Thursday, August 03, 2006

Back with a bang and a crash

So I'm back home in the land of Blighty, I slipped back into British culture like a comfortable pair of shoes, aided by decent cups of tea and HP sauce (a mixed metaphor that's probably now conjuring images of worn shoes filled with tea and brown sauce). The adventures of a month ago now seem like a distant hazy dream, one that you can remember as having been really good but with details that become more shrouded as time passes. I can still feel that a change has occurred however, a new sense of purpose and focus that was lacking when I left has definitely become apparent on my return, I've just got to keep that feeling now and not lose the ground I've covered.

I've dropped back into the routine of work quite smoothly, it does help working for a company I like with people I like, though finding somewhere to live didn't prove to be as easy. Looking around at the shoe boxes that people have the audacity to call flats and seeing the money people are willing to charge (and presumably pay) for them I realized how lucky I was to have lived at my previous address.

I had thought I'd found somewhere but after contracts had been signed and money exchanged it became apparent that I'd actually agreed to live in a war zone. A longstanding disagreement between my landlord and the resident of the flat downstairs, that I found out from the police stretched back over a year, cumulated (at the end of a week of smashed windows and police) in a brick being put through the window of the property I was renting. I left there pretty sharpish (though my girlfriend did point out that after Malaysia why should I be bothered about a few bricks and some broken glass?) and moved back to mum and dad's (thankfully I had that option otherwise I'd have been royally fucked). I've since got my money back from the landlord (though only after threatening legal action) and have now found another (quieter) flat that I can move into at the end of the month.

As others have pointed out, you travel the world and do crazy stuff with no problems only to come back and get into trouble on your own doorstep. But the bad shit exists to make the good shit seem good, Yin and Yang you can't get one without the other and there has been much more joy on my return than sorrow.

I think also I came back with the expectation that I would be just able to pick up where I had left off, which is the wrong attitude to have. This is a brave new world now and I'm going to have to work hard to build on the foundations laid in Malaysia, I think a bit of adversity is a welcome slap in the face to remind me that life is a struggle and if it wasn't it wouldn't be half so interesting.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Blind, mentally Handicapped, Freedom Fighters and foreign Visitors

So says the sign over one of the ticket booths in Agra Fort railway station. I had visions of a turbaned man in a kaftan, Kalashnikov slung casually over one shoulder, being asked if he wanted an aircon carriage into Pakistan, but unfortunately there were no obvious freedom fighters around while I waited for my ticket.

India is a mad, mad place. It's a world of stark contrasts, grinding poverty and stark beauty, somewhere you cannot prepare yourself for you just have to experience.

Since changing my plans in Mumbai I have been following the footsteps of the Islamic Moghul Empire, taking in the forts and palaces they left behind dotted across Rajastan. As I've traveled across the country I've been plowing through the last two books of Neal Stephensons Barorque Cycle, a trilogy of Novels set in the late 17th and early 18th century, and in one of those bizarre synchronous events that occur when you're traveling I opened the book to find one of the characters entering Rajastan on horseback just as I was crossing the border on the train. What struck me as I compared the world conjured by this historical fiction to the one I was experiencing was how little had actually changed, sure there's electricity, combustion engines and the like but as you stand outside one of the immense sandstone forts or Mosques that signified the moguls rein and look at the Bazaars and hawkers crowding outside you are struck by the fact that a Shah standing on the battlements a few hundred years ago would have seen much the same thing.

Most towns outside cities consist of rude thrown together dwellings which acrete coral like into any available space, connected by dirt tracks that occasionally grow a thin strip of concrete chewed in at the sides like an apple core. Piles of rubbish abound and most days you'll run across several mounds of human shit (if you catch a train anywhere early in the morning you'll pass at least fifty people squatting on waste ground or perched on train tracks performing their morning constitutional). The Infrastructure in most places is pretty fucked, buses and trains are falling to pieces and filthy (though they still manage to run on time, British rail take note), power goes out regularly and large numbers still get their water from hand pumped wells. It's something I've always known about India, but until you actually see it (and in a lot of cases smell it) you really get an idea of how molly coddled and sanitized we've become in the UK.

