Saturday, 27 May 2017

Are wolves really bad?

In the European fairy tale 'Little Red Riding Hood', a big bad wolf tricked a little girl by pretending to be the girl's grandmother and then ate the girl up. Wolves have had a bad rap for a very long time. At the Yellowstone National Park in America, they were hunted to a near wipe-out by the 1920s.

In 1994, the US National Park Service embarked on a project to re-introduce wolves at Yellowstone. Over the years, the project was closely monitored. More than 20 years has passed since the project started and the researchers have found that wolves bring a positive impact to the ecosystem at the park. Apart from keeping the population of deer and elk in check, the subsequent effect of less grazing resulted in more growth for certain types of trees and bushes. This in turn brought in more birds and beavers. The dam-building habit of beavers caused change to waterway courses which resulted in the increase in population of fish and other small mammals. Overall, the wolves are now seen as the good guys.

(For a short video about the wolves at Yellowstone, click this link -> How Wolves Change Rivers)

Yesterday 26 May 2017, I went to meet a good wolf, although the wolf himself claims to be bad.

The Big Bad Wolf Book Sale at Mines International Exhibition & Convention Centre in Serdang began yesterday. For this sale, the organizers have opted for the box concept first introduced in 2014. Customers buy a box for a fixed price, then fill the box with as many books as he wishes as long as the box flaps can be properly taped down without bulging.

This time around, BBW offer two box sizes, a large one priced at RM100 and a small one priced at RM80. There is an additional option of buying both boxes (named as the Family Tapau Pack) at only RM160. This was the option I chose. I gave the small box to my son while I of course, took the large box.

We spent about two hours browsing and selecting books we liked. In the end, we came back with a haul of 42 books of various size and thickness. Therefore the average cost works out to a mere RM3.81 per book! Now tell me if that isn't a good deal.

Hard covers, fiction and reference books. Should last until the next book fair.

My own selection of books consisted mainly of paperbacks in the general fiction category. A large number from my favourite authors such as Jeffrey Archer, Stephen King and Bill Bryson. Quite a number too are from writers I have not read before.

Of all the books, my most interesting pick would be one that is titled 'The Indispensable Book Of Useless Information' written by Don Voorhees. To use the publicity blurb on the back cover, nothing you'll ever need to know is in this book. I had a quick flip of the contents and immediately decided that I wanted it. You see, I'm a sucker for trivial bits of seemingly useless information. Have a look at the sidebar of this blog page and you'll see a category marked as `merapu'. Go ahead and read some of the posts in that category and you'll understand what I mean. Hehehe...

Apparently this is part of a series of already 8 books

As a teaser of what's in the book, I'll share the following :

The ATMs in Vatican City are in Latin.

Maybe I'll include more of such useless facts later when I've read the whole book. Okay that's it for this post. Good day folks. Wishing Muslim readers a blessed and fruitful holy month of Ramadhan.

Footnote : BBW Book Fair at MIECC is on until Sunday 4 June 2017.

Friday, 19 May 2017

One local destination a month - Part 4 : Taiping, Perak

I had not planned that the 4th instalment of this series to be again about Perak. My original intention was to spend some time to explore Jugra in Banting, Selangor but my wife told me that an old friend of hers from university days had invited us to attend the wedding of her son at her hometown in Trong, Perak. So I said, yes... why not. I have been to Trong once before and even blogged about it (A town called Aubergine).

Trong is not very far from Taiping and it was at the latter that we stayed for the night. Taiping is an interesting town with quite a bit of history. It used to be the capital of Perak before Ipoh took over the role in 1937. It has a number of tourist attractions within its vicinity, the most famous of which is perhaps the picturesque Lake Gardens. But I'm not going to write about the gardens, or the zoo, or Bukit Larut (Maxwell Hill) or even the savoury delights of mee udang Kuala Sepetang. Instead, I'll write about two lesser-known places.

1. Taiping War Cemetery

On the road leading to the foothill of Bukit Larut, you will pass by a serene and well-kept graveyard that is the final resting place of Allied servicemen killed during World War II. When the war ended, the British military authorities headed by Major JH Ingram, decided to move the remains of their fallen personnel, spread over various villages and temporary burial grounds, to a common cemetery where the men would be honoured and remembered.

