Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Adam in chains

So I've been busy, busy inflicting more masochist's agony on my poor aching body.

Spent a few days last week visiting Fong's parents down in Batu Pahat, this is proper small town Malaysia and as such doesn't get many tourists, so myself and Nigel had to get used to being stared at everywhere we went. It's funny when you're in Penang it's not as noticeable, as they're quite used to seeing foreigners, but outside of these areas you really get reminded of being a minority.

Fongs parents live in a large open plan Chinese style house which seems to be the social hub for the family (Fong has 9 siblings and most of them live in the area) so the place is always humming with activity. Fong's parents were very hospitable and took us out on a number of occasions for food, I'm just about getting used to the idea of rice and noodles or breakfast but it always seems odd eating what feels like an evening meal at 8 in the morning.

I wasn't allowed to escape training while I was there, with Nigel making me run through forms and kick things out the front of the house and Fong taking me up a killer of a local hill (I say hill but it's a steep gradient and takes an hour to walk up) to keep up my fitness.

We left Fongs family the middle of last week and after a brief 4 star luxury stop in KL we arrived back in Penang. If I was being paranoid I'd have thought Pak Zinual had been thinking up new ways to torture me while Id been away, because the first thing he had me do when I got back was spend 20mins meditating kneeling on a chain.

I'd already become acquainted with his chains training method just before I left, he had 2 of them padlocked round my ankles to build up my legs and improve the strength of my kicks, when he First explained what he was going to Nigel jokingly said 'Is going to have them round his neck next?' to which Pak Zinual replied 'How did you know?'. Nigel finds he whole thing most amusing and has is now referring to me as 'The Chained White Man'.

The kneeling thing is a new one though. Sitting on the concrete at the back of Pak Zinual's house, the chain placed in a loop between my shins and the ground, I spent about 20mins letting my body weight sink down on the the loops of metal. I can say for certain that it definitely focuses the mind and once you concentrate on the breathing, sending the mind somewhere else, it is actually surprisingly bearable. The worst part is getting up as the blood rushes back into your limbs and you try and rub the chain pattern out of your flesh (or dragon skin as Pak Zinual calls it).

Outside of Pak Zinuals training, Nigels not been letting me off the hook. He's been re-teaching me the Fast Form (which I've learnt before and forgot), making me shaped dents in his walls during push hands and teaching me a couple of others forms of Silat.

The Silat is very interesting. The first, Silat Tari, is basically a method of traditional dancing but is also supposed to contain the highest techniques of the martial art. You learn a series of basic hand movements and footwork patterns as well as certain animal aspects (Monkey, Snake, Tiger, Dragon, Cat and Deer) and mythical personalities from the Ranayama (an Indian poem also popular in South East Asia). From this you basically enter free form movement (with or without music) moving how you feel the body should move, generally you find the movement principles will spontaneously appear during the dance and you can change the appearance and flavor of the dance by adopting one of the animals or characters.

The second is the Gerak Diri, I'd like to go into more detail with this another time, but basically you are taught to take yourself into a trance from which you again move spontaneously but in a more overtly martial manner. The idea being that if you open yourself up and move naturally you'll defend yourself in the manner most appropriate to you. This does have some parallels in Chinese arts like Spirit Boxing but Nigels points out the Gerak Diri seems more holistic and pragmatic.

Later this week Pak Zinual is going to take myself and Nigel on a little pilgrimage around some important Muslim tombs in Penang and at the beginning of Next month we're going to go to Gunung Ledang a Mountain in the South of Malaysia with many myths and legends associated with it. So stay tuned for more Malaysian madness.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

In the footsteps of John Claude

Before I left for Malaysia Nurul (my friend and project manager at work) bought me a copy of the film Kickboxer as a light hearted going away present, jokingly referring to it as my 'training manual'. It seems irony has a habit of coming back an biting you when you're not looking.

Thankfully I've yet to developed a Belgium accent and oversized ego, or the ability to do the splits between two chairs (Sorry Ken and Nurul) but some of the things I've been doing this week remind me a lot of that film.

Training with Pak Zinual is tough. I've been prowling up and down a bare strip of concrete at the back of his house running through punching Juros (basics) with two lumps of metal clenched in my fist. Afterwards we go to the front of his house where he gets a lump of wood and sticking it into a hole in the concrete gets me to kick it until my shins are the lovely purple colour, pausing only briefly to shadow box the leaves on his trees or rub Thai Boxing liniment on my sore legs.

Training here is pretty old school, there's no air conditioned gyms and specialized equipment. It's like the martial arts equivalent of Salvage Squad, find stuff lying around and make use of it.

Some of his boys came over on Monday and they set me up with a bit of impromptue sparring to see hwo I'd do, apparently I acquitted myself well, though Pak Zinual did make the comment that 'perhaps I don't like my face so much' (referring to the habit I've got of sometimes forgetting to cover my head ;-p).