But still there is plenty of happiness here and the people are, in most cases very friendly and proud of their country, though I've found that there is such a massive gulf between the respective wealth of our two cultures as to form an insurmountable barrier. In the end you have to accept that you will always be seen through the distorting lens of the exchange rate and in a country of 1,027,015,247 souls all trying to grab their little bit of the action then those who shout the loudest are the ones who survive.

My hair seems to be a big hit :-), I can't go three paces at any monument without someone running over shouting "Sir! Sir! Your hair!" and demanding to have their picture taken with me. My confused and smiling face must now appear in countless photo albums across India "And here's a random foreigner we met at the Taj Mahal, look at his hair!"

I'm finishing my journey in Delhi now, staying in the Pharagange, a narrow corridor packed to bursting with hastily stacked dwellings, shops, restaurants, guest houses and hostels. Every available space is filled with something and walking through it one is bombarded to sensory overload. I've been here a few days now and everytime I leave my guest house I have to spend at least 15mins trying to find it on my return (and the roads a bloody straight line so it's not as if I can take a wrong turn).

I like Delhi, more so than Mumbai. The hassle you get here is surprisingly less than everywhere else, possibly because there is more business to be had so rickshaw drivers tend to leave you alone after the 5th no (though not before trying to sell you some hash). I've had a few people try and run scams but once you give them back their spiel word for word before they say it they tend to leave you alone (there must be a training college for them somewhere because they all say the same thing).

Anyway the adventure is almost over, I fly home in a few days and then it's back to normality (well in my own relative sense that is). I'm looking forward to getting back seeing my family, my friends and my girl. I've already put in my request, the first thing I want when I get home is to go down the local cafe for a fry up, a fry up with brown sauce, mmmmm. Funny the little things you're mind latches onto when you're away from the familiarity of your own culture.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Welcome to India

So Malaysia is now far behind me and I've hit the home leg of my journey through India. Even after spending 3 months outside of England India is still a shock to the system, if Malaysia was a foriegn country then India is another planet.

I've began my journey in Mumbai (formally Bombay) the largest city on India's west coast. It's an insane place, a city of juxtaposistions, hastely constructed shanties vie with the stone edifces of the former Raj and overly dressed security guards sit with glassey stares outside plush department stores while a few feet away a beggers in flithy rags squat on bits of cardboard.

It's also not a city you can become anonymous in. As a 6ft 2in white bloke with shoulder length hair, when you're striding around the city you're like a black hole dragging every, merchant, begger, drug dealer and cab driver in the vacinity towards you with the inescapable attraction of the exchange rate. In the 3 days I've been here I've had 4 people ask me to be in a Bollywood movie, countless people try and sell me dope, kids and beggers follow me with for streets at a time, taxi drivers make up prices at the drop of a hat, and every stall holder under the sun try to entice me with their riches.

It is I admit quite draining walking around fending off the advances of all and sundry. But the people are generally friendly and cheerful, even when they're trying to rip you off, and as long as you keep a sense of humour about it it's not so bad but still it's nice to be able to retreat to a hotel room, shut out the hustle and bustle and recharge before another sortee.

My plans have changed again since I arrived, Monsoon has come early (in fact the day I arrived) and Mumbai is awash with a constant stream of water from the heavens. Checking around down south it seems the weather is just as bad down there, I had thought about going to Goa anyway to see what it was like but a string of bad luck around buying my train ticket (that cumulated in a frantic couple of hours where I thought I'd lost my passport) convinced me the universe didn't want me to go south.

Instead I've decided to head up north away from the rain, my train leaves tonight for Jaipur where there's a spectacular red sandstone hill fort perched above the city, from there I figure I'm going to head into the Thar desert for some camel treking then work my way to Delhi and check out the Taj Mahal and surrounding area.

So no beaches just plenty of sand, still that's what I love about traveling, everything can change at the drop of a hat and as long as you relax and follow the flow things generally turn out as they should.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

End of the beginning

So it's been a fucking mad 3 months, I've been punched, kicked and thrown into walls. Had rocks thrown at me and been set on fire. I've ached all over, had bruised shins and swollen ankles and I think I may have fractured a toe last week (I dunno it still hurts like a bugger). I've climbed magic mountains and meditated in sufi tombs. And last but by no means least I've sweated, a lot.