There are more than 850 graves at the cemetery, including more than 500 who remain unidentified. The cemetery is divided into two parts on either side of the road to Bukit Larut. One side holds the Christian graves while the other hold the Muslim and other denominations. If you observe carefully, the headstones on the Muslim graves are at an angle to the central dividing road whereas the Christian headstones are perpendicular. This is because the Muslims are buried facing the qibla in accordance to religious requirement.

The upkeep and maintenance of this war memorial is under the responsibility of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which explains why the place looks very tidy. A slight drawback is the absence of a proper parking space. To stop and visit, I had to park my car by the roadside where the narrow side-table meant that half of the car's width still sat on the roadway. Luckily, the road to Bukit Larut is not that busy, otherwise the obstruction would surely inconvenience other road users.

A low wall marks the perimeter of Taiping War Cemetery. Visited 30 April 2017

The Muslim section of the graveyard

2. Kota Ngah Ibrahim

Ngah Ibrahim was a Malay statesman from Perak and administrator of the Larut district in the 1870s. The `kota' was his private residence. Although not quite a fort in the strictest translation of the word, the two-storey house sits within a large compound that is enclosed by a high brick wall. For its size at that period of time, it is quite obvious that the owner was a very rich man.

Kota Ngah Ibrahim is now officially known as the Matang Museum. It is located about 8km from Taiping on the Kuala Sepetang road. The building has an illustrious history. Apart from being the home of a local headman, the British used it as a court to hear the case of the murder of JWW Birch, the first Resident of Perak. On 2 November 1875, Birch was killed by a group of Malay men led by Dato Maharajalela while taking a bath by a river in Pasir Salak.

The trial was held from 14 to 22 December 1876. At the end of the proceedings, three men including Dato Maharajalela were sentenced to death by hanging. The other two were Dato Sagor and Pandak Endut. The hanging was carried out in Taiping on 20 January 1877. Dato Maharajalela's real name was Lela Pandak Limo, son of a Bugis king from Sulawesi. The 'maharajalela' title was awarded by the sultan to one his ministers with the specific authority to decapitate anyone who oppose the king. Nowadays, the Malay word maharajalela carries the meaning of someone who acts or does things as he pleases or out of control. The word is almost always used in the negative sense.

Sultan Abdullah and Ngah Ibrahim were also found guilty of collaborating in the assassination of the British Resident. Both were exiled to the islands of Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. Ngah Ibrahim was later allowed to return to Singapore where he died in 1887. He was initially buried within the Aljunied Mosque compounds in Singapore but in September 2006, his remains was brought back to Perak and re-buried near his house.

The artifacts on display at the present-day museum are really nothing fancy or impressive. The main exhibit on the upper floor of the house is a mock-up of the courtroom where the trial of the Birch killers was held. Although the displays were static and simple, I thought that it was 45 minutes of my time well-spent. I learned a bit more of Perak's history in that short visit compared to the actual classes in school. Admission is free.

In the neighbouring compound beyond the walls of Ngah Ibrahim's fort is another old building which used to be the dwelling of the first Assistant Resident of Perak, Captain Speedy. The house seems well-preserved but was not open to the public.

Home of a Perak statesman

Part of exhibits on the ground floor

Present-day grave of Ngah Ibrahim that was relocated from Singapore

Historical personalities of Perak during those turbulent times

Courtroom mock-up of the Birch murder trial

House of the Assistant Resident of Perak

The Matang Museum as viewed from one corner of the boundary walls

Monday, 8 May 2017

A debt of gratitude (Part 2 of 2)

Headnote : The preceding part to this story can be read here -> Part 1

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Simon began his father’s story.

“It was late 1942. The time of the Japanese occupation of Malaya during World War II. My parents are originally from Kluang. According to my father, he was about 5 or 6 years old at the time. My grandfather had a small provision shop near Kluang town which he operated from a rented lot owned by a respectable Malay man named Pak Haji Rashid. The landlord’s own house was located behind the shop lot, meaning that my grandfather and Pak Haji Rashid were in fact neighbours.

