Some further thoughts on where I was staying

Jiujiang is a vast conurbation with a prefecture-level population of several million people. The majority of the city is an uninteresting succession of large residential buildings which sprawl for miles in all directions south of the Yangtze (locally known as Chiang Jiang). Just south of the Yangtze is a lake which in a sense constitutes the centre of the city. On the lake there seems to float an old-looking building, which stands out among the modern buildings of the city. I have still failed to find accurate information about the house but it appears to have been turned into a museum which was closed when I visited. The lake is entirely surrounded by shops, including the expensive clothing shop owned by my host parents, selling less day-to-day products than the ones present in the large shopping malls of the suburbs. Between the shops and the lake there is a busy ring-road which entirely surrounds the lake. This is where all the older buildings of Jiujiang are, which in these terms simply means old enough for rust and mould to have formed on the concrete walls. I had the chance to set foot in one of these when taking my host brother to his piano lesson.

Here in Jiujiang there are admittedly very few signs of the party’s presence. If not for the odd poster with a red flag and a shiny sickle and hammer, or Tiananmen Square and Mao, which have to be looked for in order to be seen, one could be in any large East Asian city. There is, however, an enormous poster promoting military enrolment on a side of the crossroads were the big borough supermarket is. The local bookshop is full of small books displaying the usual sickle and hammer. The only book I could identify was Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China, which even if entirely in Chinese had the title translated on the front page. In a porcelain shop I saw a portrait of Mao hanging on the wall, which is quite common, and a few very kitsch plates with Mao, Tiananmen Square and Xi Jingping in sale. I’m unsure whether the technocrats at the head of Chinese politics since Mao, would have had such privilege, unlike Xi.  Along with Mao&co I found representations of Kong Zi (Confucius) and, unexpectedly, a shiny and badly printed image of Jesus surrounded by sheep.

Many elements which are so deeply rooted in Western or Islamic tradition are simply absent here. It is precisely the case of religion. When visiting a vast religious complex at the bottom of Mount Lu, I noticed my host siblings bowing with their hands clutched in front of a statue. The sanctuary was Buddhist-Taoist. The act however was mechanical and casual; also no one I met had ever referenced religion in anyway. Religion seemed so absent from daily life that I constantly forgot to ask people what they thought of it at all. It’s strange how one of the first buildings I saw after arriving in Jiujiang was a church and how much my host family cared to explain what it was. When eventually I did get round to having my little chat on religion I was told by my host sister that their beliefs were something they just inherited from their ancestors and accepted in a very uninvested way. They didn’t describe themselves as religious. I asked whether they knew Confucius and obviously received a positive reply. They told me they learn about him at school. They said he was a positive figure and, when asked why, they spat out a generic sentence, made more generic by the bad translator they use, which sounded coming straight out of a text book.

And then again Confucianism isn’t a religion in a strict sense. Confucius’ teachings are often very sociological and political, and could be described as classical conservative in today’s terms. Our teacher/guide/tutor was surprised when I expressed interest in the plate with Jesus. He said “You want to buy that” in his lazy English. I asked him if people in China were religious and he said “most people pray to no one”, but there are of course religious minorities such as Christians and Muslims, which are mostly present in the semi-autonomous province of Xinjiang and whose identity is closely linked to that of the Uyghur ethnicity.

Something guides and educated people liked to stress, after distancing themselves from the government’s foreign policy with the typical international-disputes-are-disputes-between-governments-not-peoples attitude, was how much China cared to maintain its religious and ethnic diversity. “Religious freedom is strongly defended”. The fact for example that the one-child policy, when still in place, only applied to Han Chinese was something I was simply unaware of, and I do believe western media is partly to blame for this.

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Arriving and settling in the People’s Republic

15 July 2018 (I think), Somewhere around Beijing

According to the PC I’m writing this on, it’s 8:35 AM but the actual local time is closer to 3:00 PM. The last time I was online was in the airport in Hong Kong where I was able to connect my cell phone to the airport Wifi. My computer hasn’t been online for days. I’m sitting in my room in a shabby hotel in the suburbs of Beijing after a long flight from Fiumicino, in Rome, to Hong Kong and a shorter one from Hong Kong to Beijing. The shower is just a waterjet which sprays foul-smelling water all over the small bathroom and to get the air-conditioning working (which is highly necessary), I always have to go through every single button on the remote control. My roommate is sleeping. I’m determined not to do so even if it’s painful (having been awake for over 24 hours now) to avoid protracting my jetlag. I might fall asleep while writing this.

