Erin Feb 9 artWhen in Malaysia. That phrase has become my “YOLO” for this trip, added only recently after the past two consistently unpredictable weekends that I’ve had here in Benta. This most recent weekend was perhaps the most hodgepodge-y: I found myself watching an international motocross competition, attending a Chinese New Year feast, and crashing a Hindu wedding.

It began on Friday, when, after my only class of the day ended at 9 AM, my mentor Nazima brought my roommate Wiepie and me along with her brother and his children to the nearest vanilla plantation (roughly 15 minutes away). Wiepie is very interested in natural, farm-produced foods, and I am always up for anything, so this was an opportune moment for the both of us to learn something. (Aside: Malaysia just recently began vanilla production; according to my mentor, there are two major vanilla plantations around, in Benta, and a 40-minute drive to Jerantut.) When we got there, though, we found out that there was a fungus that destroyed the roots of the vanilla trees, so the farmer had to replant his trees. Dejected and upset over the failed attempts to successfully produce the spice, we left the farm, but Nazima didn’t end the trip there. She took us to Lata Jarum, a waterfall nearby. Despite the scary story of a famous politician’s murder in the area surrounding the waterfall, the scenery itself was beautiful and we spent quite a while just soaking our feet in the deliciously cool river and enjoying the peacefulness.

From there, we went to a palm sugar stand. Palm sugar nutrient-rich, low-glycemic crystalline sweetener that looks, tastes, dissolves and melts almost exactly like sugar, but it’s completely natural and unrefined. To get palm sugar, however, is quite the difficult process. Harvesters have to climb to the top of the tree, collect the sap, and then boil it for several hours before it solidifies. Attempts to establish a more commercial-based production setup, though, has been futile: once inserted into a plantation atmosphere, the tree does not produce sap, so the process of making palm sugar remains (happily) artisanal. We arrived at this small shack, a pot-bellied man delighted by his visitors, and we watched as liquid palm sugar frothed and toiled in this enormous cast iron pot. The stand owner sat us down at a table and brought us a pitcher of the caramel-colored liquid, which we mixed with a finger or two of water and greedily gulped down. The taste is amazing; somewhat akin to butterscotch, with earthier tones. Sweet, of course, but not cloyingly so. It was delicious.

Thankfully, Nazima was amazingly kind to give us a packet of the sugar (wrapped in palm leaves, as it traditionally is) last week, which we’ve been savoring and saving for now.

The random nature of Friday poured into Saturday, when my roommate and I accompanied Nazima and her brother and children again, but this time to a TA 45, an international motocross competition. Yes, I was just as surprised as you are now. Apparently this is a big event, with riders from Australia, Thailand, and Japan coming in to compete. The prince of Pahang (each state of Malaysia has a sultan/royal family) was there to start the event off. It was a hot day, the wheels of motorbikes kicked dirt off into our faces and into the nooks of cameras, and engines roared as riders jumped into the air, turned corners with knees projected at all sorts of angles, and it was the most delightfully American experience so far here in Malaysia for me.

From that event, Wiepie’s mentor Su drove with us to Bentong to participate in a Hokkien Chinese New Year dinner. She let me borrow a qi pao (a traditional Chinese dress) and we ate nine courses of delicious and symbolic food, like the Five Treasures, which included jellyfish and a vegetable omelette. We also watched as the god of prosperity handed out hong bao (the traditional red envelopes filled with money) to guests (there were almost 300 people at this dinner); we were lucky enough to be chosen as the recipients of hong bao as well. The dinner lasted three hours, but it was absolutely fascinating to learn about the Hokkien culture and how they celebrate Chinese New Year.

We stayed in Bentong for the night at another ETA’s residence, only to wake up early in the morning to visit the market. Famous for its ginger and bean curd, Bentong’s market is far more expansive than Benta’s, and we saw all sorts of new and curious food, including black chicken. While I have been to farmer’s markets in the states before, the market here was entirely different from my preconceived interpretations. For one, all sorts of meat sit out in the air, with sometimes questionable refrigeration, and the sellers casually butcher the animals right in front of you. Perhaps I am not well-versed in markets (and I don’t pretend to be), but I was certainly astonished at the level of diversity in and sanitation of the market.

Finally, this bizarre assortment of a weekend ended as we returned to Benta. Su noticed a hall surrounded by people coming in or going out while leaving Bentong. “That looks like a Hinu wedding!” she remarked. She then turned to us and asked, “Would you like to go and see?” Stunned, Wiepie and I nodded our heads, and we found ourselves walking into this hall and catching the tail end of the reception. The bride and groom sat upon the stage, guests still taking pictures with them, and suddenly so were we too. Several people welcomed us and encouraged us to go on stage. So, we randomly took a picture with a newlywed couple that we never met before, and left the hall with peacock feathers as a party favor.

When in Malaysia, I suppose. I do very much like how plans can manifest so easily yet haphazardly, and I hope that this sort of lucky weekend continues to occur while I’m here. I can’t wait to find out if this is a natural product of the culture, or if this is the sort of weekend that only happens once in a blue moon.

My name is Erin D’Amelio and I’m going to Malaysia for ten months as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. Over the next 10 months I will be submitting regular journal entries of this incredible adventure, documenting my thoughts and experiences. The views and beliefs I will present in these articles are my own; they do not reflect those of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. Below are the articles, in order of publication. Just click on any link and continue the journey with me.
An Unforgettable Journey

How Does One Get a Fulbright, Exactly?
And Then We Wait
Sensory Overload
(Almost) Hitting the Ground Running
Mercurial Days