This blog concludes my two-part series documenting an eventful week I had last month. Part 1, which covers Sunday through Wednesday afternoon, can be found here.
At 3:50, we leave his office… and go into the main room of the department, where some of the staffers are serving afternoon tea. I eat a couple curry puffs, which are good, and enter into Repeat #253 of the conversation I have whenever I eat food with a Malaysian.
THEM: How you like the food?
ME: Sedaap. (Delicious.)
THEM: [Amusedly] Sedaap! You can speak Malay?
ME: Sikit-sikit. (A little bit.)
THEM: [Amusedly, again] Sikit-sikit! [Awkward silence.] You like spicy?
ME: Yes, I like spicy food. I eat sambal (chili sauce) every day!
THEM: Oh! [More awkward silence, followed eventually by conversation in Bahasa Malaysia about me.
At 4:30, we finally leave the office and head to the Islamic school. When we get there, Mr. Hakim informs me that the event won’t start until 6. It’s at this point that I realize simultaneously that a) this event is during, not before, the bike ride, and b) Mr. Hakim doesn’t think I’m actually going biking. I tell Mr. Hakim that I need to get back to my house for the bike event. Mr. Hakim looks very confused. “You really want to go cycling in this weather? It’s so hot.” “Yes,” I tell him, and he assents to driving me back to my place. My roommate and I drive to the masjid (mosque) from which the biking event will start. We meet the three other ETAs in Perlis, and together we give an exceedingly awkward greeting to the Ambassador and the Embassy staff members at the event, as we forget that Americans don’t like the limp handshakes that Malaysians prefer. We take our place in the greeting line and meet the 30 members of the Prince’s cycling group, and for the zillionth time I thank my lucky stars I’m a man and don’t have to play the Russian roulette my female ETA colleagues have to go through each time they meet a variety of men of different religious observation levels. Some shake hands, some do not, and it’s really hard to tell the difference. One Embassy staffer gives us U.S. Embassy baseball caps, which would be super cool except the lid is insanely large.
We get our bikes, heavy-duty mountain bikes with some of the biggest shocks I’ve ever seen, and start our ride. We stop first at the nearby lake, where the Ambassador and Prince plant a tree, or something. We go from there to the Islamic school, where Mr. Hakim thrusts a mic into my face and I read my script. It goes fine. The next few stops, we visit a harum manis (sweet mango, Perlis’ signature product) farm, where the state agriculture officer tells us that they lost 90% of their crop this year because of the excessive heat. We visit a rubber tree farm, and I test my hand at tapping rubber. (I’m not very good.) Then, we go to a few houses in the area to give gifts to those in need. An old man is overcome with emotion at getting a visit from the Prince and starts crying. We take a lot of pictures. At another stop, my roommate gives apoor family a toaster. The gears on my bike break, and I barely make it up the pedestrian bridge over the railway. We get back to the masjid just as gets dark, and make plans with the Embassy staff to go to dinner. For a hot second, we think we’ll get to join in their police escort to the restaurant, but we get shut down.
Surprisingly, we get to the restaurant not too soon after they arrive, and we have a lovely dinner with the Ambassador, the two Embassy staffers that came with him, and an American businessman that’s running a nearby Boeing plant. The Ambassador orders Tiger beer for everyone, which was amazing. It’s the first alcohol I’ve drunk in Perlis. I ask him if he knows my former boss, David Saperstein. He doesn’t. We have a nice table conversation about economic inequality and, of course, Trump.
Thursday: It’s a normal day at school. I prepare a lesson on democracy for one of my Form 4 classes that features a mock election. It bombs. I offer RM 10 to the person that wins the election, and still I can only get 2 candidates to run. When I tell everyone that they can’t offer money or food for votes, they tell me voting is too hard, and they just want me to pick the winner. Of course, I refuse. Later in the day, I get confused about our new schedule and miss half my last class. After school, I have a meeting with my students about the social entrepreneurship project. They don’t have any ideas, so I have to float suggestions and the meeting drags on for an hour. I go home, then turn around to go to play basketball. I drive to the basketball court and I’m greeted, as always, by a chorus of kids yelling “Sir!!!” (or really, “Suuuhhh!”) at me. I play for an hour—my team wins—then I talk with one of the kids who can speak English fairly well about the NBA for half an hour. My roommate and I get chicken rice at a roadside stall, as usual.
Friday: I do my democracy lesson for my best Form 4 class; it’s marginally more successful. I leave school early so that my roommate and I can make it on time to a kayak trip in eastern Kedah, the state south of Perlis. We stop Alor Setar, the largest city in northwest Malaysia, to pick up another ETA, and then drive for two hours into the Malaysian jungle to one of the towns where our host ETA for the afternoon is staying. As we approach, we’re instructed to look for the house with the silver Nissans (we all have the same make and model car) and the cows. We eat a small meal at our friend’s teacher’s house, then drive to the kayak site. We pick out boats and life jackets, then pile into the bed of an old truck to drive down to the river. The river, it turns out, is super low because of the drought, and we spend about a third of our time out on the water dragging our kayaks across the riverbed. I am luckily in a single kayak, but the Malaysians we’re going with (and 2 of the ETAs) are in doubles, which are even harder to manage when you’re in water that’s 6 inches deep. One of the doubles rams into me every 20 minutes, but there’s no lasting damage. I do, however, try to swim at the one deep point in the river, and fall all the way in while trying to get out of my kayak. It’s all good, though—I’m happy to be out in nature, hanging out with my ETA friends. My roommate and I are planning to spend the night in the town, but when we get our phones back, the ETA we picked up in Alor Setar has a number of missed calls and must go back to her place for an emergency. We drive her back and find ourselves fortuitously close to the mall. I need a new pair of sunglasses and pants, and so I dart into the Uniqlo and H&M stores to try some things on. I reach the H&M counter just before the mall closes, happily paying the American-esque prices for decently-cut clothes.
Saturday: I wake up late and start to read that book by Dr. Mahatir. I lament the fact that, but for the whole Muslim thing, Mike Huckabee would surely say “Amen” to Dr. Mahatir’s Fox News-worthy takes on the failure of socialism and the perversion of Western youth. In a minor miracle of self-motivation, work out in our open-air garage just after noon. I take a shower to cool off, but our shower (which does not have a temperature setting) is going through one of its hot spells and it doesn’t really cool me down. Still sweating bullets, I drive into town to meet my teacher mentor at the best Western food restaurant in town, Blackwood (ironically, it’s owned by the Crown Prince himself). I get a pretty good burger and, using the restaurant’s prized wifi, we plan a four-hour English activity our students will do in a couple weeks. After the meeting, I break down and spend RM 170 on a tub of protein powder at one of the town’s two gyms. Back at the house, my roommate has discovered that our wifi, which usually takes 3-5 minutes to load a single page, has inexplicably transformed to normal American levels. Not knowing how long it will last, I spend the next several hours surfing the web and start to plan my June trip. My roommate and I go to dinner at a mamak place, which is a type of restaurant that serves Indian food, shows soccer matches, and is open really late at night (it’s the closest thing Perlis has to a bar). We’re aiming to watch a soccer match, but the restaurant’s TV has magically disappeared. We eat there anyway. Coming home, I take advantage of the good Internet and Google Hangout with my parents. For the first time in three months, I give them a virtual tour of my home.