In Hong Kong, on the plane to Beijing, before take-off, I’d seen a Chinese girl posting a story: “can’t use Facebook or anything related to Google in Beijing”, writing in English. The child was the eldest daughter of a family of four. They were all looking rather glum, aware of the freedoms they were leaving behind. We landed in a large, desolate, inelegant building and had our fingerprints taken. Twice. The policewoman looked at me mistrustful and muttered a string of Sinitic syllables. Then she slammed that stamp next to my Chinese visa and let me through. The sky was hazy white, blocking all sunlight and the chance of breathing fresh air. The humidity is appalling.

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(Completely unrelated picture of my breakfast)

16 July 2018, Beijing

We woke up after struggling for hours to sleep and had breakfast. We were loaded onto a coach which would take us to the Temple of Heaven and for the entire trip our guide “Jerry” explained many aspects of modern China. He referred to himself in third person, so to say “talk to me”, he’d say “talk to Jerry”; whether he thought this was somehow funny I couldn’t tell. When he started speaking I couldn’t help feeling it was the party’s words coming out of his mouth.

He talked about how China had been humiliated when the British and the French sacked the Forbidden City; how China had “lost weight” to the advantage of Western powers, holding a map of China with large red patches of land (Mongolia, Eastern Russia, Sakhalin) which allegedly had once belonged to China; and how Tibet had been a part of China for “hundreds of years”. “You probably have different ideas about the Dalai Lama than I do” he said. Every now and again he interrupted his briefing in what I still felt was the People’s Party propaganda, with mentions of how hard his life had been at the time of college where he learned fluent English in three months. At one point, though, he said something which surprised me: “I’m going to try to brainwash you now so you must be strong and maintain your own ideas.” He mentioned how it was important we made our own mind up about China beyond what we were told by the BBC and CNN; but also, he said, that the Chinese made their own mind up about the outside world, beyond what state media said. Suddenly, I found I could understand him when he talked about the freedoms which they had acquired since the 70’, a time for China which he compared to North Korea today. His words of course were not being recorded, but the fact that he was confident making such a statement in front of Chinese people he presumably didn’t know (such as the driver) was telling.

The Temple of Heaven, a multi-layer structure crowned by a circular shrine, rises in the middle of a park with century old trees. We were told people came to hug the trees to absorb their energy etc. (you know the story). We were driven to Tiananmen Square, which is on the same scale as much of the infrastructure of Beijing. That is, huge. In front of Chairman Mao’s mausoleum the infamous concrete desert conveys all its vastness.

If you’re looking for a feel of early communist China this is the place to come. The heavy security, the lamp-posts overloaded with CCTV and, most of all, Mao’s large portrait, hanging above the entrance to the Forbidden City, perfectly render the dystopian image of Maoist China we’re familiar with. The weather we happened to visit in made it certainly even more depressing, with the enormous government buildings rising ominously on all sides, appearing out of the haze behind them. While looking at Mao’s portrait it occurred to me that, unexpectedly, China’s communist rule today and its history as an empire do not clash at all. In fact, like anything in this ever-changing country, people have succeeded in recycling even something seemingly as contradictory as Empirialism to feed modern propaganda.

“In the square we cannot talk about politics” had said our guide and twenty minutes later proceeded to talk about history and politics in the middle of the square, reminding us “now we have more freedom, now we can talk here”. “In 1989 we know students came here to ask for elections. They didn’t like the government and wanted a new one. That’s all we know” he later told us. We had a few hours to wonder around before the coaches picked us up to bring us to the station and I took the opportunity to drop into a bookshop. I was amazed at what books they sold. They had a vast selection of analysis by western observers and even George Orwell’s books, including “1984”.