So after all that was it worth it? Fuck yeah, I'd do it again in a heartbeat, it has been a truly life changing experience and I'm going home leaner, meaner and with more information than you can shake a stick at :-).

Thanks go to Zianal for torturing me the last few months and sharing a small amount of his massive knowledge with me but mostly to Nigel, who has put up with my annoyingly cheerful face darkening his doorstep almost every morning, has graciously opened many doors and allowed me to steal a small amount of his chi, giving me enough material to keep me occupied for a lifetime.

Thanks also go to Fong who has fed and watered me, given me lifts all over the place and been very gracious about the lanky foreigner sweating all over her nice living room floor while she's trying to watch her Korean soap operas. And finally thanks also to Lian and Min, just for being Lian and Min.

All I've got to do now is practice the stuff for the rest of my life....:-)

So next I'm off to India, I fly out Tuesday night and am currently planning to go South to Kerala (though this may change as I get there just in time for the monsoon...bugger). Well whatever happens I'm sure I'll have a few more things to post about.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Khatam vids

Here are some clips of the Khatam (see earlier post) that a friend has kindly let me host on his server, enjoy.

don_adam_weapons.wmv (7163 kb)
adam_fight.wmv (6269 kb)
dons_fight.wmv (30,578)
stone_vs_fire.wmv (7513 kb)
fire_vs_flesh.wmv (6607 kb)
fire_walk.wmv (2081 kb)
washing_in_oil.wmv (3100 kb)

(Note I've fixed the links now so they should all be working)

Oh and I've taken the word checker thingy off the comments because people were complaining it wasn't working properly and stopped them posting. I've already had two lots of spam and some abuse so feel free to add to them. :-)

Training, training and more training

Well things have been relatively quiet here for the last few weeks. I've mainly been drilling the stuff I've learnt over the last couple of months trying to etch everything into my synapses, make the most of my time before I start the long trek home via India and give Nigel and family a bit of a break from having the lanky foreigner jumping around the living room.

Pak Zianal also told me yesterday that I've completed the syllabus for the White Tiger Thai Boxing. This doesn't mean I've suddenly transformed into some martial arts master, rather I've now learnt all the basic drills, conditioning and forms, all I've got to do now is go and practice them for the rest of my life :-). It was quite interesting yesterday, I joined in training with some of his Malay students (something I haven't done for a while) and the difference between when I trained with them when I first got here to now was startling. All my techniques were much more solid and had a lot more power and my shins weren't killing me after 15mins of kicking, just shows you what a few months of beatings will do for a mans character.

On top of all the Silat and Thai boxing my form has improved no end with a lot of niggling problems if not ironed out at least in the process of being fixed and Nigels taught me a kick ass staff form that I've been dutifully practicing until my arms fall off, it's very nice and has lots of fa-jing training that's feeding back into my fast form which seems to be developing some oomph now.

I've got about a week left now, my little sister is in Malaysia (passing through on a leg of her own round the world jaunt) and she should hit Penang next week, so we should have time to meet up for a few days before I leave for India. I've got a place booked up in Mumbai for a couple of days and then the plan is to head down South and work my way back up (a slight change of plan than previous but more realistic I think).

I'll try and do another post before I leave, I've helping Nigel and Fong teach some kids martial arts at a local school on the weekend before I leave so that should be amusing.

Monday, May 01, 2006


So you think after having rocks chucked at me and being almost set on fire I could handle anything, but this morning standing at the edge of a small stage dressed up again in my Malay gear (which I have to admit I find most comfortable) waiting to go out in front of an audience I could still feel that familiar dry throat and gurgling tummy.

Myself, Nigel, Fong (Nigel's wife) and Lien (Nigel's son) where all at the USM ABN-AMRO Arts and Cultural Centre in the centre of Penang performing a Silat Tari demo to help launch an art exhibition by a local artist Shamsul Bahari. One side of the small stage was crowded with the traditional instruments of a Gamalan Orchestra, metal bells and gongs hanging in beautifully crafted housings adorned with intricate carvings, the other half clear for us to jump around in.

It may sound odd that a group of Europeans should be out promoting Malay traditional arts to Malays, and I'm sure there is some novelty value in it, but as Pak Zianal says; when people see that someone is willing to travel half way round the world to immerse themselves in Malay local culture and arts it helps to make people realize how much it is worth.

