
when that happens- that letting go - you let go because you can.
the world will always be there- while you sleep it will be there -
when you wake it will be there as well.
so you can sleep and and there is reason to wake.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


stepped out of the airport and into... the heat. after a 20-hour plane ride where i had flipped through several miki house magazines (written completely in mandarin), and listening to announcements that were more often in languages i didn’t understand than in english, i was already feeling like i was leaving familiar territory, and i was open to adventures coming my way. and they did... we pulled up to my home for the next two weeks- block 111 in lengkong tiga, in the neighborhood of kembangen. the first thing i heard as we stepped out of the taxi was a construction worker’s whistle- the kind women with freshly shampooed hair hear as they walk past a construction site in shampoo commercials. i thought, “hm, i must look pretty fancy to be getting whistles like that after twenty four hours in transit”- until i realized the whistler was a parrot. hmph. that parrot whistles at everybody, i later found out. what an ego boost ;) i met my cousins, the youngest of whom was watching cartoon network and asked me, during a commercial break, whether i followed hong kong or thailand. this was interesting- he meant what time zone am i in, HK or thailand, and i answered that in america it is done a bit differently. but saying i follow central standard time doesn’t seem quite as exotic. so the adventure began. every day i’d wander out into big bad singapura and after a couple of days i really got to get a feel for the place. i got really familiar with the MRT and all of its stops (their transit system- quieter than the el, cleaner than the T, faster than the underground, it resembles a large sleek silver bullet.) just walking around and going into different neighborhoods and seeing firsthand what life is like day to day in singapura was the best way to get to know the country. i stopped needing directions to different places, and began to just figure it out with my knowledge of where the different MRT lines and buses go, the way i’d figure it out in chicago. of course, different logic had to be used at times- for example, the day i wanted to go into the chinatown area, i couldn’t simply tell when to get off when i started seeing chinese writing on store signs and such, the way i would here- because in singapore there is chinese writing everywhere, in every neighborhood, even in little india. it was pretty exciting just being completely alone and having to rely totally on my luck and wit to get me from one unpronounceable place to another- finding out based on my guess of bus routes that bus number two would get me from yue hwa to changi village, for instance, was a minor victory but an important one- and i found myself in kembangen safe and sound. it is always neat to see things that look familiar, yet realize that there is some slight twist to them that makes them totally foreign. seeing a colgate billboard written entirely in mandarin and malay- having the bus drivers give me change- and the mei! mei are noodles, which are prepared simply and are so very delicious- i stopped in many little sidewalk cafes and the first time, i thought they may not understand if i asked for “mei”- so asked for noodles and they gave me a puzzled look- i then said “mei” and almost instantly i had in my hands a large bowl full of brownish noodles covered in a bit of red sauce. oh, yum. this didn’t look very appetizing. especially when they gave me this huge blue bulky spoon which wouldn’t pick up rice much less tiny slippery noodles, and a pair of chopsticks. neither of these choices was looking any good to me, when the old men sitting at the next table looked at me, and one of them actually gave me a quick lesson in using chopsticks, and then watched closely while i put his teachings to work. well, i didn’t make him too proud of me, but at least i got the darn noodles in my mouth- and despite how they looked, they were darn tasty. so much so that i got pretty used to walking into different little cafes and ordering “mei” (and each time requesting a FORK). the second weekend i was there, we took a road trip to malaysia. the only boring part of this trip was the hellish customs line. the first day there, while everyone else went to play in the shield games (a yearly olympic-type event between the communities in singapore and malaysia), i took a bus from klang, where we were staying, into kuala lampur (also known as KL). from the klang bus depot in KL, i now had to figure out how to get to the renaissance hotel, which is across the street from the matik, or visitor center. of course, the bus driver had no idea what bus i could take to get to this hotel, and we asked his boss, who also didn’t know. it didn’t make it any easier that nobody spoke any english and that i didn’t speak malay. somehow we decided that i needed to take bus #23. the boss couldn’t tell me how to get there, though, and the only language he could use was a series of vague hand gestures and the word “shell” (which i figured out meant a petrol pump). so i wandered through the city on a quest for bus 23- on one block, there were at least a dozen different bus stops, none of which ever posted which buses stop there. so i had to ask everyone, and nobody seemed to know anything- i would say “bus 23?” and they would just shake their heads. i was starting to wish i had taken malay instead of french. after a while, i began to notice that at every bus stop, there was always one guy who was distinguishable not because of his clothes, but because he seemed to be standing slightly more authoratatively than everyone else. now, this was totally a guess on my part, but i decided to