At the station we got a taste of how advanced Chinese infrastructure was. The “Beijing West Station” was as enormous as the rest of the city, with a Ming dynasty-style façade (if façade it can be called). The bright lights, the crowds of people in business suits and the high-speed trains all made me think of a strong, developed nation, not of a “third world country”. In fact, it turns out, China no longer fits the definition of “Third World Country”, having completed the transition from low-income country to medium-income country. We got on the train and quickly realised that each cabin was far too small for six people and their luggage. In the end we piled as much of it as possible in the middle of the cabin and just kept the rest of it on top of us while sleeping.

17 July 2018, Jiujiang

I fell asleep not knowing where I was and woke up to the image of typical rural China with rice farms, peasants working under their large hats and canals filling the windows. The green was occasionally interrupted by clusters of modern buildings. This sight eventually gave way to the large chimneys of industrial Jiujiang. I gazed at the city which would be my home for the next month. After getting off the train I met my host family which drove me to their large house. Jiujiang reminded me heavily of Miri, in Malaysia. It felt like home.

The City of a Thousand Minarets

Chaos, pollution and traffic. This is what we received as our greeting as we were driven to our hotel from the airport. A large congested five-lane motorway connects the airport to the city, like an artery constantly subjected to deep-vein thrombosis. As we entered the city we felt our lungs fill with air saturated with pollution to the point of weighing us down and being visible dashed against the sun. Over-crowded servees were racing dangerously down the road and people were trying to cross the enormous road with no zebra crossing. Energetic Egyptian music came from our taxi’s radio, blending with the one coming from surrounding vehicles which had their windows down because of the thick air. The taxi driver dropped us off at the hotel, nicely positioned in the centre of Downtown Cairo at walking distance both from The Egyptian Museum and from Khan El Khalili, the main bazaar in Cairo. We entered the dusty old building which bore the sign “Freedom Hostel” and we were greeted by the owner, who led us up four floors of this typical Cairene condominium.

When walking around Cairo, as in Tunis, I couldn’t help noticing many people simply sitting on the sides of streets, smoking, chatting amongst themselves and apparently doing nothing, looking around with a permanent cynical expression. Such a sight I believe, perhaps unfairly, to be the result of the overpopulation problem which currently affects Egypt’s most urbanized areas, and the consequential unemployment which appears to be rampant in the Arabic working class. One might dismiss this as insignificant, but there more I think about it, the more I realize the absence of such a feature in cities like London, where unemployment is nowhere near as problematic.

The following day we visited the citadel and admired the view of a city which loses its skyline in a thick bank of pollution, clinging to the buildings like cotton-wool. The air is dry enough though for the temperature to drop significantly as soon as the sun is blocked. We walked out of the citadel and into a large busy street, much like the one leading to the airport. We almost randomly managed to meet up again with our taxi driver, who had simply told us to meet him “here” in two hours, without exchanging phone numbers, nor giving us specific indications or ways to identify him. He drove us to Khan El Khalili through the so-called City of the Dead, cemeteries in which the poorer layers of the population took refuge and set up a home. As you drive from broad alleys to narrower streets, the aggressive tooting is a constant sonorous background. A lot of the time the tooting seems to have no functional end whatsoever, but appears to be a natural part of the Cairene driving experience, as much as braking and accelerating. Other drivers understand this and often take no notice of one another’s tooting. Lively music kicked into the scene when we entered the heart of Islamic Cairo with its shops, mosques and houses messily crammed together. We were dropped off at Khan El Khalili, next to the century-old Al Azhar mosque, traditionally the most prestigious centre of learning for Islamic studies. As we attempted to enter, a “guide” told us it would open in about an hour. In the meantime he intended to take us to the Al Muayyad Mosque. We followed him through crowded narrow streets of what he called the “real” Khan El Khalili for twenty minutes, as opposed to the popular, more touristic Khan El Khalili, whom he considered to be dominated by Chinese.

Facing the Al Azhar Mosque one will notice a bustling, lighted market on the left, and a quieter, darker one on the right. We were entering the latter. Children playing with a football, shopkeepers sitting outside their shops lazily inviting you to browse through their merchandise, stray dogs looking around piles of rubbish, are all elements of the local street life picture. Some youths were wildly attempting to get through the packed streets on motorcycles causing havoc and receiving angry replies from the shopkeepers.