Nigel took the stage first opening the proceedings with a Tari dance to the four directions while some of Pak Zianal's lads banged out a rhythm on the gongs and drums. As he finished the rest of us came on clutching small bowls of flowers, I passed Nigel his and Fong and Lien left the stage we began Silat Smarap. This is a dance, normally performed at weddings, where the participants each hold a bowl of flowers, one representing male and the other female (the female is distinguished from the male because she has the bigger bowl, which seems quite appropriate I think :-p).

The idea of the dance is that the male has to try catch and touch bowls with the female while the female has to simultaneously tease and avoid the male, so the female is characterized by her creativity in avoiding the male while the male is distinguished by his cunning, trying to corner the female and use feints and tricks to lure her out. Apart from being great fun, my nerves were soon forgotten as I chased Nigel around the stage grins on our faces (I was the male, much to Nigel's annoyance but he could do the feminine moves much better than me :-)), the dance is a fantastic footwork and sensitivity exercise as you attempt to trick, tease, corner and escape from each other and because it's a dance it's less likely degenerate into a forceful contest.

After Nigel had kindly conceded (otherwise I'd have been chasing him for hours) Fong and Lien took the stage and performed the same dance. One of the best things about Silat Tari is that it allows the exponent to bring him or herself to the picture from the beginning. Instead of having to conform to a set style, conditioned by set patterns of movement, the principles and basics allow the person to find his or her own way of moving. This means that when you watch a group perform Silat Tari, though it is obvious that each person is moving in a similar fashion, there is also a certain stamp or quality of movement that is unique to each individual. Therefore watching Fong and Lien do the dance was quite different to myself and Nigel, Fong moves with fluid grace and strength while Lien's movements have a focused intensity that you can feel across a room.

Once they had finished the dance we all took our turns to perform various Tari, empty handed and with weapons (Nigel used a Pedang, a Malay single edged sword, while I had my trusty stick and Lien had a Kris) , to finish myself and Nigel performed a 'skit' whereby Nigel played the aggressive 'hard' martial artist, terrifying both the audience and the band stamping and shouting (he hammed it up beautifully and the hardest part was keeping a straight face), and I was the soft and flowing Silat Tari guy deftly avoiding and countering his blows (obviously we' been rehearsing this before and Nigel kindly uttered a blood curdling scream every time he attacked). The skit ended with Nigel crawling off the stage and Lien coming on to defend his fallen father, by running up my leg and elbowing me in the head (he was kind to me today as yesterday he landed a beautiful knee right on my nose while practicing).

In all it seemed to go very well and both Pak Zianal and Nigel got positive feedback and seemed happy, which is the important thing on these occasions. Something that can be easy to forget coming from the West is the concept of Face, if you are performing a demo it's not just your own embarrassment you have to worry about if it goes wrong but that of your teacher and their lineage whose skill you are representing.

Once all the excitement was over we got to have a proper look round at the art exhibition, the artist was a Penang local who I think had lived overseas in the States and Japan before finally moving back to Penang. The art was really good, with a diversity in style ranging from pen and ink miniature's and cartoons to full size canvases of everything from abstract images to landscapes. The two particular things that caught my eye where a series of pictures of tropical fish, their dayglow colours against a stark black background that seemed to fix them in it's embrace and a large canvas filled with intertwining tree branches reaching up to surround/ensnare a white dove at the centre.

I'm glad that I had another opportunity to something out of the ordinary while out here but I'm also glad that the demo is over as these things are always nerve wracking, still it's good to get the chance to help in a small way to promote the local culture and art and hopefully give back something of what it has given me.

Monday, April 17, 2006


It's after eight in the evening but I'm still sweating as I sit cross legged on the floor of Pak Zianal's living room, I'm not sure if it's because I'm dressed in the heavy black cotton of my Silat uniform, complete with colorful Sarong and headdress, or because I'm nervous. People bustle around preparing for the evenings proceedings, the call to prayer from the nearby mosque lilts softly in the background and the smell of incense and burning wood wafts through the door. Next to me a my friend, Don, also from England and my senior in our Martial arts organization sits dressed in similar garb, I look across out the corner of my eye and wonder if he is feeling the same as me.

