November 2, 2012

New Season: Baby Diaries!

It’s a NEW season for us! We finally broke the good news to all our friends and the responses have been overwhelming. We have been swarmed by heart-warming messages from family and friends far and wide – an incredible reminder that we are much loved. Of course the first recipients of this news were our parents and siblings. Mummy nearly burst through the roof in excitement, Daddy’s smile stretched for miles, Rachel spilled a glass of Coke and Josh exclaimed “We have all been promoted!” – all this was during Rachel’s graduation lunch. You can imagine the stares we got!

Mom and Dad-in-law were equally excited, especially Mom. As many know, she’s a great cook and has recently retired so with tons of time to spare, she’s been spending lots of time in the kitchen and I’ve been the recipient of wholesome soups. Esther is reeling with joy and can’t wait to be a little aunty.

As a writer at heart, I’ve been filling my personal journal pages for more than a decade now. This season was no different. I’ve documented at best every valley and mountain top moments, poured my heart and soul into penning. It would be a waste not to capture this journey on my blog and so I’ve decided to start a new series called “Baby Diaries” that share snippets of my journey as a first-time mom, our journey as first time parents and the quirky moments in between.

April 11, 2012

Life is an adventure with you!

Time has passed us so quickly. Terence and I recently celebrated our 4th wedding anniversary. It was four years ago when we read our hand written vows to reach other at our beautiful wedding shared by family and friends. The wedding has long passed with tangible memories to hold – but the living it is now and a lifetime.

Year One was a lot of smoothing out the edges. Despite bring friends for 14 years, there was still a lot to learn and unlearned. Our home was just becoming a sanctuary and we had to try hard not to pick on each other’s bad habits. Of course, year one was also the first of many new things like (sky diving and bungee jumping) and we also started a new venture – one that brought us great joy in doing what we love.

Year Two was getting into the routine. Where to put the keys, who cleans the toilet, sorting schedules, stocking the pantry and all things under our roof. Our little sanctuary finally felt lived in – familiar, comfy and a safe haven to go back to. It was also in this year that we figured how much time to spend with both families amidst our demanding schedules. Expectations were met, everyone was happy – but of course, more time is a welcome.

Year Three – at the end of Year Two, we took off to a crazy idea of traveling two continents – Europe and South Africa in 3 months. We did it – witnessed pretty snowflakes fall from the sky, was mesmerized by Europe’s illustrious history and culture, swam with the  great white,  hiked table mountain and roamed with the wild. What a great start to Year Three and the craziness continued throughout the year as work brought us to different places and we made our first medical mission trip to Cambodia for missions.

Year Four, our sanctuary has now become a nest where warmth and security abide. We’ve learned to appreciate each other’s differences and similarities. We’ve stopped trying to make the other more like me. It’s our differences that bind us together – after all life would be boring if all is same-same. Our hunger for travel and passion for people is what we’re wild about – so year four, we dove (deeper) into various projects and committed ourselves to seeing lives changed (by the grace of God). Yet in the thick of it all, we found time to sneak away to see the Taj and tread with tigers.

I’m thankful everyday that I’ve found my best friend (in my teens) and married him (in my tweens). Life has been an adventure with my best friend. At times it’s like riding on a 4WD through rough terrain and for most times we just set our sails to drift and allow the winds of change to take us to unexplored territories. Through it all, I’m rest assured that God is on our side and He’s guiding our path. “Time for junior” everyone chimes. Perhaps that would be our major milestone for Year Five? In His time…

February 17, 2012

Iwahig Prison & Penal Farm

“You went to a prison while on holiday?” the expression is one of disbelief tinged with curiosity. Here’s where I chance on the opportunity to tell the story of my visit to the Iwahig Prison & Penal Farm in Puerto Princesa (PP). Evidently prison visits are not top of the list attractions for most destinations, but in PP there is enough reason to visit when I learned that this was a “free” prison.

Passing through lush olive paddy fields dense villages while trying not to inhale dust kicked up from the dirt covered road, I sat in my tricycle wondering how I should greet the prisoners. Would I dare look them in the eye? Surveying my outfit for the day I couldn’t help but wonder if my shorts, buttoned shirt and flip flops was an appropriate choice. Anyway, it was too late to turn back, if the guards stopped me at the gate, I would just have to use my shawl and wrapped around as a sarong.