It was a very hard life in those days. My father said the Japanese soldiers were extremely cruel. They were especially merciless against people of the Chinese race. They would arrest and torture anyone whom they suspect is opposing them. My grandfather had seen a few of his friends lose their heads at the stroke of the samurai sword. Business premises owned by the Chinese were plundered and taken over at will. Even schools were not spared. When they ran out of firewood, the soldiers took some wooden chairs and desks from the local Chinese school. The chairs and desks from the upper floor classrooms were simply tossed over the balcony so that they crash and splinter to the ground below. Easier to burn, they said.

To avoid capture, many able-bodied men ran into the nearby jungle to hide and fight back. My grandfather was sympathetic to the cause and he secretly helped the fighters by providing basic necessities. Of course, this was a very dangerous thing to do. If the Japanese found out, he would definitely lose his life.

Indeed, this was what happened. Somehow, the information about my grandfather’s activity was leaked to the Japanese and word was out that the soldiers wanted his head. That particular evening, my grandfather was hiding in the shop together with my grandmother and my father. He didn’t know what else to do. He heard a sharp knock at the back door and the voice of his neighbour, Pak Haji Rashid. My grandfather opened the back door and Pak Haji Rashid told the whole family to leave the shop and follow him to his house. The Malay gentleman had offered to hide his neighbours from the search party. Using two large mengkuang mats, he rolled my grandmother and my father in one and my grandfather in the other. He placed the rolled-up mats, squeezed between a clothes cupboard and a sidewall. He told the family of three to be quiet. Be very quiet.

My father remembers this episode quite vividly. It was dark. It was hard to breathe. He wanted to cry. He wanted to pee. He hugged his mother as hard as he could.

The Japanese soldiers came and broke into the shop. They ransacked the place and not finding their intended targets, took away whatever little provisions that the small store had left. Somehow, they did not search the Malay man’s residence at the back.

The following morning, Pak Haji Rashid made arrangements to transport my grandfather and his family out of Kluang. My grandfather had relatives in Johor Bahru. That was where he would hide. Before leaving, my grandfather told Pak Haji Rashid that he and his family owed him their lives. How can he ever repay such debt of gratitude? The landlord had put his own life in danger in helping out his tenant. The Japanese would have surely executed him too had they found out.

My father told me he remembered Haji Rashid’s reply very clearly. You do not owe me anything, the Malay gentleman had said. But if you wish to repay me, then just repay mankind in general. Help out those in need, even if they do not ask for it.”

Simon paused his narration. He was looking at nothing in particular in the distance. After a silent moment, he made a slight shake of his head, picked up his teh tarik mug and took a long sip of the already cold drink.

He then looked at Suresh and me before saying, “And that is why I am here today with you, my friends. My father remains alive and healthy to this day because a kindhearted man made a decision to help someone in need, even though that someone had not asked for it.”

Sunday, 30 April 2017

What's 4-ever for?

Where's the 4th floor?
The above photo of an elevator selector buttons was taken at a newly-opened hotel in Bangi, Selangor. We stayed there yesterday as part of our weekend break to attend two wedding receptions.

When I looked at those buttons, the following possibilities come to mind :

1. The building/hotel owner is a very superstitious Chinese man.
2. The hotel owner/operator does not wish to lose business should potential Chinese clients decline to stay on the 4th floor.
3. The building owner obtained advice from a feng-shui master that the numeral 4 should not appear anywhere in the building.

I understand the Chinese culture of avoiding the number 4 as much as possible because in certain dialects, it sounds close to the Chinese word for `death'. But going to such lengths as to replace 4 with 3A on elevator buttons only serve to manifest the superstition to become a norm. Heck, staying in a room at Floor 3A still technically means that you are on the 4th floor.

To what extent would this practice be adopted? Would there actually be a limit?

Would there be no counter number 4 at banks or government service centres?
Things that cost RM4.50 would now be priced at RM3A.50?
Channel 4 on your TV remote control would now be Channel 3A?
No more meetings or appointments would be held at 4.00pm?

I can go on and on... but I'd rather offer a solution. Can the Chinese consider giving their number four another name? Call it something other than `ser' or `sey'. Something that does not sound like death? It would solve the problem. Serious.