At the mosque, he invited us up a tight dusty staircase to the mosque’s rooftop. We were rewarded by a stunning view of the Cairo sunset. The skyline was as always trapped in a layer of smog which reflected the sunset’s orange rays. The imposing Mohamed Ali Mosque dominated the view from the citadel with its shining dome, clearly visible because of its physical vicinity (not that this makes it particularly easy to reach). On the way back we met a shopkeeper who spoke clean Italian and claimed to be Swiss. In a brief conversation, they told us that tourism nowadays is “coming back Inshallah” . The “guide” took us back to the Al Azhar mosque and left us to visit the more touristy part of the Souk. In the general confusion it always seemed impossible to find the driver, but every time he appeared in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, seemingly out of nowhere. To reach our driver, we stepped through a hole in the metal fence erected in the middle of the road for no clear reason except to make it harder to move around. At the time of writing, I was laying on my bed thinking of my day in Cairo, the City of a Thousand Minarets.

My first day in Tunis

Tunisia is famous for being the liberal vanguard of North Africa, which after a few hard years due to a crash in tourism following a series of vicious terror attacks, has been slowly picking itself up again. The country is famous for its achievements in creating a democratic state and in restricting the role of religion in politics, after the Arab Spring in 2010.

But how is it coping seven years later? To what extent can you breath the success, considered such by observers, of the uprisings? What is the overall feel of walking in the streets today? I was curious to find out, so I packed my bags and headed to Tunis.

We arrived at the airport in Rome in the late morning and started looking at the people around us. We could see many Tunisian-looking faces, possibly heading to their homeland for the weekend in order to see their relatives, some of whom even appeared to be unaccompanied young women; we could see many Sub-Saharan African-looking immigrants and a lot of traditional families, but absolutely no tourists. An hour and ten minutes later the plane landed in Carthage Airport Tunis and we got off the plane. I noticed the general disorganization was as bad as it is in Italy and Greece, but I was surprised to see how keen they were on giving us two free Tunisian sim cards. The operation was remarkably quick, painless and infinitely more efficient than I could have ever hoped for in Italy. I’m always glad to see what different countries consider their number one priorities, and in many developing countries it’s technology.

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It’s interesting to notice that the Medina coincides with the central patch of a paler colour, presumably because the buildings are older. As you can see, the centre is quite small, but the Bardo is significantly more distant, so you’ll have to take a taxi if you’re interested. La Goulette (with it’s XVI century fortress) and Carthage are also well beyond walking distance

After getting all set and able to communicate with our new sim cards, we started looking for our taxi. We spotted a glum, bored taxi driver at the exit of the airport holding a card with our name on it, who looked as if he had had a terrible day and we went to greet him. Later, while he was taking us to our destination, although he wasn’t looking particularly talkative, I decided to try to ask him a question, so I asked in English “Do you get many tourists here?”, to which he replied “here, not so many”. I decided to go deeper and asked why (for some reason switching to french) and he said “par la revolution”. I asked him some more questions and I was surprised at how well he knew English, but then I realized from his look and accent that he must have been a Sub-Saharan African immigrant. As I would later come to know, in Tunisia French is obviously the most widely spoken European language, but Italian is actually spoken a lot more than English. We would later ask a trader why himself and a lot of other Tunisian traders knew Italian so well, and he said they were practically obliged to learn it for commercial reasons. There turned out to be a lot more Italian than English tourism.

After a twenty minute drive in the outskirts of Tunis we were dropped off at Clinique El Manar, as the indications on the AirBnB page of the house said, and waited for our host. As a matter of fact, our host hadn’t actually given us a way to contact her directly, but she had given us another phone number. This other guy told us on the phone that a friend of his was coming to show us the house. So we had to go through two people before talking to the person who was actually going to give us the keys. What did I say about organization?

We were shown the house, the furniture of which I would euphemistically describe as “essential”, and then left to our selves. We decided we intended to go to the City Centre so we started looking for a taxi. In Tunis there is an urban railway system, which however doesn’t seem too reliable and the fact that even most locals seemed to prefer using taxis, looked like a good indicator for what to do. Although we thought about it several times, and at one point even walked to the station, in the end we opted for not using the tram. From the outside of a train one could tell how packed they were, creating the perfect circumstances for pickpocketing. But even when using taxis one must always be careful, because taxi-drivers will try to con you (we learned the hard way); I’ll write all about our “adventure” with a taxi-driver in a follow-up article to this one.