The huge sign with the words ‘Iwahig Prison & Penal Farm’ beckoned us as we approached the compound. A guard armed with a long rifle motioned us to him and made a quick check before waving us in. It was another five kilometers to the prison hub where the prisoners live. The weather was perfect for a field day with clear skies dotted with cotton clouds and monstrous hills as the backdrop. The view was as far as the eye can see; paddy fields, fish farms, veggie plots and organic gardens.

We arrived at the souvenir shop, an elevated big wooden building with two large stairways leading up to it. Upon entering the building, a man dressed in regular clothes enthusiastically ushered me in and immediately went into ‘selling mode’ showing me wood carvings, key chains, baskets, t-shirts and pearl earrings. It felt a lot like walking into a market with constant harassing from hagglers, but after firmly declining with a, “No thank you, I will just have a look”, they eased off.

I was eager to learn who the prisoners were when suddenly without warning, music started to play. A group of men in yellow shirts leaped into position showing off a fairly impressive dance routine laced with quirky self-induced moves. I noticed all their t-shirts had the letter “P” print at back; I turned around and asked the same guy who tried to sell me stuff if they were prisoners. He said, “Yes ma’am, they are prisoners. And so am I”. At this point I was in quiet disbelief while watching the dance. I had just spoken to a prisoner thinking he was a guard!

He introduced himself as Oliver and showed me his tag and proudly explained that he is ranked a corporal – by prison standards that mean he gets to oversee other inmates. Oliver has a kind looking expression plastered on his face and his tan face had many deep wrinkles inscribed on it, perhaps from the many untold stories of living in prison.

I went on an interview spree with Oliver asking him about life in Iwahig. From where we were standing, he pointed to the high security building where prisoner are kept in a lock up 24/7. “What about the ‘free’ prisoners?” I asked. To that he said, “85% of prisoners here are free. They work in farms, grow vegetables, feed fish and make souvenirs. They come back in the evening to sleep in the quarters”. Prisoners are not handcuffed or chained; they walk freely sharing the 200 acre compound with 3000 inmates. Quite a blissful life, one might think, but when I asked Oliver if he was happy in Iwahig, he stared deeply into my eyes and with such sadness in his voice he said, “Ma’am, no one is ever happy in prison”.

Oliver committed a dreadful murder at 22 years old and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Now at 45 years old he shared with me his longing to see his family. At 22, he left his wife and daughters (ages 2 and 4) in Baguio to live behind bars in Bilibid prison in Manila. At that time, he brought with him photos of his family as memorabilia knowing that it would be impossible for them to visit him as it would cost too much. When Oliver was later transferred to Iwahig Prison, the photos were confiscated from him and to date; he has no tangible proof of his family except for what is etched in his memory and the deep lines on his pleasant face.

With a smile stretched across his face, he day-dreamingly said, “Now my daughters are adults”, I couldn’t help but question, would his daughters even know their father is here? Oliver has never written a letter or communicated to anyone since his imprisonment. Each letter requires six stamps costing about 120pesos (MYR 9) and the fact is, although it is a free prison, there is no way of earning any money here.

Slightly more well off inmates who have some financial support from their family would bribe the prison guards for the use of their cellphones. Others those who can’t bear isolation from the outside world would eventually try to escape hiding in hillsides and paddy fields for days and weeks. Oliver tells me tales of prison escapes but he said, “Not many are successful, but a few have escaped”.

We walked around the building and stopped at a large window overlooking the prison canteen. Clearly there weren’t any scrawny looking prisoners in sight and that is because food rationing at Iwahig is pretty decent. Each person is given a week’s supply of 4.5kg of rice, 2 packs of rice noodles, 7 tins of sardines, 2 eggs, 6 pieces of dried fish and 4 pieces of fresh water fish. Veggies are given only if there is a harvest from the garden. To that, Oliver has little to complaint about.

With decent food supply, freedom to roam vast plains and the opportunity to meet tourists from different countries, Iwahig seems like paradise to prisoners, but because it is Philippines and islands are separated by seas, transportation and communication is a problem. Given the fact that most prisoners come from financially deprived families and squalor conditions, every prisoner knows that once he is sentenced, there is no turning back. They leave behind everything that meant something to them. Their world is a prison, whether free or not.

February 3, 2012

Still alive and kicking (if you were wondering!)