We are here for our Khatam, Khatam is an Arabic word that means 'last' or 'ending' it is also used to refer to the last prayers said at someone's death. In Malay martial arts it is the name of a ceremony that closes a students formal instruction in an art, where he or she must demonstrate that they can perform to a certain level in front of a group of their peers and instructors from other arts (who have the final say on whether or not a student has passed). This probably doesn't sound too bad until you realize that some of the tests on tonight's bill include fighting with some of the local students and going through certain 'ordeals' involving flames and lumps of rock.

Finally as the call to prayer fades to silence Pak Zianal calls us out to begin. We sit on the bare concrete at the front of his house in meditation while Nigel, my teacher, opens the proceedings with the Tari. Silat Tari is form of Silat most often associated with dancing and like Tai-Chi often misunderstood as lacking in any martial application. As Nigel moves gracefully through his free form dance, arms waving in front of him as he moves into a low stance, you could be forgiven for mistaking the moves as that of simple dancing. However a good Tari, one that follows all the principles, should be able to have a martial application for any move within the dance.

Once the proceedings are considered open we are moved to one corner of Pak Zianal's yard and the fun begins. One by one we have to go up and strut our stuff in front of Nigel (who is overseeing the proceedings) and a panel of other students and teachers. Myself and Don run through our Tari first empty handed and then with weapons (Don with a Kris and myself with a stick).

Next comes the sparring, in this form of Silat sparring you have to show that you can fight using the moves of the Tari. So though we are fighting without any protective padding it's as much about style as it is about content. My opponent, Arri, is one of Pak Zianal's Thai Boxing students and a guy that likes to fight, but surprisingly I'm feeling very calm. We leap around the yard exchanging blows and weaving the patterns of Silat moves with our hands and feet, he's very fast and tough executing some crippling kicks at my legs and body but I think I give as good as I get. After two rounds of frenetic action we are called to stop, both of us grinning and panting, blood coursing through our veins, each of us disappointed we had to stop.

Don's fight is almost the opposite of mine, while mine was a flurry of blows Don's and his opponents Fayiz is one of patience and strategy. We find out later that Fayiz is a regional champion in competition Silat and at almost got on the team to represent Malaysia in the South East Asian games, he moves with feminine grace and commands distance perfectly taunting at Don with his facial expressions and movement trying to get him to rush in so he can punish him with kicks and punches. Don though is having none of it, he stays outside of Fayiz's range and plays the same game waiting for him to cross the distance to him. It's like watching a game of chess both fighters testing each other in short bursts of action and then retreating to a safe distance. They are quite evenly matched, Fayiz executes some lovely side kicks at Don and at one point Don sweeps one of the kicks out of the way with his arm and lands a beautiful strike to the face which takes Fayiz off his feet. Fayiz however retains his cool and as he gets up he pantomime's surprise to the crowd, continuing to fight with a zen like composure.

After the fights have finished the real fun begins, I have some ideas as to what the tests are as Nigel (who's done all of them) has made the occasional comment but I have little idea of the order or the details. The general idea is that you have to channel one particular element (fire, earth, wind, water) to negate another, so fire counters stone, water counters fire etc. Sort of like a mystical paper, scissors, stone.

Pak Zianal calls me up first and gets me to stand on scrubby patch of grass with my back to the audience. I'm told to channel fire, I imagine it igniting in my chest and spreading until my whole body is aflame, I'm shaking and twitching with the feeling of energy in my limbs. I can feel Nigel standing behind me, I try to relax and keep my mind focused on the flames, I have no real idea what's coming next so I just try to keep my mind on the meditation. Suddenly Pak Zinals voice cuts through the night in a short sharp command, a couple of seconds later I feel an enormous blow between my shoulder blades, the air is knocked out of me and I take a step forwards.

Trying to keep my composure I push the 'what the fuck was that!' thoughts out of my head and keep my concentration on the flame in my heart. Nigel asks if I'm OK and I nod waiting for what seems like an eternity until Pak Zianal's command barks out again and I feel the stunning impact for a second time, I still manage to keep my feet and after a third blow I'm told that this particular ordeal is over. Don then follows suit and I get to see the size of the rock just thrown at me, it's a solid lump of marble over a foot long and nine inches thick. I'm not sure which of us was in the better position, myself not knowing what was coming next or Don having to watch me knowing that he would have to do same in a few minutes.