We managed to get to the Medina, which literally means “City”, but is used to mean the City Centre, and started walking around the various souks. Three times traders started following us to drag us to their shops and simply wouldn’t leave. We would slow down to try to loose them, but even when it looked like they had abandoned thier cause we would spot them again round the next corner. After a stressful walk in the overcrowded souks, we entered into the outer courtyard of the beautiful Al-Zaytuna mosque. The name means The Mosque of the Olive, the olive being symbol of peace and an iconic plant of Tunisia. Suddenly all the noises of the souk were choked out and replaced by a religious silence which transmitted a feeling of inner peace and calm.

Along the return trip, we stopped for dinner and had a delicious plate of veal meat and couscous. Because of a mistake in understanding where we were, we ended up walking for half an hour after dark in the suburbs of Tunis, something which websites and guides had repeatedly and strongly advised against. In the end we arrived home and after a long and stressful day we were more than happy to go to bed.

Liebster Award

A few days ago I was nominated for the Liebster Award by sportsdiva64. A very warm thank you to sportsandtravelblog.wordpress.com for nominating me and an acknowledgement of her great content. She explains what the Liebster Award is here: sportsandtravelblog.wordpress.com/tag/liebster-award/ better than I could so check it out.

Here are my answers to sportdiva’ s questions:

  1. If I could chose where to live anywhere in the world that place would be London. I love the energy that city transmits
  2. My biggest fear would have to be moths. I hate them
  3. What I love about blogging is what I love about free online sharing platforms in general: the direct simple way a creator and a reader can communicate in way that in television for example is impossible.
  4. There are too many situations in which I would have liked to give advice to me in the past to list them
  5. I rather enjoy reggae and soul. Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff are personal favourites.
  6. My goal for 2017 was to get a full pass in all subjects at school. Fortunately, I succeeded.
  7. I have no favourite team in any particular sport.
  8. If I won the lottery I would use the money to go on a gap year and take a train from Europe to Beijing.
  9. Something I’m very passionate about is writing.
  10. No favourite drink…

My nominees:

GroundedHito
@khadijahsamad

dejahgatz
@dejahgatz

These are my questions for my nominees:

  1. Why did you start your blog?
  2. How important is blogging to you?
  3. How do you relate it to your daily life?
  4. What music do you enjoy?
  5. What films do you enjoy?
  6. What would you do if you won £ 20 000?

Kuala Lumpur

As we reached the end of our journey we decided to spend the last four nights available in Kuala Lumpur in an AirBnB flat near KLCC. Since I had last been to Kuala Lumpur I could notice some significant change such as the construction of a series of new buildings, which I had expected from a thriving financial hub such as Kuala Lumpur.

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I must confess that I find this city extraordinarily appealing. I really enjoy the way it fully embraces the challenges and opportunities lying ahead for Malaysia, the chances it holds in playing a more prominent role in South East Asia and in the world in general and the cosmopolitan prospect these wishes inevitably bring with them, while remaining distinctly Malay in feel.

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A Buddhist temple in Kuala Lumpur, Chinatown

I believe the energy and reserved optimism, characteristic of Malaysians in general are particularly evident here; perhaps it is somewhat part of Malaysia’s tradition itself to be prepared to sacrifice absolute cultural integrity and a part of their tradition in order to achieve greater social and economical ends. In this Kuala Lumpur, and Malaysia in general, stands as a model for many other developing countries.

Another major achievement lies in Kuala Lumpur’s ability to maintain its historic multiculturalism, for example the significant Hindi minority living there, while also ensuring integration and equality.

A major expression of Hindu culture can be undoubtedly found in the stunning religious sites of Batu Caves, which I warmly suggest to visit. But Hindu and Buddhist temples can be found all around KL. I thought I grasped the effective depth of Kuala Lumpur’s mutual respect and unity amongst minorities when I saw Hindu tourists in Buddhist temples and Buddhist tourists in a Hindu temple called Sri Maha Mariamman, which again I highly recommend a visit to.