I’ve left this space empty for far too long! So much has taken place I’ve got a backlog of stories to spill and a bag of upcoming projects to unravel. Life has been exciting, revealing and nothing short of a thrilling roller coaster ride. God has been real and He has been good. A sneak peak of what’s to come on this blog:

India: Travel tales & wild rides
Philippines: A year end escape to mountain tops and sunbathed seas
Iwahig Prison & Penal Farm: Where ‘free’ prisoners roam
Life @ 29 (A reflection of what has and what is to come)
Lots of book reviews…! (Yes I’ve been doing a lot more reading these days)

Will be back with full stories. Stay tuned!

March 25, 2011

Project Gift: March 2011

Last month’s Project Gift went to the Pastor & people in Cambodia whom we personally visited for the 2nd time. I will write separate post about the amazing things happening in Cambodia and how far a few dollars can stretch in making an impact in the lives of people.

This month having been bombarded with news about Japan since the tsunami hit last week, and just this morning about another earthquake in Myanmar, we have been incredibly moved by the massive death toll and destruction that’s gripping our earth, particularly in Japan at this very moment. Having the opportunity to be in Aceh in 2006, two months after the Tsunami hit we caught a glimpse of how natural disaster can instantaneously turn a calm village into devastating bedrock of calamity. And regardless of how much we read, listen and watch on TV – only those on ground will ever understand what it means to have the world in one day and nothing the following day.

We will continue to pray and believe that God is in the midst of all this because

“God will never forget the needy; the hope of the afflicted will never perish.” Psalm 9:18.

And to put action to prayer is to do something! In John 4, Jesus talked about true worshipers worshiping in spirit and in truth. True worship stems from doing. The Bible also records a scripture from James that true religion comes from doing.

This month’s Project Gift goes to Japan via Do Something Now. Do Something Now is a movement by Passion, a ministry known for their worship and music. Worship is more than just music or good music. Worship is more than just notes and singing in the right tune. Worship is more than just recording labels. Worship is also about doing something unto the Father, our Heavenly Father.

Let’s put action to prayer… do something now!

February 15, 2011

A tug-of-war between tourism and tradition

Treasure throve of all things mystical – that is Ubud. I was initially skeptical about visiting Ubud as I’m not a fan of competing with throngs of tourists, especially when I’m on a holiday. But Ubud proved me wrong, despite the busy traffic at certain times of the day and the never ending shops along the Main Street, Monkey Forest road, Hanoman Street, and Dewi Sita Street are the hidden back lanes that lead to vast green paddy fields that make a ready escape.

This little town holds dear to its traditions and so I observed. One afternoon we biked around and found ourselves stuck in traffic of people along Monkey Forest road. A good long line of nearly 1km of cars, bikes and people were sardine on the streets in gridlock. We waited patiently for it to pass and found out that a funeral procession was taking place. Family and friends of the deceased were walking the final march into Monkey Forest for the burial. Evidently, despite Ubud being a tourist hotspot, locals still went about their necessary traditions – even if it means causing a mad traffic jam.

Laid back as it is, I found old and young men sitting together with their fighter chickens chatting the afternoon away. While their wives watch over the children, men gather in the way they know best, chats and cock fights.

Religion also defines their culture, steep in religious beliefs, offerings are presented to their gods daily and scents of burning incense lingers in the air. Good luck charms are places at shops entrances, walkways and byways.

And in the midst of all this authenticity are hotels, cozy cafes, massage spas, cooking schools, clothing shops and art galleries polka dotted along uneven pathways. It is a mix of pleasant chaos where every Balinese supports one another to get an extra buck or two from the foreigner. Yours truly.

February 8, 2011

The secret world of Banyumulek where potters reside

Exploring Lombok on a motorbike is perhaps the best way to get around. Weaving through traffic in Mataram, bee lining through small lanes and stumbling upon a treasure trove of a quiet pottery making village – Banyumulek.  Located north of Mataram, the city center in Lombok, Banyumulek is lined with shops selling terracotta and clay pottery. Venturing further in, away from the shops, we found the ‘heart of the workshop’ – ladies sitting in their verandahs busy molding, shaping and forming pots and vases. A parade of vases and pots lined the narrow roads sunbathing in the glorious warmth.

Men bicycling down tiny lanes with stacks of pottery tied at the back heading toward the smoking furnace of haystacks where the pots and vases are fired. Children help their mothers strap on stacks of wood for the furnace. Ladies at the furnace keep their eye on the heating pots occasionally flipping the haystacks to release the heat. Others squat around exchanging stories around the neighbourhood.