On top my external bruising and aching Nigel hasn't been letting me escape on the internal pain of Tai-chi front. Running through the form time and time again, holding postures till my legs shake and making subtle adjustments here and there I can already feel changes for the better. Nigels also started teaching me some meditation and breathing exercises linked to a more mystical type of Silat (the name of the indigenous Malay arts) which relies on utilizing the four elements and their corresponding manifestations.

In all the first week has been physically tough as my bodies been adjusting to both the rigours of continual training and the heat. However this is what I wanted to come here for and if what I've learned this week is anything to go by I should hopefully have picked up some very useful new skills and improved my older knowledge by the time I return.

This weekend we're going down south for a few days towards KL to visit Fong's Family (Nigels wife) and visit some of the local Chinese masters. So expect another update towards the end of next week when I get back.

Sunday, March 05, 2006


Well after a truly, um, unique experience flying Air India which made the title of my earlier post quite apt - we're talking a plane that had seen better days in the seventies (hand rests hanging off and Christ it still had the bad wallpaper), still it's not many flights you get an Indian flute player and his tabla accomplice blaring out Indian Ragas a few rows back - I arrived in Penang.

Penang a bustling Island metropolis where Sci-fi skyscrapers sit next to battered Chinese shop houses, where Daotist temples burning fuck off great incense sticks compete with Buddhist Watts, Indian temples and Malaysian Mosques, where a car ride anywhere is taking your life in your own hands. Penang a riot of cultures, religions, people, smells and heat. Since it's inception in the 1800's as the British Empires first foray into Malaysia, Penang has always been one of it's more cosmopolitan cities. Growing rapidly from a small fishing village to almost a state in it's own right this place has always been slightly different from the rest of Malaysia.

I've just about aclimatized now. I had horrendous jet lag for a few days and the heat is intense, the whole thing left me drained and confused, but I'm starting to feel more relaxed and settled now. Training proper started yesterday with Nigel going over my form in the morning and picking out some bad habits I'd developed (got to work on sinking my chest and rounding my shoulders), then we traveled over to Pak Zinals place for me to start my Maui Thai training. Pak Zinal (Pak a respectful term meaning Uncle) is as nicely describes him a bit like those legendary martial arts masters, a humble unassuming man who doesn't stand out from the crowd but has a depth of knowledge and experience that seems bottomless. Already a highly respected in Malaysian Silat he followed his love of Thai Boxing and traveled to it's homeland, learnt the language and a tradtional family style known as White Tiger which is what I'm going to be learning from him while I'm here.

After a formal initiation where I had to give him a knife (the knife representing me the student) and read an oath he had me begin my training, demonstrating the basics of the stance and blocking then testing me out by whacking me with a stick (see I told you all I was going Malaysia to get hit by men with sticks and you all thought I was joking). He then had me moving up and down the space behind his house running through basic punching and kicking drills until my arms felt like they were going to fall off, finishing off with some conditioning exercises including some evil fingertip push ups (all you have to do get in a press up position, put your weight on your fingers then shrug your shoulders. Christ it hurts).

Today I have a day off (my only one of the week) and my body is very sore, I keep finding aches in places I didn't know I had muscles in. Still this is what I wanted, masochist's that I am and I know as the weeks progess my body will get used to the heat and effort and the pain will lessen (well slightly).

At the moment I can only get near a computer about once a week when I come into town so I'll try and update every Sunday, however as I explore a bit I might find an internet cafe that's nearer so I'll be able to update more frequently. I'll let you all know.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Flying into the Abyss

So this blog has been quiet for the last couple of months, life in the real world has taken up too much of my time to allow me to post anything of note and I never wanted this space to become just another area for me to simply paste links to other sites. However circumstances have changed now and I should hopefully not only be able to post regularly for a while but I'll also have plenty of interesting things to post about.

Tomorrow I hit the road. My current life is packed away in cardboard boxes, stowed in my kindly parents loft, my new life fits neatly into a backpack and is defined solely by usefulness and weight. With my tortoise like home on my back I'm crossing the high seas and landing in Penang, Northern Malaysia, for 3 months. There I'll be training martial arts until I can walk on rice paper without ripping it, do mid-air box splits in slow motion and master the 'Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique'.

In Carlos Castaneda's 'The teaching's of Don Juan' the titular magician said that travel is a method of initiation, now I believe whatever you think of this fictional/real characters existence he was right on this account. Like the fool in the tarot stepping blindly into the precipice you throw yourself out into the unknown, deprived of sleep, shifted from your time zone, detached from the sign posts of culture and peer group that have constantly reflected your own assumptions, you are forced to confront how much of what you perceive as you is simply a collective hallucination, a product of your environment and the culture that nurtured you.

It my hope that I can share some of this initiation here in the virtual world, so expect blood, sweat, tears and waxing on and off...Next stop Malaysia!