This is not to say that the capital of Malaysia is flawless, far from it. Heavy immigration from the surrounding rural areas is making its infrastructure inadequate and it is putting a strain on its housing. It is Kuala Lumpur’s mission not to let the city become an overpopulated centre such as many in the area and avoid an all out housing crisis. Still, the city boasts the best infrastructure in Malaysia and one of the best in SE Asia and also serves as an example of the possibility of implementing consistent and at the same time sustainable growth, which is often overlooked in rapidly developing economies around the world.

All in all, Kuala Lumpur’s energy and vibrancy, but also its distinct cultural traits, which make it a unique  ethnic, social and even political centre, kind of remind me of London. Samuel Johnson once said “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”, I would say “when a man is tired of Kuala Lumpur, he is tired of South East Asia”.

The End

As I reach the end of my wonderful trip to Malaysia, from revisiting the places of my childhood, to travelling to remote villages in the interior, there is little I can do apart from looking deep into this country’s future and trying to imagine what the next decades have in hold for Malaysia. What I see is many of its ambitions coming true, from a more important geopolitical role in the region, to better and more advanced infrastructure thanks to greater investment.

All things considered, I think we’re safe to say that Malaysia’s future is indeed, looking very very bright…

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Travelling down the peninsula

As hard as our taxi driver tried to convince us to hire his car to travel to the heart of Malaysia and down to Kuala Lumpur, he could not move us from stubbornly wanting to go by train. Thinking back at those slow, stressful twelve hours we spent getting to Jerantut, a small city in central Malaysia with a curiously sizeable Chinese minority, I can’t help feeling happy I did it, but being there was whole different kettle of fish. How stubborn westerners can get in wanting to be “adventurous” and “blend in” with the locals!

For starters, one must bear in mind that Malaysia, as modern and financially expanding as it may be , is still a developing country and its public services, especially in the most rural areas like the one we were visiting, can still do with investment. Of course, huge change and progress has taken place in the past fifty years and undoubtedly more will occur.

To reach Jerantut, we chose to take a three-hour ride on a regional train to Dabong one hundred and fifty kilometres away, then wait four hours for the next three-hour train to Jerantut, this second one being an Express and covering distance more quickly.

This is a link to The Man in Seat 61. A great website we consulted while planning our trip

When on the train we went through north Malaysian countryside and crossed many muddy rivers, so typical of south-east Asia. Also, because it was a regional train we stopped in many small villages apparently entirely cut from the rest of the world. However this was clearly not the case, as we could see by the excellent mobile data connection and decent infrastructure. As we penetrated deeper and deeper into the Malaysian wilderness a perhaps quite natural yet unjustified feeling of uncertainty emerged in me at times; the feeling of, well, being in the middle of a sparsely inhabited and uncontrolled landmass, this feeling was later on to be summed instead to a very real fear.

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A street in Dabong

When we got off the train the usual wave of sickeningly hot, sticky air encapsulated us in its revolting embrace, so much stronger because of the contrast between it and the exaggerated air conditioning at 16c° which is always found in closed spaces in south-east Asia. We sat down on a bench in the station and thought about what to do with the evening, as all the passengers got off and walked away, quickly leaving us alone. We decided to take it turns to go for a wander because of our heavy luggage, so as I left the station and headed for the central square I was greeted by a series of large posters with the writing “AWAS DENGGI” (or “Danger Dengue” in Malay) written in large red capitals and a large picture of a mosquito. The posters were written exclusively in Malay, the English translations not succeeding in reaching much away from the major urban centres, but one could easily understand from the bits and pieces what they were all about.

“AWAS DENGGI”

A child on a bicycle who had been following us for the past ten minutes after we had given him a sweet stared at us as we looked at the poster.

Later on, we noticed an intense grey smoke coming from a household and we got closer. We could see a man powerfully spraying what looked like disinfectant on a house and people walking quickly in the opposite direction with cloths over their mouths. A few minutes later we confirmed our thoughts: “Excuse me, what is the smoke for?” we asked a middle aged man sitting in the square surrounded by cheerful playing children “Disinfestation for the Dengue” he said and smiled peacefully as Malaysians do.

When we returned to the station we put on long sleeves and long trousers, and at least partially thought we understood why Malaysians dress like this even in such humid and hot weather. Since I am a bit of hypochondriac, I found myself at this point virtually on the verge of freaking out. But eventually these four hours past and what seemed to me as the most beautiful of trains arrived on schedule.