Next we switched to fire, Pak Zianal called me up and asks me to roll up my sleeves and trouser legs then with a flaming stick in each hand he runs the flames along my arms and legs, I can feel the heat of the flames on my skin and a sensation of burning but no pain as I try to focus on changing my whole body to water.

After Don has had his turn with the flames we were subjected to more fire, lines of paraffin are drawn on the ground and Pak Zianal and his helpers bend to light them. However as they do so we feel the first spots of rain, there isn't much of it but it's enough to prevent them lighting the ground. Pak Zianal accuses me of using my Yoga powers to summon rain, though to tell the truth I just want to get on with it, I'm more worried about what test we'd have to do instead if they couldn't get the fire lit (some of the others that could have been chosen involve being hit with sharp prarangs or walking on broken glass). Thankfully someone brings out a pile of newspaper and lights it so we can proceed (you know you're in a weird place when you're glad of a pile of burning newspaper). Once the flames are going nicely both myself and Don had to walk through the middle of it, slowly, making sure both feet go through the flames (otherwise they'd make us do it again) . I can feel the flames licking around my feet, ankles and around my shins, but the sensation is the same as the flaming torches, a feeling of heat and burning but no pain. Afterwards I thought I'd burnt my right foot, but five minutes later the feeling had gone.

I'm thinking we must be close to the end now, I try to remember what other tests we might have to do. Then we are called over to the corner of the training area were a metal pan had been set up over a flame, inside it's filled close to the top with boiling oil, sizzling away with bits of ginger floating on top. We both know what we have to do, placing our hands into the oil we have to rub it into our arms and faces, I went first initially hesitant then with more gusto once I realized I wasn't being burnt. Don came after, liberally applying the oil with such abandonment that he managed to splash Pak Zianal who gently mentioned 'You are getting it on me my friend'.

Once this was finished we were brought to the front of the house, battered, bruised, slightly singed and covered in oil. I thought it was all over and breathed a sigh of relief. Then Pak Zianal pulled up Arri and placed him in front of me, speaking in Malay and pointing at his clenched fist, 'Oh bollocks' I thought. Arri takes a big stance and cranks up his fist punching me full belt into the stomach, I take the punch relaxing the muscles and letting the air out of my lungs but the blow still makes me step backwards. Next Arri hit Don who deals with it easily but still our ordeal wasn't over, one of the other lads Eddie steps up and delivers a low sweeping kick full power to my thigh, catching my hand in the process, my finger swells up immediately after the strike and I couldn't walk properly on my leg for a couple of days afterwards but I stayed standing. He tried the same thing with Don but I think he hurt himself more on Don's tree trunk legs than the other way round.

Finally we were finished, Pak Zianal came up and shook our oily hands, congratulating us on our success. We gratefully dragged ourselves to the living room where we sat on the floor to eat a lovely meal prepared by Pak Zianal's wife, followed by music and dancing at the front of the house where the local lads show they are not only talented martial artists but musicians and dancers to.

In all it was one of the craziest nights of my life so far, but by far one of the best. The tests themselves seem insane but follow a definite logic, they confront you with your most primal fears of pain, injury and death and force you to either overcome or succumb to them. We found out afterwards that many had failed the tests previously and been injured, but generally injury happened when fear takes over and hestitation occurs. If you fear the fire and pause you will get burnt, if you are scared and tense then when the stone hits you will be thrown of your feet.

The whole evening is not just to prove your outer strength and skill (though that is equally important because the physical is the gateway to the mental and without that Yang there is no Yin) it is also to test your inner strength and control which is invaluable both on the battle field and in life.

If you can enter into the right mindset you get an inner confidence that you know will carry you through. I knew, as I put on the Silat clothing before we left, that I was going to be fine, it's difficult to explain it's like a quiet calm comes over you and you know that whatever happens you'll be OK. The difficultly now is to carry that feeling past the Khatam into the everyday life, to let the lessons learned there gradually show themselves. A true initiation never ends and I will carry that night with me for the rest of my life, though Khatam may mean end it should also be seen as only the beginning.