give it a try and i went to this person at the next bus stop i walked to. and this one said “no 23” in a decisive way, so, encouraged, i went to the next stop and asked there- and this one said “ask master- the master” and pointed at another stop on the next block. the master! now i knew my guess was right- and at the next stop, i went to the master and said “bus 23?” and he motioned to me to wait. i did, and finally 23 came along and i literally ran onto it and sat down. ah, air conditioning and a seat! how much more could i ask for? i was pretty proud of myself, for finding this tiny random bus stop a mile from where i’d started. tired as i was from my quest for 23, the day was just beginning. after i got to the matik, and set up a country tour for 2:30, i realized i had three and a half hours to kill- so i started exploring KL. as i walked past the petronas towers, as i walked through the streets and noted the graffiti written in mandarin and the bus drivers shouting their destination as they drove and the highway signs full of names i was actually becoming able to not only recongnize but pronounce, i got to really begin to know the city. as i walked i got a fuller, more intimate view of the city than i ever could driving around. i could actually notice the end of one neighborhood and the beginning of another, i talked to all kinds of people, several of whom thought my accent was terribly funny and foreign. i got a feel for KL, i found the one bus stop in the entire city that actually (shock of shocks) has a sign saying which buses stop there, and basically i became familiar with what the city is like, what it is like to walk through it. one thing i learned was that the city is entirely third world and cosmopolitan at the very same time- i witnessed a scene where there was a very shiny mercedes in the driveway of a straw-roofed shack next to which a man was squatting, frying something smelly in an earthenware-pot. i saw the train whiz by full of suited businesspeople, and below the tracks, women who seemed to be out of another century were napping in the shade. it wasn’t a question of rich next to poor, which i can find anywhere. it was old next to new. it was a culture untouched by westernization next to a completely modern world. i never made it to the eastern side of the peninsula, which is where the wilder nature is- but i did see a lot of the countryside which was quite peaceful and pretty. i tasted scorpion "wine", which is made from tiger bones and scorpion poison, and used as a cure for rheumatism. i saw an atlas moth really, really up close. i found a funky necklace and a beautiful view at the Genting Highlands. for lunch, i stopped at a cafe and asked for mei, and was not understood. so i asked again and clarified that they are noodles, and instead of my beloved mei, i was given a plate of lukewarm cooked pasta. hmm. that was some pretty good proof that i was in a different country. i felt very singaporean by then, and i was all shocked that these malaysians couldn’t serve up good old mei. as i was walking around, i pulled out my walkman, turned the tape off and pushed one of my presets, just to see. it was some song in what i recognized as mandarin, and i listened for a couple of minutes. then i pushed the next preset, hoping for something equally exotic, and i was delighted- it was a pretty little song, and i recognized two malay words, so i guessed it was malay. curious, i pushed the next button. something exotic again? not really- that smashmouth song was just ending, and next was that bad jennifer lopez song. doh, go figure. two out of three ain’t bad ;) i felt like a true traveler, in that i was all alone on my excursions, so when i got lost, it was up to me to get myself found. that was probably the most exciting part, figuring out where i was after i’d been wandering around so long that i was far from where i had started. i’m still converting everything into terms of singaporean dollars and malaysian ringgits. i’m still putting a “la” after every sentence, a la singaporean mode. i can tell anyone how to get to jalan ampani from the pasar seni for under two ringgits, and i know how to crack open a durian without slashing my fingers. all in all, it was quite an adventure. one that i’ll remember long after i stop finding ringgits in my change purse. -zahra

Monday, June 19, 2006

so much family

almost three weeks ago, taher's middle brother and his wife had their first child. she is tiny and gorgeous and sleepy. with unbelievably tiny fingers which i might just have to gobble up.

taher's oldest brother and his wife and their two daughters stayed in chicago all of last week, to be here for the chatthi and the aqiqa and all of that. my sister-in-law's parents were also here, helping out for a while with the new baby. which means in taher's parents' house, there were his parents, his brothers, my sisters-in-law, the three grandkids, her parents... and us. we decided to camp out there for a week to spend time with the entire family.

one house, 13 people. there were always people in every room, and in the evenings everyone would gather in the living room and just talk for an hour or two. it was fun. and even a bit relaxed! i spent a lot of time just holding the baby, or playing with the kids, or chatting in the kitchen with my sisters-in-law. or getting in line for the bathroom!

the week was memorable not only for the fun we had, but for the realization i had, over the course of our stay, that this whole menagerie was once just taher's parents. the two of them. they must look at the crowd we've become and feel amazing. i imagine my parents feel the same way when they look at me and taher, my brother and bhabi and niece. the feeling that their family is growing before their eyes, and only becoming closer and tighter-knit as more people are added to the group.