There is nothing wrong with the numeral 4. It's all in the mind.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

When we come across the name Philadelphia, we are most likely to identify it as a city in the United States of America. It therefore surprised me a bit to find out that another city had this same name and at a time when the the US was not yet in existence.

Philadelphia was once the name of Amman, the present-day capital of Jordan. That name was in use when the area was under the Ptolemaic Kingdom (ancient Greeks based in Egypt) in the BCE period. I discovered this fact during my visit to Jordan in 2013. It was quite a delightful trip and the one week duration I allocated for the visit was not enough. If you are a history buff, then Jordan would be more of interest to you than the other middle-east countries. I'd say even more interesting than Egypt.

When I got back from the trip, I had planned to write about it in this blog. I only managed to put up an introductory post (here) but then failed keep to my plan. This entry is therefore a much-delayed effort at sharing some of the fascinating aspects of this beautiful country.

So what made me move my butt and decide to post on this subject? A friend of mine is presently enjoying a holiday in Jordan and uploaded some lovely photos on her Facebook page. It made me recall my own time there and caused me to peek again at the hundreds of photographs I took. I guess it is time to share a small selection here. I'll arrange the pictures based on the locations visited. In order not to flood a single post with too many photos, I'll spread them out over a few parts (I'll try my best to keep the promise, this time).

Amman

Within the capital itself are quite a number of attractions worth seeing. No doubt the most famous tourist site in Jordan is Petra but it is located some distance away from Amman, around 3 to 4 hours drive to the south. You'll need a full day to really explore the wonders of that Nabatean ruins. We decided to start with a tour of Amman and the following are the few places we manage to visit within a day.

1. Roman Amphitheatre

The old Amman city was built on seven hills. In downtown Amman, carved into the side of one of those hills, the ancient Romans had constructed an amphitheatre that could seat an audience of 6,000 people. Being the engineer that I am, the beautiful geometrical proportions of this theatre impressed me. The Romans surely had very skilled surveyors and craftsmen during their day.

The overall structure is still in reasonable shape. Credit to the Jordanian authorities for keeping it so.

I climbed the steep stairs to the highest level, walked to the centre section and sat down on the stone seating. As I viewed the stage far below, I imagined an ancient play being performed. Enchanting.

View of theatre from street level. The new plaza in front is modern-day construction

Three tiers of seating in semi-circular layout

The middle section of the lowest tier has wider seating area, presumably for VIPs

View from the topmost tier. The stage seems a long way down from here

2. The Citadel

Not far from the amphitheatre at the top of a neighbouring hill is Amman Citadel. The citadel is a fort that was occupied and inhabited by various peoples and cultures in its illustrious history. The structures and buildings that can be seen today come from the Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad periods. It is quite amazing to see the different cultural and religious influences, spanning thousands of years within the same site.

The Roman Amphitheatre and downtown Amman as seen from the Citadel

At the entrance to the Citadel site are plaques displaying the names of the city at different periods of its history

Temple of Hercules, built by Romans in 162 - 166 CE

Temple of Hercules

Temple of Hercules

Temple of Hercules

Ruins of Umayyad dwellings

Domed gateway to Umayyad Palace

Local boys happy to have their picture taken by a tourist

Ruins of a Byzantine church in the foreground

3. Cave of The Seven Sleepers

The story of seven young men and their loyal dog who sought refuge in a cave and fell asleep for hundreds of years, is mentioned in the holy Al-Quran (Surah 18 : Al-kahf, The Cave). The exact location of the cave however, is not stated. Jordanians claim that the cave is in their country, on the outskirts of the capital. They base this claim on the geographical references deduced from the said surah. Whether the miracle event actually happened here or not isn't the main issue for me. The visit made me explore the story further and learn an underlying lesson contained in the surah. This tale has a parallel in Christian tradition.

My earlier post on this topic can be read here -> Cave of 7 Sleepers.

Signboard of the cave location

Entrance to the cave structure, thought to be built in the Byzantine era

We managed to squeeze in this stop just before closing time. As such, I was not able to take as much photos as I would have liked. Okay then... that's it for this post. The next post on this theme shall be about other interesting places outside of Amman, insyaAllah...