Villagers eyed us from a distance as we exchanged courtesy smiles. It was pretty evident that we were visitors and they were villagers. Perhaps not much tourists have ventured that far beyond the row of pottery shops. I chuckled under my breath because this would be an ideal a scene of “desperate housewives” in an Indonesian village setting.  Everyone had their chores, each to its own work, and each shared a bond – a bond that comes from being part of Banyumulek, the quiet pottery village.

We made our exit back to the shops to hunt for a pottery or two and gladly settled for four instead! We compared prices at different shops and realized that everything was cheap. Just as we thought it wouldn’t get any cheaper, Annan Pottery came along – a wholesale shop with a wide range of displays in a spacious warehouse. They even had a range of cookware from pots to kualis to tagines! I’ve been scouting around for a tagine ever since I watched the episode of Kylie Kwong where she whipped up a Moroccan meal for friends. And who would have thought I’d fine a tagine in Lombok, Indonesia?! I was squirming with excitement and proceed to ask how much it was. The lady explained that it is a fast selling item and it is slightly more expensive. I pressed on to ask her to reveal the price and she replied – 24,000 Indonesian rupiah for the small one and 30,000 Indonesian rupiah for the big one. My jaw dropped! That’s only RM8 and RM10 individually! Beyond my wildest dreams that I found a tagine in Lombok that costs close to nothing!

From then on, it was a shopping spree. We chatted up with the lady, she introduced us to her sons who were hard at work decorating pottery pieces. We drank coffee, picked up two more pottery pieces, exchange a few travel stories and a big hug. She told us to keep in touch and said that if we ever saw a piece of pottery we liked in a store or magazine; take a picture of it and send it to her, as she makes customized pieces as well. What a find!

If you are in Lombok, this is a place not to be missed. If you hire a guide, insist that he takes you here instead of other designated pottery shops where they make a big commission from your sales.

Annan Pottery (Wholesale Center)
Jalan Raya Banyumulek Kedin
Lombok Barat – NTB 83362
LA Akhsan Tel: 08175760337
Nanik Tel: 081803628480

February 4, 2011

A real character shows up in Tenganan

An old shrunken man with a crown of grey hair peers through his glasses and regarded our presence. He quickly returned to his newspapers as we lingered on in his front yard fascinated by the wooded washed out signboard that read “Special Balinese Letter Writer”.

I walked up the steps to where he was sitting with his newspapers still in hand. I quickly greeted him “Selamat Soreh Pak” (Good afternoon Uncle). He instantly broke into a welcoming smile inviting us in. Dusting the bamboo lashed seats, he invited us to sit and he stowed away his newspapers and offered us some drinks. Once again, genuine Balinese hospitality astounded us.

Pakcik Wayan is perhaps the oldest Balinese inscriber in Tenganan, east of Bali. A vanishing craft of carving the ancient tales and the famous Ramayana story in Sanskrit on lontar leaves (from rontal trees).  Long rectangular leaves about 25cm in length are dried, cleaned and naturally treated to prevent the leaves from breaking and wrinkling. The leaves are in a shade of yellowish beige giving it a rustic look.

Beaming with pride, he uncovers booklets of lontar sheets are bound with vine and wrapped in newspapers. Prized art antiques, he explains that these booklets are passed down through generations and would never leave his family lineage despite extravagant offers from eyeing buyers. He unwraps a booklet and starts reading the story of Ramayana in a deep lyrical tune. The notes resonate in the air and my eyes caught sight of his overgrown nails curling up like ancient relic. Surely this man could pass for a character who stepped out an Asian folktale. He takes a breath and continues his rhythmic read. For a moment, time warped back and my hairs stood on ends.

This dying trade fortunately has been passed down to his daughter who continues to share and promote the craft in Ubud, Bali. Not only is it a tedious and meticulous craft, each leave takes about two days to complete and is sold for 1 million Indonesian Rupiah each (approximately RM300). Each booklet contains approximately 50-60 sheets and he has orders enough to keep him busy till the end of the year. Most of his buyers are from Europe with a love for antique art pieces.

Hopefully the next time I’m in Bali, Pakcik Wayan will still be sitting on his verandah with newspapers in hand ready to welcome us back to his amiable house, and if he wills to have another apprentice under his wings.

Interested traditional art collectors can get in touch with Pakcik I Wayan Muditadhnana at 036341178. His house is in Tenganan Village, off Candidasa.